The Foolkiller Submarine

NOTE: the post below is from the very early days of the blog. We now have a FAR MORE DETAILED POST ON THE FOOLKILLER HERE



original post:

For all our talk of ghosts and murderers, my favorite thing to talk about may be The Foolkiller Submarine that was found in the Chicago River in 1915. We even have old advertisements for it on our bus!

It was found a few months after the Eastland Disaster by “Frenchy” Deneau, a diver who had dragged up about 250 bodies after the infamous disaster, and raised very late in 1915. In 1916, they found the remains of a dead guy and a dead dog inside of it. For a while, they put the thing on display on South State Street – for a dime you could see the sub, the bones, and a speech by Deneau himself. If you brought 10 or more kids on Saturday morning, they got in for half the price. Imagine: “Hey kid…wanna see a dead body? Got a nickel?”

So, how long had the sub been in the river? Who was the dead guy on board? What happened to it?

The short answer is, we don’t know. The Tribune initially said it was a craft built, and sunk, around 1870, then was raised, and promptly sunk, by Peter Nissen. They may have said this just because it seemed like the kind of thing he would have done, though. Then they started saying it was owned by a guy named WILLIAM Nissen, but that may have simply been a mistake. Most of the recent speculation is that it was built by an Indiana shoemaker named Lodner Darvantis Phillips in the 1840s. None of these stories is necessarily the correct answer, though.

One again, we now have far more info right here!

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9 thoughts on “The Foolkiller Submarine

  1. Anonymous – thanks a million for posting! I'd love to speak with you more about your grandfather. Can you send me an email?


  2. Adam,

    Thanks for the interesting articles on the Fool Killer. William H. "Frenchy" Deneau was my grandfather. The barge you see in articles about the Eastland and the Fool Killer belonged to his Diving and Salvage company. He was contracted to build the breakwaters in Lake Michigan.

    It's fun to see that he is still making Chicago fun thirty years after his death in 1977.

    Apparently he was not afraid to swim in the Chicago River. During the victory parade after WWI he jumped in the river and swam part of the parade route. His aquatic abilities were passed down to many members of his family. The military finally used his skills in WWII to lay anti-landing craft barriers in the Aleutians prior to the Japanese invasion.

    If you look at pictures of the SS Catalina (1922-2009) there are similarities to the Eastland. The statment he made in 1958 might be based on those similarities.

    In the late '60s my father (Frog) and I took Frenchy to the museum that has the German U-Boat. I remember him laughing about it being a "fool killer".

  3. I stumbled upon this article after looking up pics of the Eastland disaster, one of my favorite Chicago disasters: now I have 2 maritime disasters that I'm a fan of courtesy of that ol' green river of ours, thanks for writing up this fascinating article on the Foolkiller.

  4. I was notified of your call since I am one of the persons that volunteer my time on the Archive research for the Parker Museum. I know of your call and we are looking at the articles that were in our newspaper archives. I wasn’t aware when I posted that you also were on this site. If we find something more than this on it we will let you know. Interesting how I have seen this sub mentioned and never thought of it as a real sub but rather something Parker just came up with.

  5. Nothing I like better than chatting about the fool killer – it’s a bit of an obsession of ours here at Weird Chicago. I actually recently called up the CW Parker museum; they’re seeing what they can find out. Throw me an email if you’d like to chat about it; we’ll have a big section on it in our upcoming book.

  6. Hello Adam, that was a fast reply! Interesting that Parker didn’t use this sub in 1917. Thanks for the information.

  7. Yes, it made the paper daily when it was in Oelwein (which probably didn’t take much), though it doesn’t seem to have attracted as much interest as Snooks, the monkey who sucked his thumb.

    The next year, there was a different sub in Parker’s Shows that could do manuevers.

  8. The Fool Killer was bought by Amusement King C.W. Parker and was used in his shows and a lot in Iowa. The Submarine of Fool Killer is mentioned in The Oelwein Register in Iowa on May 9, 1916 and May 13, 1916. There are 2 articles on May 13 and one says the Submarine of Fool Killer is attracting “more than casual attention, it being the first submarine ever built.” Also mentioned on May 6, 1916 in the same paper. It is said C.W. Parker may have sold it for scrap metal. But, if not where is it now?

  9. Interesting commentary on an even more interesting subject. The “Fool Killer” is another one of those intriguing yet not so well known pieces of Chicago History.

    No surprise that it was William Deneau (far left diver in photo) who put the Fool Killer on exhibition. From what we have learned from family, he seems to have been quite the enterprising young fellow. In addition to his noble efforts during the aftermath of the Eastland Disaster, he also invented a novel life preserver referred to as the Neptune swimming jacket.

    We look forward to seeing what additional information your research/book will reveal about the Fool Killer.

    Ted Wachholz
    Executive Director

    Eastland Disaster Historical Society
    PO Box 2013
    Arlington Heights, IL 60006-2013
    1-877-865-6295 (office)

    Transforming history education — in and out of the classroom.

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