Excavating the H.H. Holmes “Body Dump” Site

We used to call it “The Body Dump.” It was a little bit of a stretch to give it a name like that, but really… who can think of a reason a known multi-murderer would want a 150 foot long furnace? Right near the homes of half of his known local victims?  

The site of the building that papers said was H.H. Holmes’ “glass bending factory” was a regular tour stop of mine for nearly a decade, but now it’s about to become condos. Eric Nordstrom of Urban Remains invited me to come check it out. Here’s a special half-hour video featuring the whole story of the site, stories of what we enountered there on tours over the years, and clips from the “excavation.” It’s available both as a video and audio podcast, and an article summarizing it all is right here, below the video:

Get the audio version on our podcasts page, on archive.org, or on iTunes. 

Excavating.

Excavating along the approximate site where the “Glass bending factory” was. Holmes pretended he was starting a glass bending business several times in different locations, but never convinced anyone he knew how to bend glass.

 

In the course of human events, sometimes we lose a good tour stop. The House of Crosses was once a popular attraction, and we were lucky to get to interview the owner about its history before it was torn down.  Now we’ve lost the site I used to call The Body Dump. It’s being dug up for a large condo complex. The original building was already long gone, but the new condos going up will sap a lot of the spookiness from the place, as well as making it harder to access. However, I did get to assist on digging through the rubble, so that’s cool.

 

I try not to make EVERYTHING be about HH Holmes around here, but he’s my number one research topic; my book on him will be out in 2017. Holmes, of course, is the guy who’s advertised as “America’s First Serial Killer,” and the subject of the smash hit Devil in the White City. According to legend,  he rigged his Englewood building with secret passages and hidden chambers to prey on visitors to the 1893 World’s Fair, of whom he may have killed hundreds. Now, how TRUE all that is is a whole other question (and evidence that it’s mostly fiction is strong), but if people say this guy killed a lot more people than he really did, well, it’s not like we’re besmirching the honor of a good man here. He did probably murder at least 9 or 10 people, and ruined the lives of many more.

I started running tours based on him back in 2006. Now, that year I was still running one of the ghost tour companies in town, and one of my partners sent me a little 1895 article he’d seen about ANOTHER Holmes castle, discovered shortly after a fire at the Englewood building ended the police’s investigation of it.  This new place was no castle – just a one-story unnumbered brick building, the only address being “where 65 Sobieski Street ought to be,” near where Robey (Damen) and Fullerton intersected, and northwest of the railroad lines, not far from an apartment Holmes had rented for one of his girlfriends and her sister in 1893. By the time a private detective discovered the place, all that was left inside was some of Holmes paperwork, some mysterious ashes, and the wreck of a 150 foot long furnace.

The body dump as it appeared until recently

The body dump as it appeared until recently

Now, who can think of a reason a known multi-murderer would want a 150 foot long furnace? Papers suggested that Holmes was cremating bodies there. It was right next to  a coal yard, and in those days you could have tossed ashes into a coal yard and no one ever would have found a thing.

Now, there is no Sobieski Street anymore, so figuring out where this place was presented a challenge for me, and helped me learn about things like Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, street name guides, and renumbering guides. It turned out that was a little dead end street, now a part of Seeley Avenue, not only near the Wrightwood place but also near the home of one of his other suspected victims, a girl named Emily Van Tassell. She and the other two, Minnie and Nannie Williams, actually represent about half of Holmes’ known Chicago victims (the World’s Fair murder stories mostly came out of a tabloid article). And this “Sobieski Street” site would have been a much better location for getting rid of a dead body than the castle itself actually was.

And for every person who vanished from the castle, there was a story about Holmes needing

The "Body Dump" with its Tim Burton-esque Tree.

The “Body Dump” with its Tim Burton-esque Tree.

help carrying the large trunks out of the place. It’s quite possible that he had this off-site place to do his cremating, as the Chicago papers suggested at the time. It’s even likely that Emily Van Tassell and the Williams girls would have been killed there, not at the castle. It was a more isolated area, not many neighbors spoke English, and the Luetgert Sausage factory, just a few blocks away, might have even been running by then to cover up smells.

So, one of my partners and I went out to Seeley Avenue, and even though the building itself was long
gone, the area seemed nice and spooky. A dead end street, an overgrown vacant lot, and a couple of trees that looked like something out of a Tim Burton movie. And, weirdly, even though it hadn’t been Sobieski Street in years, there happened to be a billboard up for Sobieski vodka, which sure seemed odd in the heat of the moment. The real bonus for us is that it was RIGHT on the tour route at the time, in between the Liar’s Club and the Virgin Mary Salt Stain. We came to call the place The Body Dump; I dearly loved getting people on the bus after looking around at Hull House and saying “All right, folks, who wants to go to the body dump?” It was a standard stop of mine from about 2008-2014, and I even wrote it in as a location in Just Kill Me, my new novel about a ghost tour guide who makes places more haunted by killing people at them, which’ll be out through Simon and Schuster in August:

just-kill-me-9781481434942_lg“…the dead end street does look pretty ominous, even in the glaring summer daylight. The curling weeds look like they’re beckoning us all to our doom. There’s something about the place that just doesn’t feel right. When I step off the bus, the hair stands up on the back of my neck. The breeze seems like it’s cooler than it ought to be, and everywhere I look there are little touches that make this space seem eerier than the average dead-end street. There’s even some sort of blood-red sap oozing from a tall Tim Burton-style tree at the edge of the lot.” – from Just Kill Me

Now, the stories about this being a “body dump” for Holmes could have all been BS, and I was pretty upfront about that. The same could be said of all the castle stories, after all. Evidence he was involved with the place were fairly strong, but it was never fully investigated in the 1890s, so this might have just been some random factory that Holmes had little connection to. Maybe his ex janitor was just getting rid of old paperwork there.  We just started going there as a historical curiosity, since the “murder castle” site was way too far away to be a regular stop.

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The spooky old tree.

But here’s the thing: More weird stuff happened there than anyplace else I went on ghost tours. Early on I remember nights when people said they heard moans coming from the ground. In the summer some sort of blood-red sap would drip out of one of the creepy trees – probably just iron oxide in the soil, but when you go to what may have been a serieal killer’s body dump and see a black branch with blood that keeps dripping, it’s creepy.

There was also a flood-light that seemed to turn off and on like clockwork when people said the name “Emily Van Tassell” some nights.

I remember one night we pulled in and there was snow on the ground at the vacant lot. There were flurries going on, but it wasn’t sticking anywhere else. Just there. Which is another one of those things that I’m sure CAN be explained, but don’t ask ME how, and it was spooky in the moment.

Another night there were chickens. Six or seven of them, just crossing the road. And here you thought that only happened in jokes.

Besides the general weirdness, we had a lot of reported ghosts there, including a number of sightings of a ghostly woman in a black dress who’d be there one second, and gone the next. I never figured out if it was someone messing with us or what. We got a number of ghostly photos beyond the usual “weird lights” and “if you look closely at the random visual noise” stuff – the top three are in the video.

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Sometimes the vacant lot would get so overgrown the weeds would be as high as your head. Cops told us that besides the Holmes stuff, bodies were found there in the 80s pretty regularly. I’m not sure if they were telling the truth, but it looks like a good place to stash a body.

There was even one night when we thought we hit the ghostly woman on the bus. The windows on the bus were fogged up, and as we were backing the bus up, we hit something. We heard the THUD and felt the impact. I thought we’d hit someone’s car. The driver said it was just a tree. But some people in the back said “No, there was a woman back there!” I ran ouside and around the back and found nothing anywhere near us – no car, no tree, no fire hydrant, no footprints. I reported it on the blog at the time. I’m interested now to note that it was in October, as I seem to recall there being snow. Maybe the windows were just fogged from the heater – it happened a lot on that bus.

So, since we first started going there, I’ve researched the place about as much as I could – which isn’t much. By the time the place was discovered in 1895, neighbors were still around to identify Holmes as the owner of the place place, and to identify Pat Quinlan, Holmes’ right hand man, as the guy who’d cleaned out cartloads of rubbish a month or two before, but the cops in Chicago were fed up with the Holmes case and didn’t care to investigate it any further. We do know from some letters Holmes wrote, though, that the night he killed a boy named Howard Pietzel outside of Indianapolis, he hopped on a train to Chicago and spent the next day there, and while he was there he went to the factory and talked to Pat Quinlan. He alluded to the place in a couple of his writings.

Fire insurance maps indicate that the building may have still been there in 1914, though it was listed as “vacant.” The site’s connection to Holmes was simply forgotten about until that night when my then-partner and I went to check it out. For the next several years it was regular stop for me, and the History Channel occasionally shows me strolling around the vacant lot looking all pensive. But it’s a stop I knew wouldn’t last; a vacant lot in Bucktown isn’t going to stay vacant forever. My understanding was that the lot was buried under a ton of foreclosure lawsuits from 2008 that would take years to get through, but those years seem to be up: last week they started digging the lot up for condos. The trees are totally gone, and we only have pictures to remember them by.IMG_9002

Last week, I happened to get a message from Eric Nordstrom, who runs a place called Urban Remains, an architectural relic shop nearby my house. He goes to tear-downs and excavations and collects bits of architecture, and happens to be a researcher and blogger himself. You can see his blog post on it at urbanremainschicago.com . Video clips are above.

 

And here’s some of what we found:

Some sort of pipe connection.

Some sort of pipe connection.

Bits of porcelain and dishware.

Bits of porcelain and dishware.

A bit of bone. Presumably chicken bone, but what am I, an anatomist?

A bit of bone. Presumably chicken bone, but what am I, an anatomist?

Chunks of glass.

Chunks of glass.

Bits of bottles.

Bits of bottles.

Several bricks that are likely bits of the "factory."

Several bricks that are likely bits of the “factory.”

As with a lot of Holmes locations, there’s a lot we’ll never know about this place. The actual site of the factory was likely about where the sloping metal garage is now, which is still standing, so it might still work as a tour stop now and then. But without the old tree and the vacant lot, the atmosphere just won’t be the same.

So, farewell, body dump! At least I got a cool video, a neat book location, and a lot of great tour stories out of you.

Shadows at the Body Dump?

Some interesting shots from the tours lately.  First of all, for you Hull House fans, the last tree in the adjacent courtyard (subject of much ghostlore and superstition) fell down some time in the last week:

The garden / courtyard area is the subject of a lot of real nonsense stories that go around – people like to say that it was an Indian burial ground, an abortion graveyard, or any number of thoroughly debunked stories.  But not every story about it is untrue, and we do have some weird nights there on the tour. 
On the Saturday tour, Amanda K. picked up a shot at the HH Holmes “Body Dump” site, where he had a building he claimed was a glass bending factory (we’ve talked about this place a lot here; it was well north of the famous “castle,” but very near the homes of about half his known Chicago victims, and, well, there’s a short list of things a known multi-murderer who didn’t really know how to bend glass would have been doing with a 150 foot long furnace). We get pictures of shadowy figures here quite a bit – look in the background of this one, back behind me and to the right:
This is a detail of a larger shot, with the exposure turned up a bit. My guess would be that the figure in the background was just a person on the tour that the photographer didn’t notice (though she was certain that there was no one there). The fact that it casts a shadow is certainly a mark against it being ghostly, but when I tried to reproduce the effect on the 10pm tour I couldn’t quite find a way to stand in that area that would make my shadow go in quite the same direction (it’s all artificial light).  You know what I always say: there is no good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence. 
And hey, while I’ve got your attention, we’ve been re-releasing all the Smart Aleck’s Guide ebooks this week, including our guide to Grave Robbing, which features several Chicago grave robbing stories:

THE SMART ALECK’S GUIDE TO GRAVE ROBBING

Everything you need to launch YOUR career as a 19th century Resurrection Man, the Smart Aleck way! A complete history of one of the oldest professions, with tips and tricks of the trade. Fully illustrated, with an active table of contents. 2.99 on kindle

There’s more on Holmes, the “body dump” and Hull House in our Ghosts of Chicago book (Llewellyn 2013),  and our newly revised and greatly expanded Murder Castle of HH Holmes ebook

Meanwhile, Back at the Body Dump

December 27th and there still hasn’t been any snow in Chicago, other than something like 1/10th of an inch at O’Hare a week or so ago. Here and there you see little patches on cars, but that’s about it so far.

This made it especially odd to pull into the “H.H. Holmes Body Dump” site on the tour the other night find it covered in a thin, but measurable, layer of snow and ice. Every other tour stop was completely devoid of the stuff!

One runs into odd things here – early on in my trips here was the night when the street was occupied by large birds with dead smaller birds in their mouths. Another night there were chickens crossing the road (and here I thought they only did that in jokes!). To find snow there, when there was no trace of it anywhere else on the tour, was a bit of a shocker. Obviously I’m not going to claim this as evidence of anything supernatural, but sometimes this place seems just plain weird!

The Tree That Dripped Blood?

On the old Sobieski Street, where once upon a time arch-fiend H.H. Holmes had a “glass bending factory” (which was more likely a place for cremations; the man had no real idea of how to bend glass), we’ve had plenty of odd nights on the tour. Even in the summer, the trees on the sidewalk, right near the space where the entrance to the factory would have been, look menacing if you look up into their twisting branches. In the winter, when the leaves are gone and the branches are like rattling bones twisting towards the sky, they look like trees from a Tim Burton movie. And the other night, a woman on the tour pointed something out to me: one of the two trees was oozing with blood red sap.

Now, don’t get me wrong here: I’m not honestly saying that the tree was dripping blood. It LOOKED like it was, but there’s likely a scientific explanation; indeed, the woman who pointed it out was a geologist, and explained that sap can turn red if the tree has absorbed a lot of iron oxide out of the soil (and standing next to a vacant lot that was a junkyard once, and right near the railroad tracks, it’s quite likely that it absorbed a LOT of iron oxide).

 Still, sometimes it’s the details like these that make haunted places stand out. And, anyway, who’s to say that high levels of iron oxide don’t act as a catalyst for making ghosts appear? That sounds like the kind of thing they’d say on any number of those ghost hunting TV shows.

update: also, this seems to be one of those cases where for every expert, there’s an equal but opposite expert. A biochemist on the tour recently told me that iron oxide wouldn’t get into a tree, and that this would more likely come from a fungus. The tree is now dripping from TWO places. The good news is that if it drips on your clothes, it’s washable. I found this out the hard way.

Another Shadow at the Body Dump?

Odd shadows at the north side spot where H.H. Holmes once operated a “glass bending factory” (read: probably body dump, as covered in our recent podcast and many posts) have been in no short supply lately. Here’s one shot by Lexie Manke. Here’s the unedited version:

And a lit-up close-up on the odd shadowy figure on the left:

My first thought is that it was just ME back there – the figure appears to be in a long coat and either a newsie hat or a bowler, and I often wear outfits like that. But on this tour, I was bare-headed and wearing a different coat (my usual one was being mended). I never “certify” any ghost shots), but who knows?

Some other recent shadows from the same spot.

All posts on the site.

Ghosts at the H.H. Holmes body dump?

My, but there’ve been a lot of ghost shots here, lately, haven’t there? I’ll have to get some historical stuff going soon just to balance it out!

I started taking people to the HH Holmes “glass bending factory” site (click for podcast and more info) in 2008 as a historical curiosity on Holmes tours – but so much weird stuff went on there that I had to start adding it to the ghost tours, too!  Chris Hannigan, a recent tour passenger, sent these shots taken by Erin Brink. What do you think?  There’s SOME motion blur in the first one, but I don’t think it’s enough to account for the stuff on the center right that looks like a humanesque form, or the smaller one in the second shot.

Podcast: H.H. Holmes and the Great Glass Bending Factory (Part 1)


New Episode!
HH Holmes and
the Great Glass
Bending Factory


Chicago Unbelievable
or archive.org


More Podcasts

We’ve spent a lot of time looking into the story that H.H. Holmes used a glass bending factory on Sobieski Street (now Seeley Ave) as a crematory. Results (as with all things to do with Holmes) aren’t fully conclusive, but there were enough strange-goings on at the location when I used to take Devil in the White City tour groups there that I wound up adding to to my ghost tour routes. For this podcast, we recap the story of the glass works, begin to investigate the grounds, and, while we’re there, record a phone conversion with Holmes’ great great grandson, Jeff Mudgett.

Jeff’s relation to Holmes and the theory that Holmes was also Jack the Ripper form the basis of his new novel, Bloodstains. It’s a really gripping suspense story. See a link on the left! In our interview, he talks about the book, the various theories on Holmes, and what it’s like in the basement of the post office built where the “murder castle” used to stand. Believe me, that Holmes was Jack the Ripper and that he faked his death in 1896 are FAR less implausible than many of the more commonly accepted stories about Holmes.

Here are some links to download the episode. There are some interesting noises and voices – do you hear anything we’ve missed?

DOWNLOAD MP3 from archive.org
Or, subscribe via Chicago Unbelievable

PICTURES

The dead-end street once known as Sobieski:

The garage that marks the likely location of the glass bending factory:
A shot by Jen Hathy of the parking area and overgrown lot next door:
Jeff Mudgett Skypes in while we’re on location:
Related Posts:

Where Was the HH Holmes Glass Bending Factory?

Now that I’m running ghost tours again, I’m back to making regular visits to to little stretch of road once known as Sobieski Street. Here, in 1895, police found a building that H.H. Holmes, America’s first known serial killer, had said was a glass bending factory, but which was more likely a body dump. Some personal effects belonging to Minnie Williams, one of his wives (who had vanished, along with her sister, Anna) were found there, along with some ephemera from the ABC Copier Company that Holmes had operated in the Loop with much of the gang from the Murder Castle, his famous south side building that was equipped with everything you need to kill a person (and dispose of the body).  Patrick Quinlan, the murder castle janitor, had been to the glass bending factory about a week before police arrived and carted out quite a lot of garbage. Some notes found in the rubbish indicated that there had once been a furnace large enough for cremations in the building.

I started taking people to the little stretch of road where the “factory” was just as a curiosity to add to my Holmes tours, but we had enough weird nights there that I added it to the ghost tours. This is the place where we saw a woman in a black dress who vanished between two cars, the place where we honestly thought we’d backed the bus into someone, where one night we encountered hawks with dead birds (doves?) in their mouths, and where we once even found some chickens running around. As skeptical as I am, this place can give me the willies.  There was also once a light attached to a building that was known to turn itself off and on when Holmes or one of the three victims most likely connected to the location were mentioned. Most nights, I thought it was just a bad circuit, but other nights it worked like clockwork.

But where on this stretch of road WAS the factory, exactly? It would have been built without reliable records (that being the way Holmes rolled), and newspaper accounts at the time weren’t terribly helpful, only saying that it was on Sobieski Street, just Northwest of where the railroad tracks intersected Robey (Damen).

That’s enough to narrow it down a lot – the stretch of road known as Sobieksi was a little dead-end road even then. On the west side of the road, we’ve found a half-buried brick that our archaeologist said had an 1890s-type of glaze, making us wonder if it may have been the foundation of the old building. However, a fire insurance map from 1914 shows a set-up that echoes newspaper accounts (a long, one story building with a house at the rear) on the east side of the road. There’s a garage on that spot now; many employees have told me it gets awfully spooky in there at night.

Here’s the map – it’s from 1914, nearly twenty years after the fact.  I would have imagined that the building would have been gone by then, but who knows?

1 – the railroad tracks (now a Metra line)
2 – the half-buried brick
3 – a one story building, vacant at the time the map was drawn, roughly matching the dimensions listed in the papers in 1895 (now demolished)
4 – a 2 story house, right about where the paper said a house was (also now demolished)
5 – the vacant/parking area today – the “Holmes Light” was at the back of it.
When the police arrived in 1895, all that was left in the rubbish were some kilns and ashes. Whether they were human ashes was hard to tell – this was still an age when Holmes could say that the bones dug up in the castle were soup bones, and that the blood stains were paint, and expect to get away with it (at least for a while – the fire in August, 1895, destroyed much of the evidence). 
It’s entirely possible that more bodies were disposed of here than at the “Castle.” Aside from some bones and some things that COULD have been used to dispose of a body, not a lot of hard evidence was found in the castle basement.  There was a quicklime pit, but it did not appear to have ever been put to use (the lime was clean and white). Some human bones were found, and a large oven, but operating these (as well as the torture equipment which many later authors have believed were found there) in such a crowded building without arousing suspicion would have been a real trick.  Besides which, there had been a Tribune article about the secret passages in the building in early 1893. Holmes HAD to know it would be dug up in the event that he was ever caught. And the two weeks they spent digging there gave Patrick Quinlan, his janitor, plenty of time to empty out the rubbish at the glass bending factory.
Holmes certainly was familiar with the area around “Sobieski Street.” It’s a long way from his South Side stomping grounds, but very close to the Wrightwood St. apartment he rented for Minnie, and a few blocks in the other direction from Franke Wilde’s Fruit and Candy store – police at the time were confident that Holmes was Frank Wilde (he mentioned having a place on Milwaukee Avenue in own writings, though in his “confession” he says his attempts to kill employees there failed).
The ghostly activity here brings up a question that’s always worth debating: can ghostly activity be evidence of a murder? It sure wouldn’t hold up in court, but this may be the only evidence one way or the other about Minnie and Anna Williams, or of Emily Van Tassel, a Franke Wilde employee who is one of the half dozen or so known Chicago victims of Holmes. I’ve always thought she was more likely to have been killed here than at the Castle; same with Anna Williams.
We’ll be running an investigation and recording a new podcast at Sobieski Street soon!