Thursday, February 16, 2017

Wild Nights: Ghost Hunting Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo (Part 2): The Primate House

My first exposure to primates as a child was at the old "Children's Zoo" at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo: a building next to the Sea Lion pool which focused on education for young children, where my dad would take me as part of our regular "rounds" about the city.

At the Children's Zoo we could watch baby chimps being bottle fed, learn about the varying plumage of birds, and even hold a snake or two.  My dad, always the troublemaker, would horrify me by taking off his stocking hat and holding it through the bars of one of the walk-in cages where an active little white headed capuchin was housed. Invariably, the little guy would grab Dad's hat, and a keeper would eventually have to go in and coax it back.

Little did I know while I watched that tiny creature pulling on my dad's cap that Lincoln Park Zoo was one of the most important centers for primate research in the world.  Named for a former Zoo director and world renowned ape researcher, today the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes brings together researchers and organizations from around the world.

Dr. Lester Fisher is a familiar name to native Chicagoans born between 1960 and 1975, as the good doctor was a popular fixture on WGN's beloved Ray Rayner Show: a morning news show for kids which featured news, weather and sports, comedy and musical sketches, arts and crafts and more. Animals were an important part of the show.  Children looked forward to the weekly visits from Chelveston, a white duck who lived at the Animal Kingdom pet shop on Milwaukee Avenue, as Rayner fed the duck and chased him around the studio, trying to get him to jump into a basin of water, which usually ended up with Rayner being much wetter than Chelveston.

Dr, Lester Fisher (photo lpzoo)
Rayner also took occasional "field trips" to Lincoln Park Zoo, in a wonderful segment called The Ark in the Park. During the segments the host would visit with Dr. Fisher, who would introduce viewers to one of the thousdands of breeds housed at the Zoo and talk about their habitats.

The Regenstein Center houses the finest collection of endangered apes in the world.  Before it was built, the Zoo's apes were housed in the modern Great Ape House (completed in 1976), which today is office and meeting space, topped by an enchanting carousel featuring endangered species rather than horses. Previous to the erection of that facility, the great apes made the old primate house their home, which is today called the Helen Brach Primate House. This structure was one of the original Zoo buildings but was remodeled in the 1990s to remove the cells and bars and recreate, instead, a two-story faux "jungle" of trees and water, fronted by thick glass and enhanced by an outdoor habitat for the warmer months.  The Primate House today is home to monkeys, lemurs, gibbons and tamarins who mesmerize guests for hours with their antics.  Perhaps my dad's capuchin is still there, in old age, waiting for the tall guy with the hat to come back. Perhaps not.

Until the opening of the Great Ape House in 1976, Dr. Fisher's office was housed in the Primate House as well. You can still see the door to it, on the left as you enter the beautiful arched entryway to the historic structure.
A young Winifred Hope with baby
Bushman, 1930. (lpzoo photo).
Though he was a famous and much-loved fixture at the Zoo, Dr. Fisher's popularity was eclipsed by another familiar of the Primate House: the world-renowned great ape known as Bushman, one of the most famous animals ever held in captivity.  Often featured in newsreels, Bushman had been the pet of a Cameroon minister's daughter before being sold to the Zoo in 1930 for $3,500, or about $50,000 today.

The cuddly creature she'd called "my sweet little boy" as a child grew into a 550 pound hulk who drew millions of visitors during his tenure at Lincoln Park Zoo.  His massive girth was a shuddering thing to behold. As one reporter observed, Bushman appeared

"like a nightmare that escaped from darkness into daylight who has exchanged its insubstantial form for 550 pounds of solid flesh. His face is one that might be expected to gloat through the troubled dreams that follow overindulgence.  His hand is the kind of thing a sleeper sees reaching for him just before he wakes up screaming."

Bushman: The "Lord of Lincoln Park." (lpzoo photo)
But Bushman's real appeal lay not in his ability to terrify, but to charm.  Visitors stood for hours watching his antics, which included throwing food and dung at patrons with razor sharp precision. In the fall of 1950 Bushman escaped from his cage, meandering through the primate house for hours until a garter snake scared the giant back to his enclosure.

Earlier that year, an illness which threatened death had caused more than 100,000 visitors to pay their last respects. Bushman survived--briefly--and passed away the next winter, on New Year's Day 1951. His empty cage became a point of pilgrimage for weeks after his death. His enormous frame was preserved by taxidermy and put on permanent display at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. In 2013, Winifred Hope, the girl who had loved Bushman like a baby brother during his earliest days in West Africa, visited the specimen in the spring of 2013 at the age of 92.

The emotional and important history of the Primate House made it a definite "to do" on our list of locations to investigate at Lincoln Park Zoo. I especially wanted to see if we could pick up any residual voices in Dr. Fisher's erstwhile office.

Bushman's specimen at the Field Museum of Natural History today.
Dr. Fisher, of this writing, is very much alive; however, often we find that when someone is passionately tied to a location for many years, their voice, their smell, and even their physical form can leave a lasting impression which can sometimes be picked up by future generations. With his intense connection to the Zoo and to primate research here, would we find that Dr. Fisher, upon retirement, had left part of himself behind?

That first night we set up a laptop computer to record for EVP in Fisher's old office space. We left the laptop inside, closing the door and going on to investigate elsewhere. Since we were not trying to communicate with an intelligent entity but simply pick up residual sounds, there was no need for us to remain and ask questions, which is the usual method of collecting EVP from discarnate entities.

Disappointingly we did not pick up any voices from Fisher's office, but we did find that the laptop had mysteriously ended the recording and started two successive ones--a truly impossible feat with no one in the locked room to stop and start the recording button.

While the recording was going on, we went on to the larger Primate House to investigate. With us was Colleen Nadas, a medium who picked up numerous entities in the building, most of them the energies of children. Fascinatingly, several years later Dave Olson and his group, Chicago Paranormal Investigators, recorded what sounded like a little girl saying, "I want to go to the Lincoln Zoo."  During the same investigation, Olson's group was able to record, with a thermal camera, anomalous moving forms along the floor of the corridor.

That same night, I had been recording hear the interior part of the entrance and went out into the vestibule to listen to the recording, hoping I'd picked something up.  After a few minutes I shut off my laptop because I heard, coming from inside the building, a high pitched screaming which sounded like one of the lemurs shrieking at the top of its lungs.  I had several teams with me that night as my guests and thought one of the members was agitating the animals. After several minutes of this relentless screaming, I went to tell the culprit to stop annoying the creature so we wouldn't be asked to leave.  As soon as I opened the interior door, the shrieking stopped. To my amazement, I found upon inquiring of the various investigators that not one person had heard the hair curling sounds or picked them up on their recording devices.

Later that evening, I sat on the floor against the wall, recording with my laptop and softly asking questions of any entities which might be present.  Asking, "How many are here?" I received the answer, "Many. Like meeeeeee....." (Hear it here.)  And, "We're all here." (Hear it here.)   I then asked, "Are you an animal or a keeper?" In response, a male voice with an Australian accent responded, "Who cares?" (Hear it here.)  When I asked if there were any animals or humans from another country, a voice responded, "I've been so many places." (Hear it here.) This particular clip is an example of an entity using an investigator's voice to create words, as this voice sounds like mine, but of course with the unnatural rhythm so common to EVP.  Very interestingly, another voice mentioned Julie, the events manager who was with us that night.  We had all been very, very busy that spring but Julie was eager to set up another investigation so that we could add more material to the Zoo ghost tour that fall. Thanks to her efforts, we finally got everyone together on schedule to come out for an investigation.  The entities in the Primate House evidently knew it had been hard to coordinate, because when I asked, "Are you glad we are here?" A voice says, "I love it. Julie caught you." (Hear it here)

Of course, in all of the locations investigated, there was the possibility that entities were attached to the bodies who had been interred at the City Cemetery which formerly stood here.  During one investigation, Dave Olson and the Chicago Paranormal Investigators asked, "Are you part of the cemetery that was here?" A male voice answered, "Yes, I was." The team also picked up another, higher, possibly child's voice, which says, "He's talking over us." You can watch the clip from the investigation and hear the EVPs by clicking the video below.


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Next time: Ghost Hunting Lincoln Park Zoo (Part 3): The Suicide Bridge.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Wild Nights: Ghosthunting Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo: (Part 1)

Lincoln Park Zoo  Lion House c. 1920. Photo from zoo collection.
As one of the oldest neighborhoods in Chicago, Lincoln Park is also, surely, one of the most haunted in the city.  The home of George "Bugs" Moran, Lincoln Park saw some of the worst Gangland violence in American history, including the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre.  Occurring in a narrow brick garage at 2122 North Clark Street, the slaughter was part of a Chicago almost as blighted as today's city by turf wars, shootings and death.

Paula Prince, one of the victims of the
1982 Tylenol Murders, lived in Old Town.
Lincoln Park also hosted one of the terrifying deaths which became known as the "Tylenol Murders." On October 1, 1982, flight attendant Paula Prince was found dead two days after buying a bottle of the cyanide-laced capsules at the Walgreen's store at North Avenue and Wells Street, in Lincoln Park's Old Town section.

The famed Second City comedy theater and school makes its home across Wells Street from Walgreen's, in an ornate structure where a murder allegedly took place soon after its erection. According to my old friend, comedian and writer Kevin Dorff, the residue of that violence is believed to still remain, nearly a century later, manifesting to performers and staff over many generations.

Next door to the Second City was the infamously haunted restaurant called That Steak Joynt (now Adobo Grill), an old school eatery with one of the meanest ghosts in town, known to drag waitresses down the staircase and manifest as a pair of glowing eyes. Psychics and mediums claimed that a double murder had occurred in  Piper's Alley, the cobblestoned pathway which once ran along the building, and that the killer, in phantom form, was still at large on the premises. Adobo Grill denies any ghostly goings-on today.
That Steak Joynt (now Adobo Grill)
was one of Chicago's most haunted places.
Old Town is also home to St. Michael's Church, where the Devil himself is said to have appeared in the Communion line one Sunday night in the 1970s, cloaked in a black hood and robe, with hooves instead of feet.  And it's the stomping grounds of Candyman. The Cabrini Green housing project, now gone forever, was the reported lair of the hooked killer of urban legend--and Sandburg Village the home of the heroine who tangled with his menace.

Without a doubt, one of the most legendary of Lincoln Park's ghosts is that of the late John Dillinger, the swashbuckling bank robber who in 1934 wreaked havoc for months across three states before being gunned down in the alleyway just south of the Biograph Theater. They say you can sometimes still see his bluish form stumbling and falling on the pavement--or feel the icy chill of his spirit move through your own body there.

Chicagoans fleeing into the cemetery during the Great Fire
Despite these plentiful tales of the neighborhood, there is no part of Lincoln Park more haunted than the park itself, which was originally the home of Chicago's City Cemetery, a sprawling burying ground stretching from North Avenue to Armitage and from the old Green Bay Trail (Clark Street) to Lake Michigan.  The cemetery was short lived. Established in 1843, a cholera scare caused residents to fear that the burial of victims would spread the disease to the nearby water supply. Soon, the order was given for the disinterment and removal of the tens of thousands of corpses.  The long process came to a shocking halt when, on the night of October 8, 1871, high winds  blew flaming debris from a south side inferno across the river. The Great Chicago Fire, sweeping swiftly northward, pushed north side residents to flee into the cemetery grounds and, eventually, into the waters off North Avenue Beach.

The cemetery was almost completely destroyed in the Great Fire. "Headboards"--the wooden markers which designated most burials of the day--were reduced to ash by the conflagration, rendering plot after plot impossible to identify. With no way to discern where the myriad burials remained, the city simply continued its plans to create a lakefront park, and Chicago moved on. Apparently not all of the dead, however, did.

Artist and scholar Pamela Bannos (see her wonderful site here), after years of painstaking research, determined that as many as 15,000 bodies may remain in Lincoln Park today, under the Zoo, the ball fields, the grounds of the Chicago History Museum and even the posh homes of the Gold Coast; land south of North Avenue was home to an Archdiocesan cemetery concurrent with City Cemetery's time here. A cousin of mine, a retired sheet metal worker, years ago told me strange tales of the bones often found on the properties of the mansions of Astor Street, Dearborn Street and other blocks.  The workers kept close the business card of a local shaman, who they would call to collect the bones and re-inter them, in hopes that their owners would not wander the Earth after the disruption of their graves.

Ghost hunters have long known of the haunting of these old cemetery grounds by the dead left behind after the Great Fire, but while several investigations have been done on the public grounds of Lincoln Park and in some of the private homes and businesses of the surrounding area, no investigation had ever been done of the Zoo, which spread from it original enclosure over a large acreage, including much of the former cemetery grounds. When, then, the events manager called me in the spring of 2013 about creating a "ghost tour" of the Zoo for patrons as part of its public programming, I was beyond thrilled at the prospect, and we immediately set a date for an initial investigation night.

I knew exactly where I wanted to go on that first visit, because over many years I had been approached via letter, phone call and email about close encounters in, of all places, the women's restroom in the Lion House basement.  Time after time, women would report having used the facility and, while washing their hands or applying makeup, seeing in the mirrors men and women dressed in Victorian clothing.  On the night of the first investigation that summer, myself and another investigator entered the restroom and were immediately struck by the layout of the room.  Rows of sinks lined the two walls, parallel to each other. Above the sinks were rows of mirrors, creating an "infinity" effect from the two walls of mirrors facing each other.

Now, most paranormal investigators will concur that mirrors are one of those things--like salt or water--that have some definite power in the world of the preternatural.  Steeped in folklore, these items really do seem to have some importance in the realm of paranormal experience.  One theory is that entities can be easily "trapped" in mirrors. Presumably, the spirits enter them to explore the objects they see reflected, but suddenly find themselves engulfed in blackness, on the other side of the mirror's glass--essentially inside the mirror.

Investigators Colleen Nadas and Ron Jamiolowski assemble
a "Devil's Toybox" for use in EVP experiments.
This works the opposite way as well.  My friend Colleen Nadas, a medium, likes to build and use a
tool called "The Devil's Toybox," which is a kind of "ghost trap" comprised of a cube made of inward facing square mirrors, securely taped together at the seams. Investigators use contact microphones to record sounds from inside the box, believing that if a spirit attempts to investigate, it will find itself trapped because of the mirrors and start to make a fuss. Sometimes this "fussing" leads to great electronic voice phenomena, or EVP: recordings of the voices of the angry or frightened ghosts or knocking sounds from inside the box.  In the Zoo's Lion House, we instantly theorized that entities were routinely finding themselves stuck in these mirrors due to the effect created by the rows of mirrors facing each other.

Anecdotes collected from the Zoo staff confirmed that staff members had also experienced encounters here, especially hearing a man's voice commanding, "Get out!"  Amazingly, when I set up my laptop and began to record for EVP, within a minute I picked up a stern male voice warning, "Get out! There's a woman here!" (Hear it here.) A future visit by a medium confirmed that one of the male spirits had taken on the task of keeping men--dead and alive--out of the women's restroom.

As we continued our investigation, I took several series of photographs down the row of stalls leading to the end of the facility. During investigations, I like to take fifty to one hundred photos or more of each location to see if any of the frames contain an anomaly. When I played back the recording done during this time, I found that one of the male entities was a bit angry that I wasn't paying as much attention to him as the area I was photographing, because he clearly says, "Will you look at me!" (Hear it here.)

As is typical with most investigators, I asked if there was anything I could do for the entities who remained in this spot. The same voice, now with a tinge of sadness, answered, "Help me...with leaving."  (Hear it here.) When I asked if there was anything the spirits wanted to tell us about their time on Earth, one can make out the sound of a lion's roar and of the same voice saying, "I miss it." (Hear it here.)
Shadow figure captured on the stall wall, center.

On a subsequent visit to the Lion House bathroom, I was amazed to find that I had photographed a shadowy figure silhouetted against one of the bathroom stalls. This photograph was one of a sequence of sixty I had snapped, one after another in quick sequence. Only this photo showed the image.  The other investigators with me attempted to recreate the shadow by standing against the opposite wall, out of view, but could not.

On the first investigation night, after several hours of research and experiment, we decided to call it a night and began to disable and back up our equipment.  I would say that, generally, when an investigator ends an investigation and says "Goodbye!" before turning off a recording device, the entities tend to scramble to say more, especially to give more pleas for help. Not so in the case of this location. At least one of the entities was eager to see us go. In response to my invitation, "Is there anything else you'd like to say before we go?"  the sound of--perhaps anxious--footfalls can be heard, along with the words, "Turn out the light. Good night!" (Hear it here.)

Next time... The Haunting of Lincoln Park Zoo, Part 2: The Primate House

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Friday, October 28, 2016

From Garbage to "Ghostbusters": The Strange Case of Streeterville

    In urban areas around the world, architecture’s brilliant progress has been checked by many faults.  For every successful design there are ten that fail--aesthetically, financially, or environmentally.  Most troublesome have been the so-called “sick buildings” that have caused everything from nausea and headaches to brain tumors and cancer, due to difficulties with exhaust and ventilation systems, mold growth and other quirks.  In Chicago, one of the most controversial buildings in this birthplace of skyscrapers is believed  by Chicago paranormal experts to have a much more malicious quality. Since its completion in 1968, the John Hancock Center has been the site of multiple murders, suicides and deadly “accidents.”  Why? Windy City occultists are convinced that it is the very design of the place that causes its residents and workers to often take a turn for the worst.

The Hancock under construction.
    The John Hancock Center was designed as a trapezoidal structure by its chief architect, Bruce Graham, under the counsel of  Fazlur Khan, a structural engineer at the esteemed Chicago firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Khan proposed the shape as an economical way to combine larger office spaces on the lower floors with smaller apartment units on the upper levels.  But it wasn’t long before some Chicagoans began to question the “innocent” trapezoidal design as a poor one.  Was the building’s form, in fact, the shape of things to come?

    A little over three years after the Hancock’s completion, a 29-year-old Chicago woman named Lorraine Kowalski fell to her death from her boyfriend’s 90th-floor Hancock Center apartment.   To this day, detectives and structural engineers are dumbfounded by the event; the building’s windows are capable of withstanding more than 200 pounds of pressure per square foot and winds of more than 150 miles per hour, yet Kowalski actually broke through the glass.  Four years later, a transmitter technician for a local radio station plunged to his death from the 97th floor offices of his television station. Just three months later, a 27-year old tenant “fell” from his 91st-floor apartment while studying for an exam at breakfast.  In 1978, a 31-year old woman shot a man to death in his home on the Hancock’s 65th floor, and in 1998, beloved comedian Chris Farley was found dead in the entrance hall of his 60th-floor apartment.  Most recently, in March of 2002, a 25-foot aluminum scaffold fell from the building’s 43rd floor, crushing three cars, killing three women and injuring 8 others.  Most of the incidents were called by detectives "baffling," "inexplicable" and seemingly unmotivated.

    Many years before construction on the Hancock began, the area it would occupy was part of the most luxurious residential district in the city--the Gold Coast--, and this neighborhood, still known as Streeterville--was already thought to be a cursed tract of land.  Cap Streeter was a ragtag former sea captain who made a living ferrying passengers between Chicago and Milwaukee on a beat up old schooner he owned with his wife.  After the vessel literally washed up on the Chicago shore during a storm, Cap decided to settle down in the city for good.  He staked claim to the very parcel of land on which he had run ashore:  prime lakefront property much in demand by Chicago‘s first families.  Cap found the land so lovely that he decided to share the beauty.  He set up shop in the old Tremont Hotel, selling tracts of “his“ land to willing buyers.  Soon a legion of squatters peppered the lakefront, angering Chicago‘s elite and the city council that served them.  But when the city tried repeatedly to run off the trespassers, Cap and company responded with shotguns, batons and all manner of homemade weapons .  When Cap ran out of land to sell, he quickly made more by inviting residents and contractors to dump their garbage on his land for free . . . creating one of the most desirable garbage dumps in history, the soon-to-be "Gold Coast" of Chicago.

    The battle over “Cap’s” land--which he called Streeterville--raged until the man’s dying hour--and beyond. On his deathbed, Cap cursed “his” land and swore that no one would ever be happy on it again.  Then is the “Curse of Cap Streeter” the source of the Hancock’s problem?

    Not likely.  But it can’t help.
Captain George Streeter and cronies with the first"Streeterville" shack.

    In 1930, a baby boy was born in Chicago.   Musically gifted, Anton Szandor LaVey grew to enjoy a colorful career with many facets, playing in nightclubs and even taming lions for a time.  On a spring night in the 1960s, LaVey brought some like-minded friends together, ceremoniously shaved his head, and founded what he called the “Church of Satan,” an institution that was part religion, part philosophy, and all based on his own extensive ideas about love, hate, pleasure and will.
 When occultists like LaVey saw the plans for the Hancock revealed, they were devastated.  The problem? Not necessarily one for the city itself, but for the residents and workers of the Hancock structure.

 The Hancock center offers both apartments and offices, and all of the apartments are on the outer edge of the structure, wrapping around the outside as in any other such building.  Unfortunately, in the Hancock, every one of these apartments has, due to the trapezoidal structure of the building, an outer wall that is “off-kilter” because it does not rise at 90 degrees.  Many--LaVey among them--have believed that these “strange angles” have caused residents of the Hancock to behave in strange and deadly ways, and that the superhuman strength of those who have forced themselves or others through  the building’s seemingly impenetrable windows were calling on a ready supply of supernatural energy in the Hancock itself:  energy coming through the “portal” of its trapezoidal structure.

    Students of popular culture will want to note three intriguing facts about the Hancock.  First, the structure’s legend is said to have inspired Harold Ramis’s Hollywood dream of a diabolical building: the centerpiece of his film, “Ghostbusters.”  At the time the script was being written, Ramis and Dan Aykroyd paid a weekend visit to friend John Belushi, who at the time was living in the Hancock apartments.  As he regaled them with tales of his strange home's structure, the wheels began to turn, and the idea of a skyscraper as a "portal to the supernatural" was born.  Second, the late, little Heather O’Rourke, myth-shrouded star of the “Poltergeist“ films, took a turn for the worst after a final publicity plug  . . . held in one of the Hancock’s studios.   This was shared with me by her grandfather himself.   Third, a number of controversial or distressed personalities have called the Hancock home; among them, talk show host Jerry Springer, Catholic priest and novelist Andrew Greeley, and--as mentioned--comedian Farley, whose time in the building (his friends say) was riddled with drug and alcohol abuse, the eventual cause of his death.

Anton LaVey with the late Sharon Tate
 LaVey wrote many essays during his time as the Satanic Church’s leader, including fascinating analyses of the problems of modern architecture.  In his essay, "The Law of the Trapezoid"--part of his collection entitled The Devil's Notebook--La Vey talked about the trapezoidal shape as holding significant power for arcane forces: traditionally, the shape is believed to serve as a doorway or “portal” for occult--or even diabolical--forces.   As a young man, LaVey was fascinated with the thought of H.P. Lovecraft, whose horror novels often feature characters grappling with the dangers of “strange angles,” and it was Lovecraft’s work which led LaVey to first pursue his study of modern architecture’s sometimes deadly capabilities.


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.