Haunted by Chicago’s history

By Luke Wilusz

Like any other major city, Chicago has hundreds of years of history under its belt. The city prides itself on much of that history, whether it’s the scientific achievements of the 1893 World’s Fair, the social changes brought about over the years by activists such as Jane Addams or a prestigious theater district showcasing world-class productions. However, history invariably brings with it all kinds of rumors, ghost stories and tales of macabre, and some of Chicago’s crowning achievements carry with them specters of the past that won’t be forgotten.

The Devil in the White City

The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 is often lauded as a high point in Chicago’s history and for good reason. It introduced a myriad of scientific discoveries and left the city with some of its most iconic buildings, including the Museum of Science and Industry and the Art Institute of Chicago. However, this celebration of science, art and culture also had one decidedly sinister effect, setting the stage for America’s first documented serial killer: Herman Webster Mudgett, better known by his alias of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes.

Holmes owned and operated the World’s Fair Hotel in Englewood at the corner of 63rd and Wallace streets, a site that would later become known as “The Murder Castle” by local newspapers and law enforcement officials of the day.

“He’d been out of the building for a couple of years by the time the cops stumbled on it,” said Adam Selzer, a Chicago historian, author and former tour guide for several local ghost tour companies. “But they found it to be full of secret passages and everything you could need to kill a person.”

The hotel included asphyxiation chambers that could be pumped full of gas to suffocate victims as well as chutes in the walls used for dumping bodies down to the basement, according to Mary Jo Hoag, a tour guide for the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

“In the basement was a crematorium, a lime pit, an acid pit and a dissecting table,” Hoag said. Hoag runs the CAF’s “Devil in the White City Companion Bus Tour,” which takes visitors around the city to various locations mentioned in Erik Larson’s 2004 book about Holmes and the World’s Fair, “The Devil in the White City.”

According to Ken Melvoin-Berg, a paranormal investigator and co-owner and tour guide for Weird Chicago Tours, the exact number of Holmes’ victims is uncertain.

“He was officially attributed to the murders of 28 persons,” Melvoin-Berg said. “But we think the number is much higher, somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 to 450 men, women and children whom he had killed during his entire lifetime.”

Holmes had been a con man and a murderer long before he came to Chicago, often using his murders to collect money from life insurance scams. The World’s Fair, however, provided him with a unique environment in which he could kill large numbers of people unnoticed, according to Melvoin-Berg.

“There were 27 million extra people in the city, which already had a problem with the law enforcement here—[because] there wasn’t enough of them, essentially,” Melvoin-Berg said. “People were going missing all the time, and when you add 27 million extra people into the mix, there’s a huge number of people [who] go missing even without the benefit of something like a serial killer.”

Holmes fled Chicago after the World’s Fair ended, and his creditors began to close in on him, and he was eventually tracked down and captured in 1894. He was hanged in Philadelphia in 1896.

The Murder Castle burned down in 1895, and the site where it once stood is currently occupied by a U.S. Post Office. Melvoin-Berg said people often report hearing strange noises near the site, but he has been unable to verify any paranormal activity there.

“We don’t always assume every time there’s a creaking door or somebody hears something kind of spooky it’s the dead coming back to say ‘hi’ to the living,” he said.

Jane Addams’ Hull House

Jane Addams’ Hull House social settlement worked to help feed and educate poor citizens and immigrants on Chicago’s Near West Side. However, the settlement house’s site has long been rumored to be haunted and is a frequent stop on many of the city’s ghost tours.

Hull-House, 800 S. Halsted St., currently exists as a museum on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. It was originally built in 1856 as a summer estate for real-estate developer Charles Hull, Melvoin-Berg said. Hull moved out of the house after his wife died of typhoid. Addams opened it as a social settlement in 1889.

“She was actually doing a lot of good before this in London, England, in the Whitechapel district,” Melvoin-Berg said. “She moved back to Chicago to the very worst neighborhood she could find to institute social changes.”

Selzer said he’d heard several ghost stories related to Hull-House, although he expressed skepticism about their validity.

“It had a reputation for being a haunted building at the time Jane Addams moved in there,” Selzer said. “Around 1913 there was a rumor there was this thing they called the ‘Devil Baby,’ [who] had been born somewhere in the neighborhood and brought to Hull-House. There was absolutely no basis in fact to this, despite what a lot of ghost tour guides in the city are saying. It was a really bad neighborhood at the time, but nothing particularly sinister happened there.”

Melvoin-Berg suggests a different interpretation of the “Devil Baby” myth. He said Addams often took in sick or deformed infants at Hull-House, and rumors of a satanic infant with red scales and cloven hooves could actually be referring to a child born with harlequin ichthyosis, a rare condition that involves red, scaly skin and various other deformities. In all likelihood, the child would have died within a few weeks, but Melvoin-Berg said that did little to stop the rumors from circulating.

“Many of the old women in the neighborhood would make extra money or earn a loaf of bread by telling stories about the fantastic,” Melvoin-Berg said. “They found out the baby just died, but that didn’t stop them from creating a bigger, better story.”

Melvoin-Berg said variations of the story told at the time involved the two-week-old “Devil Baby” smoking cigars, cursing at a priest in three languages, jumping from pew to pew at Holy Family Cathedral and urinating on parishioners.

“We don’t think any of that crap is true,” Melvoin-Berg said, laughing. “That’s just the old wives’ version of what had happened.”

He said a number of other strange phenomena had been seen at Hull House.

“There had always been reports of the ghost of Mrs. Hull,” he said. “And there have also been reports of phantom monks seen around the area.”

While Selzer was generally skeptical about Hull House myths, he did admit seeing strange activity during his time as a tour guide.

“The house is pretty spooky at night,” he said. “We did have a lot of weird nights going there when I used to take people. There would be nights where the lights would flicker, when things would seem like they were moving around in there, but any other stories as to why that would be were strictly just made up.”

Fire at the Iroquois Theater

While Chicago’s theater district has experienced tremendous growth within the past decade, it wasn’t always the glamorous center of culture and entertainment it is today. The Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theater may have recently been the home of “Wicked,” the longest-running musical in Chicago’s history, but in 1903 it was the site of the now-infamous Iroquois Theater.

The story of the Iroquois Theater echoes themes of greed and corruption that have been associated with Chicago politics for centuries.

“There were some labor strikes that were going on from the people who were doing the construction there, so they needed to cut some corners in order to get it ready for their grand opening,” Melvoin-Berg said.

He said Will Davis, owner of Iroquois Theater, bribed several city building inspectors, fire marshals and even then-mayor Carter Harrison Jr. in order to get the theater

built quickly.

“So they got the building built, but they didn’t have the fire prevention measures they should have had installed, so they didn’t have things like sprinkler systems or fire escapes actually installed,” Melvoin-Berg said.

On December 30, 1903, a fire started above the stage during a matinee performance attended mostly by young children on a school trip. The fire quickly spread, turning the scene at the Iroquois Theater into one of the worst disasters the city had ever seen.

“Most of the exit doors were locked, so people got crushed to death trying to get out,” Selzer said. “Meanwhile, up on the balcony, they did find an exit that was unlocked, so people started pushing their way out of it, which was kind of a problem because they hadn’t built the fire escape yet. So, eventually, something like 150 people died falling into the alley.”

That alley has become known to Chicago paranormal enthusiasts as “Death Alley,” and is considered to be one of the city’s most haunted locations. Approximately, 602 people died as a result of the fire. Melvoin-Berg said the alley is one of the most popular spots on several of Weird Chicago’s tours because of the frequent paranormal activity reports.

“[People] often see everything from ghost lights in the alleyway to one particular figure that appears to be the shadow of a woman wearing a tutu,” Melvoin-Berg said. “We suspect [it’s] the ghost of a woman named Nellie Reed, who was a tightrope walker from London, England. She was the only vaudeville cast member to actually die in the production.”

Selzer has also heard several reports of paranormal activity in and around the theater and the alley.

“People have felt cold spots there, little localized areas that are a lot cooler than they ought to be,” Selzer said. “Inside the [Oriental] Theater itself, we hear a lot of stories—the staff is not supposed to talk about it—but every now and then we will hear people saying they’ve heard screams in the middle of the night.”