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.

Ghost pic in the alley?

I only occasionally post “ghost” pictures here, partly because I rarely see any thing I think are all that interesting. You know what I always say – “there is no good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence.” Well, here’s some of that. One of my most common tour stops is the alley behind the site of the Iroquois Theatre, which the Tribune once called “The Alley of Death and Mutilation” (look at the clip from the paper on the right if ya don’t believe me!). Like any place, we go in and out of periods where people seem to be seeing ghosts there. For a month or two, someone will think they saw something every night, then it’ll quiet down for a long while.

In any case, countless people died here during the great Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903, some were trampled, some died of burns, and some were shoved over the rails of the useless fire escapes (there were fire escapes, contrary to common stories).

But, anyway, dig this pic from the tour, with a vaguely humanesque form back behind the woman on the right’s head. All I’ve done to edit it is blur the faces:

This was taken on the tour and emailed to me immediately, so I can at least say he didn’t photoshop it in later, and it doesn’t look much like one of of those “ghost app” shots (after all, those apps paste ghosts over your image, and this one is overlapped by the woman’s head).

The most obvious explanation here is that it’s a trick of the light, but I can certainly a detect a humanesque form. In fact, it almost looks like Nelly Reed, the trapeze artist who was killed by the fire (see image on left), though one could also connect it to any number of women who were killed in the tragic fire. Nellie is one of the women most frequently said to haunt the place, though she’s usually said to appear as a silhouette on the wall, particularly the garages on the opposite side of the alley from the theatre (more commonly back when they were painted blue). 

More on the theatre and its associated ghostlore is in the new GHOSTS OF CHICAGO book!

Tune in tomorrow for a neat new discovery from the archives.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre Dog

One of the venerable ghost stories of Chicago concerns the one survivor of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre: Highball the dog, who was tied to one of the axles of the trucks in the garage. Some say it was his hysterical barking that brought the attention of the neighbors to the garage after seven guys affiliated (in one way or another) with the Moran gang were lined up against the wall and shot there. 

Highball
Though the dog was not killed (at least not right away; the cops apparently had to put him down), it’s said that his panic left a sort of “psychic imprint” on the grounds, and that, after the garage was torn down in the 1960s, dogs walked past the fence would go nuts. I stopped telling the story on tours long ago; too often, I’d tell the story, then someone would walk past the fence with a dog that didn’t react at all, and I’d end up looking stupid. I make it a point not to tell stories that can easily be dismissed. People can fact check me on their phones these days. I’m ready with an Evernote account full of primary sources on all the stories I tell (even though I know some people would prefer it if I exaggerated the stories and insisted that every legend and ghost story they ever heard was 100% true).
The other night, a couple of people actually snuck some dogs onto my tour bus in bags (crowds in October get kind of strange, to say the least). I normally don’t stop the bus at the massacre site – the old folks’ home on the grounds isn’t wild about tours, and there’s not much to see, anyway – but in this case, knowing that we had a dog aboard, I decided to give it a shot.
The dog, for its part, walked casually through the fence, relieved itself, and walked right back to its owner. 
No, for the record, we don’t allow dogs on the bus, with the rare exception of seeing-eye dogs.

Some recent “ghost” shots from the tours

Kiersten, a tour passenger on Friday night, snapped this cool shot – it was the hit of the tour when shown off on the bus! While I’m generally inclined to think of these “stairs” shots as reflections and smears (reflected ears are a common culprit), this is a really nifty one appearing to show two vaguely humanesque forms. I’ve adjusted it just a tiny bit to make it more visible:

Cool! As I always say, there’s no such thing as good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence. But sometimes I don’t even care about the fact that there’s probably a more “rational” explanation, because the photo is cool enough on its own terms, even if it IS just an optical illusion. 
As far as “women on the stairs” at Hull House go, there was a woman on the tour recently who told me she was a clairvoyant, and that there was a ghostly woman who came to the stairs to say hello to me every night. I always take these things with a grain (if not a whole shaker) of salt, but stories about a woman haunting the place go back well over a century; Millicent Hull died there around 1860, and a number of other women quite likely did during the 1870s, when it served as a home for the elderly run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. 
While we’re on the subject of recent Hull House shots, a number were taken like this recently:
On phone screens, in particular, it can look like a feminine form in the window. Having seen a few lately, I took this one myself in attempt to reproduce the effect, and confirmed that it was just the fireplace. A picture frame on the mantel forms the “head.”

Elsewhere in town, we’ve had a number of nifty shots at the “alley of death and mutilation” behind the site of the Iroquois theatre.  There was one woman on my tour on Saturday who said that she felt like a hand was touching her face in the alley, and in one picture of her, it does look as though there’s a handprint on her face. This calls to mind all SORTS of folklore motifs, like the story of the “banshee’s hand” leaving permanent marks on people’s faces, or stories of handprints never fading away, which show up all over the world, including Chicago’s Frank Leavey story.

Now, one thing worth noting is that sometimes it’s been said that women or are pregnant or new mothers feel as though a kid is holding their hand in the alley. If the woman in question now finds out she’s expecting, that’ll be one heck of a story!

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!

A New Hull House Ghost Shot

You know what I say, folks: there’s no such thing as good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence. Well, here’s a cool one for you. This was taken on one of my tours this past weekend, and shows what looks like a baby on the staircase at Hull House:

A close-up, with the contrast adjusted very slightly:
My first instinct when she showed it to me was to look for an ad at the bottom of the screen – usually, when someone shows me a picture that seems this clear, it turns out to be one of those “ghost capture” iphone apps that insert ghostly images into photos. It’s always a bit of a dilemma for me, because you can’t go around accusing your customers of fraud or anything, but the most logical explanation when you see one of those “too good to be true” ghost pictures is to assume that someone is trying to trick me.  However,  none of the “ghost apps” I have include a baby quite like this one, and I’ve no reason to think that the photographer, Jean Marie Andersen, was faking it. She seemed genuinely surprised by the shot; I think her friends noticed it before she did.  
And it’s not TOTALLY clear – there’s a big missing chunk where the mouth and chin ought to be, and that won’t usually be the case with fakes. Beyond that missing bit, though, it seems very well proportioned; our brains are wired to see faces in random noise (one usually uses the words “matrixing” and “simulacra” here), but one’s brain sure doesn’t have to put in much effort to make one see a baby’s face – and possibly arms and body – in this one. 
So, COULD it be fake, or COULD it just be a light or smear on the window that happens to look a lot like a baby? Well, sure! That’s ghost hunting for you; there’s a MILLION possible explanations. That’s why I always refer to things like this as “weird shit,” not “paranormal activity.” But in several years of taking people to Hull House, I’ve never seen another light or smear look so baby-like. Since this one was taken I’ve tried to figure out a place where you could stand that would get  a street light to reflect on this spot, but I can’t reproduce anything like this yet.
Now, there was at least one baby who died at Hull House – Jane Addams wrote about how upset the neighbors were when they found that they planned to have a newborn abandoned baby who died in the nursery buried by the state, not with a proper religious funeral, a case in which they misjudged the culture of the neighborhood and lost some trust with the neighbors for a while. That would have been about 1898. However, it was in the building next door (where the garden is now), and I think that baby was younger than the one in the picture above appears to be. If a baby died inside the house, it would be news to me (though not a surprise).
What do YOU think? Just a trick of the light? A real ghost? I often mention the baby story here, and of course this time of year there are 2-3 busloads of people hearing about the “devil baby of hull house” rumor from 99 years ago nightly. Have our brainwaves MADE a ghost on the spot?

For much more on the devil baby and Hull House:

devilbabiesbanner

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.

Ghostly Piano on the Tour (again!)

The ballrooms of the Congress Hotel are not a regular stop for me these days – I can’t guarantee that we’ll be allowed in when we go there, for one thing. But last night one of our usual stops was definitely a no-go, so I took a chance and was able to bring a group into the notorious Florentine Room – the gorgeous old ballroom where, just about a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt announced he was leaving the GOP to be a third party candidate. He’s sometimes said to haunt the place – he didn’t DIE there, but from a certain point of view, his career did. He never held elected office again.

One night, a few years ago, someone asked me if I knew what kind of music they might have played at those rallies, so we could try some “era cues.” That’s a trick where you play music from a ghost’s era to see if it will make them want to show up. I’m not sure that it WORKS, but it’s fun to try, and it probably can’t HURT anything. The Bull Moose Party’s theme song in 1912 was the Battle Hymn of the Republic – people would spontaneously break out in full-throated renditions in the middle of TR’s speeches.

So, when first asked, i strolled up to the piano and picked out a scratchy soprano version, stopping in the middle of a phrase. Nothing happened, but it sounded so cool and spooky in the darkened ballroom that I decided to try it every time I was in the room.

One two occasions over the next year or so, there was another soft piano note as I walked away.

On the tour last night, there were FOUR of them.

As usual, it wasn’t the RIGHT notes to come next in the tune, but no one ever said that ghosts were good piano players!

For the record, I didn’t hear it, but just about everyone else on the tour did. A few people asked me why I hadn’t reacted, and then a show of hands on the bus indicated that practically everyone else had heard four more notes as I walked away.