Oct. 24th, 2012

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Back in July, I took the Ursula Bielski Haunted Chicago tour.

Prior to that, I’d only been on one ghost tour, if you can believe it. It was on the Queen Mary in 2006, which was included with general admission. They took you around the dark, creepy corners of the ship and mentioned the odd things as well as the tragic things that occurred in decades past. I saw the mystery wet spots in the indoor swimming pool area and there was one young Japanese tourist for whom the dark and creepiness of it all was too much, but no actual ghosts came out to say hello.

When I went to Chicago to see my new niece, my brother asked if I wanted to go on the ghost tour. I said, “Sure!” My dad came along too. We decided to go on the early evening tour to get back at a decent time, since my brother did not want to wake up the little nieces. The pickup/drop off spot was in downtown near the former rock ‘n roll McDonalds. The tour was on a converted school bus that was painted black and covered with gothy décor. It was allegedly air conditioned, but it was 98 degrees and really humid that evening, so I didn’t notice all of that much. There had been some rain and thunderstorms that day so maybe that would awaken some paranormal energy! Wooooooo.

Our tour guide was a young guy who was an avid paranormal investigator, a podcast host, and a scout for t.v. shows looking for haunted locales. Over the next two hours we went all over the city as our guide cheerfully pointed out the dark, morbid, and violent history of Chicago. He pointed out that just about every neighborhood was a bad neighborhood at some point or another, filled with tales of mayhem and murder. What he liked to do was at stoplights was open the bus door and shout something out to passerby like, “And the guy was murdered RIGHT ON THAT SPOT!”

Our first stop was at the site of the Iroquois theater in Chicago’s Theater District. Today there’s a theater with a different name (the Oriental) on the same site and for those of you who watch “Celebrity Ghost Stories,” this was the theater mentioned in the segment with Ana Gasteyer, who was appearing in “Wicked” at the time. What happened was in 1905, the newly opened Iroquois had a Christmas-themed show and there was a matinee for moms and kids. Unfortunately for those poor folks, the theater was a death trap. An arclight spark set fire to a curtain. There was supposed to be a fire curtain made of asbestos that was supposed to contain stage fires to protect the audience. But the guys making the curtain made it out of burlap and other flammable stuff to save money and the “fire curtain” went up like a Roman candle. A panicked person backstage opened a door, creating a backdraft that turned the burning “fire curtain” into a giant flame thrower. Those audience members not incinerated tried desperately to escape. Many were trampled in the stampede. To prevent people from sneaking into the theater, several of the doors were locked from the outside. People on the upper levels tried to flee through the fire escapes, but there was one problem…they hadn’t finished the fire escapes, leaving about a five-story drop to hard brick pavement below. Bodies were piled six feet high in the alley behind the theater. Patrons trying to get out through the front doors were jammed in the doorways. 800 people, mostly women and children, were immolated, trampled, crushed, succumbed to smoke inhalation, or fell to their deaths. Worst of all, crooks were first to arrive on the scene, stealing money and jewels off of the dead and dying, even chopping off fingers to get to stubborn rings. Think that place is haunted? The guide said once a tourist taking photos in the alley managed to capture a woman’s legs and skirt, clearly from the early 1900s, in midair. You do get a weird feeling in that alley where people fell from the fire escapes. I’d hate to be there alone late at night!

The next stop was the site of the S.S. Eastland’s sinking on the Chicago River. In July 1915, more than 800 people heading out to a Great Lakes cruise/company picnic drowned when the top-heavy, overcrowded boat capsized in dock. The ship’s top deck was made of cement and in response to the Titanic’s sinking a few years earlier, had *too* many lifeboats. They thought if they piled on the lifeboats, it would be safer to pile on the passengers. Not only were unlucky passengers trapped or crushed by heavy furniture when the boat tipped over, those thrown in the river were dressed in 1915 garb, which meant wool coats (yes, in July), petticoats, boots, long dresses, and so forth that would have weighed down anybody in the water. It’s one of the worst civilian maritime disasters in U.S. history; entire families were wiped out. Of course, the site is said to be haunted, with witnesses hearing cries for help and occasionally seeing people flail in the water. The guide said that on one cold winter night when he was conducting a tour, they all saw a woman’s arm come out of the water and reach over to grab onto some ice on the river. Then the arm just faded away. Bodies from the 1915 disaster were taken to makeshift morgues, one the site of Oprah’s Harpo Studios (Harpo employees have a lot of stories, apparently) and the other the current Excalibur nightclub, recently featured on “Ghost Adventures.”

We drove onward, past the site of the Haymarket Riots to our next location, Hull House at the University of Illinois-Chicago campus. Hull House is the former HQ of urban reformer Jane Addams and supposedly, it was haunted even when Addams moved in back in the late 1800s. The garden right next to the house is also haunted. The guide said that on one tour, there was someone sensitive to spirits who ended up chucking her cookies after visiting the garden area. Maybe it was something that person ate, heh heh. Anyway, I was very grateful for the stop because I was able to use the restroom and get a cold bottle of water in the campus bowling alley nearby.

The tour went back across town to a site from the bestselling book “Devil In The White City.” Now it’s an empty lot in an industrial-looking neighborhood but in the 1890s, it was home to a “glass bending” business owned by H.H. Holmes, a real-life con-man/serial killer. The guy’s claim to fame was a hotel of horrors he built near the site of the World Columban Exposition, also known as the World’s Fair, in 1893. He might have killed as many as 200 people and it’s believed that the “glass bending” business was a front for body disposal. The site of the long-gone hotel is in the South Side, home to many contemporary homicides, so we couldn’t go there. Originally the lot was just part of the “Devil In The White City” tour until odd things started happening. A series of crows showed up with dead doves in their mouths. A light over the lot would flicker at the mention of one of Holmes’s suspected victims. A tourist caught a photo of a shadowy man with a coat and a hat. Then the tour guide himself said he’d encountered a woman in a dark dress wandering too close to the bus as it was backing up. When he opened the door to make fun of her, she was gone. Nothing that spooky happened but vacant lots are creepy anyway. I saw a lot of antique brick in the ground. Of course, what was above the lot? A Twilight billboard.

As we trundled on toward Chicago’s North Side neighborhoods, the guide entertained us with EVPs (electronic voice phenomena) picked up on various expeditions and stories about some of the 7-hour long investigations around town. He talked about another serial killer/con-man who used to marry women, kill them, and collect their money. Eventually said criminal was hanged and buried out in a potter’s field. At this potter’s field our bus driver, a no-nonsense tough gal, was wandering around with the group near where this man is buried and some unseen hand grabbed her ankle. She refuses to go back to this place and the guide teased her about the crook looking for his next wife. Oh and we saw the building used for exterior shots on that ‘80s classic sitcom, “Perfect Strangers.” It looks exactly the same.

Near where my brother lives is the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The property is now owned by a seniors’ assisted living facility and they don’t allow paranormal looky-loos but you could see from the street the precise location of where the massacred Irish mobsters met their fate. It’s easy to spot because it’s a patch of dead grass and according to legend, grass has never been able to really grow in that location. And if it snows on Valentine’s Day, you’ll find the outlines of the dead on the ground, bwahahaha.

The last stop was at Lincoln Park just as it’s finally dark. The tour guide informed us that it was against the law to bring ghost tours or go ghost hunting in cemeteries located within the city but Lincoln Park was once a huge cemetery. As the city grew around it, local government decided life was for the living, so the dead were evicted and moved to other locations. But every time they dig up anything there, they manage to find more “undiscovered” graves, so it’s feasible there are still plenty of permanent residents in the park. They did leave for some unknown reason a large tomb belonging to the family of some store magnate from the 1850s. It’s still there for you to look at. A tree has grown through the roof of the tomb and it seems to be a favorite crashing spot of homeless guys. On the way back, we breezed by another park, home to the bohemian and radical crowd of the late 1800s. The guide talked about an expletive-filled EVP he got there one time.

So, no ghostly encounters on this tour but it was a lot of fun and very informative. I was inspired to read “Devil In the White City.” I couldn’t believe somebody wrote a book about a diabolical, genius-level killer and nobody told me about it! Actually, much of the book is also devoted to the tribulations of building the World’s Fair, interesting in its own way. Next time you’re in Chicago, there are tours based on the book and the same crew that put on the haunted tour also has a mob tour.

December 2012

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