Whatever Happened to Baby Rembrandt?

Tree Studios on E. Ohio Street opened as an artists’ colony in 1893, and right from the start the papers loved telling crazy stories about the bohemians and weirdos who took up residence there. It’s always been fun to make fun of hipsters.

Tree, which is still standing as an event space, became home to several prominent writers and artists over the years, and stories about things that happened there could probably fill a book on their own. But even prominent artists whose work was mostly very formal, “high brow” work in traditional disciplines could be total bohemians and free spirits, and one enduring mystery they left behind stands out to me: Whatever became of Baby Rembrandt, the baby boy left in the studio that they artists decided to keep?

Tree Studios on East Ohio Street, Chicago – photo from wikimedia commons

 

Officially, Tree Studios was a “no children allowed” zone in 1902 – the owner thought they’d spoil the mood of the place. But in July of that year, artists were surprised to hear the cries of a baby coming from the door. Janitor Edward Torrey ran for the Ohio Street entrance and found that a three week old infant had been left in a basket on the doorstep, wrapped in a shawl and a petticoat.  The screaming baby was brought inside, and the artists decided they simply had to keep him and raise him as an artist. They named him Rembrandt Michael Angelo Tree Torrey I. It was announced in the press that Torrey and his wife would adopt the baby, but it was understood that it would belong to the artists, half a dozen of whom immediately began to works in shifts as babysitters.

Though it’s hard to imagine that the city didn’t immediately get involved and take the baby elsewhere, the child became sort of a celebrity in the city. A milk company donated all the necessary formula, and it was reported that little Rembrandt was chugging down 15 bottles per day. One paper said that “he is to be brought up on novel lines; that is, he is not to be hampered in any way, and will be allowed to follow his own inclinations.”

The Guardians

At the end of July, five of the artists appeared in court, where they were given some sort of guardianship, and the child was given the more formal name of James Vincent Whistler, after the recently deceased painter. Those named as guardians include several artists who went on to be reasonably well-known: Julia Bracken (sculptor), Geneve Rixford Sargeant (painter), Louis Tipton (composer), John Johansen (painter), and Marie Gelou Cameron (painter). Bracken may be the best known; in 1893 she had worked on several architectural sculptures for the World’s Fair, and several of her pieces are still prominently displayed around the world.  Johansen would be hired to paint the first official portrait of President Hoover.

After the judge formalized the guardianship (or some sort arrangement), a couple of charity events were held for the baby’s welfare. As of early September, it was said in the press that the child was currently residing at St. Vincent’s home, but that his five guardian artists were arranging for him to be adopted by “a childless young wife of culture and sympathy and with their ideas as to his rearing.” Though it was said that she was an artist’s wife, the names were not disclosed.

Most of the early September data comes from a Boston paper reprinting a Chicago American article for which the microfilm reel is missing at the library here; it’s possible that the original had more data, or that the American later gave an update that I haven’t stumbled across yet and wasn’t reprinted by any paper that’s been digitized. So far, though, I’ve found no data on what became of the baby after September of 1902. It’s likely that he didn’t keep the name of James Vincent Whistler. Though a couple of possible matches to that name come up in the census records, there’s no one I can definitely connect to the “Tree Studio” baby.

There may be more clues in the probate records, but for now it stands as a strange story from a time when adoption was a very different process!

 

 

The Wild Adventures of “Sensational Viola”

I was researching a whole other story in the old Chicago Post 1903 microfilms when I came across an article about Viola Larsen, a 17 year old girl who was on trial for plotting to kidnap one of her neighbors. She told the judge that she was just looking for material to work into the books she planned to write one day – just like she was when she was caught stealing a horse and buggy the previous fall, and when she’d written “letters of a peculiar character” to another friend a few months before.

Viola, it seems, was desperate to become a famous – and scandalous – author, the sort whose books shocked the world almost as much as her wild and crazy lifestyle. In explaining why she stole the horse and buggy, she wrote “I wanted to feel just as the hero of my book will feel.” In another article, she said “What right has a writer to imagine things and call them truths?” In yet another, she said stealing the buggy and being chased by police made her feel “Delicious, beautiful, wonderful. The blood tingled in the veins (and I was) wild, intoxicated with pleasure.”

Viola at 25

By July of 1903, when the “kidnapping” was attempted, she was also running a group called the Genevieve Meredith Mischief Club, a rival to another club she’d started, The Sacred Annoying Club – a socialist club that she’d quit when all the other girls became anarchists. All of this was “research” and “gathering material” for her book, which she intended to call The Adventures of a Young Girl.  “Although this discourages me considerably, to be arrested again, I do not intend to give up,” she told the Post. “The book will be published, and then I will be famous.”  When asked if she’d read Mary McClane, a scandalous author she was accused of trying to emulate, she said admitted she had, but said “I am a stranger character than that.”

Viola’s adventures were only beginning. Soon, she’d shoot at herself in Jefferson Park, have herself committed to (and escape from) an insane asylum in Kankakee, spent some time in jail, and, eventually, offer to sell her index finger to a wealthy woman who’d lost her own. These adventures made the press, both in Chicago and around the country – half the reporters in the world seemed to have come to her for quotes when she was in jail for the horse theft, and she gave juicy quotes to each of them.  They called her “Sensational Viola.”

Viola married three times when she was young, though none of the marriages lasted very long. She once said that the first didn’t count because the man was an actor; the second ended when the new husband, a much older man, died. The third she married after a three day fling, and before they went to the judge she made him sign an agreement promising to “let her do as she pleased,” including receiving “admiring letters from intellectual friends,” but the union lasted only days; she explained at the time that she liked her love affairs to be intense and brief – and to furnish her with writing material. “I played on the strings of his heart as carelessly as an amateur handles a violin,” she said, “but to me he represented just so much gray matter that I might manipulate, experiment with. The trouble with him is an intense desire to spread his happiness over a lifetime. This does not appeal to me. As in my childhood days, I did not care for the bread and molasses unless I could lick the syrup off in one quick taste… I do not want his love. Especially I do not want his love which, interpreted, means physical desire.”  As early as 1902, when she was just 16, she told a reporter that she didn’t understand how girls could be interested in “just one boy.”

Alienists and psychologists of the day absolutely loved to talk about Viola; she herself spoke often of having a “dual personality,” frequently comparing herself to Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  One 1903 article in The Alienist and Neurologist held her up as an example of “mixoscopia” in teenagers – a term that now refers to the fetish of watching others have sex, but in the article just served as a catchall term for all sorts of fetishes.  They may not have been wrong;   the “letters of a peculiar character” to her friend referred to fantasies about “marring” her beauty, and there’s a section of her book in which The Sacred Annoying Club orders that a rich girl be stripped and dressed in rags. Some accounts even say that in 1908 she took out an ad in the papers offering herself as a slave.

Between the lines in several articles about her are vague hints of lesbian tendencies, and her own description of herself as a “man hater” who didn’t believe in love or marriage doesn’t exactly discourage this interpretation. The “annoying” letters she wrote to Stella Berger don’t survive in full (that I’ve been able to find), but they apparently contained references to having fallen in love with her face, and one excerpt published in The Chicago Journal contains the line “You are beautiful; I say this much even if I am a girl. Girls can admire as well as men.” The impression I get was that the letters told Stella that the “Sacred Annoying Club” was planning to attack her because she was too beautiful, and Viola’s plan was to “save” Stella and win her gratitude – a very roundabout (and ill-advised) way of trying to impress a girl on whom she had a crush.

Really, reading over the articles about her, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person from her era more clearly coded as gay. And though the meaning of the word was different then, it’s difficult not to chuckle at a 1903 article she wrote entitled “My Confession.” The first line of chapter one was “To begin with, I am queer.” The first line of chapter two: “Yes, I am queer.”

That she was grappling with sexual feelings that would have made her feel out of place in 1903 is further evident from a clue much later in her history – in the 1940 census, 55 year old Viola was living in an apartment near Ashland and Erie with a French woman listed as her “partner.”

By then, Viola’s life had taken a stunning turn. After a twenty year absence from the news, she suddenly reappeared in 1936, when she was given the Eichelberg International Humanitarian Award for her work rescuing lost, stray, and abused dogs. Working out of her apartment, and then a shelter at 513 N. Ashland, she was rescuing around 3000 dogs per year. The Tribune called her “a one woman humane society” and proudly called her “Chicago’s dog lady.” Nearly every day, she would venture out on foot, armed with an axe and a pistol (she bragged that she could shoot the ace off of a playing card), looking for dogs who needed help. She even made a return trip to jail once – after breaking down a garage door with her axe to save a dog who was being beaten, the owner had her jailed for six hours. She proudly told reporters later that it was well worth it – the man never got the dog back. Shortly after winning the Eichelberg award, she got her picture in the papers for the first time in 25 years for keeping people from panicking when the film in a movie theatre caught fire, organizing the orderly evacuation. This time, instead of the “serious” photos of her youth, she was shown smiling, surrounded by dogs.

From then until her death in 1962, she was locally famous for her humane work. Though census records make it clear that “The Chicago Dog Lady” and “Sensational Viola” were one and the same, none of the later articles ever brought up her wild past. One wonders how she’d react if she were asked about it in her sixties!

This still leaves us with the mystery of what became of her two books. The Inter-Ocean published a bit of the preface of Adventures of a Young Girl, as well as a portion of the chapter about the Sacred Annoying Club, and detailed descriptions of what each chapter was about,  but it doesn’t seem to have ever come out; The Search for Realism may simply be an alternate title. The 1910 article about her in The Alienist and Neurologist refers to The Search for Realism as an article she wrote for the September, 1909 issue of Towle’s Magazine, which seems to have been a very, very obscure periodical.   Around 1908 she was saying that the book hadn’t come out merely because no publisher would “come to her terms.”

A judge in 1903 told her in no uncertain terms that she was a lousy writer.  “A ten year old child could do better,” he said. “Get these notions out of your head, and go home and mind your father and your mother.” But he may have just been what we would now call “a dick.”  Calling a patrol wagon “the hearse of shattered hopes and dead ambitions” may veer a bit towards purple prose, but Viola’s own account of her carriage theft written in 1902 for The Pittsburgh Gazette under her alias, Viola Nesral (“Larsen” spelled backwards), is reasonably well written; in 1909 she even wrote at least one regular article for The Inter-Ocean, a profile of a woman who was teaching “occult” techniques such as hypnosis to helps parents raise their children. The surviving excerpts of The Adventures of a Young Girl are not exactly lost literary gems, but they’re certainly comparable in quality to the “scandalous” novels of the day that she was trying to emulate.

In the mid 1910s, she wrote regular letters to the editor of the Chicago Day Book; the letters were well-written, well-reasoned, and even quite progressive. In one, she castigates a southerner who’d tried to justify his prejudice against black people by saying that some of them commit crimes (a letter that seems distressingly modern). In another, she compared Billy Sunday, the popular preacher, to P.T. Barnum.  But even in 1915, excerpt for the daring move of mocking a preacher, she seems miles removed from the “Sensational Viola” of a few years before. To put it in very simplistic terms, she’d grown up.

Reading of her early exploits, it’s easy to get the impression that she must have been an absolute pain in the neck, constantly going out of her way to shock and impress people, fully convinced that she was a genius and that usual rules and laws didn’t apply to her. I can just imagine her on Tumblr today, posting videos of herself singing “Blank Space” but insisting she hates Taylor Swift.

But one also can’t help but admire her for being so daring and adventurous, especially given the notoriously stuffy standards of the day, and how she must have struggled to understand her own sexuality. Just imagine being not just gay, but kinky, in 1902.  How would you know that anyone else had the same feelings you did?  Though there’s always a chance that Viola didn’t really feel that way (it’s always hard to diagnose someone from this far into the future, and I’m usually very conservative about it), but she certainly thought no one else in the world was like her when she was young. And, at least to some extent, she loved that about herself.

“My object,” she said in 1908, “which caused many persons to believe me insane, was to be able to show people how life could be lived we dared… To live – that was the whole cry of my soul.”

A wonderful shot of Viola from the Chicago American, November 1902. She looks like Claire Danes here. “My So-Called Edwardian Life?”

 

 

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.

“I Keep the Tavern Like Hell and Play the Fiddle Like the Devil”

markbeaubien

Mark Beaubien, Chicago’s original musician, taken from an oil painting that may not still be extant.

In 1880, the Calumet Club held their annual reunion of early Chicago settlers. Now approaching a population of a million, half a century before Chicago had been little more than a mud-hole, where, one settler remembered, a typical sunday consisted of taking champagne to church to drink the preacher’s health, then hanging around the church door shooting pigeons and prairie hens.

Midway through the reception, a club member informed Mark Beaubien, a settler who was then nearly eighty years old, that someone had requested that he play his violin. Beaubien replied with something to the effect of “I never played the violin. I played the fiddle.”

But one of his old fiddles was produced, and Mark tuned it up, spit on the strings, and played a tune, tapping a table with his foot, while 80 year old men danced reels, just as they had in his tavern nearly half a century before.

At the previous year’s reception, Mark had played them a tune called “The Devil’s Dream,” which seems particularly appropriate, given that his most famous quote is “I keep the tavern like Hell, and I play the fiddle like the Devil.”

This fiddle-playing took place well before there were any theaters or music halls in town – just the tavern attached to Beaubien’s Sauganash Hotel at what is now the corner of Wacker and Lake, just beside the Chicago River. It was, by some accounts, Chicago’s first frame house, but it wasn’t exactly the height of luxury. Anyone who asked for a mattress to sleep on would have been laughed at – Mark rented blankets for fifty cents per night. According to one account, Mark would rent someone a blanket, wait until that person fell asleep on the floor, then take the blanket and rent it to someone else, repeating the trick several times per night.

Sauganash2b

Beaubien’s Sauganash Hotel, Wacker and Lake (then Market and Lake).

But it was the fiddle that people remembered. Long into the night, as some danced and some gambled (and some tried to sleep on the floor beneath their rented blankets), Mark would play songs like “Money Musk,” “Indian Solo,” and “Believe Me If All those Endearing Young Charms.”  Notably for the time, the dancers often included people of multiple races. He was particularly friendly with the local Potawatomie Indians.

Long John Wentworth, an early mayor, remembered that Mark was always available for parties, and if his strings all broke (as they sometimes did), he could just hum the dance music.” Wentworth also noted that Beaubien particularly enjoyed singing satirical songs making fun of General Hull, who had ordered the evacuation of Fort Dearborn in 1812. He had been present when Hull surrendered Detroit to the British.

Beaubien died in 1881, survived by just a few of his twenty-three children. The Chicago Historical Society still has a fiddle said to have belonged to him, and a 1930s Tribune article notes than when their museum at North and Clark first opened, there was a recreation of the Sauganash Hotel set up inside of it, featuring a recording of period music made using the Beaubien fiddle and a flute from Fort Dearborn.

The exact provenance of this fiddle is hard to determine – a few early sources state that Beaubien only ever owned one of them, which he bequeathed on his deathbed to Long John Wentworth, who then gave it to the Calumet Club. But that fiddle was burned up in a fire in 1893. The one currently in the museum was one reportedly given to one of Beaubien’s nephews around 1860.

A rare photo of Beaubien from late in his life. Source uknown.

A rare photo of Beaubien from late in his life. Source uknown.

Podcast: George W. Green, The Man Who Stole the Gallows

 

Title page of Chicago's first true crime book, 1885.

Title page of Chicago’s first true crime book, 1885.

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According to legend, after Chicago’s first public hanging in 1840, the gallows were stolen by a man named George W. Green, who used the lumber for furniture that was then sold in his shop. Ironically, fifteen years later, the next public hanging was very nearly Green’s own. But after being convicted of murdering his wife with strychnine, he cheated the public out of getting to see hanging (still a popular spectacle in those days) by hanging himself in his prison cell with a makeshift rope. Not to be denied their morbid curiosity, the public was able to buy daguerrotypes of Green’s body, still hanging in his cell, at a “portable daguerrotype studio” at Randolph and Clark the next days.

Besides the crass “selling postcards of the hanging” incident, the Green case is notable for two things: the first is that Green became the subject of a book entitled Life of the Chicago Banker Geo. W. Green, alias Oliver Gavitt, Who Was Found Guilty of Poisoning His Wife, and Who Committed Suicide By Hanging in the Jail of Cook County. The fifty-page volume was probably Chicago’s first true crime book.

The book – which is in the “special collections” at the Chicago History Museum and the University of Chicago Library – is quite a read. Basing their stories on interviews with neighbors and children of Green, the authors present him as a Dickensian villain who does everything but twirl his mustache as he tortures animals, beats his wife, poisons his neighbors, cheats his sons, kills his daughters, and steals the city’s first gallows (a story they admit is incredible, but insist is true and verifiable by several witnesses).

Even more notable, perhaps, is that the trial was way ahead of its time in its use of analytical chemistry. When Green

Dr. Blaney

Dr. Blaney

told neighbors his wife had died of cholera, he immediately had a grave dug in his garden for her. His brother-in-law suspected foul play, and Green was arrested. The body was exhumed, and various organs were placed in earthenware jars stopped with corks. Dr. James Blaney, an analytical chemist who would soon help found Rose Hill Cemtery, made detailed tests for traces of strcychnine, and detailed his methods and findings to the jury. His detailed testimony was reprinted entirely in the true crime book, as well as several medical and legal journals throughout the world. At various times, Chicago has, at various times, taken credit for being the first to use handwriting analysis (the Henry Jumperts “barrel” case in 1859), finger prints (Thomas Jennings, 1912), forensic use of bone fragments (Adolph Luetgert, 1897).  By some measures we could add Blaney’s use of analytical chemistry to the list.

A couple of mysteries still endure for me: one is whether his wife was reburied right at the house, which stood near Twelfth and Loomis (Roosevelt and Loomis today). A drawing of the house makes it look like a prairie farmhouse. Private family plots on one’s property weren’t as common by then, but weren’t unknown. It’s quite possibly that her body was never moved.

The other is whether any copies of the daguerrotypes of his body survive. As far as I know, none do, but a drawing of it was included in the book, and is reprinted below (if you’re the sort of person who reads history blogs you’ve probably seen far worse drawings, but consider yourself warned):

 

 

 

 

Drawing taken from a now-lost daguerrotype of the death of George W. Green.

Drawing taken from a now-apparentlylost daguerrotype of the death of George W. Green. Have you seen a copy?

 

We’ve written Green into a new edition of Fatal Drop: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows!

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Bertha Warshovsky: Queen of the Arsonists

On November 7th, I’ll be conducting a Mysterious Chicago walking tour of the “Darker side” of Taylor Street for Atlas Obscura. Here’s one of the stories I’ll be covering! 

Bertha in the Herald Examiner

As a grandmother in her sixties, Bertha Warshovsky assumed that no one would ever suspect her if a building burned down. We can imagine that she didn’t always look as threatening as she does here, in the best photo I’ve found of her so far. We’ll go ahead and say it was probably a badly scanned version of a badly-taken photo, shall we?

Having invented a sort of fuse that would enable her to light a match and get safely away before a fire really caught, she made a whole career out of helping people who wanted to burn buildings down for the insurance money. By the 1930s, police were calling her “The Arson Queen.”

One of her fires in 1928 had a particular hiccup – a handicapped 17 year old was still in the building when she set the fire, and lost his life. Bertha took the stand in the resulting case, and it was covered in a November, 1934 issue of the Tribune. In a pattern you see in a lot of cases like this, the papers often complained that attractive woman were treated so well by the courts that they were almost always acquitted (or at least given much lighter sentences than a man would get for the same crime; we never hanged a woman here), but were only too happy to pile unpleasant language on the female defendants they found less attractive. Consider that a trigger warning for what follows.

“Mrs. Warchovsky,” the paper wrote, “a short, dumpy woman told how she ‘touched off’ the fire on Aug 11, 1928. She seemed surprised when Prosecutors Kearney and Nash did not seem to understand some of her firebug phrases. She used gestures most of the time to demonstrate her testimony.”

Warchovsky said she’d charged the owner of the house her usual fee – $170 – to set the fire at Taylor and Racine (earlier articles indicate taht the owner collected about $11,200 in insurance money).   “Yes,” she said. “Harry Brown called me on the telephone and told me that I should come over, that there was going to be a fire there. I took a cab and went right over. We started right in to make balls.”

“What do you mean?” asked the lawyer.

“Balls, paper balls like this (she demonstrated with gesturing). We were supposed to make the fire that day, but when we got the layout fixed up we couldn’t make the fire because some people were sitting outside.”

A rather unflattering shot in the Tribune
archives. 

The next day, Bertha took another cab over and found that the place was ready to burn except for a lack of gasoline. While one man got the gas ready, Bertha touched up the wick, a process she described in court: “First, I lighted a cigar, and blew like this (blowing) to make the flame red. Then I tied it inside of a bunch of safety matches. The cigar sets off the matches and the matches start the wick to burning and then pretty soon the gasoline paper balls go up and then comes the real fire.”

Several days before, the Tribune had stated that the “dumpy little grandmother” had confessed to at least a dozen such fires. In describing her, the paper said “The ‘queen’ is of Henry VIII proportions on an abridged scaled. The chair into which she was wedged elevated her rotund shins so that her feet swung clear, while her 225 pounds of royalty clamped the throne immovably to its proper place on the floor. …Most of the ‘touch-offs’ were her own work, she admitted, because a woman would be less likely to arouse suspicion.

Prosecutors were asking the death penalty for the owner of the building, though not for Bertha, who presumably didn’t know that the house was occupied. She still would have probably been on trial for murder, but got a severance in exchange for turning state’s evidence.  She seems to have had a regular career as a witness in arson trials after this, stating at one point that she’d started more fires than she could remember.

My research on her is still at an early state; I’ve browsed the Tribune archives but haven’t really checked the defunct papers or the legal archives for the kind of info that hides in there (including perhaps a better photo). I’m not even really sure how the trial described above came out yet. But I wanted to put up the article to plug my upcoming Taylor Street Tour, which will talk about her and several other stories that have been on this blog. See ya there, and GO CUBS!

“What’s He Building in There?” Parker R. Mason’s Boulder of Mystery

Local eccentric Parker R. Mason’s long-lost
mansion at Wavelandand Pine Grove

In 1899, Chicago millionaire Parker R. Mason began rehearsals for his own funeral. He selected the pallbearers, and brought in a vocal quartet to have them practice the hymns they would sing. He had a fishing buddy who was also a minister give him a preview of the eulogy and sermon he’d read. Then he picked out his burial suit, and made a note that the giant boulder outside of his mansion be moved to Rosehill Cemetery to serve as his grave marker.  The whole affair was one more story about Mason, the local eccentric, whose antics at his mansion, near Waveland Avenue and the lake, had amused his neighbors for years.

Mason, a whisky dealer, first came to the attention of the press in the press in the 1870s, when he was involved in the Whisky Ring scandals, one of those interminable 1870s scandals that you could probably understand if you wanted to put aside a couple of years to sort out all the details. His name appears in Ulysses S. Grant’s papers; during the scandal someone described him to Grant as “utterly disreputable and characterless.”

But all this was forgotten by the 1890s; by then, he was a well-loved north eccentric who was known for providing coffins and funerals for the poor.

After retiring from the whiskey business, Mason seems to have retreated to his mansion at Waveland and Pine Grove. The house itself was full of winding passageways and secret compartments. In 1895 some a deed was found in a hidden receptacle after having been thought to have been lost in the 1871 fire.  But the brick mansion was mainly a workshop and laboratory; the family mostly lived in a small wooden annex. Rumors swirled that he was secretly making the best whisky on the planet out in a cottage or barn out back.

 At one point the neighbors became convinced that he was building a flying machine;  strange whirring sounds were heard and someone even saw something that looked like wings being brought into the place. It turned out that Mason was making a windmill.

A surviving photo of the boulder

Chief among the legends, though, centered around a massive boulder on his property, which he’d had cemented into the ground. Children in the neighborhood believed that it was a meteor that had fallen in exactly the position it landed in, though older “settlers” told stories of Mason having it brought in by a team of ox and mounting it with great difficulty and a lot of help.

It was this boulder that was supposed to be moved to Rosehill Cemetery, and a few years after Mason’s death, news that plans were afoot to move it caused some sensation among the neighbors, who now considered the massive rock to be one of the landmarks of Lake View.

No paper I’ve found, though, actually covers what became of the thing. As near as I can tell, it’s not on its original spot anymore (though for all I can tell it may still be up in some courtyard or park in the area; Mason’s property was large). It was large enough that getting rid of it would have been no easy task. So what became of the thing?

The one certain thing is that it was never brought to Rosehill. Parker and his wife are buried there beneath a simple stone:

A photo of Mason himself has thus far eluded me, but here’s the gravestone.

The Skull of Del Close at the Goodman Theatre

It’s pretty well established now that the skull in the artistic director’s office at the Goodman wasn’t really the skull of comedian Del Close when he was alive, but it’s his now! He donated his skull to the theatre so that he could play Yorick, and the skull they have serves as his, at least symbolically.  A fundraiser once offered to show it to me if I donated enough cash, and I finally got to see it over the weekend.

 I have an article up today on The Order of the Good Death about it:

THE ORDER OF THE GOOD DEATH
presents
“Wanna See a Famous Skull?”
by Adam Selzer