Chicago and the Cardiff Giant

This “petrified cuss,” as he has been irreverently called, was made to order, and made very well. Of course he was made well, because he was made in Chicago. We can manufacture antiquities as easily almost as we make pork out of hogs. – The Chicago Tribune, Dec 9, 1869.

The Cardiff Giant, the 10 foot “petrified giant” dug up in Cardiff, New York in 1869, has been called one of history’s greatest hoaxes – a statue that fooled the world. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have fooled very many people. When George Hull, a Cardiff farmer, announced that he had found the petrified giant while digging for a well on his farm, it attracted plenty of attention, but geologists knew that there was no good reason to dig a well where he was digging, and sculptors recognized the chisel marks. Even the most optimistic scientists merely called it an “ancient statue.” Still, various preachers announced that it was proof that a line in Genesis about giants who once walked the Earth was true, and that therefore the entire Bible was true. The giant immediately became a huge attraction, and P.T. Barnum rushed to produce his own (and to call the one dug up in NEw York a fake). Cardiff Giant

In 1866, the farmer, George Hull, had gotten into an argument with an Iowa clergyman about the line from Genesis. If that was real, he asked, why are there no artifacts? Hull, an atheist, decided to have some fun with religious people, and acquired a 20 foot block of gypsum, which he transported by rail to Chicago where he hired Eduard (or Edwin – sources differ) Burkhart, a sculptor who specialized in angel statues for cemeteries, to carve it into a 10 foot reclining nude man. When it was built, Hull buried it on his farm and left it underground to “season” for a couple of years before digging it back up and presenting his hoax to the world. He wound up selling it to businessmen for, depending on which source you’re reading, between 20 and 40 thousand dollars. The new owners tried to sue Barnum for calling theirs a fake, and when the case looked as though it was heading for trial, Hull got nervous and admitted the truth. Barnum was found not liable – there was nothing slanderous about calling a fake giant a fake.

Burkhart carved the giant in a barn which a 1985 Chicago Tribune article states was at 940 N. Clark. They don’t say whether that was the address before or after the 1909 street renumbering, but I suspect it’s the current address. In 1866 940 N Clark would be roughly where Clark and Fullerton is now – further North than most people lived then, and right in the middle of City Cemetery (which would have been fairly convenient, since Burkhart’s work was mainly for cemeteries). 940 N. Clark on the current grid is right across the street from Washington Square Park (alias Bughouse Square). Either way, the barn is long gone now. If it was at the current 940 N, it would have burned up in the Great Fire. It might’ve been safer near Clark and Fullerton, but the only barn around there now is in the petting zoo at Lincoln Park.

Today, the giant is still on display at Cooperstown, NY (though it spent a good chunk of the 20th century in an Iowa rumpus room). One of the copies is near Fort Dodge, Iowa. Barnum’s own replica is on display at a museum in Detroit. I think it’s high time Chicago got its own version. It’d be interesting to find out if any of the angels Burkhart made are still in cemeteries – many were probably for City Cemetery (which is now Lincoln Park). He died shortly after the carving, and his family doubted that he knew that it was intended for use as a hoax (though I don’t really see how he couldn’t have).

Here’s some info about Burkhart from his descendents

Museum of Hoaxes Entry on the Cardiff Giant

Peter Nissen: Chicago Hero on Film

We’ve covered Peter Nissen, the Chicago Daredevil before. This is the guy who twice shot the Niagara Falls rapids in ships of his own devising, and then perished while trying to cross Lake Michigan in a giant canvas balloon called (a tad clairevoyantly) The Fool Killer III.

Here we have a film of his second attempt to shoot the rapids aboard the Fool Killer II, which was said to be the smallest steam ship ever. Even knowing how it ends, it’s a pretty suspenseful minute or two of footage! It makes you wonder how in the HELL he survived in the Fool Killer 1, which was open, so he could wave at people. He had only thought to add shoulder straps at the last minute!

This was filmed by the Edison company. It’s now in the library of congress. This ship is not to be confused with The Fool Killer Submarine, one of our other favorite topics, which was probably so-named due to an erroneous claim that it was one of Nissen’s ships (though making a home-made submarine sure does SOUND like the sort of thing he’d do). Looking at this ship, it sort of makes you wonder if Deneau, the guy who found the sub, actually thought it was this thing at first….

Weird Laws of Chicago

I was recently asked to do an article for the upcoming ARMCHAIR GUIDE TO CHICAGO about weird old laws in the city – and found some neat stuff. Among laws that were once on the books:

– The 1893 municipal code restricted the height of buildings to 130 feet (by then, there were several taller than that).

– It is STILL illegal to fly a kite downtown (when most of the weird laws were overturned in the 70s, an alderman who tried to get this one overturned was told to “go fly a kite.”

– If you are caught with less than a dollar, you can (or could be) arrested as a vagrant.

– Until the 70s, it was illegal to “indecently display a stud horse or bull.”

– At one point, you could be arrested just for walking the streets if you were “diseased, maimed or ugly.”

– It is illegal to flush kitchen waste or garbage down a toilet

– According to a state law from 1923, it’s actually illegal to speak english! THe state mandate decreed that the language of the state would be referred to not as “English” but as “American.”

– In the 1878s, a city cour declared that the ordinance prohibiting selling booze to minors was illegal!

– one oft-sited law decrees that it’s illegal to take a french poodle to the opera.

Most of the weird laws on the books were overturned in the 1970s, when the aldermen decided to try to clean up the law books, but some are probably still on the books!

Another Nearly-Revived Hanged Man…

Weird Chicago Presents:

The attempts to revive Cardinella and Viana were not the first time anyone in Chicago had attempted to bring a hanged man back to life. In fact, a similar experiment had been made by prison officials in 1882!

When murderer James Tracy’s body was cut down from the gallows, it was immediately brought into the prison bathroom, where a team of three doctors pumped electricity into it to see if he could be brought back to life.

Tracy’s neck was broken, so there was no chance he was ever going to be up and walking again. However, by pumping massive amounts of electricity into his chest, they were able to get his heart beating again at a regular rhythm, and by moving the wires around, they were able to change his facial expressions (“Look! Now he’s happy, now he’s sad…now he just smelled a fart….”) The doctors concluded that, had he strangled to death, there WAS a chance he could have been revived.

The full story of Tracy, and the full physicians report on the bizarre incident, is in FATAL DROP: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows, the first spin-off to the Weird Chicago book. It’s available today from White Chapel press!

fataldrop button

Who’s bad?

There’s a tagger in my neighborhood who is getting bolder and bolder, spray-painting the word “BAD” all over:

It can only be Michael Jackson and his Gang of Toughs!

While mostly inactive of late, Jackson and his gang made a name for themselves in the early 80s, when their knife-fighting skills were the stuff of legends. By the end of the 80s, when the spray-painted “bad” became their trademark, they were a bunch of smoooth criminals. Mostly inactive of late, this could be the sign that Jackson is making a comeback.

The Ghost of John WIlkes Booth

A few months after his capture and death, John Wilkes Booth was sited in McVicker’s Theatre, the Madison St. theatre where he had performed a couple of stints in Chicago. No one said it was a ghost, though – they simply said that it was evidence that he hadn’t really died at all. Conspiracy theories of this nature are still going around; for years, a mummified version of the REAL Booth was a big hit at carnivals.

In 1866, a seance to contact Booth’s spirit was held in a house on the West side. His ghost came when called (or, anyway, the medium made it SEEM as though he did – these things were pretty generally bogus) and his voice was heard, but he did not appear visually, since “the devil would not permit it.”

In any case, the “ghost” gave a whole new version of the assassination story, stating that he fired at Lincoln from the front, but that the President turned his head, which is why the bullet entered from the back. He also stated that he broke his leg not in the jump to the stage but by falling from his horse later (this, in fact, happens to be correct).

He went on to say that he had also planned to kill Vice President Johnson (which, in fact, was someone else’s job). He was most emphatically glad that he had killed Lincoln, but equally glad that he hadn’t killed Johnson, who he liked very much (which makes sense, since Johnson was probably the most racist president ever; Booth’s ghost was sure he would re-establish slavery). He wouldn’t support his re-election, though – he argued for McClellan (a Union general who spent most of the early days of the war sitting on his butt, then ran against Lincoln in 1864) or Robert E. Lee as the next President and even mused about a McClellan / Lee “dream ticket.”

He was then asked:
Q: “Are you in heaven?”
A: No.
Q: Are you in the other place?
A: Yes.
Q: Is there a devil there?
Q: Does he treat you rough?
A: YES! (the tabble jiggered violently here).
Q: Do you think you deserve it?

He went on to admit that he was a pretty bad actor (he was fairly eccentric in his portrayals of well known Shakespeare rolls, but the Trib called him a genius), but was just as good as his brother, Edwin (who was widely thought of as the greatest Shakespearean actor of the day), and went on at great length about President Johnson and the type of people who supported him in the form of “automatic writing” before disappearing abruptly.

Seances like these – with knocks on tables, etc – were all the rage around the time of the Civil War. Mediums found all sorts of fascinating ways to fake them, up to and including pulling cheese cloth out of their more nefarious orifices and calling them “ectoplasm.” Even the most die-hard believers knew that most of the “mediums” were frauds.

Murderous Superstitions


In 1888, the Tribune had a great article about strange superstitions that were widely believed by muderers. These included:

“The Corpse Candle” – some murderers (primarily in Germany) believed that if you made candles from the body of a murder victim, the light would make the murderers invisible. It was also thought that it could turn the body into a sort of sleep-walking zombie, like in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

“The Dead Man’s Hand” – apparently, at this time it was popular for criminals to carry a “dead man’s hand” – an actual , dried and withered hand of a person who had died a violent death. It was said that these hands had the power to put people to sleep. A variation of this was to carry a dead man’s hand that was holding a lighted candle, with the belief that the light the candle shed could only be seen by the person carrying the hand. More than once, it was noted, it ended up having the reverse effect, and the light shed on the criminal caused him to be caught.

These were primarily European customs, but Chicago police had to keep an eye out for them, as many of the immigrants around the city who were coming from Eastern europe brought their supersitions with them. Superstitions from all over the world were being thrown together into areas that were heavily populated by recent immigrants, such as the near-southwest area around Hull House. This is part of why the “devil baby” story caught on so quickly in 1913, and gives you some idea of what Jane Addams was up against when she started Hull House. Most of the people had no idea that their superstitions were local beliefs, not facts that everyone in the world grew up knowing. Addams was adamant that clinging to superstitions was a major roadblock keeping these people from succeeding in America, but for many, one of the hardest parts of becoming an American was letting go of some of those folk beliefs – one reason that so many seemed so desperate to believe in the devil baby was that it gave them a new reason to cling to their old superstitions. In a weird way, the story that the devil had been born in the neighborhood gave people hope.

Coming tomorrow: The Ghostly Gunshot in the Florentine Ballroom – caught on film?

The Strangest Thing at the Congress Hotel?

And one more entry on the Congress before we move on…

In the closets behind the balcony o the Gold Ballroom, on the first investigation we ran of the place in 2006, we came across something that looked like a hand jutting out of the all. There was too much debris in the way for us to get close to it, but we took several photos and found that the thing actually didn’t just look like a hand, there were actually four fingers and a thumb!

Now, there are several theories here:

1. This is The Hand of Drywall Dave, a worker who was walled up inside the place (an apocryphal story that we’ve never been able to verify)
2. It’s Jimmy Hoffa (this is Willy, our driver’s favorite theory)
3. It’s the ghost of Congress Hotel regular Theodore Roosevelt, carrying a big stick.
4 (and most likely). It’s a glove plastered over by a contractor with a weird sense of humor