Monday, March 21, 2016


The Story of the Hartford Castle

On the night of March 21, 1973, the sound of sirens filled the air along New Poag Road, not far from Alton and Wood River, Illinois. By the time the fire engines reached the house once known as the “Hartford Castle,” though, it was much too late. What time and vandals had not been able to destroy, flames finally did. A house that was once connected to local tales of death, Prohibition booze, and ghosts was gone, leaving only a legend behind.   

Lakeview, as the Hartford Castle was officially known, was constructed by a French immigrant named Benjamin Biszant in 1897. The castle-like house with the red-capped turrets was incredibly expensive, although the source of Biszant's wealth remains unknown. Most believe that he may have been an insurance executive, a contractor or an investor of some sort. Whatever his profession, he purchased a large section of land near Hartford and began construction on what was to be a "dream house" for his English bride.

 Hartford Castle during its glory days

Teams of workers with horses were brought in and a moat was excavated around what would be the home site. The soil that was removed from it formed a rise on which Lakeview was built. When the house was completed, it boasted turrets that loomed high above the surrounding countryside, and 14 rooms. The floors were made of imported cypress wood and the ceilings supported by hand-carved columns. Crystal chandeliers were used in mirror-lined main hall and music could often be heard drifting out over the fields in the evening. The landscaped gardens were decorated with gazebos and statuary and Biszant scattered his own concrete creations of animals and cannons about the grounds. A stone bridge was built to reach an island in the middle of one of the small lakes that adjoined the moat and the lakes were used for boating and swimming. Biszant stocked them with goldfish.

Tragically, though, Biszant's wife died in the early 1900s and he returned her body to England. After that, he lost interest in the castle, and sold it before moving to California. Not long after, the ghost stories that became attached to the place began to be told. According to these tales, the lingering spirit was that of the Frenchman's wife, still haunting the place that she loved most in life. The ghost stories became a part of the house and they continued to be heard for years after, through various owners and even now, long after the house has been destroyed.

The castle passed through the hands of several owners after Biszant sold it and was rumored to have been used at one time as a boy's military school and later as a home for unwed mothers. Neither of these uses were ever verified. In the early 1920s, it was turned into a resort and during this period was believed to have been operated for a time as a speakeasy. The house was not far enough off the main roads that it could not be found and yet was secluded enough that the party-goers and gangsters who flocked to the place were not bothered. If the speakeasy stories were true, those days did not last long, and the resort was later closed down.

Shortly after, the castle was purchased by a couple from Wood River and they lived in the house until 1964. Soon after they moved in, they began to have problems with intruders and trespassers. The castle seemed to be viewed by the public as community property, or a park, and the owners stated that people would often just roam through the 35 acres at all hours of the day and night. Some even broke into the house and wandered from room to room, as if on a tour. The grounds were apparently too attractive, with the landscaped gardens and statuary, for people to stay away. And like the gangsters of times past, teenagers often congregated in secluded spots on the estate for clandestine beer parties or searched out the best place to serve as a "lover's lane." Hoping to counteract this invasion of privacy, the family opened the grounds to the public on weekends for several years but, eventually, this practice ended and the property was again closed down.

In 1964, the owner died and his wife moved back into Wood River. There were attempts to rent the house after that, hoping that someone would just remain on the grounds to protect it from vandalism, but this plan fell through and maintenance on the house and property ended with the owner's death. The estate began crumbling into ruin and the lawn became thick and overgrown. By 1971, the house had fallen into disrepair and was showing signs of damage from thieves and vandals. The cruelest blow came the following year when intruders gutted the residence, ripped mantels from the fireplaces, broke windows, and using a small telephone pole as a battering ram, smashed huge holes in the plaster walls. The senseless and stupid destruction led to the house being officially condemned by county inspectors.

The final blow was dealt to the castle on March 21, 1973, when it burned to the ground. An alarm was sounded but by the time that firefighters arrived on the scene, only a tall chimney and burning embers remained of the once grand mansion.

The remains of an old gazebo on the property

The statue of a dog found out in the woods

The site of the former “castle” can still be found in a cluster of thick woods and brambles, just off New Poag Road, on the other side of Hartford. Only those who know of the place would have any clue that the ruins of the estate still remain as broken columns, a few pieces of shattered statuary, and the dim outline of the castle's moat.

This is a place that has been truly lost by time and one that, according to legend, remains haunted by the Frenchman's wife, even today. There are those who maintain that her spectral form can still be seen wandering through the remains of the estate and that her voice can still be heard as she weeps for the life and the wonderful home that she lost. Others insist that old-time music can still sometimes be heard as well. They say that it floats through the trees and above the fields on summer nights when the crops are tall and when sound seems to carry for miles. Perhaps in another time and place, Lakeview still stands and the party still continues, beckoning to all of us from a distant memory that is now long since forgotten.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


History & Mystery of the Millstadt Ax Murders

The small town of Millstadt is located just a few miles from Belleville, a long-established and prosperous town that is located across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Millstadt has always been known as a quiet community. It was settled long ago by German immigrants who came to America to work hard, be industrious, and keep to themselves. It was a place where nothing bad could ever really happen – or at least that’s what the residents there in the latter part of the nineteenth century believed. However, the murders that occurred on Saxtown Road forever shattered that illusion. When a local German family was brutally slaughtered in 1874, it created a dark, unsolved mystery – and a haunting that continues today. 

On March 19, 1874, Carl Stelzenreide, age 70, his son, Frederick, 35, Frederick’s wife, Anna, 28, and their children, Carl, 3, and Anna, 8 months, were found brutally murdered in their home on Saxton Road, located outside of Millstadt. The grisly crime was discovered by a neighbor, Benjamin Schneider, who had arrived at the Stelzenreide home early that morning to collect some potato seeds from Carl Steltzenreide. As he approached the home, he found that the area was eerily still. The horses and cattle that were fenced in the front lot had not been watered or fed and no one was taking care of the morning chores.

Schneider knocked on the front door, but no one answered. He called out and looked in the window, but it was too dark inside the house for him to see anything. Finally, he turned the knob and pushed the door open. As he stepped in, he looked down and saw the body of Frederick Steltzenreide on the floor, lying in a large pool of blood. The young man had been savagely beaten and his throat had been cut. Three of his fingers had been severed. Panicked, Schneider began looking for the other members of the family. He found Anna and her children lying on a bed. All of them had been bludgeoned to death and Anna’s throat had been cut. Her infant daughter, baby Anna, was lying across her chest, her small arms wrapped around her mother’s neck. Her son, Carl, was found next to her. His facial features were unrecognizable because of the brutal blows that he had sustained to his head. All three of them had apparently been murdered as they slept. In a separate bedroom, Schneider found Carl Steltzenreide. He had been struck so many times, apparently with an ax, that he was nearly decapitated. His body was sprawled on the bloodstained floor and it was later surmised that he had been roused from his bed by noises in the house and been struck down as he attempted to come to the aid of his family. 
As Schneider looked frantically around, he realized that blood was on the floor, had sprayed wildly onto the walls, and even stained the ceiling of the house. He saw chips and indentions in the plaster that were later determined to have been made by a “maddox,” a combination tool with the head of an ax and a large blade resembling a garden hoe. 

The only survivor of the carnage was the family dog, Monk. He was found lying on the floor next to Anna’s bed, keeping watch over the bodies of the mother and her children. Monk was known to be very protective of the family, and downright vicious toward strangers. This fact would lead investigators to believe that the killer, or killers, was someone known to the family. They also believed that the killer entered the house through a rear door, killing Anna and the children first. Carl was killed when he heard the struggles in the bedroom and Frederick was killed last. He had been sleeping on a lounge near the front of the house and had been murdered after a hand-to-hand struggle with the murderer.
Schneider quickly left and summoned help. The authorities called to nearby Belleville for assistance and several sheriff’s deputies and detectives answered the call. Soon after arriving, Deputy Sheriff Hughes discovered footsteps leading away from the house. As they were examined, it was noted that the prints had been made by boots that were cobbled with heavy nails, making them very distinctive. Hughes also found indentions in the ground that looked as though they had been made by someone dragging a heavy ax. He followed the tracks for about a mile and at the end of the trail, he found a pouch of partially chewed tobacco that was covered with blood. He deduced that the killer had been wounded during his attack on the family and had attempted to stem the bleeding with chewing tobacco, a popular folk remedy that was believed to draw the infection from a cut. The footprints, and the bloody tobacco pouch, led the police to the home of Frederick Boeltz, the brother-in-law of Frederick Steltzenreide. 

Boeltz was married to Anna Stelzenreide’s sister and there had been a dispute between Boeltz and Frederick Steltzenreide because $200 that Boeltz had borrowed and never repaid. The two had quarreled over the debt several times. Boeltz was friends with an itinerant farm worked named John Afken, who had once worked for the Steltzenreide family and who also harbored a grudge against Frederick. Afken was a large and powerful man who made his living as a “grubber,” a backbreaking occupation that involved clearing trees and rocks from farm lots. He was considered an expert with an ax, as well as other hand tools, and was feared by many because of his quick temper. He also possessed another characteristic that was of interest to the investigators – he had a full head of light red hair.

Carl Steltzenreide had died clutching a handful of hair that was exactly the same color.

 The bodies of the Steltzenreide family were prepared for burial by ladies from the Zion United Church of Christ in Millstadt. This gruesome task was carried out in the Steltzenreide barn, which still stands on the property today. The corpses were in such horrific condition that a number of the women became sick while washing them and had to be relieved. The killer had savaged the bodies so badly with his ax that the adults were nearly decapitated and the children were bloodied and pummeled beyond recognition. It was brutality like nothing these small town folks had ever seen before.

The family was laid to rest on Sunday, March 22, at Frievogel Cemetery, located just a few miles from their home on Saxtown Road. The news of the horror spread across the region in newspaper accounts and even appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The terror and curiosity that gripped the area brought more than 1,000 people to the Stelzenreide’s funeral service.
Immediately after the burial, Deputy Hughes arrested Frederick Boeltz and John Afken on suspicion of murder. Boeltz, initially resisted arrest, but then demanded to be provided with a bible while locked away in the Belleville city jail. Afken, on the other hand, was said to have displayed an uncanny lack of emotion. He accompanied the officers to jail, and remained silent while in custody. During the coroner’s inquest that followed the arrest, Boeltz refused to face the jury and when shown photographs of the victims’ bodies, he refused to look at them. The two men were brought before a grand jury in April 1874, but the jury was unable to indict them. They believed there was insufficient evidence to connect them to the murders. Both suspects were released a week later. 

Although the authorities had been unable to indict their main suspects in the case, the investigation into the two men’s activities and motives did not come to an end. Investigators believed more strongly than ever that Boeltz was somehow involved in the murders and they based this on the fact that the cash and valuables inside of the Steltzenreide house had been undisturbed. They believed there was a motive that was darker than mere robbery for the crime – and that Boeltz was definitely involved.

Just a few days before he was killed, on March 16, Frederick Steltzenreide confided to some friends and neighbors that he had just received a substantial inheritance from relatives in Germany. He was at an auction at the time he broke the news and he was seen carrying a large willow basket that was covered with an oilcloth. Rumor had it that the basket contained the inheritance, which Frederick had collected at the bank just before attending the auction. 
The Steltzenreide estate was reportedly worth several thousand dollars at the time of the murder. Investigators surmised that the wholesale slaughter of the family might have been an attempt to wipe out all of the immediate heirs to the estate. They believed that Frederick Boeltz, motivated by his dislike for Frederick Steltzenreide and his belief that he would inherit the money because of his marriage to Anna’s sister, had hired John Afken to commit the murders. It was a viable theory to explain the massacre, but the police were never able to make it stick.

Boeltz later brought suit against the Steltzenreide estate in an effort to collect whatever money he could. He was eventually awarded $400 and soon after, he and his family moved away from the area and vanished into history.
John Afken remained in the Millstadt area and legend has it that he was often seen carrying a gold pocket watch. When asked where he had gotten such an impressive timepiece, because it seemed much nicer than anything he could afford, Afken would only smile. Some whispered that the pocket watch looked exactly like one that Carl Steltzenreide once owned.

The Steltzenreide home was torn down in August 1954. According to a report that appeared in the Millstadt Enterprise newspaper at the time, the owners of the property, Leslie Jines and his family, were “glad to tuck the tale out of the way with whatever ghosts are there.”  The owners found it easy to get rid of the cursed, old house but the ghosts that lingered there were not so easily dismissed. 

A more recent owner of the property, and a house that stands at the site, was Randy Eckert. In 2004, he told a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he believed the land where the murders took place was haunted. His first experience occurred one morning when he and his wife were awakened by strange noises. They both heard the sounds of doors opening and closing in the house, although nothing was disturbed. They weren’t the only ones to hear something. The family dog, which had been sleeping at the foot of the bed, was also awakened by the mysterious sounds and was terrified and shaking. Eckert added that the sounds were repeated many times over the years, always around the anniversary of the murders.

Chris Nauman, who rented the house from Eckert in the early 1990s, reported his own chilling occurrences: “It was 6 o’clock in the morning, and there was a loud knock on the door. At the same time, my girlfriend heard someone walking up the steps in our basement.” Nauman, startled by the sounds, quickly checked the front door and the basement stairs, but found no sign of visitors or intruders. The next day, he shared his story with Randy Eckert, asking him about the anniversary of the Steltzenreide murders. Eckert confirmed it for him – the ghostly happenings had taken place on March 19, the anniversary of the murders.

Nauman still remembers the effect this had on him, “A cold shiver ran up my spine.”

To this day, the slaughter of the Steltzenreide family remains unsolved. While many suspects have been suggested over the years, there is no clear answer to the mystery. The area where the house once stood along Saxtown Road has changed very little since 1874, and it’s not hard to imagine the sheer terror of those who lived nearby after news of the murders began to spread. It’s a lonely, isolated area and, if the stories are to be believed, a haunted one. 

But what ghosts still walk in this place? Are they the tragic spirits of the Steltzenreides, still mourning the fact that their deaths have never been avenged? Or do the phantom footsteps and spectral knockings signal the presence of the killer’s wicked wraith, perhaps forced to remain here as a penance for the crime that he never answered to while among the living?
We may never really know, but for now, the haunting continues and the people of Millstadt continue to remember the day when horror visited their little town.

Friday, March 18, 2016


The True Story of Franklin Castle

In the middle 1990s, when I began writing about ghosts and hauntings across the Midwest, there was one house that I was frequently referred to by people in Ohio – Franklin Castle. Officially known as the Tiedemann mansion, the unusual structure had long been called the most haunted house in the state. During its long and rather odd history, the ghosts became an integral part of its lore. For years, tales were told of doors that exploded off their hinges, lights that spun around on their own, electrical circuits that behaved erratically, the inexplicable sounds of a baby crying, and even a woman in black who had been spotted staring forlornly from a small window in the front tower room.

According to local tales, there have always been ghosts in this house. And this should come as no surprise considering the dark deeds, murders, and diabolical events that have been linked to this place. But how many of those stories are true, and how many are merely the stuff of legend? 

Hannes Tiedemann
At the edge of Franklin Boulevard in Cleveland, you’ll find the castle – a place where it is hard to separate fact from fiction. It’s an eerie and forbidding stone structure that has long been considered a spooky place by history buffs, architects, and the general public alike. Rising high above the street, its stone tower looms over the property. The exterior is adorned with menacing gargoyles and for decades, its windows were dark and filled with shadows. There were originally over thirty rooms in the house and intricate carvings filled the interior. The entire third floor was a grand ballroom and the top floor offered sweeping views of the city and Lake Erie.  

And, of course, there were the rumors. Secret passageways, it was said, honeycombed the house and sliding panels were used to hide the entrances to these hidden corridors. It was claimed that a young girl was once murdered in one of these hallways by her uncle, because he believed her to be insane. In the front tower, a gruesome ax murder had once taken place and it was in that tower that one of the former owners found a secret cabinet that contained human bones. Cleveland’s Deputy Coroner, Dr. Lester Adelson, examined the bones in January 1975 and stated that they were very old, and definitely human. Many believed that the forgotten bones had been left there by the house’s original owner, a successful banker with a penchant for evil.

Hannes Tiedemann was a German immigrant to Cleveland, who started out as a barrel-maker and a wholesale grocer. He later turned to banking and founded the Euclid Avenue Savings & Trust, which made him very successful and very wealthy. He decided that he wanted a grand home that befit his newly acquired social status and hired the famed Cleveland architectural firm of Cuddell and Richardson to build it for him. When the house was designed in the late nineteenth century, Franklin Boulevard was one of the most upscale residential areas in Cleveland, perhaps second only to Euclid Avenue’s so-called “Millionaire’s Row.”

The house was built over the period of 1881-1883 and it was meant to not only provide an upscale residence for his family, but also to provide a temporary place for friends, family, and others emigrating from Germany to stay when they first arrived in Cleveland. The house replaced an earlier house on the property, which was torn down during the construction of the castle. Hannes moved into the house with his wife, Louise; his mother, Wiebeka; their children, August, Emma, and Dora; and several servants. More children were born, but the stories say that life in the castle was never happy. By 1891, it had turned tragic.

In January 1891, Tiedemman’s mother and his daughter, Emma, died within weeks of one another. Although Wiebeka’s death was from natural causes, Emma died from diabetes. In those days, death from the disease came as a horrible, lingering starvation for which there was no cure. Over the next three years, the Tiedemann family would bury three more children, one of them just 11 days old. It truly seemed as though the family was cursed.  

To take his wife’s mind off the tragedies, Tiedemann began extensive renovations on the house. It was during this expansion that the ballroom was added to the third floor, as well as the turrets and gargoyles on the exterior, giving the house a more castle-like appearance. Gas lighting was also installed throughout the house and, the legends say, so were the secret passages, concealed rooms, and hidden doors. Unfortunately, though, the hidden passageways and secret chambers in the house have vanished with time – if they existed at all. No trace of them can be found today, other than a small stairway that was used by the servants to get from the kitchen to the front door, which were commonly found in large homes of the era.

Of course, the absence of such mysterious passages tends to cast doubt on some of the more heinous stories of the house – that Hannes Tiedemann used the tunnels for his sexual indiscretions and even to commit murder. In one tunnel, leading away from the ballroom, Tiedemann was supposed to have murdered his niece by hanging her from a rafter. She was insane, it has been said, and he did it to put her out of her misery. He is also supposed to have murdered a young servant girl on her wedding day because she spurned his advances. Another version of this story claims the murdered woman was actually Tiedemman’s mistress, killed because she wanted to marry another man. Some say she is the woman in black who haunts the tower room. But, if there are no “secret passages” in the house, do the stories of the murders committed in them – stories that seem to form the foundation for the ghost stories in the house – have any truth to them at all?

Even without them, however, there was still plenty of death and tragedy linked to the house. On March 24, 1895, Louise Tiedemann died at the age of 57 from liver failure. Hannes remarried a short time later, leading many to speculate about the circumstances of Louise’s death. Soon after, Tiedemann sold the castle to a local brewing family named Mullhauser and moved to a grander home on Lake Road. His second marriage did not last long. He divorced her after only a year, leaving her with nothing. 

By 1908, Tiedemann’s entire family, including his son, August, and his grandsons, had passed away. There was no one left to inherit his fortune or to comfort him in his old age. Tiedemann died later that same year, suffering a massive stroke while walking in the park one day. Had the curse been lifted from the house, or was more tragedy coming?

The “Haunted House”
In 1913, the Mullhauser family sold the castle to the local German Socialist Party, who officially used the house for meetings and parties. Rumors quickly spread, though, that the Socialists were actually using the place as a headquarters for spy efforts during World War I. Years later, a German shortwave radio was allegedly found hidden in the rafters. The infamous “secret passages” were claimed to be the scene of a brutal murder during the Germans Socialist occupation of the house.

The house was mainly unoccupied during this time, but it’s possible that they may have rented out at least portions of it. During an interview in the 1970s, a Cleveland nurse recalled that she had cared for an ailing attorney in the castle in the 1930s. She remembered being often terrified at night by the sound of a small child crying. More than 40 years later, she told a reporter that she "would never set foot in that house again."

In January 1968, the German Socialist group sold the house to James Romano. Romano, his wife, and their six children, soon moved into the mansion, a place that Mrs. Romano had always been fascinated with. They planned to open a restaurant in the house, but soon changed their minds. On the very day that the family moved in, she sent her children upstairs to play. A little while later, they came back downstairs and asked if they could have a cookie for their new friend, a little girl who was upstairs crying. Mrs. Romano followed the children back upstairs, but found no little girl. 

Mrs. Romano also reported hearing organ music coming from different parts of the house, footsteps in the hallways and on the stairs, disembodied voices, and the sounds of people coming from the former ballroom. The Romanos consulted a Catholic priest, who declined to do an exorcism, but told them that he sensed a bad presence in the house. He advised them to leave. Instead, they turned to the now-defunct Northeast Ohio Psychical Research Group, who decided to investigate the castle. If the stories are to be believed, one of the ghost hunters actually ran screaming from the house in the middle of the investigation.  

After enduring years of ghostly activity, the Romanos had reached their limit by 1974, and sold the house to Sam Muscatello, who was eager to cash in on the castle’s eerie reputation. He began offering guided tours of the house and making notes about alleged encounters by visitors with the woman in black, strange sounds, vanishing objects, and cold spots in the castle. He also used the media to generate publicity and once, during a live segment on Cleveland radio, host John Webster had a tape recorder pulled off his shoulder and thrown down a staircase. Webster later recalled, "I just stood there holding the microphone as I watched the tape recorder go flying down to the bottom of the stairs, where it broke into pieces."

Another time, during a television piece, crew member Ted Ocepec witnessed a hanging ceiling light that suddenly began turning in circular motions. Someone suggested that perhaps traffic vibrations on the street outside had caused the movement of the light. Ocepec didn’t think so. "I just don’t know," he said, "but there’s something in that house."

Muscatello began searching for the alleged secret passages in the house and that was when he found a pile of human bones behind a panel in the tower. Although few deny that real human bones were removed from the castle, whom they belonged to and how they ended up there has been debated. Some took the bones as proof that Hannes Tiedemann was the murderer that legend claimed him to be, but others, however, believe that Muscatello stashed the bones there as “evidence” behind the haunting at Franklin Castle. 

Unable to make the castle into the tourist attraction that he had hoped it would be, Muscatello eventually decided to sell the place. It was purchased by a doctor, who later sold the house – for the same price he paid for it – to Cleveland’s Police Chief Richard Hongisto. The chief and his wife declared that the mansion would be the perfect place to live but then, less than a year later, they abruptly sold the house to George Mirceta, who knew nothing of the mansion’s reputation at the time. He bought the castle because of its gothic architecture, but soon learned that it was alleged to be haunted. Following in the footsteps of the Sam Mustatello, he started offering tours of the place.

Mirceta lived alone in the house, but had many visitors. During his tours, he asked his visitors to record any of their strange experiences in a guest book before they left. Some claimed to see a woman in white, others a woman in black. Some told of hearing babies crying, or seeing things move about. One woman even claimed that she felt like she was being choked in the tower room. Mirceta admitted that he couldn’t explain all of his experiences in the house, but he maintained that it was not haunted. If it was, he told a reporter, he would too scared to live there. "There has to be a logical explanation for everything," he told an interviewer.

To the Present Day
In 1984, the house was sold again. It was purchased by Michael DeVinko, who almost immediately began making major renovations to the house. DeVinko, whose stage name was Mickey Dean and who was the last husband of singer and actress Judy Garland, spent close to $1 million restoring the house over the next decade. He claimed to have no problems with the resident ghosts, but surmised that it may have been because he was taking care of the old place again. He successfully tracked down the original blueprints to the house, some of the Tiedemann furniture, and even the original key to the front door, which still worked. Despite all this, DeVinko still decided to move out and put the house up for sale in 1994. 

The castle was sold again in 1999, but was torched by an arsonist soon after, causing substantial damage to the place. The new owner spent a large sum of money in repairs but was never able to complete the restoration of the house. During the time that he worked on the house, the owner stated that he was unsure if it was haunted, or whether he believed in ghosts at all. However, he did say that many of his friends and family had odd experiences in the castle. He added that it was not a scary place, but it was a little creepy, especially in the middle of the night. He said, “I've heard strange sounds and hoped to see something or hear something that would prove to me that ghosts exist, but so far it hasn't happened. So far it's been no spookier than sleeping alone in any old house that creaks in the wind or has rattling pipes."

In 2003, the house was sold once more and the new owner, a local land developer, announced hopes of renovating the mansion and turning it into the Franklin Castle Club, with a restricted membership. But three years later, it was discovered that there was no truth to the “plan.” No repairs had been made and photographs that had been publicized were either close-ups of individual pieces of architecture, or were older pictures from other sources. No work had been done, no memberships sold, and there were even claims that the house had been used a location for filming pornography. The owners were no longer permitted to allow anyone on the property.

Five more years passed and in July 2011, it was announced that the castle had been rezoned to allow it to become a three-family dwelling, and a sale was pending. It was purchased later that year by a European tapestry artist named Chiara Dona dale Rose. A permit was granted for residential exterior alterations in 2012 and local news sources reported that it was to be converted into a multiple-unit property. Renovations have been made, but it remains a work in progress, and closed to the public.

Is Franklin Castle truly as haunted as the stories say, or are the legends of the house simply tall tales that were overblown by previous owners to get paying tourists in the door? At this point, no one can say for sure. As more of the incorrect history of the house has been debunked, the source of the ghost stories becomes harder to find. But if we dismiss the stories of Hannes Tiedemann as a brutal killer and the tales of secret passages and mysterious murders, does that mean the castle is not haunted at all? No, I don’t believe that it does. No matter what, the castle is a place that is marked by both tragedy and death and the events of the past may have certainly left an impression behind. As with other legendary spots, it may turn out that Franklin Castle is just as haunted as we have already heard that it is – just not for the reasons that myth and legends about the place like to claim.

By Troy Taylor / American Hauntings
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Friday, February 12, 2016


Did Life Imitate Art in 1934?

It was the summer of 1906 and a young woman named Grace Brown – 20-years-old and a few months pregnant – was on her way to the Adirondacks region of New York to be married, or so she thought. She had spent the last several months living on her parents’ farm, writing desperate letters to her boyfriend, Chester Gillette, begging him to marry her and make an honest woman out of her.

Chester, who claimed that he loved the pretty young woman, had no urge to settle down. Although he came from a poor family, Chester was college educated and his uncle owned the factory where Grace had worked. He believed he was several social rungs above his lover, a young girl that he had seduced and then forgotten. He wanted to marry one of the daughters of a wealthy man in town, not a struggling factory worker and daughter of poor farmers. He pursued other women and when Grace learned of this, she threatened to expose her pregnancy and ruin his life – but all that would be forgotten if they married.

The threat seemed to have the desired effect and Chester invited Grace on vacation to the Adirondacks. It was a sort of pre-wedding honeymoon. On July 6, they checked into the Glenmore Inn on Big Moose Lake, using assumed names. After settling in, they rented a rowboat for a picnic on the lake. The boat was never returned and Grace was never seen alive again. Her drowned corpse was found floating in the lake the following morning. Chester was arrested three days later. Although he claimed to be innocent, he was tried for Grace’s murder, convicted, and died in the electric chair in March 1908.

The trial was a media sensation, but was soon forgotten. The sad tale would have likely faded into obscurity if not for author Theodore Dreiser. For years, the writer had been searching for a crime that embodied his own personal obsessions with sex and social ambitions in America. He found the perfect material in the life and crimes of Chester Gillette. In 1925, he published his bestselling work, An American Tragedy, based on the murder. The story of the trusting young woman and her murderous, social-climbing beau became a part of American culture.

But then a story of art imitating life was turned around in 1934 when An American Tragedy was brought to life.

On the evening of July 30, 1934, Robert Allen Edwards – a clean-cut, church-going, 21-year-old, with striking good looks that made him very popular with the opposite sex – took his girlfriend, a homely but outgoing 27-year-old named Freda McKechnie for a drive. The young couple stopped by to visit Freda’s seven-year-old niece, and then went on to Harveys Lake, a popular resort located about 12 miles west of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Freda and Bobby – as everyone called him – both came from respectable families. They Lived around the corner from one another in Edwardsville, Pennsylvania, and attended the same church. The young couple spent a great deal of time together -- much more time, in fact, than their parents suspected. Besides the usual small town activities like church socials, picnics and movie dates, they passed many hours in various secluded romance spots, including the town cemetery. Despite the difference in their ages and the glaring disparity in their physical attractiveness, everyone assumed the two sweethearts would eventually get married.

Bobby, though, had other ideas. Three years earlier, he had gone off to Mansfield State Teachers College (now Mansfield University), where the popular, black-haired young man was elected president of the freshman class. While there, he met a talented singer and pianist, a senior named Margaret Crain. The bespectacled brunette came from a middle-class family from East Aurora, New York. Though Margaret was, by all accounts, even less attractive than Freda, Bobby was entranced with her. Margaret was flattered by his attention. No young men had been interested in her before, and she soon succumbed to her handsome lover’s charms. Before long, they had started a passionate affair.

With American still in the grip of the Depression, Bobby was forced to drop out of college in his junior year. He moved back home to live with his parents, and took a job with the Kingston Coal Co., where his father and Freda’s father both worked.  By then, Margaret had graduated and was working as a high school music teacher in Endicott, New York. Although separated by more than two hundred miles, they kept up a steady correspondence, sending fervent, heartsick letters back and forth. In his letters, Robert called her “my dear wife” and made pledges of future matrimony.

Bobby Edwards and Freda McKechnie

Eventually, Margaret gave Robert $100 to make a down payment on a used 1931 Chevrolet, which they nicknamed “The Bum.” The car would be jointly owned, and Bobby would use it to travel to see her. Sometimes, they would meet midway for trysts at the Plaza Hotel in Scranton. Over the next year, Robert made regular weekend trips to Margaret’s family’s home, where he impressed her parents as a fine young man who would be a worthwhile future son-in-law.

But what Margaret and her parents didn’t know was that during his time back home in Edwardsville, Bobby was still sleeping with Freda McKechnie. This affair would likely have remained a secret if not for the fact that, on July 23, 1934, Freda had gone to a doctor and learned that she was four months pregnant. When she broke the news to Bobby the following day, he agreed to do the right thing and marry her. They would elope to West Virginia. The date was set for August 1, just a week away, after Bobby received his next paycheck. Thrilled, Freda began assembling a trousseau. Many would recall later that they had never seen her so happy.

On Monday night, July 30, after a dinner at the McKechnie home, Bobby and Freda went out for a drive. Even though the sun had set and a hard rain was falling, Freda – giggling with excitement over the upcoming wedding – proposed that they go for a swim at Harveys Lake, one of their favorite trysting spots. They arrived there shortly after 9:00 p.m. and parked at a spot called Sandy Beach. They changed into swimsuits and waded out into the water.

An hour later, Bobby left the beach alone.

Early the next morning, a 15-year-old girl named Irene Cohen was canoeing on the lake with her younger brother and one of her friends when she spotted a woman’s body, wearing an orange bathing suit, floating face-down beneath the water. Terrified, she paddled over to Sandy Beach and got two lifeguards, who plunged into the water and pulled the lifeless body out onto the sand.

The police were summoned, along with a local physician, Dr. Harry Brown, who quickly determined that the woman had not drowned. She had died from a savage blow to the back of her head with a blunt instrument. When he removed her bathing cap, clotted blood came out, and he could see a laceration on the top of her head. The murder weapon was discovered a short time later when investigators, who scoured the beach, found a leather-covered blackjack in the sand. By then, the victim had been identified as Freda McKechnie, whose parents had spent a sleepless night wondering why their daughter had never returned home from her drive with Bobby Edwards.

Within hours, Edwards had been picked up by the police on suspicion of murder. At first, he denied that he and Freda had gone to the lake at all. He told the police that after driving around for a little while, he had dropped Freda off in town. Then had gone to meet some friends whose names he could not remember. When investigators revealed that the tire tracks found at the crime scene matched the tires on his car, he sheepishly admitted that he had been lying and offered to tell “what really happened.”

He admitted that he and Freda had, in fact, driven out to Sandy Beach. Even though it was raining and there were flashes of lightning in the sky, they decided to go swimming. After changing into their bathing suits, they “went into the water and waded to the float.” (This was a wooden platform floating on top of metal barrels that offered swimmers a place to relax in the sun.) Edwards went on, “I got a notion to dive. I dove. When I came back up, my hand struck her under the chin. She fell backward and hit her head against the float.”

Stunned but still conscious, she had swum out farther into the water. A moment later, according to his wildly implausible account, Edwards saw “her white bathing cap disappear. I went out for her but couldn’t find her. I went back, got in my car and drove away.”

On the morning after his arrest, police officers took him out to the crime scene to get his version of the events once more. He revised his story again. This time, Edwards admitted that he had hit Freda with the blackjack. But he insisted that she was already dead when he hit her.

In this version of events, he and Freda had taken a rowboat out to the float. After swimming for a little while, Freda complained of being cold. As she stepped back into the rowboat to return to shore, she suddenly collapsed. Edwards tried to revive her but was unable to find a heartbeat. Panicking, he swam back to shore and ran to his car. As he climbed in, he thought of the blackjack. It belonged to his father, and he had put it in his glove box -- for protection, he said. He told the investigators, “It occurred to me that if there was some mark on Freda’s body, it might look like her death was an accident and I would be left out of it. I knew Freda was pregnant. I knew she was not allowed to swim. When I returned to the boat, she was in the same position. She had not revived. I could do nothing. I put her head on my left arm and struck her on the back of the head with the blackjack. I didn’t even realize what I had done, and I carried the body out to the water up to my chest and let it drop.”

By this time, the investigators knew that Edwards was in a relationship with another woman and had a compelling motive to do away with Freda, who was secretly pregnant with his child. When they confronted him with all of the circumstantial evidence against him, he finally broke down. This time, he revealed the truth of the murder. He choked, “Freda didn’t faint. She didn’t fall and hurt herself. I had been thinking of doing this since she told me she was to become a mother – because I wanted to marry Margaret Crain. We swam for a while. We talked about her having a baby. The water was a little over four feet deep, and when she ducked down once, she came back up with her back to me. I pulled out the blackjack quick and hit her on the back of the head. I hit her with the blackjack and then I left her in the water.”

After tossing the murder weapon into the lake, Edwards got dressed and drove home. He even stopped along the way at an all-night drugstore to buy some chocolate bars for his mother. Before going to bed, he hung his swimsuit on the backyard clothesline to dry. He slept soundly that night and got up and went to work the next morning as if nothing had happened at all.

No one knows which reporter first dubbed the case the “American Tragedy Murder.” Newspapermen from two Philadelphia papers, the Record and the Bulletin, both claimed to have dreamed it up, as did a writer for the United Press syndicate, and a reporter from the New York Times. It’s not hard to imagine that all of them latched onto the idea independently, since the details of this latest tragedy were strikingly similar to the case that spawned Theodore Dreiser’s bestselling book and the recent film. Within days of Edwards’ arrest, newspapers all over the country were suggesting that the novel – or more likely the movie version of it – had provided the confessed killer with the blueprint for his crime.

As is the case with just about every work of literature or mass entertainment that has been blamed for inciting a murder, there turned out to be no truth to the accusation. By all accounts, Edwards had never read the book or seen the film that was based on it. Still, the startling resemblance between the murder of Freda McKechnie and Dreiser’s fictionalized version of the Chester Gillette-Grace Brown case turned the story into a national sensation.

Dreiser himself saw the Edwards case as “an exact duplicate of the story which I had written” and wondered whether “my book had produced the crime.” When the New York Post offered to pay him to travel to Pennsylvania and cover the trial, he eagerly accepted. On the opening day of the trial, October 1, 1934, he was one of 50 reporters who jammed into the Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. The scene, he wrote, was “quite a spectacle.”

The hundreds of spectators who pushed and shoved their way into the courtroom, hoping for an exciting show, were not disappointed. The questionable high point came when the district attorney read a series of Bobby’s steamy love letters to Freda McKechnie. The contents were allegedly so salacious that, according to one observer, they made John Cleland’s pornographic classic Fanny Hill: or the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure “look like a toned-down version of Little Women.”

By then, Edwards – whom the papers were gleefully calling “the Playboy of the Anthracite Fields” – had recanted his confession and gone back to his claim that Freda had died accidentally. His testimony failed to persuade the jury, and they took only 12 hours to convict him and sentence him to death.

Theodore Dreiser was unhappy with the verdict. He believed that Edwards, like his predecessor Chester Gillette, was a victim of tremendous American social pressures. Dating back to his days as a newspaper reporter in Chicago, Dreiser had “observed a certain type of crime in the United States.” It was one that “seemed to spring from the fact that almost every young person was possessed of an ingrowing ambition to be somebody financially and socially.” This distinctly American brand of crime, according to Dreiser, involved “the young ambitious lover of some poorer girl who had been attractive enough to satisfy him until a more attractive girl with more money or position appeared and he quickly discovered that he could no longer care for his first love. What produced this particular type of crime was the fact that it was not always possible to drop this first girl. What usually stood in the way was pregnancy.”

To support this claim, he pointed to a half-dozen such murders, including the Gillette-Brown case of 1906 that had served as the basis for An American Tragedy. It wasn’t a perfect fit, as Margaret Crain’s family was not rich; she was a high school music teacher and her brother was a Baptist minister, but still, the two cases had much in common. Dreiser blamed the crimes committed by these men on American society and its “craze for social and money success.” He believed that Edwards was just another in a long line of such killers. Dreiser was one of hundreds of people who wrote to Governor George H. Earle in a futile attempt to win a pardon for the condemned young man.

Just after midnight on May 6, 1935, after spending hours reading his family Bible, Edwards walked calmly to the electric chair at Rockview Penitentiary in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. According to one reporter, he was murmuring a prayer as the black hood was placed over his head.

This American tragedy had finally come to an end. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016


A Few of Chicago's Other Highway Phantoms

The tale of the vanishing hitchhiker is a classic American ghost story. There is not a single part of the country that does not boast at least one tale about a pale young girl who accepts a ride with a stranger, only to vanish from the car before they reach their destination. 

Stories like this have been a part of American lore for many years and tales of spectral passengers (usually young women) are often attached to bridges, dangerous hills and intersections and graveyards. Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand calls the vanishing hitchhiker "the classic automobile legend" but stories of these spirits date back as far as the middle 1800s, when men told stories of ghostly women who appeared on the backs of their horses. These spectral riders always disappeared when they reached their destination and would often prove to be the deceased daughters of local farmers. Not much has changed in the stories that are still told today, outside of the preferred method of transportation.

Today, such tales are usually referred to as "urban legends." They are stories that have been told and re-told over the years and in most every case have been experienced by the proverbial "friend of a friend" and have no real basis in fact -- or do they?
Are all of these stories, as some would like us to believe, nothing more than folklore? Are they simply tales that have been made up and have been spread across the country over a long period of time? Perhaps this is the case…or perhaps not. 

One has to wonder how such stories got started in the first place. Could any of them have a basis in truth? What if a strange incident --- perhaps an encounter with a vanishing hitchhiker --- actually happened somewhere and then was told, and re-told, to the point that it lost many of the elements of truth? As the story spread, it came to be embraced by people all over the country until it became a part of their local lore. It has long been believed that people willingly provide an explanation for something that they cannot understand. This is usually done by creating mythology that made sense at the time. Who knows if there may be a very small kernel of truth hidden inside some of the folk tales that sends shivers down your spine?

Tales of phantom hitchhikers can be found all over the world but in no area are they as prevalent as they are in and around the city of Chicago, which is home, of course, to America’s most famous ghost, Resurrection Mary. (For the complete story of Mary – and her true identity – see my book on the subject, aptly titled Resurrection Mary). There are a number of mysterious phantoms to be found in the Chicago area, from the typical vanishing hitchers of legend and lore to what some have dubbed "prophesying passengers" -- strange hitchhikers who are picked up and then pass along odd messages, usually involving the end of the world or something almost as dire.

A good example of such a passenger was reported during Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, when a group of people in an automobile told of a strange encounter. They were traveling along Lake Shore Drive when a woman with a suitcase, standing by the roadside, hailed them. They invited her to ride along with them and she climbed in. They later said that they never really got a good look at her because it was dark outside.

As they drove along, they got into a conversation about the exposition and the mysterious woman solemnly told them, "The fair is going to slide off into Lake Michigan in September." She then gave them her address in Chicago and invited them to call on her anytime. When they turned around to speak to her again, they discovered that she had disappeared!

Unnerved, they decided to go to the address the woman gave them and when they did, a man answered the door. They explained to him why they had come to the house and he merely nodded his head. "Yes, that was my wife. She died four years ago,” he said.

The mysterious passenger may have been a ghost but she was obviously not a well-informed one; despite her warning, the Exposition stubbornly refused to slide into the lake.

“Screaming Lizzie”
A tragic murder occurred at streetcar stop at the intersection of Carmen and Lincoln avenues on November 18, 1905, when a young woman named Lizzie Kaussehull was killed by a crazed stalker named Edward Robhaut, who had been pursuing her for three months. During that time, Robhaut had tried unsuccessfully to win Lizzie’s heart. He constantly bothered her, wrote her letters, sent her flowers, and simply refused to accept her rejection. Neighbors later recalled that he frequently waited around the corner of Lincoln and Carmen, waiting for the streetcar that would bring Lizzie home from her job at Moeller & Stange’s grocery store, located farther south on Lincoln. Lizzie did her best to ignore him  but he followed her home every night. 

Lizzie became so fearful for her life that her family reported Robhaut’s behavior to the police, including the fact that he told Lizzie that he would kill her if she would not marry him. Robhaut was arrested and a restraining order (called a "peace bond" in those days) was filed against him on November 11, but it had no effect on his actions. He continued to follow her home from the streetcar stop each afternoon, begging her to marry him and threatening to kill her if she did not. 

On November 18, Lizzie finished her shift at Moeller & Stange’s and, as always, rode the streetcar north on Lincoln. When she reached her stop, she stepped off with several girlfriends, all of them laughing and talking. Then, she saw Robhaut leaning against the wall of a nearby storefront. Lizzie’s friends froze and Lizzie shakily put up a hand and stammered in his direction that the peace bond was still in place against him. Robhaut suddenly ran toward her and Lizzie began to scream.

Robhaut sprang upon her and plunged a knife into Lizzie’s chest. She staggered away from him, but Robhaut attacked again, stabbing her three more times. Finally, her dress soaked with blood, she fell to the sidewalk. Robhaut looked down at the woman that he claimed to love so ardently that he had to kill her because he couldn’t have her, drew a revolver, placed the barrel into his mouth, and pulled the trigger. The back of Robhaut’s skull blew out in a red spray of gore and his body collapsed on top of Lizzie’s. They were finally together – in death.

But this was not the end of the story. According to legend, Lizzie’s ghost has haunted the intersection at Lincoln and Carmen for more than a century now. The stories claim that, on nights of the full moon, Lizzie returns to the former streetcar stop and can be heard screaming – just as she did when she saw Edward Robhaut lurching toward her on the day that he ended her life.

The Flapper Ghost
Another ghostly hitchhiker haunts the roadways between the site of the old Melody Mill Ballroom and Waldheim Cemetery, which is located at 1800 South Harlem Ave in Chicago. 

The cemetery, once known as Jewish Waldheim, is one of the more peaceful and attractive graveyards in the area and is easily recognizable by the columns that are mounted at the front gates. They were once part of the old Cook County Building, which was demolished in 1908. This cemetery would most likely go quietly through its existence if not for the tales of the "Flapper Ghost," as the resident spirit has been dubbed.

The story of this beautiful spirit tells of her earthly existence as a young Jewish girl who attended dances at the Melody Mill Ballroom, formerly on South Des Plaines Avenue in west suburban North Riverside. During its heyday, the ballroom was one of the city's favorite venues for dancing and played host to dozens of popular big bands from the 1920s to the middle 1980s. The brick building was topped with a miniature windmill, the ballroom's trademark. 
This young woman was a very attractive brunette with bobbed hair and a penchant for dressing in the style of the Prohibition era. In later years, witnesses would claim that her ghost dressed like a "flapper" and this is how she earned her nickname. Legend has it that this lovely girl was a regular at the Melody Mill until she died of peritonitis, the result of a burst appendix. 

The girl was buried at Jewish Waldheim and she likely would have been forgotten, to rest in peace, if strange things had not started to happen a few months later. The events began as staff members at the Melody Mill began to see a young woman who looked just like the deceased girl appearing at dances at the ballroom. A number of men actually claimed to meet the girl here and to have offered her a ride home. During the journey, the young woman always vanished. This fetching phantom was also known to hitch rides on Des Plaines Avenue, outside the ballroom, and was also sometimes seen near the gates to the cemetery. Some travelers who passed the graveyard also claimed to see her entering a mausoleum that was located off Harlem Avenue. 

Although recent sightings have been few, the ghost was most active in 1933, during the Century of Progress Exhibition. She became active again forty years later, during the early 1970s, and stayed active for nearly a decade. 

In the early 1930s, she was often reported at the ballroom, where she would dance with young men and ask for a ride home at the end of the evening. Every report was basically the same; a young man would agree to drive the girl home and she would give him directions to go east on Cermak Road, then north on Harlem Avenue. When they reached the cemetery, the girl always asked the driver to stop the car. The girl would explain to her escort that she lived in the caretaker's house (since demolished) and then get out of the car. One man stated that he watched the girl go towards the house but then duck around the side of it. Curious, he climbed out of the car to see where she was going and saw her run out into the cemetery and vanish among the tombstones. 

Another young man, who was also told that the girl lived in the caretaker's house, decided to come back during the day and to ask about her at the house. He had become infatuated with her and hoped to take her dancing again on another evening. His questions to the occupants of the house were met with blank stares and bafflement. No such girl lived, or had ever lived, at the house.
More sightings took place in the early 1970s and one report even occurred during the daylight hours. A family was visiting the cemetery one day and was startled to see a young woman dressed like a flapper walking toward a crypt, where she suddenly disappeared. The family hurried over to the spot, only to find that the girl was not there and there was nowhere to which she could have vanished so quickly. 

Since that time, sightings of the flapper have been few; this may be because the old Melody Mill is no more. The days of jazz and big bands were gone by the 1980s and attendance on weekend evenings continued to slip until the place was closed in 1985. It was later demolished and a new building was put up in its place two years later. Has the Flapper Ghost simply moved on to the other side since her favorite dance spot has disappeared? Perhaps -- and perhaps she is still kicking up her heels on a dance floor in another time and place, where it's 1933 every day!

Chicago Avenue Mary
The town of Naperville, an affluent suburb located southwest of Chicago, is home to another of the region’s roadside ghosts. In this case, the spirit in question doesn’t hitch rides with passing motorists, she actually makes her spectral rounds on foot, which has created a romantic legend over the years that just may have a basis in truth. 

The story of Chicago Avenue Mary, as she has come to be called, began more than a century and a half ago when a pale, devastated young women was seen crossing Chicago Avenue and vanishing into the gloom of the evening. Mary appeared from a home located on the corner of Chicago Avenue and Ellsworth Street in Naperville that once belonged to the E.E. Miller family. Some have surmised that Mary was their daughter but others believe that her true story is actually much older than that, largely based on the clothing that the phantom reportedly wears. It seems that every year, on what legend held was the anniversary of her death, Mary walked through the front door of the house, down to the sidewalk, turned right and walked to the corner. She crossed Chicago Avenue and walked down the hill, where she eventually disappeared. 

In every report, Mary was described in exactly the same way. Every detail of her hair and clothing was alike, even though the sightings occurred throughout several generations to people who were strangers to one another. The stories claimed that she was wearing the same clothing she wore on the day of her death – a long blue skirt of a rough-spun material and a white blouse with puffy sleeves, similar to women’s clothing styles in the middle 1800s. Mary was always described as a pretty young girl, possibly in her early to mid-twenties, with curly, brown hair pulled up in an old-fashioned style. 

The other thing that witnesses always seem to remember about the young woman is the look of terrible pain, anguish and desperation on her face. Her eyes are filled with unbearable grief. She appears to be haunted, they say, for lack of a better term.

Mary has been seen on Chicago Avenue for many years but perhaps the most publicized sighting occurred in the late 1970s. Two college students were driving east on Chicago Avenue one night when a woman suddenly walked out in the street in front of their car. The driver slammed on his brakes but was unable to stop in time and he collided with the woman – or would have, if she had actually been there. The woman had mysteriously vanished. The couple searched the area, but there was no woman – injured or otherwise – to be found. 

The legend of Chicago Avenue Mary tells of events that allegedly occurred in the middle 1800s, when a young Naperville couple fell in love. Mary and her boyfriend often met at a small, tree-shaded pool ringed with quarry limestone that was not far from where Mary lived. One day, after the two had become engaged, Mary’s fiancée accidentally fell into the pool and struck his head on a rock. The blow knocked him unconscious and before Mary could summon help, he drowned in the cool water. Mary was unable to forgive herself for not being able to save her lover’s life and she slipped into a terrible depression. She refused to leave the house except to walk to the pool where her fiancée had died --- leaving her front door, turning right down the sidewalk, crossing Chicago Avenue and walking down the hill to sit beside the water. She refused to eat or drink. She simply sat there, staring into the water, until her father or mother could come and lead her back home by the hand every evening.

Soon, Mary could stand no more and one night, she locked herself into her bedroom and committed suicide. Some say that she swallowed poison and others claim she hanged herself, but the end result was the same – she believed that she could be with her lover for eternity. Her grieving parents buried her next to him in the Naperville Cemetery.

But Mary’s spirit was unable to find peace. On the first anniversary of her death, locals were stunned to see her leaving her house, walking to the corner of Chicago Avenue and Ellsworth Street and wandering down the hill toward the pool where she had mourned for her fiancée. She appeared year after year. Many brave souls attempted to communicate with her but she vanished when she was approached. After an iron fence was erected around the pool, Mary passed right through it since it did not exist in her place and time. 

The romantic legend of Chicago Avenue Mary is often dismissed as a folk story – a tale of a woman with no last name, a fiancée whose name was never known and a series of events that likely never happened. Or did they? E.E. Miller, who once owned the house at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Ellsworth Street had a daughter named Mary, but she did not commit suicide, nor was she ever engaged to man who accidentally died. 

So, if Mary is not this young woman, then perhaps she was another? Historical records show that the first house that was built on the corner belonged to Captain Morris Sleight and his wife, Hannah. The Miller House was later constructed by adding onto the home that already existed on the property. The Sleights had a daughter named Rosalie, who died on February 9, 1853, at the age of 23. Her cause of death was not listed, leading some to believe that she might have taken her own life. Her age at the time of her death, and the clothing of the period, leads us to believe that perhaps this is the “Mary” that haunted this particular roadside for so many years. 

Whoever Mary might have been in life, she seemed doomed to repeat her annual journey over and over again through the 1960s. After that, Chicago Avenue Mary sightings became sporadic and finally tapered off in the middle 1980s. Many believe that Mary still walks today, but if she does it’s unlikely that she recognizes the place that she once loved – then hated – for so long. The small spring has since been turned into a large pond by North Central College, with a fountain, landscaping and memorial plaques to designate donations from the families of college alumni. The old milk house that once stood at the site, along with the metal bench where Mary and her lover reportedly sat, is gone. The home from which the phantom girl emerged was destroyed in 2007 and was replaced by the Wentz Fine Arts Center, further erasing another remnant of Mary’s past. 


The Tragic Tale of Louisa Luetgert

   The story of Adolph Luetgert has its beginnings in the heart of Chicago's Northwest Side, a place once filled with factories, middle-class homes, and with a large immigrant population. The murder of Luetgert's wife, Louisa, has an unusual place in the history of Chicago crime in that it was one of the only murders to ever drastically affect the sale of food for the better part of the summer of 1897.

Adolph Luetgert was born in Germany and came to America after the Civil War. He lived for a time in Quincy, Ill., and then came to Chicago in 1872, where he pursued several trades, including farming and leather tanning. Eventually, he started a wholesale liquor business near Dominick Street. He later turned to sausage making, where he found his greatest success. After finding out that his German-style sausages were quite popular in Chicago, he built a sausage plant in 1894 at the southwest corner of Hermitage and Diversey. It would be here where the massive German would achieve his greatest success - and his shocking infamy.

Herman Lutegert

Although the hard-working Luetgert soon began to put together a considerable fortune, he was an unhappy and restless man. Luetgert had married his first wife, Caroline Rabaker, in 1872. She gave birth to two boys, only one of whom survived childhood. Caroline died five years later, in November 1877. Luetgert sold his liquor business in 1879 and moved to the corner of North and Clybourn avenues, where he started his first sausage-packing plant in the same building where he lived. Two months after Caroline's death, Luetgert married an attractive younger woman. This did little to ease his restlessness, however, and he was rumored to be engaged in several extramarital affairs during the time when he built a three-story frame house next door to the sausage factory. He resided there with his son and new wife.

His wife, Louisa Bicknese Luetgert, was a beautiful young woman 10 years younger than her husband. She was a former servant from the Fox River Valley who met her new husband by chance. He was immediately taken with her, entranced by her diminutive stature and tiny frame. She was less than five feet tall and looked almost child-like next to her burly husband. As a wedding gift, he gave her a unique, heavy gold ring with her initials inscribed inside. He had no idea at the time that this ring would later be his undoing. 

Louisa Luetgert

After less than three years of business, Luetgert's finances began to fail. Even though his factory turned out large quantities of sausages, Luetgert found that he could not meet his supplier's costs. Instead of trying to reorganize his finances, though, he and his business advisor, William Charles, made plans to expand. They attempted to secure more capital to enlarge the factory but, by April 1897, it had all fallen apart. Luetgert, deep in depression, sought solace with his various mistresses and his excesses, and business losses began taking a terrible toll on his marriage. Neighbors frequently heard him and Louisa arguing and their disagreements became so heated that Luetgert eventually moved his bedroom from the house to a small chamber inside the factory. Soon after, Louisa found out that her husband was having an affair with the family's maid, Mary Simerling, who also happened to be Louisa's niece. She was enraged at this news and this new scandal got the attention of the people in the neighborhood, who were already gossiping about the couple's marital woes.
Luetgert soon gave the neighbors even more to gossip about. One night, during another shouting match with Louisa, he responded to her indignation over his affair with Mary by taking his wife by the throat and choking her. Before she collapsed, Luetgert saw neighbors peering in at him from the parlor window of their home, and he released her. A few days later, Luetgert was seen chasing his wife down the street. He was shouting at her and waving a revolver. After a couple of blocks, Luetgert broke off the chase and walked silently back to the factory. 
Then, on May 1, 1897, Louisa disappeared. When questioned about it, Luetgert stated that Louisa had gone out the previous evening to visit her sister. After several days, though, she did not come back. Soon after, Diedrich Bicknese, Louisa's brother, came to Chicago and called on his sister. He was informed that she was not at home. He came back later and, finding Luetgert at home, he demanded to know where Louisa was. Luetgert calmly told him that Louisa had disappeared on May 1 and had never returned. When Diedrich demanded to know why Luetgert had not informed the police about Louisa's disappearance, the sausage-maker simply told him that he was trying to "avoid a scandal" but that he had paid two detectives $5 to try and find her.

Diedrich immediately began searching for his sister. He went to Kankakee, thinking that perhaps she might be visiting friends there, but found no one who had seen her. He returned to Chicago and when he found that Louisa still had not come home, now having abandoned her children for days. Worried and suspicious, Diedrich went to the police and spoke with Captain Herman Schuettler. 

The detective and his men joined in the search for Louisa. They questioned neighbors and relatives and heard many recitations about the couple's violent arguments. Captain Schuettler was familiar with Luetger; he had dealings with him in the past. He summoned the sausage-maker to the precinct house on two occasions and each time, pressed him about his wife. Schuettler recalled a time when the Luetgerts had lost a family dog, an event that prompted several calls from Luetgert, but when his wife had gone missing, he noted that Luetgert had never contacted him. Luetgert again used the excuse that as a "prominent businessman," he could not afford the disgrace and scandal. 

The police began searching the alleyways and dragging the rivers. They also went to the sausage factory and began questioning the employees. One of them, Wilhelm Fulpeck, recalled seeing Louisa around the factory at about 10:30 p.m. on May 1. A young German girl named Emma Schiemicke, passed by the factory with her sister at about the same time on that evening and remembered seeing Luetgert leading his wife up the alleyway behind the factory. 

Frank Bialk, a night watchman at the plant, confirmed both stories. He had also seen Luetgert and Louisa at the sausage factory that night. He only got a glimpse of Louisa, but saw his employer several times. Shortly after the couple entered the factory, Luetgert had come back outside, gave Bialk a dollar and asked him to get him a bottle of celery compound from a nearby drugstore. When the watchman returned with the medicine, he was surprised to find the door leading into the main factory was locked. Luetgert appeared and took the medicine. He made no comment about the locked door and sent Bialk back to the engine room.

A little while later, Luetgert again approached the watchman and sent him back to the drugstore to buy a bottle of medicinal spring water. While the watchman had been away running errands, Luetgert had apparently been working alone in the factory basement. He had turned on the steam under the middle vat a little before 9:00 p.m. and it was still running when Bialk returned. The watchman reported that Luetgert had remained in the basement until about 2: 00 a.m.
Bialk found him fully dressed in his office the next day. He asked whether or not the fires under the vat should be put out and Luetgert told him to leave them burning, which was odd since the factory had been closed several weeks during Luetgert's financial re-organization. Bialk did as he was told, though, and went down to the basement. There, he saw a hose sending water into the middle vat and on the floor in front of it was a sticky, glue-like substance. Bialk noticed that it seemed to contain bits of bone, but he thought nothing of it. Luetgert used all sorts of waste meats to make his sausage and he assumed that this was all it was.

On May 3, another employee, Frank Odorowsky, known as "Smokehouse Frank," also noticed the slimy substance on the factory floor. He feared that someone had boiled something in the factory without Luetgert's knowledge, so he went to his employer to report it. Luetgert told him not to mention the brown slime. As long as he kept silent, Luetgert said, he would have a good job for the rest of his life. Frank went to work scraping the slime off the floor and poured it into a nearby drain that led to the sewer. The larger chunks of waste were placed in a barrel and Luetgert told him to take the barrel out to the railroad tracks and scatter the contents there. 

Following these interviews, Schuettler made another disturbing and suspicious discovery. A short time before Louisa's disappearance, even though the factory had been closed during the re-organization, Luetgert had ordered 325 pounds of crude potash and 50 pounds of arsenic from Lor Owen & Company, a wholesale drug firm. It was delivered to the factory the next day. Another interview with Frank Odorowsky revealed what had happened to the chemicals. On April 24, Luetgert had asked Smokehouse Frank to move the barrel of potash to the factory basement, where there were three huge vats that were used to boil down sausage material. The corrosive chemicals were all dumped into the middle vat and Luetgert turned on the steam beneath it, dissolving the material into liquid.

Combining this information with the eyewitness accounts, Captain Schuettler began to theorize about the crime. Circumstantial evidence seemed to show that Luetgert killed his wife and boiled her in the sausage vats to dispose of the body. The more that the policeman considered this scenario, the more convinced that he became that this is what had happened. Hoping to prove his theory, he and his men started another search of the sausage factory and he soon made a discovery that became one of the most gruesome in the annals of Chicago crime. 
On May 15, a search was conducted of the 12-foot-long, five-foot-deep middle vat that was two-thirds filled with a brownish, brackish liquid. The officers drained the greasy paste from the vat, using gunnysacks as filters, and began poking through the residue with sticks. It wasn't long before Officer Walter Dean found several pieces of bone and two gold rings. One of them was a badly tarnished friendship ring and the other was a heavy gold band that had been engraved with the initials "L.L.".
Louisa Luetgert had worn both of the rings.
After they were analyzed, the bones were found to be definitely human - a third rib; part of a humerus, or great bone in the arm; a bone from the palm of a human hand; a bone from the fourth toe of a right foot; fragments of bone from a human ear and a larger bone from a foot. 

Adolph Luetgert, proclaiming his innocence, was arrested for the murder of his wife. Louisa's body was never found and there were no witnesses to the crime, but police officers and prosecutors believed the evidence was overwhelming. Luetgert was indicted for the crime a month later and details of the murder shocked the city's residents, especially those on the Northwest Side. Even though Luetgert was charged with boiling his wife's body, local rumor had it that she had been ground into sausage instead! Needless to say, sausage sales declined substantially in 1897.
Luetgert's first trial ended with a hung jury on October 21 after the jurors failed to agree on a suitable punishment. Some argued for the death penalty, while others voted for life in prison. Only one of the jurors thought that Luetgert might be innocent. A second trial was held and, on February 9, 1898, Luetgert was convicted and sentenced to a life term at Joliet Prison. He was taken away, still maintaining his innocence and claiming that he would receive another trial. He was placed in charge of meats in the prison's cold-storage warehouse and officials described him as a model inmate. 
By 1899, though, Luetgert began to speak less and less and often quarreled with the other convicts. He soon became a shadow of his former, blustering persona, fighting for no reason and often babbling incoherently in his cell at night. His mind had been broken, either from guilt over his heinous crime, or from the brutal conditions of his imprisonment. 

Luetgert died in 1900, likely from heart trouble. The coroner who conducted the autopsy also reported that his liver was greatly enlarged and in such a condition of degeneration that "mental strain would have caused his death at any time."
The sausage factory stood empty for years, looming over the neighborhood as a grim reminder of the horrors that had visited there. The windows of the place became a target for rocks thrown from the nearby railroad embankment and it often invited forays by the curious and the homeless.

In the months that followed his death, Luetgert's business affairs were entangled in litigation. The courts finally sorted everything out in August 1900 and a public auction was held for the factory and its grounds. Portions of the property were divided between several buyers but the Library Bureau Company, which was founded by Dewey Decimal System creator Melvil Dewey, leased the factory itself. The company used it as a workshop and storehouse for its line of library furniture and office supplies. During the renovations, the infamous vats in the basement were discarded.

In June 1904, a devastating fire swept through the old sausage factory. It took more than three hours to put out the blaze and when it was over, the building was still standing, but everything inside had been destroyed. However, contrary to what many stories have reported, the building was still there. In fact, it's still there today!

Despite the damage done to the building's interior, the Library Bureau re-opened its facilities in the former sausage factory. It would go on to change owners many times in the decades that followed. In 1907, a contracting mason purchased the old Luetgert house and moved it from behind the factory to another lot in the neighborhood, hoping to dispel the grim memories attached to it. The part of Hermitage Avenue that intersected with Diversey was closed. By the 1990s, the factory stood empty and crumbling, facing a collection of empty lots that were only broken by the occasional ramshackle frame house. 

In 1999, though, around the 100th anniversary of the death of Adolph Luetgert, the former sausage factory was converted into loft condominiums and a brand new neighborhood sprang up to replace the aging homes that remained from the days of the Luetgerts. Fashionable brick homes and apartments appeared around the old factory, and rundown taverns were replaced with coffee shops. 
The old neighborhood was gone, but the stories of this infamous crime still lingered, providing a unique place in history as the only Chicago murder that ever kept people from eating sausages!

The former sausage factory where Louisa allegedly died was turned into condominiums in 1999.  

 And there there are the ghosts...
According to legend, Louisa Luetgert's ghost returned not only to haunt the old neighborhood where she died, but also to exact her revenge on the man who killed her. Stories claim that toward the end of Adolph Luetgert's life, he told stories about Louisa visiting his cell at night. His dead wife had returned to haunt him, intent on having revenge for her murder. Was she really haunting him or was the "ghost" really just the figment of a rapidly deteriorating mind? Based on the fact that residents of the neighborhood also began reporting seeing Louisa's ghost, one has to wonder if Luetgert was seeing her ghost because he was mentally ill ---- or if the ghost had driven him insane. Luetgert died under what the coroner called "great mental strain," so perhaps Louisa did manage to get her revenge after all.

And Louisa, whether she was murdered by her husband or not, reportedly did not rest in peace. Not long after her husband was sent to prison, her ghost began to be seen inside the Luetgert house. Neighbors claimed to see a woman in a white dress leaning against the fireplace mantel. Eventually, the house was rented out but none of the tenants stayed there long. The place became an object of fear, the yard overgrown with ragweed, and largely deserted.

Oddly, the fire that broke out in the former sausage factory in 1904 started in the basement -- at exactly the spot where Luetgert's middle vat was once located. Fire officials stated, "The source of the fire is a mystery and none has been able to offer any better explanation than the superstitious folk who have an idea that some supernatural intervention against any commercial enterprise operating at the scene of the murder has been invoked." No cause was ever determined for the fire, leading many to believe that perhaps Louisa's specter had returned once more.

Legend has it on the Northwest Side today that Louisa Luetgert still walks. If she does, she probably no longer recognizes the neighborhood where she once lived. They say though, that if you happened to be in this area on May 1, the anniversary of Louisa's death, there is a chance that you might see her lonely specter still roaming the area where she lived and died.