Bughouse Square on the UFO Crash at Roswell

In 1947, when the supposed UFO crash at Roswell was still an unfolding story, a couple of small town papers carried an article about the debate about the crash going on in “Bughouse Square,” Chicago’s “free speech park” in which soapbox orators and hecklers would gather every night when the whether was good.  The article is probably the closest thing I’ve seen to a transcript of debates between regulars such as One Armed Charlie and The Cosmic Kid.

“One Armed Chollie” Wendorf was known as “king of the soapboxers.” He had the constitution memorized and could put down a heckler better than anyone – his catch phrase was “if brains were bug juice, you coudn’t drown a gnat!”

He blamed the Roswell UFO sightings on mass hysteria, and said “the terrible thing is, the more water you throw on (mass hysteria), the more it burns.” He stated that these “visions” of flying discs that people were having could be eliminated through healthy living. “And to be healthy,” he said, “you got to eat living things. I eat fifty dandelion blooms a day when they’re in season.”

On the next soapbox over was Herbert “The Cosmic Kid” Shaw, whose style was to take listeners on “philosophic flights of fancy to empyrean realms of thought,” and who would eventually be given a Druid funeral in the park. He took the UFO sightnings a bit more seriously, and believed they were evidence of life on other planets.

“Science,” he said, “now has a wide open view of the possibility that life exists on some planets.” He went on to say that the people of Mars “have an understanding of cosmic process in advance of ours and have a theory that the interpenetration of radition of energy into interstellar space holds the solar systems together…Martians now are making explorations to prove their cosmic theory, and this explains the flying saucers.”

The reporter noted, with awe, that The Cosmic Kid got all of that out in one breath.

Next to the Kid was “Porkchops Charlie,” a “knight of the open road and moutpiece for the Hoboes of America.  He claimed to have witnessed flying saucers many times while riding in boxcars, and said he believed they were moving shadows between the sun and earth that traveled so fast as to play tricks on the eye due to “electric vibration.”  

The most bizarre explanation came from one Ted Moren, who said that “they were plates carrying t-bone steaks because they’re so high.” Or, failing that, he suggest “maybe it’s those ENIACS – you know, those thinking machines invented at Harvard and Princeton that are doing some thinking and inventing on their own…if the machines can almost think it’s reasonable to believe they could think of something like flying saucers that not even our scientists can match.”
The next morning, newspapers would carry the official explanation: it was just a weather balloon.

I’ve collected a ton of material on the park, including some great interviews that I used in the now-defunct Weird Chicago podcast, including interviews about the park with aldermean Leon Dupres and 1960 Beatnik Party “anti-candidate” for Vice President Joffre Stuart. One of these days I’ll re-edit into a Chicago Unbelievable podcast.

Coming Friday: a new podcast to kick off “Grave Robbing Week,” which will be running all next week right here at Chicago Unbelievable!

The First Chicago UFO Picture: The Airship of 1897

In 1897, there was a rash of “airship” sightings throughout the midwest – the mysterious, cigar-shaped craft arrived in the Chicago area in April of that year, and was seen by so many people that one claimed “you aren’t ‘in it’ if you haven’t seen the airship!”

Stories about it got more and more bizarre. One guy said he saw it land on the water, and some guy came out onto a deck to go fishing. Another claimed that it landed in a field near his house and the pilot told him that “I will tell my story to the government when Cuba is free” (keep in mind, this was the era of the Spanish American War, a war noted for the stories newspapers made up to push America into the war in order to sell more papers – this was probably one of the more ridiculous ones).

To this day, no one knows what the airship really was. Most of the sightings were probably mistakes, and others were outright hoaxes. A few remain unexplained – theories at the time included that it was Venus, a shooting star, a guy in a balloon, or something cooked up as a publicity stunt by the Ringling Brothers (who didn’t nothing to discourage this rumor – it was just good business). And only in Chicago, as far as we know, did anyone photograph it.

Newspapers at the time weren’t set up to publish photographs – they just did drawings. So they published a drawing of the photo:

Though papers indicate that the photographer sold several copies, no photo seems to have survived. The negative was given the “acid test” by the paper, which pronounced it to be genuine. However, the Tribune showed it to an expert who laughed at once and said the perspective was way off – what the photographer had probably done was take a picture, then paste the airship onto the picture, and then take a picture OF the picture. This would have stood up to the acid test, but not to expert photographers who knew just what cameras could and couldn’t do.

Still, the mystery of the airship remains unsolved.