The Haunted Hooters? (Grave Robbing Week)

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The downtown Hooters on Wells has long been rumored to be haunted. Well, really, almost every restaurant has, but the “haunted Hooters” has gotten a lot of media attention over the years (for obvious reasons), despite the fact that no good story has come up to explain who or what could be haunting it. The stories are just the usual “strange footsteps” type of stories. You usually see it listed on the same sites that say Al Capone once owned the Congress Hotel (which is nonsense).  I never took them seriously.

But we may have found a story for it – and solved another Chicago ghost mystery in the process!

In the 1950s, a Tribune article about long-forgotten haunted houses in Chicago spoke of a house on Erie Street that was said to be haunted. Having once been used by a medical college that often purchased bodies from resurrectionists, it was said that human remains had been found in the yard, and that on quiet evenings, neighbors could hear the clip-clop of hooves and the sound of body snatchers unloading coffins from their wagons. Exactly which house on Erie this was was wasn’t recorded, though, and our previous efforts to pinpoint a location have been fruitless. Whether the ghost story was real or not, I’ve always wanted to know where the house was. It would be a great addition to ghost tours (especially considering that it was probably right near my tour routes).

In the course of researching for Grave Robbing Week, we may have not only figured out where the house was, but found a backstory for Hooters, too. An 1875 body snatching case centered around an alley, house, and barn in the vicinity of Erie and Wells – right about where Hooters is now. Could this be the house the Tribune meant? And could the same ghosts be the ones haunting the Hooters?

Well, naturally, that all depends on whether you believe in ghosts in the first place, but we’ve finally got a back story that just might fit.

It goes like this….

In January of 1875, The Tribune announced that body snatchers, resurrection men, and other such ghouls were out of business in Chicago. New laws gave medical schools fist dibs on the bodies bound for the new Potter’s Field in Jefferson Park, so the market for bodies no longer existed in the city.

But no such law existed in Ann Arbor, Michigan or Iowa City, Iowa, which became the major markets for bodies stolen from Chicago.

Only a month after saying body snatchers were out of business, the Trib was providing grim accounts of a new body snatching case on the North Side.  Body snatchers, it was said, were digging into the graves, opening the caskets, and drawing the body out with a hook.

The bodies were then being routed through the alley behind a charnel house at 167 N. Wells (pre 1909 numbering; it would be the 660 block today) and loaded in barrels for shipment to Ann Arbor. They were first caught in the act by a man who lived around the corner at 155 East Erie (214 West in modern numbering), who saw them messing with barrels in the barn behind his house and the alley behind a house that fronted 167 Wells (the 660 block in modern numbering). These two buildings formed a sort of border right around the current location of Hooters.

So, well, there’s your back story, Hooters. You’re welcome.

Could 214 W Erie be the house the Tribune wrote about? Maybe, maybe not. The 1950s article seemed to imply that the house was long gone, and the building that was at 214 Erie in 1884 is still there now – it’s an 1883 brownstone now called Flair House,  the home of Flair Communications. A plaque outside states that the original owner was an Irish milk merchant. However, the address was, in 1884, said to be the home of W.H. Watson, who testified that he had heard the ruckus in the barn behind his house, and in the rear of the house fronting Wells Street. The records I’m finding on the vicitnity are a bit contradictory (as it often the case), but here’s a little map of the block as of 1906, just over 20 years later:

Hooters would be on the bottom right corner, and the scene of the crime would have been out behind it. The Flair House would be the spot  at 155 Erie listed as “horse shoeing.” It COULD be the same house the Trib was talking about – goodness knows that we’ve found houses that are usually said to be long gone are actually still standing before, and the story about it being used by the medical college could easily have been hearsay attached to the ghost stories that circulated decades later.  It’s also worth mentioning that the Trib didn’t say the house itself was haunted – the story was about the area around it. The person to whom I spoke at Flair House told me that the garage , at least, is pretty spooky.

The grave robber in question was one L.R. Williams (though he variously gave his name as George Smith or George Wallace), a medical student from Rush who had been in business for a few months. In February of 1875, the police caught him and another man loading a barrel onto a wagon. The police chased them through the nearby alleys, firing several shots in the process. The two men (later reported to be brothers), had been fired at by sextons before without getting hit, but this time one of them was shot as he fled. Reports of how badly he’d been hurt varied.

The one who was shot escaped and, as far as I can tell, was never heard from again. L.R. Williams was released on a $1500 bail, then promply “jumped bail” and disappeared. As far as I know, they never caught him. How many bodies they may have routed through the barn and charnel house is unknown, but at least five barrels full of bodies were found. In inquest was held at which the story of the area around Erie and Wells came out.

 Given the possible connection to Hooters, it’s rather odd to read the Tribune’s lurid account of the two female bodies in the morgue during the coroner’s inquest, which, disturbingly enough, was probably intended to be titillating:

Hard and stiff, the death rigor intensified by the bitter cold, there lay upon the next slab the naked form of A BEAUTIFUL WOMEN exposed to all the indignities…and of unsypmathetic and indifferent looks and touches. Stockings covered the feet and a portion of the shapely limbs, but the rest of her person was entirely nude. The head was turned to one side in a posture that would have been natural to animate modesty, and which, in the poor maltreated corpse, carried with it a pitying suggestion of womanly purity. Although the changes of death had somewhat altered the contour  of her body, the beholder could not but be struck with the shapeliness of her limbs and the general beauty of her person; but her parted lips and staring eye-balls made a gorgon horror of the face that in life had been comely and attractive…. in the corner of the room were four other barrels, and by looking in their open tops could be seen the other objects of THE BODY SNATCHERS’ rapacity…..among the number was another woman whose luxuriant brown hair displayed its disheveled tresses above the top of the barrel and caught the glance of the spectator… her features were concealed by her position, but it could easily be seen that her frame was thin and wasted, and that she had been a woman above the average height.

In the other barrels were two victims of consumption (a boy and a man with a long black beard) and an old man. They were given far less description than the women.

So, this grave-robbing story is a possible lead on that pesky Trib story from the 1950s, and a possible story for the Hooters. I’m sure there are other possible stories, though. I’ve never really looking into the Hooters location. Odds that there was a murder there are one point or another are probably high. Erie and Wells wasn’t always the nice area that it is now, after all.

For more on bodies in barrels, see here.

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