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This month, January of 1916, marks the 100th anniversary of the day they found bones in the wreck of the Fool Killer, the mysterious submarine found in the Chicago River in November, 1915. It’s one of my favorite Chicago mysteries, and the first one that really sent me down a rabbit hole.
Our most complete article is The Fool Killer: All We Know from several years ago. The short version is this: In 1915, William “Frenchy” Deneau was digging a trench in the river bed to lay down some cables, and came across the wreck of a 40 foot long homemade submarine. In January it was found to have bones onboard – human and dog. In February, 1916, it was on display on South State Street. For a dime you could see the submarine, and the dead guy, and the dead dog.
It traveled around a bit from there – it was on display in Iowa in May, and at Riverview, on Western Ave, in June. From there, besides an ad in a magazine saying that it’s for sale, it vanishes from the record. It was probably sold for scrap in World War 1, though no one knows for sure. It could still be in a warehouse someplace.
We’re also left with the mystery of who built the thing, exactly – I’ve got some new clues down at the bottom of the post. The press at the time said it was built by an “Eastern man” who sold it to Peter Nissen, a daredevil / accountant. around the time of the World’s Fair in 1893. Nissen had several crafts called The Fool Killer, including this miniature steamship in which he was filmed shooting the rapids at Niagara Falls.
But no known evidence really connects Nissen to this submarine. The federal inspector of Rivers and Harbors, though, said at the time that he’d heard of a submarine built by a naval architect sunk in the river about 15 years ago. The dates are a little off (you know how you still think of 1990 as being ten years ago?), but this would line up fairly well to a submarine invented by George C. Baker, and tested in Lake Michigan in 1892, near the Calumet River. I looked this one up when I was first digging into Fool Killer and brushed it off as not being the same craft. It’s a different shape.
But at the time, I hadn’t seen the thing with Monville talking about the naval architect. And looking up Baker now, I see that Baker was commissioned by the Navy to build more than one; he didn’t live to do it, but maybe someone else did?
Baker had several patents to his name, including 533466A and 525179A, which both look a LOT like the submarine Frenchy Deneau found. There’s even an article or two in out-of-town papers saying that his craft was forty feet long, just the length the Fool Killer was said to be.
Looking more into Baker now, there are some photographs of his ship, but it doesn’t quite look right; articles on him indicate that he hadn’t built more of them as of 1894, when he died. At that time his widow had the craft towed into Lake Michigan, filled with sand, and sunk. It’s probably still out there.
If I had to bet I’d be inclined to ascribe the Fool Killer to Baker, just based on those patents, but by all accounts to football-shaped craft was his only one. The bones were probably a publicity stunt on Deneau’s part – all available evidence indicates that the man was not one to let facts get in the way of a good story!
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