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.



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