Monday, November 16, 2015

Finding the "Chicora": A Ghost of a Chance?

One of the most compelling aspects of Chicago’s supernatural life is the belief that Lake Michigan boasts a supernatural “triangle” which seems to share many qualities with the famed “Bermuda Triangle,” that enigmatic portion of sea which has—reportedly since the voyages of Columbus-- claimed strange effects on navigational instruments, wild jags in time perception by travelers, and frequent disappearances of ships and planes.  Even more haunting than these anomalies, however, are the legends of the ghost ships of our own beloved waters: misty masts and lost crewmen forever searching for ports and homes long gone.

During my research these past years into the hauntings of Gary, Indiana, I encountered stories of Lake Michigan ghost ships I hadn’t heard before.  Fascinating is the story of the phantom of Flying Cloud, a filmy form glimpsed off the coast of Miller Beach where the schooner capsized in November 1857, taking the lives of seven.  Nearby sails the ghost of the vanquished John Marshall, which is said to effect the instruments of those who pass through its ill-fated course today.

As a Chicago ghostlorist, I’ve been long familiar with many of the phantom remains of the city’s maritime past.  There are the sorrowful souls yet seen and heard in the waters off the Wacker Drive dock where the 844 victims of the Eastland Disaster met their fate on the Chicago River on a summer morning in 1915.  At times, too, passers-by still feel compelled to leap into the river, possibly influenced by the panic of observers who made the plunge that day to save their loved ones. 

There are the ghosts of the Lady Elgin¸ which sank during a violent storm in 1860. Over a century later, victims are still seen walking out of the Lake Michigan waters, clothed in period dress, both on the shore at Northwestern University and at Whihala Beach in Whiting, Indiana, where many bodies washed up days later.  One particularly tragic spirit was reported for a generation at a nondescript burial ground in Highwood on the North Shore, where so many of the bodies were laid to rest, her vaporous form pleading with visitors to be noticed.

Captain Hermann Schuenemann and crew of the
"Christmas Tree Ship."
Late in each year, ghost hunters search for signs of the Rouse Simmons, the so called “Christmas Tree Ship” which vanished from Lake Michigan in November of 1912 while ferrying pine trees to the city to be used as holiday decorations.  No trace of the vessel or the crew—save for the captain’s wallet—was found for years, until a diver, searching for another wreck, discovered her remains with the Christmas trees still on board.  During all those lost years, visitors to the site of grave of the captain’s widow—in Acacia Park Cemetery—reported the strong scent of pine needles. After the discovery of the vessel, pine
Wreck of the Rouse Simmons, with the trees till on board.
trees were planted near the grave in honor of the lost crew and captain.  Pedestrians traversing the riverside dock area near the Clark Street bridge, where the ship was scheduled to arrive, report each December the strong scent of Christmas trees.

While these ghost ships have all found a welcome home in Chicago ghostlore, a fascinating figure I’d never encountered until now, however, is Louis Groh, captain of the tug O.B. Green, who was apparently a well-known Spiritualist who frequently consulted the spirits for advice as he navigated the Great Lakes waters.  Like so many Americans of the time, Groh accepted spirit communication—and aid—as part of normal life, a progressive advance that was as much a part of scientific growth as a thousand other advances of the 19th century.  

In a Chicago Tribune article entitled, “Captain of O.B. Green Aided by Spirits,” the captain confided that he and his wife maintained contact through a sort of turn of the 19th century Skype/gps tracking service, thanks to the spirits:

Why my wife puts them to frequent use. When she mislays anything and cannot find it she asks the spirits. They write in words of fire just where it is, and sure enough there we find it. We put them to dally use thus in countless ways. …Often my wife feels worried about me and wants to know just where I am and what I am doing. She calls upon her guiding spirit and asks the question. The spirit goes out and sees me and comes back and tells her, all in the twinkling of an eye. Sometimes even she wants to send to me and has no way to do so. She merely calls in spirit, asks to have me told, and knows it is done. The spirit appears to me here and writes the message for me. Sometimes I can see just the hand, tracing the burning letters. I am used to these things and they do not seem at all strange to me though they might to another.

Groh was known for the numerous spirits that populated his vessel, causing a variety of paranormal phenomena on board, and in talking about his long career related numerous stories of mysterious ghost ships that were frequently sighted by crew sailing the Great Lakes and beyond:

(W)hen the Maine was blown up it was said by New England fishermen that the specter of the destroyed vessel manned by a spirit crew was often seen cruising up and down the coast. It used to come along in a fog, and when it was abreast of a vessel the breeze would die out. A chill would come over the water and the vessel passed would seem to shiver as its salts hung idle. The specter crew stood at the guns and the foghorn was moaning. From the masthead flew the signal, ' Cannot rest until avenged. '   Years ago the Thomas Hume sailed out of port one evening, and since then not a vestige of it has been found. Annually, however, on the date of its disappearance a specter schooner glides from under the lee of the northeast breakwater and moves off down the lake, regardless of wind. Once a tug Captain followed it to find where it was going, but when it was of Grosse Point and about ten miles from shore suddenly the masts and sails tottered and fell and the hull lurched and disappeared the sea, while a wall from the crew came across the water.
Spirit trumpets were popular during seances to
amplify spirit voices. This one is being used for modern experiments at
Bachelors Grove Cemetery.

The captain then talked about his practice of “trumpeting” séances. A spirit or séance trumpet is a tin or aluminum cone which has traditionally been used in physical mediumship as a means of allowing spirits to communicate with the living.   It was during his talk of trumpeting that the captain’s attention turned to the vanquished Chicora, a beautiful vessel which was regarded as the gem of the Great Lakes when, on January 21, 1895,  it disappeared during a voyage from Milwaukee to St. Joseph, Michigan.  January 1895 had brought unusually thick ice to the waters of the Great Lakes, and experts theorize that the ice tore holes in the hull as the Chicora battled a ruthless gale on its return trip. The vessel was lost, seeming to vanish into thin air.

The famed Chicora, a marvel of engineering and beauty.
The disappearance of the Chicora was a popular sensation, as many Wisconsin and Michigan residents had traveled on this state-of-the-art vessel to the World’s Fair of 1893: the Columbian Exposition which had made the White City—and Chicago-- an international star.  Days after the vanishing, barrels of flour began washing up near South Haven, Michigan, forcing loved ones to accept that their hopes should be laid to rest.

After the disappearance, Groh claimed he had been contacted during a trumpet seance by the spirit of a man named John Ericson. Ericson had been a fireman on another vessel, T.T. Morford, which had exploded, leading to Ericson’s death.  After the Chicora’s disappearance, Captain Groh claimed that the spirit of Ericson had promised to help him locate the wreckage of the elegant ship with the aid of ghostly knowledge. Through mediumship, Ericson had vowed:

I'm coming back to see you again and locate it on paper. But if you pass over the spot before that I'll strike you with a chill and throw you to the floor of the pilot- house so you’ll know it's the place.

Sadly, and despite the unswerving faith of Groh in his spirit friends, the information never came through.  To this day, the Chicora remains lost under the icy waters of the Great Lakes, though its phantom counterpart still sails.  One can only believe that Captain Groh, too, still pilots the ghost tug O.B. Green, sailing the routes of time past, out on the Lake Michigan waves.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

King and Castle for a Haunted Land: Chicago's Murder Castle and the Ghosts of Englewood

Though the settlement which would become Chicago was established in the very earliest years of the 1800s, it was not until 1840 that the United States Government Land Office officially declared the city's present-day Englewood area as "habitable land." 

The sprawling swampland (which would one day border the massive White City of the 1893 World's Fair) was hardly desirable ground for settlers, but when the Great Fire of 1871 leveled the city, Chicagoans moved en masse to the closest unharmed grounds--the outskirts of the victimized metropolis.  Englewood became a goal of such exodus, and by 1889 more than one thousand trains passed through Englewood in a single day.  But while the area became one of the most desirable in the burgeoning city, it also became the stage for some wild ghostly happenings-some credible and some not so much.

.In the summer of 1892 Chicago's First Methodist Church of Englewood was the scene of a ghostly practical joke which even made the papers, when the church organist and an accomplice staged a “haunting” during a young man’s organ practice in the gloomy building.  Speaking in hushed voices from the depths of the shadows, the conspirators’ work sent the young boy fleeing down the stairs and out into the neighborhood. The tale soon spread of the infestation of the church, but the truth of the matter and the “merry laughter” it inspired in the culprits was soon discovered and the full story published to allay the fears of the living. 

The Chicago Tribune reported on the "spooks" glimpsed in
the windows of a couple who had gone missing.

Less “merry” was the situation at 144 S. Loomis Street in November of 1906, when a John and Reverend Morean Schumacher disappeared from their Englewood home, a note left behind by John saying he’d killed his wife with an ax.  In the days that followed the disappearance, neighbors reported faces at the window of the empty house and mysterious bundles “thrown upon the sidewalk from a window,” only to “immediately disappear” on the lawn.
Sensational could be the only word used to describe the supernatural situation which had erupted at the Englewood home of Dr. Louine Hall just weeks before when a series of relentless knockings—always in threes—began on the front door and side windows of the residence which were described by police as “at times loud enough to shake the whole house.”  As was typical of the time there were often hundreds of spectators who would gather at the scene after word of the knockings hit the street. The disturbances had the entire Englewood police force up in arms.  There were reports of shots being fired at fleeing “phantoms,” and a flock of “ghost experts” and “spook chasers” turned up at the house to offer their services after a call for help was published in the Chicago papers. 

Mrs. Hall told reporters that the knockings began while her husband was away, and that upon relating the incidents he
"scoffed at our stories . . . . Next night he was home, and the rappings continued. We tried every means possible to find the cause and failed. Some nights the knocking was omitted; then again it would return. I am no believer in ghosts and would care nothing about the matter, but It has worked on the children’s nerves until I am anxious for their sake. I can’t get them to go to bed for fright. I think it is some one that wants to be bothersome, but can’t under- stand how they do it."
This Englewood home may have been the scene of a poltergeist disturbance in 1906.

Police standing watch around the house would also hear the knocks 
"three times, firmly on the front door. Upon opening the door four detectives had gathered from all corners of the yard. They, too, had heard the sound, but declared that no one bad approached or left the house. Search lights proved that there were no secret devices by which the noises could be made."
Eventually the knockings ceased and the disturbances were written off as the work of a prankster (possibly one of the teenaged-daughter’s suitors), though no one is quite sure this was where credit was due. Could this have been a poltergeist incident?  Such outbreaks generally occur around an adolescent or teenaged family member and start and stop with equal seeming randomness.  Also typical is the charge of fraud and even attempts of innocent parties to “own” authentic poltergeist disturbances for attention’s sake.  We will likely never know if the pranksters who received credit for the events actually initiated them or simply took credit for them

The harrowing events in Englewood seemed to inspire a rash of talk among police officers about phenomena encountered on duty. The next year the Chicago Tribune  published an extensive article about haunted police stations in Chicago, among them the one at Englewood.  A reporter related how, the previous summer, one of the plainclothes offiers had been pushed out of his bed by a ghost in the second floor station bunkroom. The officer had been told by colleagues that 

"a Polish laborer, who had been killed by an engine on the Rock Island tracks, just back of the station, had taken up its residence in the dormitory... and that it carried a bag filled with brick bats, with which to attack those who came near."

Electing to spend the night alone in the bunkroom to prove the falsehood of the story, the officer turned in for night on one of the cots.  A few minutes later he was alarmed by a thumping sound on the floor beneath the bed.  

"Peering out from under the covers to learn the nature of the disturbance, he was startled out of his wits to discover in the corner of the room a life sized ghost with fire balls for eyes and equipped with the bag of brick bats, just as the other men had described him." 

The officer claimed to have been chased out of the station and down Wentworth Avenue by the specter, which hurled bricks after him until he reached his own house.  

Today Englewood is a very different place than it was when local pranksters and the “Englewood Spook” turned the enclave upside down, and when police officers had time to play tricks on one another.  Most of the posh digs of the once-fashionable settlement have fallen into decay or disappeared altogether, the landscape morphing into one of the most notoriously crime-ridden neighborhoods in Chicago. 
Still, haunting tales survive.
Two A-frame brick houses stand on the 6000 block of South Loomis Boulevard which have captured a lot of attention over the years.  The houses were designed by a Russian immigrant, architect Carl Shparago, who was commissioned to build them in the early 1930s by a local single woman named Bobbette Austin, who sold them soon after their completion.  Chicago Historical society records show no trace of the peculiar ornamentation on the houses: swastikas.
A couple who lives in one of the houses—6011-- says that not only the architectural ornamentation is haunting: the house itself has a ghost.  Plagued for years by the sound of footsteps upstairs, the tenants took to actually padlocking the door to the stairwell at night and unlocking it in the morning.   
Some believe the entity is the house’s former owner, Dr. Walter A. Adams, the city’s first black psychiatrist. After an illustrious career (he was head of the psychiatry department at Provident Hopsital and a champion of drug rehabilitation), in 1959 Adams fell down the stairs of his Loomis Avenue home, developed a blood clot on his brain from the fall, and died.
Adams’ wife remarried and lived in the house with her new husband before selling it to the current owners.  Ever since, they have heard the heavy tread of footfalls in the upstairs rooms and hall, and the couple’s son once saw a man in a plaid jacket sitting near his upstairs bed. 
Jennifer Hudson's house in Englewood is avoided by locals.

Not far away, on Yale near 71st street, stands the house where singer Jennifer Hudson’s mother and brother were shot to death in October of 2008.  Just a few days after the tragedy, Hudson’s seven-year-old nephew was also found dead in a car on the city’s west side.  William Balfour, the ex-husband of Hudson’s sister, was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences for the deaths.  Neighbors attest that, despite the “free for all” tenor of the neighborhood, the boarded up house has remained shut tight and undisturbed, with neighborhood thugs even so spooked by it as to remain at bay.   Is there some negative energy at this tragic site that effects even the most hardened of locals? So far, no one has been allowed to investigate.

Along the 63rd street shopping strip in this still-dynamic district, pedestrians have glimpsed the figure of a man dressed in clothing evocative of the 1940s, believed to be the victim of a violent attack that occurred in a now shuttered former clothing store near Wentworth Avenue.
Without a doubt, the most truly haunted tract of land in unfortunate Englewood is the small block along 63rd street where H. H. Holmes-- “America’s Serial Killer” --once built his “Castle for Murder.”  

During the World’s Fair of 1893, Holmes killed an unknown number of victims on the property at 63rd and Wallace, sometimes torturing them first or gassing them in their beds, eventually selling the corpses or skeletons to medical schools or using them in insurance scams.  H.H. Holmes had strategically located the building site of the structure near the “Alley L” which ran from the city center to the World Fairgrounds, in order to lure victims to his brand new “World’s Fair Hotel” just three miles from Jackson Park, where the Fair was held. 
After his capture, Holmes confessed to killing 27 people, 9 of which police were able to confirm. Historians, however, believe his brief claim of killing more than one hundred victims was closer to the truth: there are some who believe his victims may have numbered as many as 200 or more.
During the filming of “The Hauntings of Chicago” for PBS Chicago’s station WYCC, we interviewed postal employees on staff at the Englewood branch of the United States Postal Service, which was built on the Murder Castle property after it was torn down in 1938.  Several employees attested to strange goings-on in the building, especially in the basement, which some believe shares a foundational wall of the original Castle, which stood on the corner next to the current post office structure.  One employee shared a chilling story of hearing a sound in the basement and poking her head around a corner to see if her colleague was there. She called out to her but heard no answer, and saw nothing down the hallway but a row of chairs lined up against the wall. A minute later, when she returned to the hallway, the chairs had all been stacked up on top of each other.  Other employees have seen the apparitions of a young woman in the building or on the grassy property where the Castle once stood, and the sound of a woman singing or humming has also been heard in various parts of the current building. 
The "Murder Castle" before its 1938 demolition. The "Alley L"--still seen in the background--
is part of the city's current Green Line.
Jeff Mudgett, right, descendent of Herman Webster Mudgett,
a.k.a. H. H. Holmes, with myself and investigator Wally Dworak,
at the U.S. Post Office, former site of the Murder Castle.

Most compelling of all have been the experiences of Holmes’ own descendent, Jeff Mudgett, who has visited the site numerous times since discovering the gruesome ancestor in his family line.  Attempting to make peace with this dreadful reality of his life, Mudgett wrote the book Bloodstains—a heartfelt journey through his revelations and remembrances, and his hopes to help heal the family lines of his grandfather’s victims.
When Jeff first visited the site of the Murder Castle employees of the Englewood post office told him of the basement, "Don't go down there. It's a terrible, haunted place."  Mudgett experienced severe physical and emotional effects from the visit.  He says that 

"Before I walked down those steps I was a non believer.  Absolutely non.  I would have walked into any building in the world. An hour later, when I came out, my whole foundation had changed. I was a believer."
Watch Jeff Mudgett, H.H. Holmes' descendent, and me on PBS' Hauntings of Chicago, below.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

An Oily Residue: The Haunting of the Peabody Estate at Mayslake

Someone told me recently, "No matter how great my Chicago ghost experiences are, Ursula, you always have a better story."  Well, I don't know about that, but I do know that us old timers have some pretty cool stories pre-dating a lot of stuff you find online.

Typical is my experience of the famously haunted Peabody Estate at Mayslake--which I first went to check out in 1995 for inclusion in Chicago Haunts--and ended up, essentially, living at.

As a north sider, I hadn't grown up hearing about Francis Stuyvesant Peabody, but I had learned about him in the "campfire stories" I heard from classmates at Benedictine University in the 1980s, and I was eager to check out this harrowing tale of the late coal magnate suspended in a glass casket filled with oil on the sprawling estate-turned-monastery he left behind in suburban Oak Brook.  

My mom and I visited Mayslake together on a Sunday afternoon in the mid 1990s, parking and walking out to the Portiuncula chapel--a popular spot for weddings. A few minutes into our visit, we were greeted by the caretaker of the grounds, a guy named Joe that regular visitors to the hallowed grounds affectionately called "Jesus" for his mustached and bearded countenance and joyful, spiritual demeanor. Joe gave us an extended tour of the grounds and the crumbling Peabody mansion. He entertained us for a long time with tales of the family and the property.  He told us the place was "very special." When I got home and found he had left a message on my answering machine asking me out, I said yes. He had been really nice to my mom. Besides, I wanted to go back.  

Fast forward a few months to find me taking the Burlington train west after work most days to visit Joe and-of course--"Peabody's Tomb"-- and soon after, the two of us becoming engaged. Yep, engaged. 

My short time as the "Lady of Mayslake" is one of the most magical memories I have. Joe made me feel quite at home there, fixing up a room for me to sleep in in the more modern wing which had housed the nuns who had cared for the monastery in its heyday.  He knew I was a paranormal investigator, of course, and an historian, and he regaled me for hours with stories of the estate's history--and mystery.  I spent such sacred and mystical evenings there, gazing over the lake and walking the grounds at twilight and sunrise, and spending nights in various rooms of the great House, which at the time was totally inaccessible to the public due to safety hazards.  

As I began to learn about Mayslake from this gentleman caretaker, first on the list of stories to address, of course, was the story that everyone had heard. So I asked him.  


The first thing to get out of the way is that, for Chicago area ghost hunters, there are two so-called "Monks' Castles."  For those who grew up in the south suburbs, where the church of St. James at Sag Bridge--and its churchyard burial ground--were called thus, you may not know that the western suburban kids had their own "Monks' Castle" at the Peabody Estate in Oak Brook, which became a monastery after the death of the lord of the manor.  Both of these sites were known for priests or monks who would take it upon themselves to chase away young people stealing on to the grounds to search for something supernatural. 

The Peabody Estate was built by Francis Stuyvesant Peabody, a coal magnate, and designed by the firm of Marshall & Fox, which also designed the Drake, Blackstone and Edgewater Beach Hotels in Chicago. The house sits on a wide lawn opening to Mayslake, named for Peabody's daughter, on a huge tract of land.  After Peabody's death during a fox hunt on the grounds, the property went to the Franciscan religious order of the Catholic Church, and the monks moved in. 

It wasn't long before rumors began that Peabody's corpse had been preserved in formaldehyde and lay in state, suspended in a glass coffin on the altar of the little Portiuncula Chapel, which still stands on the grounds. As the rumors spread, area teenagers began to make the night time trek to the grounds to try for a look inside "Peabody's Tomb." In time, the estate became one of the most bothered and vandalized hotspots for young peoples' shenanigans and initiations. 

But of course, the monks won. Kids began avoiding the property like the plague after hearing that, if apprehended by the monks at Mayslake, one would be forced to kneel on salt, broken glass, or a broomstick handle for the rest of the night, praying for forgiveness. Like St. James-Sag, there are more memories of the story than of actual run-ins with the brothers.
But what about the body? What about Peabody's tomb? 

Well, sadly, none of it is true.

The Portiuncula Chapel is just that: a lovely little church which is, today, a popular spot for weddings. Peabody was never there. He is interred in a nearby cemetery, but did not want his whereabouts disclosed, probably partially feeding the early rumors. And as for the body in the glass casket? 

The origin of this story is cloudy, but there is a plausible explanation. The monks owned a relic (bone fragment or other bodily fragment) or St. Innocentius. This holy man was different from POPE Innocent, who is one of the "incorruptibles": saints whose bodies never decomposed. His body is displayed in a glass casket in St. Peter's Basililca in Rome. In fact, he was moved to make way for the body of Saint John Paul II. It's possible that someone heard about the relic, then heard that POPE Innocent was interred in a glass casket, then rumor somehow changed him into Peabody and the chapel into the tomb. Stranger tales have developed from seeds of truth, haven't they? 

But the Peabody state is, despite the dismissal of the Peabody legend, absolutely haunted.

One certain spirit is that of a young boy, the child of a housekeeper who worked for Francis Peabody. One afternoon, the child--at play with a ball--became absentminded and fell down a long, steep flight of stairs behind the kitchen.  His death shook the staff to their core. To this day, I can't quite express tthe feeling of dread I would get when passing from the new wing where I slept into the main house by way of the kitchen hallway.  Whenever I would walk through the doorway into the main house and enter that hall, I would feel acutely as if someone was watching me.  For me to say that there is no doubt in my mind that this was a severely haunted area is an understatement indeed.  Literally, I still sometimes dream about that hallway and that feeling.

During my nights--and days--in the great House I experienced all manner of activity, from severe cold spots of twenty or more degrees that registered on thermometers to feeling the touch of hands on my face. I also experienced auditory apparitions or hallucinations in the sunroom overlooking the Lake, hearing on multiple occasions piano music which had no source. 

Joe also told me that there had been an exorcism in the great House when the brothers lived there in its monastery days. A west suburban youth had reportedly been brought to the estate to have the Roman Catholic ritual performed on his troubled frame and spirit.  Such practice lines up with Church practice.  During cases of genuine possession, the Church usually mandates that exorcisms--when they are sanctioned--be done in churches, rectories, monasteries, convents or other religiously designated spaces.   

Such rituals are not without consequence for the places in which they are held.  We are told that, during exorcisms, it is not uncommon for the place of exorcism to retain "energy" from the exorcism, sometimes for generations, or even for the furniture in the room where the exorcism is held to become a new "recepticle" for the demon or demons which are unleashed during the ritual. Could this be part of the explanation for the haunting of the Peabody Estate?

Whatever the murky past of Francis Stuyvesant Peabody's vast former home may hold, there is no doubt about one thing: every visitor to the site says this place is "sacred."  Hardly an original thought. For even above the threshold of the Portiuncula chapel, standing through generation after generation of curiosity seekers, the lintel read what it always has:

Hic locus sanctum est.

"This Place is Holy."

Friday, November 06, 2015

The King of Haunted Chicago: Ghosts of the Congress Plaza Hotel

So much is experienced by travelers. Open to new experiences and cut free for a day, a week, a month from routine, those away from home seem somehow open to truly alternate realities, especially at the site where they lay down to sleep.

In Chicago, the Sheraton Gateway Suites Hotel is an 11-story atrium hotel in O'Hare Airport's Rosemont convention hub. Like many such buildings, a number of past guests have reportedly committed suicide by throwing themselves over the atrium railings; since one such incident in the Fall of 2001, the victim has been seen—in suit and tie—gazing over the east side of the atrium rail.  A number of drug overdose deaths have also occurred here, and in such rooms guests have reported dark figures, disembodied voices and the dishevelment of their clothes and belongings, often while they are in the bathroom. 

The nearby O’Hare Hilton, directly across from the airport entrance, was long rumored to have an “uninhabitable” room—one that just made guests so inexplicably uncomfortable that they literally couldn’t sleep.

There’s the Baymont Inn and Suites in Aurora, where employees have witnessed balls of white light in the lobby area, and where guests are repeatedly driven from room 208 by a spirit who seeks to strangle them in their sleep. 

There is the old Leland Park, also in Aurora, haunted by a number of guests who have reportedly checked in, not to stay the night, but to throw themselves into the Fox River from this, one of the tallest buildings in the city.  Noxious odors and disembodied voices are reportedly rife in the building, now an apartment development.

The Hotel Florence, in Chicago’s historic Pullman district, is rumored to be haunted by a woman who lived in the hotel at one time, and the hip House of Blues Hotel is home to a number of phantoms in the larger ghostworld of Marina City, including that of a young girl believed to have died in the hotel structure when it was an office complex.

The Drake Hotel, jewel of Lake Shore Drive, is home to the famed "Woman in Red"--a tragic young woman who jumped off the roof on the hotel's opening night in 1920 after discovering her fiance in the arms of another woman. 

Among the multitude of haunted hotels in Chicago, however, none--or even all of them together--can touch the granddaddy of them all: the Congress Plaza.

One of Chicago’s largest and oldest hotels, the Congress was originally named the Auditorium Annex when it was built to house visitors to the Columbian Exposition—the transformative World’s Fair of 1893.  The name referenced the Auditorium Theater across Congress Parkway, an acoustically magnificent structure designed by blockbuster architectural duo Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan.  The Annex’s original North Tower was designed by Clinton Warren, but Adler and Sullivan oversaw its development, including the addition of “Peacock Alley” (now shuttered), an ornate marble tunnel which runs under the street, joining the theater and the hotel. Later, in the early twentieth century, the firm of Holabird & Roche designed the South Tower, completing the current structure, which houses more than 800 rooms.

The South Tower construction included a magnificent banquet hall, now known as the Gold Room, which would become the first hotel ballroom in America to use air-conditioning.  Another ballroom, called the Florentine Room, was added to the North Tower in 1909. These two famous public rooms combined with the Elizabethan Room and the Pompeian Room to host Chicago’s elite social events of the day. 

On June 15, 2003, members of the UNITE HERE Local staff at the Congress began a strike after the hotel froze employee wages and revoked key benefits, including health insurance and retirement plans.  Through the long months and years, the strikers have won countless supporters, their cause garnering momentum around the world.  Even future president Barack Obama and Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn walked their picket line, while the skeleton crew that continued to punch the clock was reported to have pocketed wages of more than thirty percent below the national standard.  The strike went on to claim the fortunate honor as the longest hotel strike in history, leaving in its wake a hotel haunted by pulled proms, boycotted conventions and an estimated loss of 700 million dollars in revenue. 

And many, many ghosts.

Indeed, the ghosts of the Congress are everywhere.  And no wonder.  Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt all made the Congress their base of operations while in Chicago, leading to the hotel’s longtime moniker, “The Home of Presidents.” In 1912, President Theodore Roosevelt announced his new “Bull Moose” platform in the Florentine Ballroom, and in 1932 the hotel served as headquarters for Franklin Roosevelt and his hopeful Democratic party.  A few years later, Benny Goodman broadcast his wildly popular radio show from the hotel’s Urban Room, a posh nightclub that drew the city’s most coveted clientele, and in 1971, President Richard Nixon addressed the Midwest Chapters of the AARP and National Retired Teachers Association, speaking before no less than three thousand members and guests in the hotel’s Great Hall.  For years Al Capone played cards every Friday night in a meeting room overlooking Grant Park, and rumors abound (though most certainly false) that he even owned the Congress for awhile. What is true is that Jake “Greasy Thumb” Gusik phoned Capone in Palm Island, Florida, from a phone in the Congress Plaza . . .  before and after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

But the ghosts of the Congress are not generally those of headline-grabbers.  Rather, they are wisps of memory, glimmers of the hundreds of thousands of ordinary guests who have glided through its halls for more than a century, often embroiled in personal drama, heartache and tragedy.

Endless, it seems are the stories that echo the tale of James Kennedy, a New York man who checked in, alone, in May of 1910. He went to his room, cut the dry cleaners identification tags out of his clothes, burned his papers, walked to the Lake and shot himself. Later that same year, an insurance salesman--Andrew Mack--called on a friend at his Congress Plaza hotel room before also walking to the Lake and apparently drowning himself at the foot of Van Buren street. There was the salesman who threw himself down an elevator shaft, the drifter who jumped off the roof of the north tower and the troubled family man who hanged himself from a cupboard hook.  

In the summer of 1916, mining investor Morse Davis and his wife were believed to have formed a suicide pact when Davis was found dead in their Congress hotel room 312 of cyanide poisoning. His wife was also at death's door but alive.  She claimed they had taken the cyanide by accident, having confused it with epsom salts.  A few days later, however,--broke and staying at St. Mary's Mission house on Peoria street--she tried to throw herself out a third story window and was promptly sent to a psychiatric hospital. 

In August of 1939, Adele Langer, a Prague native, threw her young sons, Karel and Jan, from a thirteenth floor window in the Congress Plaza.  Langer's widower described the family's despair at being forced to flee Nazi influence in their homeland, leaving behind home and family.  

In August of 1950 a guest shot a Congress employee and then himself when the staff member came into the guestroom to collect on a $104 hotel bill for the jobless and distraught boarder.

In May of 1966, Rockford attorney Frederick Haye was found naked and strangled with his shirt, his wrists and feet bound with his own socks.

Accidents, too, have left their mark here. In 1904, an elevator operator at the Auditorium Annex fell seventy feet to the subfloor, dying on impact. In July of 1926 a Galesburg woman, Mrs. Harriet Harrison, staying at the Congress with her husband before a planned European excursion, took a wrong step and plunged six stories down an elevator shaft to  the hotel basement.

Since 1989, I have participated in more than 3 dozen investigations of the Congress Plaza, documenting no fewer than 47 distinctively haunted rooms and at least two ballrooms, as well as common areas such as employee workrooms and public guest areas.  The sheer variety of phenomena reported and experienced at this massive structure is mind-boggling.  Truly, there seems to be no end to the historic tragedy or of its supernatural manifestations.

The Florentine Room, an ornately painted ballroom, was originally also used as a roller rink when the hotel opened to World's Fair visitors in the 1890s.  Security guards say that, on their wee-hour rounds, cheerful organ music can still be heard from outside the locked doors, as well as the sound of old wooden skate wheels against the wooden floors.  The piano is known to play by itself, and a woman may be heard screaming outside a staff door on the east side of the room.  The women's restroom is likewise haunted by a female presence, who appears in the mirrors, staring at the living and following them out down the hallway.

In the lavish Gold Room—a hotspot for Chicago wedding receptions—bride and groom are often chilled by photographers' photos.  Those snapped around the grand piano tend to develop with one or more people missing from the pictures, and the doors tend to be found unlocked no matter how often they are securely shuttered. 

In the South Tower, there is the phantom who lingers at the fifth floor passenger elevator, where moaning is frequently heard by guests awaiting its arrival. The third floor hallways are home to a one-legged man, often reported to the front desk by guests who think a vagrant has found his way inside.  One former hotel operator who worked the property in the 1940s remembers a resident with a wooden leg who always had a big smile and a big tip, who suffered a heart attack at breakfast during his residency and died.  

Also in the South Tower, a young boy of about ten has been a prolific presence, running up and down the halls in knee breeches and high button boots.  Guessing at his identity, some tie him to one of the many families who made their homes at the hotel in years gone by, and the all-too-common deaths from then-incurable illnesses like tuberculosis and pneumonia. 

As for sleeping rooms, only one guest room in the South Tower is reported to be haunted: Room 905, where constant phone static has bedeviled guests for years.

But the North Tower? That’s a different story.

In Room 474 a once-resident judge eternally changes the channels on his cherished television set.  In Room 759 another erstwhile resident pulls the door shut from inside when guests try to enter.  It is said that he was an elderly gentleman—a longtime resident--whose son had come to take him to a nursing home many years ago.  Wanting to stay put at the hotel, he mustered the strength to try to keep his son (and security guards) from opening the door.   Even now he remains, determined to live at the Congress forever.

And then there are the rooms that that I promised the management not to number: the room where the pictures on the wall rotate 360 degrees before the eyes of astonished residents; the room where an impromptu exorcism was held, on some unidentified Chicago winter’s night not so long ago, before the victim was moved to a local convent. There is the room fled by two Marines in 1989, running through the lobby in their boxer shorts at 3 a.m., with the later explanation that a towering black figure had entered the room from the closet and approached their beds, and the room where a woman slit her wrists in the bathtub after a night on Rush street in the 1970s, who is said to still be glimpsed during the night by weary boarders. 

And then there is THE room.

Rumors have long flown that it was a room here at the Congress Plaza that partly inspired writer Stephen King to create his short story, 1408, a gripping tale of a professional—and skeptical—ghost hunter who meets his match in a mysterious hotel room (1408) said to be too haunted to lease.   Unbelieving, the young man convinces the hotel’s manager to let him have the room for a night, though the previous tenants all took their own lives during their stays in it. The real-life 1408 was always believed to exist on the Congress’s most haunted floor: the 12th floor of the older North Tower. Some point to a room which is padlocked and say that's the one. Others say it's the one that's been boarded up.  Still others claim you can't even place it anymore: it's been papered over to remove any sign that it was every there.  This room does, in fact, remain.  But it's not on the 12th floor.

If it still had a number, the room would be--believe it or not-- number 666.  At some point in time, the spot where this room's door should be was drywalled over, a piece of baseboard patched in to connect the wood where the doorway once stood.  The lintel above the old doorway is, indeed, still quite visible. Some have ventured that this room was simply put out of use because of its stigmatized number, but there is definitely more to this story. Though no staff member claims to remember why this room was sealed off forever, window washers tell us it was closed up with the furniture still inside, almost as if even the objects in the room were believed to be cursed. 

Over the past thirty years, I've had my own harrowing moments at the Congress Plaza. There was the morning I was awoken by the sound of the shower blasting full force, steam filling the bathroom, though I could get barely a trickle and little warmth when I'd tried to take a bath.  There was the night my worst fear as a ghost hunter came true: the sheets and blankets were peeled off me by unseen hands as I slept.  Then came the Night of Incessant Knocking, as we came to christen it: More than a dozen times through the night, someone rapped three times on our door, but no one stood by.  And there was the night my daughter and I were kept awake, chillingly, by the sound of two men whispering at the foot of our bed: "Are they still awake?"  

Whatever the beliefs of others, my own experiences have firmly rooted this enigmatic spot at the pinnacle of my "Most Haunted." Escorting in thousands of tour guests of these 15 years, I have observed that, whether they walk in believing or not, most who enter the Congress today are struck by a peculiar feeling: something "not quite right," something "menacing" or "sinister" as it's variously described.  Most leave agreeing that they would rather be alone almost anywhere but in the hallways of this storied monument to Chicago's troubled past, full of sorrow and secrets, with always room for one more.    

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Devil in the Details: The Painfully Prosaic Truth about Anton LaVey's Chicago

Without question, one of the most consistently compelling tales on our Chicago Hauntings Tour route is the story of the iconic Hancock building, that trapezoidal behemoth on the blustery Lake Michigan shoreline.  It seems that, by now, everyone knows the legends of this mysterious structure: the many apparently unexplained deaths by "suicide," homicide and freak accident; the legendary ties to the Ghostbusters script; the whisperings that ragtag crackpot Cap Streeter lay on his deathbed and cursed the land on which it sits.  But no folklore about the building draws in more curiosity-seekers than the claim by the late Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey that he was born on the property where this enigmatic structure now stands.

LaVey, the colorful character who professed a "religion" of individualism and materialism --and who wrote a whole bunch of pretty interesting essays during his "reign" as the high priest of his own Satanic Church--was born in Chicago on April 11, 1930 and died in San Francisco, after a larger-than-life adulthood in his "black house" on    street.

In his sometimes critically-acclaimed volume of essays, "The Devil's Notebook," LaVey put forth his now-infamous "Law of the Trapezoid," in which he referenced the very building in question, believing that the strange angles of this and other modern structures could wreak havoc on the tenants inside.

But what of LaVey's sensational claim that he, in fact, was born on the very property where the building would be erected, some forty years after his birth?

The truth is that LaVey--born Howard Stanton Levey-- does have a rather mysterious birth record, but only because his parents do not seem to have had a common residence at the time of Howard's arrival.

The former Franklin Boulevard Hosptial, birthplace of
Howard Stanton (Anton)Levey
Michael Joseph Levey, Anton (Howard)'s father was born in Chicago in November of 1903, and married Gertrude Augusta Coultron, daughter of Russian and Ukrainian emigrants to Ohio.  Michael was a salesman who changed jobs often, dabbling in numerous products with myriad companies.  Though no marriage record could be located for he and Gertrude, 1930 found the then-27-year-olds pregnant with their first child.

Fasincating connections have been made online to a Michael and Gertrude Levy, who in 1930 lived near the Evanston, Illinois border of Chicago, in the historically and architecturally pristine Casa Bonita apartments.  But though the connection would be lovely--the building is known by many paranormal researchers to have a "dark" feel and history--the connection is nonexistent.

Anton's mother, Gertrude, is listed as residing with her parents in Garfield Park
just five days after Anton's birth.
At the time of Anton's birth, his mother, Gertrude Levey was living in her family apartment at 3820 West Maypole Aveniue, in the (then) rather affluent Garfield Park neighborhood.  But while both the U.S. Census of 1930 lists "Gertrude Levey" as both "daughter" and "boarder" on the Census chart recorded April 16, 1930--five days after Anton's birth--neither Anton (Howard) Levey nor his father, Michael, are recorded as members of the household.  In fact, in 1930, the only M. Levey residing in Chicago with a telephone registered to his name was an "M.L. Levey" living in the 500 block of West Monroe Street. 

As for rumors that the young Anton may have been born in a relative's home at the Hancock site--a common occurrence well into the 1940s--a look at the infant's birth certificate, right, nixes that possibility.  The document clearly states that Howard Stanton Levey was born on April 11, 1930 at the Franklin BoulevardCommunity Hospital (later Sacred Heart Hospital).  The certificate also states that both of his parents, resdied at the Maypole Avenue address.

By 1933, the Leveys had left Chicago, presumably on the heels of a new sales job in Modesto, California, where they moved into a ten-year-old bungalow at 416 Sycamore Avenue. pictured below.  The entire family would remain in the St. Francisco Bay area for the rest of their lives, but little Howard would never cease to feel his "Chicago" roots--even going so far as to "plant" some in his own imagination.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

I spent the afternoon today with fellow historian Clarence Goodman, mapping out one of three routes for our new walking tours of Chicago's "Dead and Undead," past and present. 

Yesterday we were in Lincoln Park, sunshine bright but cold wind slapping us off Lake Michigan as we walked a route that began at the Chicago History Museum, planted squarely on the grounds of the City Cemetery where historian Pamela Bannos has placed more than 10,000 unmarked graves.  It was fascinating to me as a lifelong northsider that I'd walked so many miles of the north side as an adolescent but had never walked this particular way.  At 14 with no spending money except the $3 a day in lunch money I hoarded, we walked for fun, walked for therapy, walked to pass the time before the Internet and smart phones. Even our video games cost quarters at the 7-11 at Grace and Western, and those were precious quarters.  We walked from my house in St. Benedict Parish, west of Wrigley Field, the six miles to Oak Street Beach , to Navy Pier farther on, to watch the fisherman play out their daily stands before the Pier was rehabbed into a shopping and dining mecca, to the Art Institute in the Loop for a hundredth look at "Nighthawks" when the museum was free with a school I.D.

St. Micahel's Church in Old Town,
where the Devil is sad to have appeared.
But the greatest destination was Lincoln Park, home to some of my best friends (who I met at Medusa's,  the all ages nightclub at Clark and Belmont).  We spent many, many hours sitting and talking in the "Zookery" behind the Zoo, throwing to the ducks torn up Wonder bread which we'd bought from the grocery store in Carl Sandburg Village. But for the first time yesterday, I walked through the park from Clark and LaSalle streets, past the statue of LaSalle, who we thought could also pass for Clark (and who, Clarence noted, had one hand behind his back, on his sword, in perhaps the first version of the legendary "Chicago handshake.")  After the walk through the park to the embankment over the Lagoon, we stood under the statue of General Grant, in the stone walkway that had been built just for this, with arches overlooking the great Lake beyond.  From there we could see the steeple of St. Michael's Church in Old Town, where the Devil himself is said to have made an appearance in the Communion line during one long ago Mass. "This'll be spooky at night," we both said in unison.

This was the beginning of the route of our Lincoln Park version of "Dead and Undead:" a collection of 2-mile, 1.5-hour in-depth tours looking at Chicago's ghostly, criminal and just plain strange history.  And as the walk went on, we passed the site of the Suicide Bridge, the slayings at the site of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and the drugstore which paid a pivotal role in the Tylenol murders of the 1980s.

Today, we were in the South Loop.

Walking (or driving or talking) with another Chicago historian is always very exciting to me as we all have our own slightly different version of the "material" we encounter.  I'm the ghost girl, of course. Though I'm told I do it pretty well indeed, it's all I do.  Clarence is the crime guy, the assassination guy, the alternative history guy. He points things out to me that make me speechless and thrilled to be always learning.  As we walked, I pointed out to him the haunted addresses of Prairie Avenue, those vanquished and those still standing, and we talked for a long time about the Pullmans, the Fields, the Glessners--all names as stately as their homes at first glance, but with tragic histories and endless ghosts haunting their family trees.

Then Clarence showed me the former headquarters of Chess Records, and the memorial to legendary bluesman Willy Dixon, before we hurried on to the former site of the Lexington Hotel, where Geraldo Rivera famously opened the "vaults of Al Capone" on one of the most watched nights in television history.  From there we were both stunned to get close for the first time on foot to the incredible beauty of the first automobile showrooms in Chicago on South Michigan Avenue's "Motor Row," with the tile and relief work on some of Chicago's most stunning facades, former stomping grounds of Chicago's first car owners.
The Lexington Hotel before its demolition.

Our walk down Michigan brought us to the boarded up facade of the Epitome Restaurant and E2 Nightclub, site of the horrific E2 Stampede of 2003, which led to the deaths of 21 people--and which eerily and sickeningly echoed the Iroquois Theater Disaster of 1903, one hundred years earlier. 

We then walked right through a film set for Chicago P.D. on our way to the old Levee in Chinatown: Chicago's vice central with the abandoned site of a young Al Capone's first Chicago gig, the structure which housed Big Jim Colosimo's--the seedling of Chicago's horrific Gangland sex trafficking industry (but on the surface a fine Italian restaurant with "10,000 yards of spaghetti always on hand")--the Bucket of Blood (believed by many to have been the birthplace of the Bloody Mary cocktail), and the site of the legendary Everleigh Club, arguably the most notorious brothel in American history.

Round up a group and take one of our Dead & Undead Walking Tours.  We promise you'll walk away haunted by Chicago's history. No matter how long you have lived here, I feel safe to say: We will take you to places you have never seen up close, and tell you stories you've never heard.  Join us.  Say you saw us here on blogspot and get discounted tickets for groups of ten to thirty people.  or call us at 773.733.2711