The “Widow in Green” Blackmail Mystery

“Does anybody know the woman in green?” asked the Tribune in  November of 1908. “Can anybody tell the name of the mysterious woman motorist who for the last month has been an unfailing topic of conversation for those who have time to observe humanity as seen in Chicago’s streets? Who is she?”

For a month, Chicagoans had been observing a woman, roughly 30 years old, driving around the loop in a rented green touring car, dressed from head to foot in green, including a green hat and veil (except for a couple of days when she tried red or white outfits, each time with a matching car). Each day, she’d drive a circuit through the loop, occasionally stopping for some sort of meeting in the Marquette building. Once in a while she’d have a chauffeur, and once she nearly drove off the road, having been agitated by the sight of a certain man with a black mustache, but she was otherwise said to be perfectly capable of handing the car herself – the paper noted that she “handles her machine in a manner which shows her mastery over the art of chauffeuring”

In the Tribune’s 1908 feature, one gets the impression that they could have solved the mystery easily enough – she went to the same garages and drove the same route daily – but preferred to revel in the wild, romantic backstories people were inventing for her. It might seem odd today, more than a century on, to imagine that someone driving around could create such excitement, but we have to remember that this was 1908. Cars weren’t quite the novelty they’d been a few years before, but they were still in their infancy. Female drivers might have been a bit of a shock to some, as well. The veil, the tendency to match her outfit to her car, and her taking the same route daily were about all it took to attract attention.

It may be, though, that the real story was wilder than the Tribune dared to hope.

In January, the Inter-Ocean began telling stories of a “Widow in Green” who’d been blackmailing wealthy hotel guests. The Inter-Ocean certainly thought it was the same woman; stating that there was a small gang of blackmailers operating “under the leadership of the ‘woman in green,’ who created a furore among residents of the Michigan Avenue hotels by appearing each day dressed entirely in green. A large green touring car was constantly at her beck and call.”

The “Widow in Green,” it was said, was “a beautiful brunette, very attractive and a good conversationalist (who) speaks with a slight French accent.” She would scan the registers of Michigan Avenue hotels, find wealthy men who were in from out of town, and then seduce them in the dining rooms with her brilliant powers of conversation (though the “seduction” may have amounted only to go to their hotel rooms to discuss an investment plan for the money she claimed to have inherited, with her simply signing into the hotel as the man’s wife). Later, the wealthy men would receive letters demanding money, always signed with the single name “Gladys.”

Stories of Gladys the Green’s life of crime spread quickly – there were tales of her having a fist fight with the woman who owned one of the hotels, of her forging a check at another hotel. Though saying she was part of a “gang” might have been overstating it, she did employ a couple of “attorneys” who dealt with unruly victims, and who helped her draw up bogus mortgages to sell. To one victim, she sent a valentine showing a man being beaten with a rolling pin; the back read “I hope the new year will bring you as much happiness as you have brought me unhappiness – Gladys.”

The man who received the card told the press (through his attorney) that he’d remained silent and paid a fortune up until now “because his wife and children had been heretofore unaware of his escapapde with the dashing ‘widow in green,'” whom he’d met at the Lexington Hotel.  But his attempts to find her seem to have been in vain.

The flair for the dramatic may have been her undoing – though most papers in town barely mentioned the story (to my surprise – it seemed like the kind of story the American would have been all over), the Inter-Ocean covered it in several articles over a week or so in January, 1909, and several out of town papers picked up their coverage as well. With her newfound fame, the Widow in Green’s cover was blown, and operating in town likely became too risky. She presumably took off for parts unknown, and her story disappeared from the papers. So far as I know, she was forgotten by the end of the winter.

Did Dr. Thomas Neill Cream Kill Alice Montgomery?

Could a Chicago mystery from 1881 have been the work of one of our early serial killers?
(See an update from 2017 at the bottom of the post!) 
Dr. Thomas Neill Cream.

On April 9, 1881, 22 year old Alice Montgomery checked into a room at the Sheldon House, a west loop-area hotel on West Madison near Racine. After dinner, she casually asked for a glass of water and a teaspoon, then for directions to the ladies’ private closet. Some time later, another roomer saw her emerge from the private closet writing in agony. Soon, she was on the floor, screaming in pain and convulsing. Doctor Seymour Knox was summoned and gave her ether, but after rallying for a moment she died. The doctor believed it was strychnine poisoning. Another doctor, one Byron Griffin, was soon found who told investigators that Alice had recently come to him saying she was in a “delicate condition” and asking for drugs to induce an abortion. He’d refused – it was illegal at the time, after all.  But a superficial examination of the body confirmed that an abortion had been attempted. She found some doctor who would help her. But someone had apparently tampered with the medicine.

The medicine she had taken was traced to a drug store further west on Madison, and was filled from a prescription from Dr. Fraser. Fraser was located and promptly said the drugs she’d been given were probably used to induce an abortion, but that he knew nothing of the prescription. It wasn’t in his handwriting, and contained some obvious misspellings.
An 1881 notice in the Tribune, after Cream was
acquitted of a similar case due to lack of evidence.
The address here was barely half a block from
the site of Alice’s death, which was at 503-505 Madison
in pre-1909 numbers. 434 is 1255 West on the
modern grids; a vacant lot marks the site of
Cream’s old rooms today.

The next day, Dr. Frazer assisted on the most-mortem at an undertaking parlor further west on Madison. It was found that Alice had been pregnant, and traces of strychnine were found (to prove it was strychnine, they fed the traces to a cat, who quickly died). The clerk at the drugstore said he had no idea how strychnine could have gotten into her medicine; it was sealed in a bottle with a skull and crossbones. A coroner’s jury eventually concluded that the strychnine had been added to the medicine later, under circumstances unknown

At the inquest, a letter written by Alice was produced, indicating that she’d paid Doctor Fraser $75 for an operation, and needed another $25 for another, after which she would “be all right.”
It had been sent in the coroner by someone who claimed to know Alice, but how that person came into possession of it was sort of a mystery, as was an accompanying letter saying that it was being sent to clear up the troubles for “Van Minchen,” a name no one had connected tot he case The identity of the person who’d found and submitted the letter was never found.
Dr. Fraser vehemently denied that he’d performed the abortion. The prescription was clearly not his own work, and “anyway, if I desired to produce an abortion, I had the necessary drugs at my own office, and need not have sent a patient to the drug store.”
The coroner’s jury established that Alice had died of accidental use of strychnine, but  exonerated both Fraser and the druggist. How the strychnine had gotten there, and who had done the operation, remained a mystery.

The tone of local newspaper articles from the case – particularly those of the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean – make it seem quite clear that they assumed Dr. Fraser was at fault. It DOES sort of seem like damning evidence against him.  But Fraser was exonerated, and, since the case was officially still a mystery, it’s fairly remarkable that no one ever noted that one a known serial killer – one whose crimes frequently combined strychnine and abortion – had an office within a stone’s throw of the Sheldon House.

Dr. Thomas Neil Cream is probably a better candidate for the title of “America’s First Serial Killer” than H.H. Holmes, who is usually advertised as such.  Strychnine poisonings, abortions, and blackmailing doctors were his stock in trade. Giving both the operation and the poison to Alice, as well as perhaps trying to frame Dr. Fraser, seem like just the sort of thing he would have done. And Dr. Cream was operating from an office on Madison at the time of Alice’s death, right near the Sheldon House.
A letter in Dr. Cream’s handwriting published
in the Harmsworth Pictorial Magazine in
1899

Only months before the Montgomery case, in fact, Dr. Cream had been arrested, and eventually released due to lack of evidence, when a woman named Mary Faulkner died after an abortion. Both Dr. Knox and Dr. Fraser were involved in cases with Cream in 1880-81.

I almost feel as though I must be missing something here. Given the publicity of the case connecting Dr. Cream to the abortion/death of Mary Faulkner in 1880, and his proximity to the scene of the action, it seems as though someone would have mentioned him during the Alice Montgomery affair, though neither the Tribune or Inter-Ocean ever mentioned him in connection with (all above info on her is from their April, 1881 accounts)

And given how much publicity Crem got a few months later when he was arrested for the poisoning of Daniel Stott, why did no one think they’d found a logical suspect for Alice’s murder?  Later accounts of Cream, including a full-length book about him from 1995, make no mention of the fact that there’d been a high-profile mysterious abortion/strychnine-related death in his neighborhood only months before his arrest. Indeed, I don’t think anyone ever mentioned Alice in print again after the April, 1881 inquest.

After his November, 1881 conviction for the murder of Daneil Stott (whose wife had obtained poisons to use on him from Dr. Cream’s office), Cream went on to spend several years in prison Joliet before being released and going to London, where he resumed his career of poisoning, blackmail, abortion and murder. He was eventually convicted of killing a woman with strychnine there and hanged; an apocryphal story states that he admitted to being Jack the Ripper before he was hanged, and I’ve long suspected that a 2008 podcast in which a former parter of mine mistakenly attributed that story to H.H. Holmes was the beginning of the current vogue to connect Holmes to the Ripper murders.

I sent an early version of this article to Amanda Griffiths-Jones, who recently wrote a novel, Prisoner 4374, about Cream. After consulting his large prison file, she confirmed that Cream was in town and receiving patients on April 9, 1881, but couldn’t find a definitive link that proved he killed Alice. The drug store Alice was sent to would not have been the one to which Cream usually sent patients, which was on South Clark.

“However,” she noted, “the crime and subsequent letter to the coroner certainly have the traits of his preferred ‘modus operandi.'” She also notes that April 9 was a Saturday, and it’s probably notable that Cream was known to take patients on Saturdays.

So there may not be a smoking gun – there rarely is in case this old, really – but the pieces certainly seem to fit. Either Dr. Cream gave her strychnine or there was some other strychnine-happy abortionist operating in Cream’s same neighborhood. The Sheldon Hotel would have sat on Madison right near Loomis; Cream’s place was across the road and only about a block east; you certainly could have seen it out a second floor window. The drug store Alice called on was a block from the hotel in the other direction. Though it’s not a store Cream is known to have recommended to patients, it’s not hard to imagine scenarios under which Alice would have gone there. If she was in pain or in a hurry, Kraft’s store was much closer than the one Cream normally used, which was in the loop, a little over a mile away.

This is probably a case that can never go beyond circumstantial evidence, since it’s likely that none of the original evidence is still extant, but it’s more compelling to me than just about anything on the list of H.H. Holmes’s possible victims.  The fact that no one seems to have thought to connect Cream to Montgomery before remains the biggest mystery to me here.


  AJ Griffith-Jones’ book is written as a faux autobiography. From prison records, she can firmly establish the truth about rumors that Cream escaped prison and became Jack the Ripper.
The Chicago Daily News wanted to make sure
readers knew that Alice read the Daily News.

Digging through the defunct Chicago newspapers in the microfilm room gives some clue: the most likely time for someone to have made a connection between Cream and Montgomery would have been in late July, 1881, when Cream was first made a suspect in the murder of Daniel Stott, or in September of that year when he went to trial. In July, any mention of Cream at all was buried among the coverage of President Garfield having been shot. In September, Cream’s trial coverage was overshadowed by Garfield’s funeral (he lingered on his deathbed for several weeks after being shot). According to Amanda Griffiths-Jones, there’s even a note in Cream’s prison records saying that authorities were distracted by Garfield news and not taking much note of Cream’s actions at the time of the Stott murder. So it may simply be that the obvious solution to Alice Montgomery’s murder slipped through the cracks.

And, since we can never resist an H.H. Holmes connection: according to an 1895 issue of the Chicago Daily News, when H.H. Holmes was en route to Toronto with the Pitezel girls, he stayed a night in room 18 and 19 of the West End Hotel, which had the same address, and was likely the same building, as the Sheldon Hotel, where Alice died! According to the CDN, he registered as “A. Armstrong.” Other papers were not convinced that this part of the story was true, though, and at this point whether “A. Armstrong” was truly Holmes is probably anyone’s guess.

UPDATE, 2017:
As more newspapers get digitized, more sources come to light! I knew I couldn’t have been the first to connect Alice to Dr. Cream, and it turns out the sheriff in charge of the jail where he stayed before his 1881 trial blamed him for the murder. Here’s The Belvidere Standard, a paper from near Grand Prairie, quoting the Rockford Register on Sept 13, 1881:

Inside the Couch Tomb: New Eyewitness Accounts?

We talk quite a lot about the Couch Tomb here – the mausoleum that was never moved from City Cemetery after it became Lincoln Park. No one is entirely sure why it wasn’t moved (probably money, though there are rumors of a lawsuit) or who all is in it, if anyone. But we’re always finding new info.  We’ve got “tomb snooper” photos of what’s behind the door (another door), and did a podcast recently chatting with Mr. Couch’s third great grand-daughter.

We also uncovered a 1911 article in the Examiner about a day when a locksmith received a prank order to open the tomb. At the time, a city employee claimed to have been inside of it some time around 1901 and seen nothing. At the same time, though, Couch’s grandson said there were about eight bodies in there, including two of his brothers.

Now a Daily News article from the same day – May 5, 1911, has been found. In it, the city employee goes into a bit more detail:

John Lindroth, a civil engineer in the employe of the Lincoln Park board for the past thirty-five years, said to-day that thee were no bodies in the Couch tomb, as they have been moved thirty years ago. 

The tomb, with Mr. Lindroth on the left. This was published in the
Daily News but doesn’t seem to be available in better quality
in their online archive.

“Ten years ago I was in the tomb,” he said. “We were laying out a road and it was necessary to open it. At that time there were no bodies there. They were probably moved, with other bodies in what was then a cemetery, to the lot east of where the band stand now stands, after the Chicago fire. At that time there were three cemeteries in what is now the park – the Catholic, Jewish and the Lutheran Episcopal.”

So, this gives us a little bit more info than we previous had about when he went into the tomb and why, and remains perhaps our best eyewitness account. However, Ira J. Couch, denied that the bodies had been moved (and was in a position to know).

“The last one to take an interest in that tomb was my grandmother, who is buried in Rose Hilll,” said Mr. Couch. “She died in 1899. So far as I know her husband, my grandfather, and his father and mother and two of my brothers are still buried in the tomb. There are four others from what I have heard, but I do no know who they were. It is absurd for any one to say that the bodies were removed after the Chicago fire or at any other time. No one had the right to do any such thing.

Mr. Lindroth is not, however, the only witness we have.  When James Couch, Ira’s brother, died in 1892, papers spoke about the tomb in great detail, and there were rumors that the family was considering putting him in the vault – the debate over whether it could be allowed created quite a stire down at the health department Several Chicago city officials were spoken to at the time, and none of them were under the impression that the bodies had ever been moved. Chief Sanitary Officer Hayt said he’d probably have to allow James Couch to be interred in the tomb if the family showed up with a properly signed death certificate and asked for a permit. 
Buried among the debate about the tomb in the Chicago Evening Post was a quote from one Robert Fergus, a printer who had known Ira Couch in the old days:
“I think there is only one body in it,” adds Robert Fergus. “In fact, I am sure  of it, for I remember having peered between the iron bars and seen but one coffin resting on the slab.”
This is interesting for a number of reasons. We know that the slab/door on the tomb is not “original,” and that it was originally just iron bars at the front. But we also know from our tomb-snooping adventures that there was another, larger door behind those bars. When could Fergus have seen all the way in? Was the interior door a later addition, as well? Were those bars once the only thing blocking coffins from the elements?
The Couch Tomb remains a mystery, and every primary source we find only tangles it further! For more on City Cemetery, be sure to check out Pamela Bannos’ Hidden Truths

A Masked Supervillain Terrorizes Chicago, 1892

In late November of 1892, wild rumors spread about a mysterious  “highwayman,” a masked robber who rode a dark horse with a blazing red leather saddle, and who had been terrifying Lake View, on the north side of Chicago. The Tribune described him as “either a maniac or a desperado.” Lake View and Lincoln Park became police states as dozens of officers were put on call to catch the crook, and stories began to circulate that the costumed crook had supernatural powers.

Children on the north side spoke in whispers that The Highwayman had been heard riding though Graceland Cemetery at midnight, the hoofs clacking over the tombstones as he rode atop them. Another said that he’d been seen on horseback jumping off a bridge and riding the horse right through the filthy Chicago River.

And his fame wasn’t limited to Chicago. The story of the Lakeview Highwayman was retold in papers all over the country, and a few questioned how such a city could be trusted to hold a World’s Fair the next year.

Where was Batman when we needed him?

Seldom has there been an example of how much a little flair for the dramatic can turn a story into a sensation. In reality, the Highwayman’s deeds were pretty low-key. If he hadn’t been wearing the mask, he would have been little more than a simple b-rate robber. But dress up like the Dread Pirate Roberts in a bowler hat and get yourself a dark horse with a white star on its forehead, and you become a supervillain!

The drama began on November 23rd, 1892, when a man in Lake View was approached by a masked rider who wore a mask covering his eye. Above it was a stiff derby hat, and below it a sandy mustache. The “highwayman” ordered him to set all his money on the ground and go away. This same instance was repeated several times all over the north side over the course of the rest of the day, concluding with a daring chase in which a cop took control of a bakery cart and chased the Highwayman a mile through the north side, firing a few shots in the process. He struck at North and Clybourn, at Clark and Lawrence, and at several saloons. However, his net profits were estimated to be in the range of $5.35

The next day, dozens of officers were brought in and armed citizens patrolled the streets, interrogated pretty much anyone they saw riding a horse, but the robberies continued and the rider eluded capture.

After two nights, a mustached man dropped a horse off at a stable, saying he’d be back in an hour. When the was was never called for, the stable owner notified the cops, who were able to confirm that the horse was the one that Highwayman had used. But there was no trace of the Highwayman.

What was generally agreed was that this was no professional robber; the “highway robbery” techniques he used were the sort of thing you saw far more often in dime novels than in real life.  The Highwayman would approach a person and “Got any money? Throw it on the ground,” threatening to shoot if they disobeyed . He’d wait until they’d run far away before picking up whatever they’d tossed.

On November 27, a masked Highwayman with a long rifle (or a pistol in each hand, depending on the witness) was seen in Winnetka and Highland Park in the north burbs, riding towards Evanston. Police went on his trail, but didn’t think it was the SAME highwayman; this one had a black mustache. Apparently, the tales of derring-do had begun to inspire imitators (the one in the north burbs turned out to be a troubled young student from Highland Park who was only out for kicks). One credible rumor was that the criminal was a student who’d promised to put on a mask and rob everyone he saw for four days if Benjamin Harrison lost the election to Grover Cleveland (which he did).  Another masked highwayman – possibly the REAL Lake View Highwayman – robbed of man of 6 bucks in west suburban Riverside the same day, and then repeated the deed the next day in Berwyn, Cicero, and other southwest suburbs, putting the area on high alert.

On the 28th, The Highwayman showed a bit of his true colors when a grocer / undertaker in Aurora was approached by him. THe grocery/undertaker brandished a whip and told the Highwayman to “Shoot and be goldarned,” which was all it took to get him to flee.

The Lake View Highwayman apparently returned to Chicago on November 29th, striking in Avondale, but by this time he was losing his ability to inspire fear: the story of the grocer made the news all over the midwest. On November 30th, a man scared him away from a hold-up on Elston Avenue with a toy pistol.

Then, as suddenly as he came, the Lake View Highwayman simply vanished from the news. Sightings ceased in early December, and papers forgot all about him. In the summer of 1893 there was a only small item stating that the police had arrested a horse thief named James Dustin who was suspecting of being the Highwayman; he had a bunch of masks and fake mustaches in his possession. Several of the Highwayman’s victims were brought to the station, but none were certain that Dustin was the man. He had, after all, been wearing a mask.

As near as I can tell, this blog post is the first thing written about him since 1893. National news for a week, then forgotten for over a century.

I can’t resist ending with the most basic line of them all: Who was that masked man?

The Mystery of Zanzic (and The Guy Who Died While Doing It With a Fake Ghost)

Whether this is even
the same Zanzic is probably
up to debate. 

Something there was about the World’s Fair of 1893 that seemed to make everyone want to build a house full of secret passages around here.

In 1923, Harry Houdini wrote an article in M.U.M., a magician’s magazine, about a conjurer named Zanzic  who a operated fantastic spiritualist “studio” in Chicago on north Michigan Avenue during the time of the World’s Fair.  According to the story (which he got from one of Zanzic’s assistants), the magician had taken the name of Professor Slater and spent five thousand bucks rigging up an old mansion with trap doors, hidden rooms, sliding panels, and other such trickery. It’s hard not to compare the place to the Holmes  “murder castle” on the other side of town.

The Holmes building was really designed more for swindling than killing, and so was Zanzic’s new place: everything was carefully rigged up to help him put on the most convincing phony seances in the business. And he was good at what he did – Houdini called him a “charlatan supreme,” with forgers, detectives, and professional magicians in his employ.

How long it lasted is not a part of the story, but Houdini describes the place as pretty impressive, using every magic trick known to the trade to make the seances convincing, along with tricks like selling “blindness cures” that were really scoops of gutter mud. As much as Houdini hated fake mediums, he really does seem to have admired Zanzic’s gumption. According to legend, one afternoon while performing on stage a pistol malfunctioned during a “watch me get shot in the face” act, and Zanzic lost one of his eyes – but still did the trick again in the evening show.   You really do have to take your hat off to a guy like that.

The most famous tale of the Michigan Avenue Mansion almost has to be Zanzic’s piece de resistance. having convinced a wealthy German man that he was making contact with his late wife, the German offered a huge sum if Zanzic could arrange for him to have a conjugal visit with his wife. Ever the daring optimist, Zanzic said he certainly could, and set to work. He found a prostitute who bore enough of a resemblance, set up the seance to cloud his customer’s mind just enough, and put the plan in motion.

There was one hitch in the plan, though: while Zanzic and his crew were waiting for the “conjugation” to finish, the woman they’d hired screamed. The German had gotten over-excited at renewing sexual relations with his dead wife, suffered a heart attack, and died mid-coitus. An attempt to dress up the corpse and hide him out in an alley someplace didn’t work out, and the trio had to pay the cops off to stay out of jail.

An ad for Zanzic the Necromancer at the Trocodero
around the time of the World’s Fair.  Sandow
the Strong Man was one of the stars of the
fair himself, and was the subject of one of
Edison’s first kinetoscopes. 

The story is charming as hell, though I can’t for the life of me work out whether the slightest bit of it happens to be true. There is an ad in the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean from the time of the fair for “Zanzic the Necromancer” appearing at the Trocedero on State Street (where the Harold Washington Library is now), which at puts Zanzic (or someone using the same name) in Chicago at the right time,  but I can’t find anything about the actual address of the mansion, or any vintage advertisements for it, any news of real estate transactions, or even anything in the spiritualist newspapers of the day talking about the terrific seances at Professor Slater’s place in Chicago. If he really spent that much money fixing the place up, you’d think that Zanzic would have made more noise about it.

None of this, however, necessarily means that the story isn’t true – it stands to reason that this stuff would be hard to trace. Magicians and charlatans of the day tend to be tough to research – even Houdini wasn’t sure what Zanzic’s real name was, and modern researchers know very little of him. There are conflicting sources on both his life and his death. Frauds and phonies of the day tended to change their names a lot, and there were several who used the same name, further muddying the waters. Also, if you’re going to build a house meant to trick people, you’d probably do so without much of a paper trail, and if someone dies in your place while being tricked into thinking he was doing it with a ghost, well, it’s not like you’re going to put out a press release. Houdini sites Ziska, a well known magician who had been one of the assistants, as a source – Ziska was a real guy, which lends the story a bit more credibility, but made a name for himself as doing magical comedy, and known as a great storyteller, so it’s not unreasonable to assume he may have exaggerated a bit.

 Unless more info can be turned up, I’ll have to file it among the “Stories so good that I really hope they turn out to be true, even though someone dies in them” files.

The Strange Death of Lazarus Averbuch

Averbuch, with the knife and gun he was said to
be armed with. 

In early March, 1908, a young man in his late teens named Lazarus Averbuch was shot to death in the entryway of police captain George M. Shippy’s north side home.

Exactly what happened is a matter of some dispute. We know that Averbuch, who had emigrated from Russia a year before, was admitted by the maid and tried to hand the chief an envelope later found to contain a blank sheet of paper. The chief immediately suspected trouble (the visitor looked like the kind of guy who might be an anarchist), and apparently grabbed Averbuch and attempted to detain him so that his wife could search his pockets.

A scuffle ensued, and it ended with several members of the household wounded, and Averbuch himself lying dead on the floor.  Newspapers breathlessly announced that Shippy had survived an attempted assassination by an anarchist. Averbuch, they said, had intended to kill Shippy because Shippy had shut down a planned parade of unemployed men.

Immediately, plans were put in motion to make laws banning “incendiary” speeches and writings, and a city-wide crackdown on anarchists and radicals took place. The Jewish community, which the public tended to associate with radicalism in those days,  seems to have taken the worst of it; Jewish leaders took the press insisting that Judaism taught respect for the laws of nations and that not all Jews were violent radicals or anarchists.

In the early days of the scandal, though, most of these leaders seem to have taken Shippy’s story that the killing was done in self defense at face value. But as the days went by, doubts emerged. Police attempted to link Averbuch to anarchy by any means necessary – detaining his friends, ransacking printing houses and the homes of known anarchists – and came up largely empty.  Whether or not Averbuch was even armed came into dispute – early reports said he’d been carrying a pistol and dagger, but there were reasons to doubt it.

A second theory as to what had happened that night began to gain currency: that Averbuch had gone to the chief’s house asking for some sort of assistance, but Shippy had seen a foreign-looking man, panicked, and attacked him, wounding some family members in the process with wild shooting.  Averbuch’s sister, Olga, didn’t know what Lazarus was doing at the chief’s door that night, but though he might have been trying to get a letter saying he was of good character, or a pass to leave the city (which would have been required for Jews in his native Russia). Averbuch was eventually disinterred from the cemetery at Dunning for a second autopsy, and the result shed even more doubt on Shippy’s version of events.

That Averbuch was innocent was not a unanimous opinion even among progressives, though; attorney Clarence Darrow, who could generally be counted on to support underdogs, said, “I went into it far enough to satisfy anyone with any sense that Averbuch intended to kill the chief and went to his house for that purpose. I told those who invited me to take up the case that there was nothing to it and that the chief did not deserve criticism.”

Personally, after looking into the case, I couldn’t really form an opinion as to whether Averbuch was planning to kill Shippy that night or not. Historians today generally seem to think he was not, but I couldn’t convince myself one way or the other. Darrow’s opinion goes a long way with me, and Averbuch had been in the country long enough to know that he wouldn’t need a letter from the authorities to leave town. He was savvy enough to get Shippy’s home address, after all.

Either way, though, Shippy seems to have pounced on the guy strictly because he looked foreign. If Averbuch was planning to kill him, it was a lucky guess on Shippy’s part, and one that was probably based on prejudice, not on evidence.

It’s certainly clear that the authorities worked harder to make sure Shippy would not be charged than they did to get to the truth of the matter. They were not above dirty tricks to keep the coroner’s jury at the inquest from finding reasons to doubt; at least one witness who wanted to testify as to Averbuch’s character on the day of the inquest was arrested and locked away until the inquest was over.  Jane Addams of Hull House wrote at length about the questionable methods, shoddy investigations, and inconsistencies in the case.   There was a widespread feeling that the whole affair had been flawed, and that police and politicians were simply using Averbuch as an excuse to crack down on immigrants, Jews, and other outsiders.

Reading through old newspaper accounts of the investigation do very, very little to dissuade modern readers of the notion that Averbuch could simply have been a victim of hysterical prejudice. Many articles drip with anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-semitism. The case that was told to jurors is full of racially-charged language;  it’s awfully difficult to read about the case today and not notice parallels with similar modern cases.

Even putting aside the arguments as to whether Shippy’s actions were justified, there are a lot of mysteries in the case. His exact burial plot is no longer known. His actual first name is in dispute. What became of his sister is not known (she went back to Europe and is presumed to have died in the Holocaust). And if Averbuch didn’t go to Shippy’s house intending to kill him, there’s certainly a mystery as to why he was there.  And so on.

The story has been told elsewhere in more detail than I can tell it here; I recommend The Lost Boy, a 2009 story in Chicago magazine.  There’s also Jane Addams’ article about the case and the effect it had on the Jewish community’s general distrust of local police (pdf link), which does a fine job of outlining the inconsistencies in the case, and the questionable actions of the police in the aftermath, and how they only made things worse in the end.

William Duvol: Chicago’s Only Revolutionary Soldier?

Updated! new info at bottom.

There are a couple of Revolutionary vets buried out in Elk Grove, but only one revolutionary soldier is known to be buried in Chicago proper: William Duvol, who died around the 1830s and whose headstone is at Rosehill Cemetery.  (note:  David Kennison, who is buried in Lincoln Park, claimed to be a vet, but was almost certainly lying).

Duvol was probably originally buried in one of the city’s first two official cemeteries, one of which stood near the water tower site (Chicago and Michigan), and one of which was down around 23rd Street on the lake shore. Neither were in use for long, and he was likely moved to City Cemetery in the 1840s, which stood on the site where Lincoln Park is now, before being moved to Rosehill in the 1860s, when City Cemetery closed. His 1830s-era gravestone remained at Rosehill from the 1860s until 2004, when it was replaced after becoming nearly illegible.  The original stone at Rosehill said “William Duvol: Soldier of the Revolution” and stated that he had died at the age of 75. The new stone identifies him as a Continental Line soldier; I’m not sure what was done with the old stone, or how they determined even that much about his service.

So, who was this guy? Early Chicago history books (which tend to be somewhat exhaustive in giving data about everyone of note who lived in the area) don’t mention Duvol at all, and the main William Duvol who comes up in searches of genealogy sites is an Englishman who was still an Englishman decades after the war.  A 1959 article on the gravestone stated that nothing historical could be found on Duvol at all.

Major William Duval – a false
positive in the case. 

When the new gravestone was dedicated in 2005, it was said in an article or two that he came from Henrico, Virginia, which sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole.

The Virginia “William Duval” (or Du Val) was certainly a revolutionary soldier; in fact, he was quite a prominent citizen around Richmond in the early 19th century; his son went on to serve in congress in the 1830s, as well as serve as the first civilian governor of Florida. The Daughters of the American Revolution has a bit on him, as well, and various sources specifically state that he was from Henrico. I can assume that the articles stating that the William Duvol at Rosehill was a Henrico man were assuming that the man beneath the stone was Major William Duval. But I’m not sure how they determined that, and, if so, they were wrong; Major Duval died at his plantation in Virginia in 1842.

So that takes us back to the drawing board, and the identity and story of William Duvol remains a mystery.

Some of the records may have been lost in the Great Chicago Fire, but some may still be out there, waiting to be discovered.  It may be that he, like Kennison, was simply telling his neighbors that he was a soldier. It may be that when he died, some neighbor who paid for the stone simply had the impression that he’d been a soldier. It may be that he changed his name somewhere along the line. It may be that he was a soldier who didn’t make it into any early records.

One other thing: it’s entirely possible that Duvol isn’t in Rosehill at all. In many cases, when gravestones were moved from City Cemetery to Rosehill or Graceland, the stones were all that were moved, and bodies were left behind. Other bodies couldn’t be moved, because they’d already been stolen by grave robbers working for medical schools (it’s known that this was a problem in the early cemeteries). David Kennison was far more prominent and better known that Duvol seems to have been, and had died more recently when City Cemetery was closed, but his remains were certainly never moved. It’s quite conceivable that Duvol remains at rest in Lincoln Park as well, or even near the Magnificent Mile or the South Loop.

UPDATE:
It turned out Ray Johnson was working on this same case! He found a 1929 register of veterans that actually listed Duvol as a Civil War vet, though with no further information to show how they came to think that. He also found some mention of a William Duval in Illinois Civil War muster rolls (who disappears from the record right after the muster), so there’s a chance that this is actually a Civil War vet. This, though, doesn’t explain the “soldier of the revolution” mark on his original tomb.

Ray and I met up at the cemetery today to look things over and compare notes. Right behind his grave is the boulder marking the burial site of Ebenezer Peck, at whose mansion Lincoln decided who would be in his cabinet.  We recorded a short podcast that I hope will tide you over until we can get the Johann Hoch one done!

The Fool Killer Submarine: All We Know!


I tell the story of the Fool Killer, mysterious submarine wreck found in the river in 1915, on almost every one of my tours. “It might have been the first large submarine ever built, if it had worked,” I say. “But apparently it didn’t, because when they raised it up the next month, they found a dead guy and a dead dog onboard the thing.” There’s always an “awwwww” when I mention the dog. By this point in the tour, I’ve told about the gruesome deaths of over 700 people, but you mention a dead dog…..

Tomorrow night (9/5/14) I understand that the episode of Monumental Mysteries I filmed last winter will air on the Travel Channel. You can already see the clip here on travelchannel.com

In the show, we say that the sub was found beneath the Madison Street bridge, though this is actually in question. One of the weirdest aspects of the story is that the newspapers just couldn’t seem to tell where the submarine was found consistently – at various times it was said to be found near the Madison Street bridge, the Rush Street bridge, and the Wells Street bridge.  Some believe that this is evidence that Deneau, the finder, built the thing himself and faked the whole thing. But the Eastland Disaster hearings were still going on; tampering with the river would have been a HUGE legal risk.

Below, under the “read more,” I’m gonna go ahead and republish the whole three part article I posted on it back in 2008.  Since then, we’ve found some new information, including a new “last known location;” I found some ads from June, 1916 saying that it was on display at Riverview, the amusement park that stood near Western and Addison, a month after its appearance at a fair in Iowa.

Here’s our original three part post; click the “read more” button to see the whole thing if you don’t see it all at once. This is just about everything we know about this ship!

THE FOOL KILLER (from the Weird Chicago book I co-wrote)

In the days following the Eastland Disaster, a diver named William “Frenchy” Deneau was responsible for recovering around 250 bodies from the murky water. Four months later, in November, he was back in the river, working to lay cables beneath the Rush Street bridge. While he worked, his shovel hit upon a large metallic object which turned out to be the wreck of a forty-foot long iron submarine. Deneau announced to the newspapers that he had found The Fool Killer, and “ancient, primitive submarine” that had been lost for at least eighteen years – and possibly much longer!

At the time, submarines were in the papers almost daily. While attempts at submarine warfare had been made in both the Civil War and the American Revolution, using submarines as weapons had only recently become practical. Half a world away, Europe was in the grip of the world’s first submarine warfare, one of the deadly new types of battle introduced to the world in the first world war. The discovery of the wreck of an old submarine in the Chicago River was an event noted by several regional papers throughout the country.

Initially, it was expected that the sub would be raised by the Chicago Historical Society, but Deneau obtained permission from the federal government to raise the ship for “exhibition purposes.” The next month, after boat traffic died down for the winter, he arranged to raise it up from the murky depths. Once it was ashore, a startling discovery was made: inside of the ship were several bones – including the skulls of a man and a dog!

While police combed their records to identity the body, Deneau made preparations to put the odd craft on display. He appears to have enlisted the Skee Ball company as investors – it seems that they planned to tour the submarine around the country along with their games as a special promotion (imagine the slogan: “Come for the the Fool Killer, Stay for the Skee Ball!”)
By the end of February, the ship was on display at 208 South State Street. For a dime, customers see the remains of the old ship — and the remains of the dead guy and the dead dog! Admission also included a lecture and question-and-answer session by Deneau, a presentation on the history of submarines, and a chance to examine the interior of the Fool Killer itself (at the attendees’ own risk). On Saturday mornings, groups of ten or more children could get in for half of the usual price.

The exact location where Deneau found the wreck is a bit of a mystery – the newspapers first said it was near the Rush Street Bridge, then said it was at the Wells street bridge. A year or so later, while he was in World War I as a doughboy and speaking to reporters, Deneau said “remember that old submarine, the Foolkiller, I found? I found it over by the Madison Street bridge!” It also seems that in the process of raising it, workers had to drag it through the river a couple of miles to the Fullerton bridge.

And the location of the wreck is only one of the mysteries; the list of unanswered questions about the submarine is a long one. Who built it? How long had it been in the river? Who the heck was the dead guy inside of it, and what in the world possessed him to take his dog out on a submarine trip in the river? And whatever happened to the thing?

Research into these questions has proved frustrating – stories and theories abound, but none can really be verified, and the newspaper reports seem to be full of mistakes and contradictions.

Peter Nissen made three crafts called The
Fool Killer
, but this wasn’t one of them.
See him on film

Initially, the Tribune reported that the ship had been first launched in 1870 as a floating craft and sank to the bottom of the lake the first time it was submerged. According to their first article on the sub’s re-discovery, it was believed to have been bought and raised by Peter Nissen, the accountant-turned-daredevil, around 1890, who sank it the first time he tried to use it. The next month, when the skulls were found, the Tribune reported that the ship had been purchased and raised in the 1890s by a man named WILLIAM Nissen – since then, most people have assumed that the skeleton onboard was his that of William Nissen.

However, this is hard to verify – census records indicate that there WAS a William Nissen in Chicago in the 1890s, but he was still alive as of the 1920 census, five years after the bones were discovered! This William Nissen seems to be no relation to Peter Nissen, leaving one to speculate that the report had been a typo, and that the reporter meant to say “Peter,” not “William.”

The fact that they called it The Foolkiller at all may indicate that they – or Deneau – had simply mistaken it for one of Peter Nissen’s boats, which was an easy enough mistake to make. Nissen did build three experimental crafts, named the Fool Killer 1, Fool Killer 2, and Fool Killer 3 (see Peter Nissen: Chicago’s Forgotten Hero), and, though none of those were submarines, buying, raising and testing a dangerous homemade sub sure seemed like the kind of thing Nissen WOULD have done!

Further complicating the matter is the Tribune’s statement that the ship had first sunk in 1870, then raised again and sunk in either 1890 or 1897 (the date seems to change from report to report). One report in the Washington Post even said that it had claimed a number of victims around the time of the World’s Fair. However, if in fact the ship had sailed before, the paper saw no reason to mention it at the time, even though the launch of a submarine in the great lakes in 1870 would probably have been an event noticed by papers all over the world, as later submarine launches in the lake were. Furthermore, if the submarine had sunk in 1870 on the first time out and raised after twenty years, who would be crazy enough to go sailing in it?

Baker’s boat, from an 1892 Trib article. 

Most likely, all of the contemporary reports on the history of the craft were mistakes – no sources were ever given, and they seem to be the result of half-remembered stories of news items from decades before. Perhaps they were mistaking it for the submarine tested in Lake Michigan in 1892 by George C. Baker, which was about forty feet long – roughly the length of the Foolkiller – or the model Louis Gatham tested in the lake the next year. The Tribune also initially said that it was built to be floated, but pictures of the Fool Killer make it clear that it was never built to be a floating vessel.

But the Tribune also once reported that it was first owned by an “eastern man,” and some have speculated that this might refer to Lodner Darvantis Phillips, a shoemaker from Michigan City, Indiana, who also happened to be a submarine pioneer. There were only a very small handful of submarines ever known to be in the Great Lakes in the 19th century- and Phillips just happened to build a few of them, including perhaps the only successful submarine built in its time.

Phillips appears to have designed at least four submarines in his lifetime – according to his descendants, his third model, built in 1851 and known as the Marine Cigar, was stable enough that he was able to take his family on fantastic underwater picnics (this was probably the one he lost in 1853 while trying to salvage the wreck of The Atlantic in Lake Erie – it’s still lost in the lake today). A fourth model had torpedo mechanisms added. These third and fourth models were improvements of his earlier, less successful boats; the first, built in 1845, was a fish-shaped apparatus that sank in Trail Creek near Michigan City. The second just may have been the Fool Killer.

While actual details are scarce, family legend has it that Phillips’ second model was a forty-foot cigar-shaped submarine that was built in the late 1840s (in an 1853 letter to the Navy, Phillips did mention building a sub in 1847). According to these family stories, the machine lacked a decent mechanism for propulsion and sank on a test run in the Chicago River. Phillips’ family said, decades later, that the submarine found in the river was undoubtedly one of his.

That the Fool Killer was a Lodner Phillips creation seems to be backed up mainly by family legend, which is not always reliable; another Phillips family legend states than when Phillips refused to sell one of his boats to the British Navy, they sank it, a story that is almost certainly not true. And the letter Phillips wrote to the Navy in 1853 indicates that the submarine he built in 1847 was a success – no mention is made of it sinking (though the letter was an attempt to sell his latest boat to the Navy, and talking about failed models wouldn’t have been much of a selling point).

A rendering of one of Phillips’ later models. Submarine
designs did not commonly resemble this shape at the time;
most were rounder or more fish-like in appearance, so the
similarity may be a clue.  

But that the Fool Killer was one of Phillips’ subs is still the best explanation that has yet been offered for the origin of the mysterious submarine. No drawings or diagrams for his second submarine survive, but drawings of Philips’ subs from the 1850s do strongly resemble the pictures of the Fool Killer that eventually came to light.  (update: in articles discovered after this was written, it was mentioned by people “in the know” that a couple of military test subs had been sunk in the river at one point. No further details are yet known, though this would be a strong “alternate” theory). 

So, could the submarine have been beneath the river since the 1840s? It’s entirely possible, especially if the reports about the ship being from 1870 are incorrect, as has been suggested. Some recent articles have stated that Phillips sold the submarine in 1871 to a man who promptly sunk it, explaining the early newspaper reports of the sub being from that era, but Phillips was busy being dead by this time.

Who, then, was the poor man who died onboard? Since Peter Nissen died onboard a different ship, not a submarine, and William Nissen seems to have been alive when the sub was raised, the identity of the ship’s poor victim remains a mystery.

It’s possible that the bones were planted on the submarine when it was raised in 1915 as a publicity stunt to get more people to come see it on exhibition. After all, complete skeletons were not found – just skulls and a few other bones. What happened to the rest of them? The Phillips’ family legend about the sub sinking in the river don’t include anything about anyone being onboard at the time. Also, Phillips first and third sub models were known to have escape hatches – why wouldn’t the second one have had one?

William Deneau does seem to have been a bit of a showman – in 1958, on the anniversary of the Eastland Disaster, Deneau told reporters that he had just been onboard the repaired Eastland – which, he said, was still sailing under another name – for a cruise from California to Catalina the year before. In fact, the ship had been scrapped years before. Like most great showmen, Deneau may have been willing to fudge the facts a bit in the name of a great story.

While it’s likely that we’ll never know the truth about the bones, many of the questions about the submarine and its origins could surely be answered today if anyone knew where the submarine was now – but unfortunately, this is another mystery.

In May of 1916, the submarine was listed in newspapers among the attractions at Parker’s Greatest Shows, a traveling carnival run by Charles W. Parker, which had arrived for a weeklong engagement in Oelwein, Iowa. It was listed as “The Submarine or Fool Killer, the first submarine ever built,” being exhibited along with “skee ball, a new amusement device,” but it was merely listed among other top draws, including “The Electric Girl, The Vegetable King, Snooks, the smallest monkey in the world (the paper was especially enchanted with the monkey, who delighted crowds by sucking his thumb), the fat girl, and the Homeliest Woman in the World.” The Fool Killer was mentioned in the papers almost daily, though one can imagine that it didn’t take much to make the papers in the town of Oelwein in 1916. In any case, it does not seem to have been as big a draw as the monkey. No mention was made of the bones, which may not have traveled on with the submarine.

A June 27, 1916 ad from the Chicago Examiner showing
that  Riverview now had the Fool Killer AND
a Monkey Speedway! 

By 1917, Parker’s Greatest Shows had replaced the sub with a new submarine that could demonstrate manuevers in a giant glass tank (and replaced Snooks with a “monkey speedway”), leaving historians to speculate Parker sold the old submarine for scrap, but no one really knows what happened to it – it could still be out there someplace today, as far as anyone knows! (update: shortly after its Iowa appearance, it’s now known to have been on display at Riverview, so Chicago is once again its last known location). 


SEE ALSO:
The Fool Killer Submarine – our first post on the subject!

The Fool Killer Ad our post featuring the Tribune ad (from back when this was the Weird Chicago blog)

The Fool Killer: More Evidence – a post comparing a drawing of one of Phillips’ subs to photos of the foolkiller

Fool Killer Clue? – speculating that newspaper reports dating the sub to the 1870s might have been mistaking it for OTHER experimental subs.

Finding the Fool Killer – a newly-unearthed account of the submarine’s discovery, with an early guess as to its origin.