The Fool Killer Submarine – Part 2!

excerpted from the Weird Chicago book

Inititially, 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.

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 (seePeter 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?

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.

Tomorrow: Evidence that Lodner Phillips built the craft!