Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the US Film Industry

Hi, everybody! Just a quick plug here – today, Jan 20th, Flickering Empire, my new book on Chicago silent film, is available through the film studies branch Columbia University Press. Though I try to cite my sources and hold myself up to reasonable academic standards in even my most down-to-earth work, this is my first “scholarly” book, written in collaboration with Michael Glover Smith.

Mike and I will be on WGN Radio’s Pretty Late with Patti Vasquez tonight to discuss it.  You can hear our 2011 podcasts exploring old silent film studios here and here
I’ll be back here later this week with a brand new post about a forgotten masked “supervillain” who terrorized Chicago in the 1890s!   And if you happen to be at the American Library Association’s Chicago convention next weekend, I’ll be at the Llewellyn booth on Sunday signing early copies of my upcoming Ghosts of Lincoln book. 
Chicago’s role in the early film industry is largely forgotten today, but for a few years there we were a prototype Hollywood, producing early examples of serials, color films, feature-length films, and a whole host of other things that had never been seen before. Flickering Empire is the first book-length study of Chicago’s role in the nascent industry, from the moving pictures that were (and weren’t) on display at the 1893 World’s Fair to the collapse of the local industry a quarter of a century later.   To research the book I traveled the country seeking out the handful of films that survive, met with relatives of major players in the industry, and generally had a blast! 

The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang

(This is a somewhat revised repost of an old four-part series published here when FATAL DROP: TRUE TALES OF THE CHICAGO GALLOWS  first came out. Since I told the story of James Tracy’s near-revival after his 1882 hanging the other day, I thought I’d make one big post out of this one).


In December, 1920, Nicholas “The Choir Singer” Vianna was hanged in the old Cook County jailhouse on Illinois Street. His hanging was a bizarre present for his 19th birthday.

Nicholas was, in fact, a teenage choir boy – and a heck of a singer – when he wandered into a 22nd street pool room around 1917. A week later, he was a criminal. The pool hall was run by a man known only as Il Diavolo – Italian for “The Devil” – who taught the kids who came into his pool room to commit crimes.

The gang was an offshoot of The Black Hand, the Italian gangs that had terrorized the city before prohibition – whenever an Italian came into property, he could expect to get a letter from the Black Hand demanding money. If he didn’t pay up, that property would be bombed. If he STILL didn’t pay up, his family could end up murdered. The Black Hand was responsible for hundreds of bombings over the years, and Death Corner, an intersection in Little Hell (a sicilian neighborhood that would eventually be torn down to make room for Cabrini Green) averaged about a murder a week for most of the 1910s.

But Black Hand operations were only a sideline to the gang on 22nd street, led by the mysterious Il Diavolo, who was, in reality, a shadowy mug named Sam Cardinelli (or Cardinella; the records vary). In his pool room, he taught kids to run hold ups, and how to kill. He’d send them out on errands, then take a cut of the the money. As often as not, he’d then cheat the boys out of their cuts with loaded dice. One wonders if Cardinella thought “Oliver Twist” was a how-to manual.

Each crime the gang commited was a puzzle to the police – no thread seemed to connect them until a few members of the gang were captured in 1920. When they began to confess, it came to light that they’d been responsible for about 400 hold ups, and a few dozen murders, in just the last six months.

“I was only a boy when I went into the pool room,” said Nicholas Vianna, who had killed over a dozen people. “A week later, I was a criminal.” Vianna gave crucial information that helped send Cardinella to the gallows, but withheld a great deal more, even though it sealed his own fate, for fear that Cardinella would have his mother and sister killed.

While awaiting his own execution, he regularly entertained the prisoners by singing – his voice was exceptional. “Beat any show you ever saw!” said one guard. As he was led to the Death Cell (the library, the nicest room in the jail, where condemned men spent their last nights), he sung the aria Il Miserer to the applause of all, then shouted a good-bye and good luck to all of the prisoners “Except for you, Sam Cardinella. May your soul go to hell!”

None the guards could understand why, a few months later, on the night before his own execution, Cardinella kept repeating the name “VIana” over and over….

Sam Cardinella himself scared the hell out of the guards, who had seen everyone do everything twice. The county physician later said “If I were superstitious, I would say there was something satanic about it.” Others would later describe him as “a human spider, crawling the city, spinning a web of death, and sending boys to carry out his fatal instructions.”

In prison, he was surly and unpleasant. Most of the prisoners ended up making friends with the guards, but Cardinella freaked them out. In prison, he began to refuse to eat, and eventually lost about forty pounds.

The night before his hanging, he was visited by his wife and six children, and finally broke down, crying. The site of this evil, frightening man weeping like a remorseful family man only freaked the guards out further. He spoke in such a thick sicilian dialect that even those who spoke the language couldn’t understand a word he said – except for the name “Viana,” which he repeated over and over.

The next morning, as he was led to the gallows, the frail Cardinella broke down completely, collapsing into hysterical fits. Unable to get him to stand, the guards eventually had to tie him to a chair, and he was hanged chair and all. When he was dead, the body and chair were cut down and released to the custody of his friends, who brought it out to a waiting ambulance.


Inside the ambulance, prison officials noticed a couple of men who appeared to be doctors. Wondering what was going on, the warden ordered the men to hold the ambulance in the jail yard for an hour. Soon, the reason Cardinella had been talking about Viana would become chillingly clear.

After an hour, the prison officials opened the ambulance and saw a team of doctors trying to revive Sam Cardinella’s corpse. One was injecting stimulants into his chest. Another was pumping him with electricty. A nurse was rubbing his wrists.

Suddenly, the reason for Cardinella’s behavior in prison, and his gallows break down, became clear: it had all been a ruse to insure that he would strangle to death. Most prisoners wanted their necks to be broken by the drop, but if the neck was NOT broken, there was a chance – a very, very remote one – that the prisoner could, in theory, be brought back to life.

By losing forty pounds, Cardinella decreased the amount of pressure that would be put on the noose. By faking a break down and being tied to a chair, his neck began the drop a foot or two lower than it would have if he had been standing, leading to a shorter, less violent drop. Indeed, his neck hadn’t broken – he had strangled to death.

The warden ordered the ambulance to go straight to the undertaking parlor. They were followed by the county physician, who confirmed was Cardinella was, in fact, dead, and would stay that way.

It was only later, though, that they realized why Cardinella had been talking about Nicholas Viana the night before:

The reason Cardinella had been saying viana’s name was to assure them that he was going to be brought back to life the next day. Apparently, the great revival plan had already been tested on Viana – and it had worked.

The story is impossible to confirm; it was told in whispers by prisoners over the years, and got back to the county physician. They were able to confirm that Viana’s body had been transported by his friends in a basket lined with hot water bottles into a waiting ambulance that was filled with nurses and doctors, but THAT ambulance was allowd to leave.

According to the stories told for years by prisoners, that ambulance had been driven to a nearby funeral home where the body was laid out on a slab. A team of doctors ministered to it while strange men in robes stood around chanting something – no one knew what – in Sicilian.

And, after several minutes, The Choir Boy opened his eyes and began to groan.

Murderer’s Row in the old jail

The doctors stepped back and the chanting ceased, and soon the boy’s eyes closed again. He was a traitor to the gang; no one ever intended to allow him to live. The whole thing had only been an experiment to see if Cardinella, too, could be brought back to life later on…

Whether this story was quite true will never be known; at least one book states that the whole story about Cardinella was made up by reporter Ben Hecht in his book “Gaily, Gaily.” This is incorrect; the story there was about a gangster named Frankie Piano who was hanged in 1910 (there was no Frankie Piano, no one was hanged in 1910 in Chicago, and the story about Cardinella was first reported in papers very shortly after it occurred; the detailed version was told by the county physician, an eyewitness, nearly 3 decades before the Hecht story was published. Hecht was probably really talking about Harry “The Lone Wolf” Ward, one of Cardinella’s fellow prisoners). From eyewitnesses, it can be fairly well determined that there was, at least, an attempt to revive Viana, and that Cardinella believed that it had been a success. His friends, those who had been involved in the experiment, must have come out of it with at least enough faith to try it on Cardinella himself.

But maybe they knew that it would never work. Cardinella was a master at using people’s supersitions to frighten them, to hold them in his power. Perhaps his friends were afraid to refuse to carry out his wishes, even after his death.


Pardon our Dust – the new Mysterious Chicago blog!

Hi, folks! Rebranding a bit here. I won’t be changing the URL for some time (switching between custom URLs is a real trick), but we’re changing CHICAGO UNBELIEVABLE to the new MYSTERIOUS CHICAGO blog, part of a broad rebranding of my work over the next few months.  Eventually this will extend to the podcast and everything.

All the content will stay the same, all the old posts are still here, and we’re working harder than ever on digging up forgotten stories, ghostlore, and more!  In the next few weeks there are several cool posts coming up, and I’ve located some terrific murder trial records that I’m waiting to arrive at the archives soon.

So come on get involved til the mystery is solved!

New Podcast: Graceland Cemetery Safari

In today’s episode, Adam and Erin wander through Graceland Cemetery on a hot, hot Chicago day. Will we be attacked by the green-eyed ghoul said to haunt the Wolff tomb? Followed back by Inez Briggs? Beaten up by the ghost of Jack Johnson? Or will Adam succeed in his lifetime goal of punching Marshall Field? Listen in!

Downloadable through feedburner, archive.org, or in a few minutes it’ll be up on 

The “Cemetery Safari” song is by Scapegoat 95, who will play the first full-length show in their nearly 20-year history as a band at Windycon! See their latest single, Smells Like Family Matters.

Some photos of graves we mention (click to enlarge):

Eternal Silence, the “Statue of Death” marking the grave of Dexter Graves.
Daniel Burnham’s island. Is it just me, or is a place just like this where YOU picture all those old murder ballads where a guy leads his love into the woods to kill her taking place, too?
The tomb of Ludwig Wolff, one of the supposedly-haunted tombs in the cemetery:
The gorgeous Louis Sullivan-designed Getty Tomb
Adam was thrilled to run into the graves of E.G Keith and his brother Edson. E.G. was the guy who owned the Keith House, the Prairie Avenue mansion (sometimes said to be haunted itself) that looks like something out of Scooby Doo. It’d be a shame if this place wasn’t haunted:
The famous statue of Inez. The cemtery’s claims that the girl never existed never quite rang true; their story was that there was never any such girl as Inez Clarke, that the only child buried here was a boy named Amos Briggs, and the statue was just an advertising piece for a sculptor. But do sculptors normally put up statues that look so much like normal monuments as advertising? And why did the stone say “daughter of” followed by information about the Clarkes?  It eventually came to be known that the girl’s name was Inez Briggs (Clarke was her mother’s married name); she was listed as “Amos” due to a simple transcription error (curse you, cursive!). Stories that her parents locked her out during a lightning storm are false, though, and it continues to be odd that her mother swore under testimony on file that she had no daughters (presumably in some sort of proof of heirship testimony; I’d have too see the affidavit). 
The grave of Charles Dickens’s no-good brother Augustus, who lived and died on Clark Street with his wife (well, his American wife), who died of a morphine overdose one particularly un-Dickensian Christmas. 
To follow up on a question raised in the podcast, Ebert is not interred at Graceland, though a private visitation was held there for him after his death, and his widow says that it’s likely that he will eventually be interred there.

Podcast: Hector and the Lump of Coal

Hector, our podcast co-host, took a lump of coal home from Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery on the far south side in 2010. Since then, he says, he’s had nothing but bad luck. So we return the coal from whence it came, and discuss some new information and stories about the cemetery while we’re at it.

You can download it direct from  feedburner, archive.org , or subscribe on
where the new episode will be available shortly.

The world only needs so many new pictures of Bachelor’s Grove, but here are a couple:

Hector and the Lump of Coal. This is truly the loof of a man who, moments before, tried to launch the oddest new catch phrase of the year (I won’t spoil it) and has had some time to think about the choices he’s made lately. Like hiking through the woods near the cemetery in shorts and sandals.

The pond, in its splendor. Can you spot the frogs?

Look for a few more new episodes soon, as we check out more burial grounds, odd neighborhoods, and haunted spots!

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre Tree

The SMC cartage company garage, where seven guys associated with the Bugs Moran gang were lined up and shot on St. Valentine’s Day, 1929, has been gone for years, replaced by a little field and parking lot next to a senior apartment complex. For years, we tour guides have pointed to the tree in the middle as marking roughly where the north wall, where the men were lined up, once stood.

It was there last night, when I drove by on the 7pm tour, but when we drove by tonight, it was nothing but a stump. Word on the street is that it was hit by lightning recently and was cut down since, though I didn’t notice any visible damage before.

In any case, it’s gone now. My new Ghosts of Chicago book isn’t out for a few weeks yet, and it’s already out of date!

“Murder Castle” on H2’s “Haunted History”

The “murder castle” in the early 20th century, when it
 had a stylish turret.

This week, the episode of Haunted History I filmed about H.H. Holmes and his Murder Castle aired on H2. I was worried that they’d edit me to look like a nut, but I was reasonably happy with how it came out. Some brief notes:

1. The story of Holmes being a murderer and swindler is true, but I think he was a swindler first and foremost. My own estimate for how many people he killed stands around 10. I imagine there are a few more that we don’t know about, but a few on my list of 10 are “maybes,” really. I’m not totally convinced Minnie Williams was dead, and Emily van Tassel (who was considered a “possible” victim by police at the time, and would likely have been killed closer to the glass bending site, if not right at it) is a “maybe” as well.  He confessed to 27 killings shortly before his execution, but a few of those were people who were still alive, a few others never existed at all, etc. See my ebook analyzing the three versions of his confession.

2. The “curse” was real, in that newspapers really did spend years talking about people falling victim to Holmes’s “evil eye.” I don’t think he was really taking supernatural revenge from beyond the grave, though.

3. There is some reason to suspect that it wasn’t Holmes who was hanged. The corpse was covered in cement minutes after the hanging, and before his face was covered by a hood (as was standard practice at hangings, both at Moyamensing and most other prisons), a few reporters noted that he didn’t look like he did in his pictures. It’s theoretically possible that he could have paid off some consumption victim to take his place. It wouldn’t have been easy, but swindles were his business. I know Jeff Mudgett has been trying to have the body exhumed, and I hope he does. If I were a betting man I’d bet it would turn out to be Holmes himself in the grave after all, but even if it is, we can always make a necklace out of his teeth.

4. I think that much of what you hear about what went on in the Castle is based more on urban legend than fact. The “Hotel” was never a hotel in the modern sense of the word; people lived there for months at a time and paid rent. There was no front desk or anything. Residents and neighbors were able to put together a pretty complete list of people who had disappeared from there, and no one ever reported finding some of the torture gear that people talk about now. Everyone who worked in the building had access to the basement. For the record, I think that if the bricks down there are from the 1890s, they’re more likely from the place next door to the castle. But lining up fire insurance maps is not an exact science.

And, of course, while in the tunnel in the basement of that post office during filming, I did record one of the strangest recordings I ever heard.

My opinions on Holmes and what he was and wasn’t up to are constantly in flux as new information keeps coming to light. I began taking groups to the “glass bending factory” site five or six years ago on tours of Holmes sites that I run now and then, but enough weird stuff happened there that I had to add it onto my regular ghost tours, as well.

 Or, anyway, enough happened that I let myself have fun with the idea that it was haunted. I’m fully aware that ghost sightings usually turn out to be something else; I always say that “there is no such thing as good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence.”

So, I guess this post is me getting nervous and covering my ass!  Feel free to ask any questions about my thoughts on Holmes (and the hauntings) in the comments, and I’ll be glad to clear things up!

I’ve also covered the “glass bending factory” and the “castle” site in far more detail in my new book, due in September. See the banner below.

Could Chicago have a Sharknado?

A 1902 Trib article on an alligator found in the river.
Right near where the Target is now!

It was nice to come from the tour last night and find that from Twitter that we had reached a rare state of national unity, as the whole of America bonded together to live tweet about Sharknado, the SyFy original movie that may be the cinematic achievement of the year.

One nice thing about living in Chicago is that natural disasters aren’t much of a threat. No one has anything ominous to say about fault lines, hurricanes aren’t much of a threat, landslides never happen in places where the biggest hills are the speed bumps, and blizzards come and go, but they ain’t killed us all yet. .

But there COULD be a tornado at any time. Just because we haven’t had one in over a century doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen again next year; meterologists insist there’s no known reason why we couldn’t have one in a big city.

And, of course, there are some venerable myths about sharks in Lake Michigan that may not be as far-fetched as you might think. Various lists of shark attacks state that a boy named George Lawson was attacked by one who had swum inland to Lake Michigan in the 1950s (though this appears to be so poorly documented that it’s really just an urban legend for all practical purposes). Theoretically, there COULD be some sharks in that lake. And a tornado COULD hurl them out of the water and right onto Lake Shore Drive.

But that’s not all. Remember that nice item a couple of years ago about an alligator being found in Bubbly Creek? It wasn’t the first time an alligator/crocodile had been found in there.

So what if we had…. a croco-sharknado?

Rahm and co had BETTER have a plan in place for this.