Thursday, April 17, 2014



On April 17, 1897, something very strange happened in the small town of Aurora, Texas. A mysterious metallic airship crashed down on a local farm, killing the pilot in the process. He was buried in the town cemetery and has been there ever since – the source of a mystery that will likely never be solved. Over the years, UFO buffs have claimed this “airship” as their own, speculating that the pilot was an alien, based on a newspaper story that stated he was “not of this world.”

But I don’t think that’s what the witnesses meant when they described the pilot, or his strange craft. I believe the Aurora crash is just one small part of a much greater mystery that was taking place in the skies over America in late 1896 and 1897.

In the last years of the nineteenth century, a rash of sightings occurred in the skies across the United States of strange, airships – cylindrical-shaped and constructed from weird metal and shiny steel. The reports came in from everywhere, despite the fact that their construction, and very existence, was seemingly an impossibility at the time. No known aircraft, save for hot air balloons, flew under their own power before the Wright Brothers left the ground at Kitty Hawk. So, what were these strange ships? Who had constructed them and perhaps strangest of all, who was flying them?

Reports of the alleged crewmen and pilots usually described them as human-looking. Most of them carried extraordinary messages to the people on the ground, while others seemed to have superior intelligence, odd skin tones and weird speech patterns. It was popularly believed that the mystery airships were the product of some inventor who was not yet ready to make knowledge of his creation public. Thomas Edison was so widely speculated to be the source behind the alleged airships that in 1897 he "was forced to issue a strongly worded statement" denying his responsibility.

Reports of the aircraft, which had vast metal wingspans and arrays of bright lights, first appeared in California in 1896. Hundreds of people saw the airships as they began what seemed to be a leisurely eastward tour across America.

The first sighting occurred on November 18, 1896 and was reported in the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Call newspapers. Witnesses claimed that they saw a light moving slowly over Sacramento on the evening of November 17. Some witnesses said they could see a dark shape behind the light. A man named R. L. Lowery reported that he heard a voice from the craft issuing commands to increase elevation in order to avoid hitting a church steeple. There were no churches in the area, but there was a tower on a local brewery. Lowery further described the craft as being powered by two men exerting themselves on bicycle pedals. Above the pedaling men seemed to be a passenger compartment, which lay under the main body of a dirigible. A light was mounted on the front end of the airship. Some witnesses reported the sound of singing as the craft passed overhead.

The next day, a witness claimed to see the airship – or one just like it – on the ground. According to the November 19 edition of the Stockton Daily Mail, Colonel H.G. Shaw stated that while driving his buggy through the countryside near Stockton he came across what appeared to be a landed aircraft. Shaw described it as having a metallic surface, which was completely featureless apart from a rudder, and pointed ends. He estimated it had a diameter of twenty-five feet and a total length of around one hundred and fifty feet. Three slender men, each standing close to seven feet tall, were outside the airship "emitting a strange warbling noise." The men reportedly examined Shaw's buggy and then tried to seize him, apparently attempting to force him to accompany them back to the airship. When the doughty Colonel Shaw resisted, they fled back to the ship, which lifted off the ground and sped out of sight.

On November 21, the airship with the mystery light appeared again over Sacramento. It was also seen over Folsom, San Francisco and Oakland later that same evening and was reportedly viewed by hundreds of witnesses.

Soon after, the mysterious ship began traveling eastward across the country, wreaking havoc, creating mayhem and leaving very puzzled witnesses in its wake. Some of the stories of the airship were very strange. For instance, one witness from Arkansas – allegedly a former state senator named Harris – was supposedly told by an airship pilot (during the tensions leading up to the Spanish-American War) that the craft was bound for Cuba, to use its "Hotchkiss gun" to "kill Spaniards.” In one account from Texas, three men reported an encounter with an airship and with "five peculiarly dressed men" who reported that they were descendants from the lost tribes of Israel. They had learned English, they said, from the 1553 North Pole expedition led by Sir Hugh Willoughby, an early English Arctic voyager. An article in the Albion, Nebraska, Weekly News reported that two witnesses saw an airship crash just inches from where they were standing. The airship suddenly disappeared, leaving a man standing where the vessel had been. The airship pilot showed the astonished men a small device that supposedly enabled him to shrink the airship small enough to store the vessel in his pocket.  

In April 1897, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story reporting that one W. H. Hopkins encountered a grounded airship about twenty feet in length and eight feet in diameter near the outskirts of Springfield, Missouri. The vehicle was apparently powered by three large propellers and was crewed by a beautiful nude woman and a bearded man, also nude. Hopkins attempted with some difficulty to communicate with the crew in order to ascertain their origins. Eventually they understood what Hopkins was asking of them and they both pointed to the sky and "uttered something that sounded like the word 'Mars.’”

The mysterious aircraft arrived in Illinois a short time later. The first sightings were in Evanston and in several other communities near Chicago. The local newspapers quickly spread the news that the airship was filled with “English spies,” although why the English would have wanted to dispatch spies to the American Midwest was left unstated. More than five hundred people witnessed a ship that was said to be in full view for over forty-five minutes. One description stated that the airship was “composed of two cigar-shaped bodies attached by girders” and others claimed that it had wings and sails.

A newspaper illustration of the Chicago sighting

The airship reportedly stayed in the Chicago area for three days and was there long enough to be photographed by a newspaper dealer named Walter McCann. He was picking up his daily newspapers at the Northwestern Railway depot when he saw the ship coming toward him from the south. A short time before, his son had won a camera in a contest for signing up newspaper subscribers and McCann ran into his store and snatched it up. He ran back outside and snapped a photo of it. He then ran down the railroad tracks and took another photo a few minutes later. After the plates were developed, McCann gave copies of the photos to all of the newspapers who requested them but he refused to sell the negatives. The staff artists and etcher for the Chicago Times-Herald subjected the photos to acid tests and proclaimed them to be authentic. Sadly, the photos have since been lost.

After departing from Chicago, the airship began a tour across Illinois. It was spotted in dozens of cities and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to its route. It appeared in both northern and southern Illinois, being in one region on one day and the other on the next. For instance, on April 5, it made an appearance in the southwestern Illinois town of Nashville and on April 8 was seen up north in Dixon, Rock Island and Sterling. The craft buzzed over Elgin, Jerseyville, Kankakee, Taylorville, East St. Louis, Edwardsville, Jacksonville, Ottawa, Quincy, Decatur, Lincoln, Hillsboro, Peoria and many other locations. Even if we discount many of the reports as being merely excitement or practical jokes that were generated by newspaper stories, there are still scores of credible and very similar accounts. The last Illinois airship sighting took place in Rossville on April 25, and then the ship continued on its strange journey.

In the midst of the airship reports, one of the strangest incidents linked to the craft (or apparently one of many such crafts) allegedly took place in the town of Aurora, Texas. The story appeared in the Dallas Morning News on April 19, 1897, but the incident had occurred two days before, on April 17. According to the reporter:

About 6 o’clock this morning the early risers of Aurora were astonished at the sudden appearance of the airship which has been sailing around the country. It was traveling due north and much nearer the earth than before.

Evidently some of the machinery was out-of-order, for it was making a speed of only ten or twelve miles an hour, and gradually settling toward the earth. It sailed over the public square and when it reached the north part of town it collided with the tower of Judge Proctor’s windmill and went into pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over several acres of ground, wrecking the windmill and water tank and destroying the judge’s flower garden.

The pilot of the ship is supposed to have been the only one aboard and, while his remains were badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not an inhabitant of this world.

As mentioned, the occupant of the craft was dead and mangled, and while UFO researchers believe that the pilot was an alien, the newspaper only states that he was “not an inhabitant of this world.” This could have referred to his looks, his dress, or the fact that he was flying an airship that should not have existed – not that he was an alien. However, there was a note that strange "hieroglyphic" figures were seen on the wreckage, which resembled "a mixture of aluminum and silver ... it must have weighed several tons." In 1973, interest was revived in this story and metallic material recovered from the presumed crash site was shown to contain an unusual percentage of aluminum and iron. The story ended by noting that the pilot was given a "Christian burial" in the town cemetery. During the investigation of the possible crash site, researchers discovered the alleged stone marker used in this burial. Their metal detectors indicated a quantity of foreign material might remain buried there. However, they were not permitted to exhume whatever may have lain below, and when they returned several years later, the headstone was gone. Incidentally, there is now a Texas Historical Commission marker in the cemetery mentioning the incident.

The Aurora Cemetery. The Texas Historical Commission marker is located to the right of the cemetery gate and mentions the airship crash and the pilot that was buried in the graveyard.

The stone marker that was placed on the pilot's grave. The design of the airship was etched crudely on the stone. 

According to local legend, wreckage from the crash site was dumped into a nearby well. Adding to the mystery was the story of Brawley Oates, who purchased Judge Proctor's property around 1945. Oates cleaned out the debris from the well in order to use it as a water source, but later developed an extremely severe case of arthritis, which he claimed to be the result of drinking contaminated water from the wreckage that was dumped into the well. As a result, Oates sealed up the well with a concrete slab and placed an outbuilding atop the slab in 1957.

It’s not surprising that many have come to believe this story is a hoax. One of the most outspoken believers in the hoax was Barbara Brammer, a former mayor of Aurora. Her research revealed that in the months prior to the alleged crash, Aurora was plagued by a series of tragic incidents. The local cotton crop was destroyed by a boll weevil infestation, a fire on the west side of town destroyed several buildings and killed a number of people, a spotted fever epidemic caused the town to be quarantined and finally, a planned railroad reached a point twenty-seven miles from Aurora, but never made it to town. Essentially, Aurora, which had nearly three thousand residents at the time, was in danger of dying out. Brammer believed the story was designed as a last-ditch effort to keep Aurora alive. Her theory was further supported by the fact that there was never any follow-up to the story. She also pointed to the fact that Judge Proctor never had a windmill on his property.

Unfortunately, Brammer’s theories of the hoax also work toward making the story seem legitimate. For starters, Judge Proctor did have a windmill on his property. The remains of it have since been found, along with the well that Brawley Oates thought was contaminated. They also found melted metal at the site, which turned out to be aluminum, which was very rare in the late nineteenth century. There was an actual grave marker at the site in the cemetery (later stolen) that supposedly marked where the pilot was buried and ground-penetrating radar has revealed the presence of a casket-shaped object under the ground.

And as far as the idea that the story was a hoax cooked up to save the town? Well, the tragic incidents might also explain why there was no follow-up story to the airship’s crash. With all of the terrible things that had just occurred, it’s not really that surprising that the pilot was simply buried and the people moved on with their lives. There were more important things going on in Aurora at the time than the crash. It wasn’t until the 1970s that anyone really took an interest in the story again.
What really happened in Texas in 1897? Who knows? While I don’t think there is any conclusive proof that an airship crashed to earth on that day in April, I do think something unusual happened, but what it was, we’ll probably never know.

In time, the airship reports faded away, leaving a mystery behind – and a lot of people to argue about what really happened. As one can imagine, theories abound. Attempts to uncover the truth about the airship reports reveal some unhappy realities: newspaper coverage was unreliable; no independent investigators spoke directly with alleged witnesses or attempted to verify or debunk their testimony; and, with a  only one exception, no eyewitness was ever interviewed, even in the 1950s, when some were presumably still living. That single witness was a former San Francisco Chronicle employee named Edward Ruppelt. In 1952, Ruppelt stated that he had been a copyboy in 1897 “and remembered the incident, but time had cancelled out the details.” He did say that he, along with the newspaper’s editor and the news staff had seen the airship but they never told anyone what they had seen because they didn’t want people to think they were “crazy.”

There will always be many who dismiss the 1896-1897 airship wave as some massive hoax. Even at the time, there were many attempts to explain the airship sightings as hoaxes, pranks, publicity stunts and hallucinations. One man suggested the airships were swarms of lightning bugs that were misidentified by observers. It’s also very likely that many of the newspaper reports were, in fact, hoaxes, riding the wave of a national craze for goofy, off-beat tales. Stories created out of whole cloth by enterprising reporters do tend to stand out, though, since most of them have a tongue-in-cheek tone and are heavily sensational. Furthermore, the supposed authors of many such newspaper hoaxes make their hoax obvious by stating – in the last line – that he was writing from an insane asylum, or something to that effect.

Over time, the 1896-1897 airship wave has become probably the best investigated of all historical anomalies. The files of almost 1,500 newspapers from across the United States have been combed for reports, an astonishing feat of research. The general conclusion of investigators was that a considerable number of the simpler sightings were misidentification of planets and stars, and a large number of the more complex sightings were the result of hoaxes and practical jokes. A sizable number, though, remain perplexing.

What were the ships and better yet, who was flying them? In 2009, author J. Allan Danelek made a case for the idea that the mystery airship was the work of an unknown individual, possibly funded by a wealthy investor from San Francisco, who built an airship prototype as a test vehicle for a later series of larger, passenger-carrying airships. Danelek not only laid out a plausible scenario, but demonstrated how the craft might have been built using materials and technologies available in 1896 (including speculative line drawings and technical details). The ship, Danelek proposed, was built in secret as a safeguard from patent infringement, as well as to protect investors in case of failure. Noting that the flights were initially seen over California and only later over the Midwest, he speculated that the inventor was making a series of short test flights, moving from west to east, and following the main railroad lines for logistical support, and that it was these experimental flights that formed the basis for many – though not all – of the newspaper accounts from the era. Danelek also noted that the reports ended abruptly in late April 1897, suggesting that the craft may have met with disaster, effectively ending the venture and permitting the sightings to fall into the realm of legend.

These ideas were not far off from some of the theories posed at the end of the nineteenth century – a time of great popularity for science-fiction writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. In fact, the idea that a secretive inventor might have developed a viable craft with advanced capabilities was the focus of Jules Verne's 1886 novel Robur the Conqueror. Steerable airships had been publicly flown in the United States since 1863, and numerous inventors were working on airship and aircraft designs. In fact, two French army officers and engineers, Arthur Krebs and Charles Renard, had successfully flown in an electric-powered airship called the La France as early as 1885, making no fewer than seven successful flights over an eleven-month period. Also during the 1896-1897 period, David Schwarz built an aluminum-skinned airship in Germany that successfully flew over Tempelhof Field before being irreparably damaged during a hard landing. Both events clearly demonstrated that the technology to build a practical airship existed during the period in question, though if reports of the capabilities of the California and Midwest airship sighted in 1896-97 are true, it would have been considerably more advanced than any airship built up to that time.

Several individuals, including Lyman Gilmore, Charles Dellschau and Thomas Edison (who issued a strong denial) were later identified as possible candidates for being involved in the design and construction of the airships, although little evidence was found in support of these ideas.

How can we explain the mysterious airship (or airships) that crossed America in 1896-1897? Was it a hoax, a case of mass hysteria? Perhaps, but this seems unlikely based on the unrelated and completely unconnected witnesses who spotted and reported it. In Chicago, there was a sighting that allegedly included several hundred people, all describing it in almost exactly the same way.

If the ship was real, then who were the passengers? They had strange messages to pass along and seemed to be almost constantly at work on their vessel. During one encounter that took place in Texas, an airship passenger actually asked for help in repairing his craft. He handed the witness current American money and asked him to fetch supplies from the local hardware store. But how could ordinary materials function in the baffling airship?

The mystery remains unsolved. It seems unlikely that the airship was built by the mechanical means of the time period and yet it apparently existed. The passengers on the ship appeared to be normal humans, taking what seemed to them to be a normal trip, aboard a machine that could not exist – and yet did.

This is a small excerpt from Troy’s book, CABINET OF CURIOSITIES 2. If interested in more about the unexplained, click on the link to see more about the book!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014



The weird and macabre history of Chicago is filled with grim stories. From murderous gangsters, horrific disasters and unsolved mysteries to gruesome serial killers, it’s a city that has seen more than its share of blood over the years. The archives of old newspapers also tell other stories of death – suicides by Chicagoans both famous and unknown, which often occurred in places that you might least expect. This is the story of two such locations, one vanished and one that still exists today.

On June 29, 1879, a tailor by the name of Martin Arndt shot himself in the head with a revolver at the monument that had been built in honor of Stephen Douglas, the famous Illinois politician and friendly rival of Abraham Lincoln. He had committed suicide after losing his job earlier that day, leaving a wife and son behind. Arndt was an ordinary man, one of a million sad stories in the Windy City in 1879 but he was not the first man to commit suicide at the Douglas Monument – a place that had a troubled history of its own.

Stephen A. Douglas

The Douglas Monument was built in honor of Stephen A. Douglas, who died in Chicago in June 1861. Douglas was well-known for his recent Democratic presidential nomination, which he had lost to Lincoln the year before, as well as his previous 25 years in Illinois politics. During the last years of his life, Douglas and his wife had resided at Okenwald, their South Side estate. It was located just east of the present-day intersection of Cottage Grove Avenue and 35th Street. A cornerstone was laid for his monument and tomb on the property in 1866, but it would not be completed until 1881, largely thanks to the start of the Civil War and a long series of funding problems that continued for years.

The U.S. government took control of the property after Douglas’ death and constructed a military training camp on part of the property that had once been used as a fairgrounds. It was named in honor of Douglas. The camp enclosed about 80 acres, which were further divided by interior partitions to create compounds of various sizes. Each of the compounds, or squares, was named according to the purpose that it was used for.

Garrison Square, which was about 20 acres in size, was lined on all four sides by the officers' quarters and the enlisted men's barracks and had a flat parade ground in the center. Hospital Square was about 10 acres in size and served as a medical facility. Whiteoak Square, which was another 10 acres, originally served as the post's prison. When orders were received to prepare the camp for Confederate prisoners, Whiteoak was merged with portions of other squares, creating Prison Square, a compound of 20 acres.

In the early months of the war, the outpost trained thousands of Union troops under the command of General Joseph H. Tucker. Soon, however, the camp became a place of misery for the Confederate prisoners. The camp received its first prisoners in February 1862, after the Battle of Fort Donelson, and soon overcrowding, starvation, scurvy and a lack of medical attention made the place a living hell. The death toll for the camp during the last three years of the war has been estimated at as many as 6,129 men, which is slightly less than one-third of the entire prison population at the camp. Most perished from scurvy and smallpox, despite the best intentions of relief workers, who organized a fund to care for the men in 1862. The camp was soon dubbed “Eighty Acres of Hell.”

Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas

The war ended in 1865 and it was closed down that summer. The remaining prisoners were asked to take a loyalty oath to the United States and were then set free. For a short time, the post was used as a rendezvous point for returning federal troops, but by fall, it was deserted.

After the war ended, a drive began to raise the funds to build a monument in Douglas’ honor on the former site of the camp. The corner stone was laid in 1866 with great fanfare, parades and appearances by practically every organized group in Chicago, from the police to Masonic organizations, aldermen and mayors from nearby cities, soldiers from various Illinois units, the Irish societies, the French society, temperance groups, trade unions, various religious groups, singing societies, butchers and just plain citizens. Speeches were given, flags were waved and pleas were made for donations. Money came in, but not enough. In the end, the planning committee lost over $1,300 planned for the monument.

Eighteen months passed with little public activity, but Douglas’ tomb was now ready to receive his remains. On June 3, 1868, the anniversary of Douglas’ death, the body was moved to the tomb. Tickets for the ceremony were sold at twenty-five cents each but the public was allowed two days to view well-preserved features of Douglas through the glass cover of the casket for free. After it was over, the newspapers reported that the monument committee planned to seek $50,000 from the state to complete the work on the structure. That amount was later reduced to $25,000 but delays kept the bill from being voted on.

More time passed. The newspapers waxed sarcastic that nothing more had been done. An article in the Post on May 9, 1870 indicated that the masonry on the unfinished monument had cracked because of freezing water. The fence around the site was falling down and the grounds had become shabby and overgrown. Plans began to be made to move the monument to Chicago University and Douglas’ widow sent letters pleading with the committee to do something or remove the monument.

But matters again dragged. On April 11, 1873 another attempt was made to get the legislature to pass the bill. It passed the House again, but was defeated by the Senate in the winter of 1874. Even bills to move the monument were defeated. Finally, in May 1877, the funding bill was passed and became effective on July 1. Robert T. Lincoln, Potter Palmer and Melville W. Fuller were appointed as a commission to complete the monument and in July, 1877 advertised for bids on the additional work on walls, sidewalks and limestone walls. It was finally completed in August 1881 – but not before becoming the scene of tragedy.

An old postcard of the Douglas Monument

On November 13, 1877, W.F. Coolbaugh, one of Chicago’s leading citizens and President of the Union National Bank, committed suicide at the entrance to the Douglas Monument by shooting himself in the head with a pistol. It seemed that when he left the bank that evening, Coolbaugh went directly to the spot where the tragedy occurred – “the tomb of a man whose political principles he revered,” the newspapers stated – and ended his life. There were no witnesses to the suicide, but his body was discovered early the next morning by a patrolman from the Cottage Grove Police Station. Coolbaugh was lying in a pool of blood and next to his body was a silver-plated pistol with his name engraved on it.

The policeman, knowing that attorney Melvin W. Fuller, whose home was nearby, was the son-in-law of Coolbaugh, hurried to the house and alerted Fuller as to what he had discovered. Fuller came immediately to the scene, found the body as described by the police officer and immediately had the corpse moved to Coolbaugh’s home at 120 Calumet Avenue.

As it turned out, a search had been carried out for Coolbaugh the night before. He had been in good spirits when he’d left home in the morning, had stayed away all day, dropping in just briefly later on, but had not returned for supper. When he did not come home that night, Fuller and the dead man’s son, James Coolbaugh, searching the city, calling at hotels and anywhere else that the older man might be found. There was no sign of him. They stayed out until 3:00 a.m. before going home. The discovery of the body was the first news that they had of his location.

Coolbaugh’s suicide was a bit of a mystery. He left no note behind and no clue as to why he had taken his own life. His health had been bad for several years, though, and his family knew that he had been prone to depression. He had recently returned from a short European tour and had been in better spirits but, as the newspapers noted, “he had undoubtedly become depressed and in a sudden mental aberration committed the deed which in his senses he would have recoiled in horror.”

His suicide was a shock to the entire city. Coolbaugh had established himself in Chicago 1862, but for many years had been a leading merchant and banker in Burlington, Iowa. He was a fiercely loyal Democrat and personal friend of Stephen A. Douglas. After moving to Chicago, he started the Coolbaugh & Co. bank, which later became the Union National Bank. He was happily married and had six children, but what drove him to his death remains unknown.

Less than two years later, on June 29, 1879, another man – of less social and financial stature – was driven to desperation and death on the same stone steps at the Douglas Monument. His name was Martin Arndt, a 53-year-old tailor, who also shot himself in the head. Unlike Coolbaugh, he had a clear reason for taking his own life, which he had expressed in a letter to his wife that arrived soon after he left the house.

Arndt had left for work on Thursday morning, as he did each day, carrying his lunch with him. But later on that evening, his wife received a letter in the mail, which had been written and posted that same day. In the letter, he explained that he had spoken to the bookkeeper at the company where he worked, Friddart and Sayers, and asked for a raise of a half-cent for each coat that he pressed. Not only was his request refused, but he was fired for asking. In desperation, he learned that his union provided not only provided death benefits for his family, but additional cash for suicides. He was, he learned, worth far more dead than alive. He begged his wife’s forgiveness and asked that, if she remarried, that she make sure that her new husband did not mistreat their son.

After leaving work, he went to the Douglas Monument and shot himself. Apparently, his first shot – fired just below his heart – was not fatal. He deliberately loaded the pistol again and fired this time into his head. His body was found the next morning and taken to his home at 1838 State Street, where he lived with his wife and son. It was a tragic end for a man who only wanted to provide for his family.

In time, the Douglas Monument apparently fell out of favor for those wishing to end their lives. A new location was discovered in 1892 when High Bridge was erected as a sight-seeing spot in Lincoln Park, on the city’s North Side. The bridge was built over a lagoon that was located next to Lake Shore Drive. The bridge became so infamous that by 1900, it was commonly referred to as “Suicide Bridge,” even on tourist postcards from Chicago.

High Bridge, a.k.a "Suicide Bridge" in Lincoln Park

The bridge became a favorite spot for suicides, almost from the time it was built. For instance, on December 8, 1897, a man named John Schwinen climbed onto the bridge and, in full view of about 100 children skating on the ice of the lagoon, jumped to his death. With a wild upward wave of his hands, he leapt far out into the air and fell head-first onto the ice. The newspapers stated that it was the fourth suicide from the bridge in three months. Several skaters were directly below Schwinen when he broke through the ice, but luckily all of them escaped plunging into the water with his body. When police officers reached the scene, nothing but the victim’s shoes were protruding above the water. Newspapers ironically noted that on the bottom of the shoes were the words “Warranted Waterproof.” Schwinen, 62, was a married man with 12 children, five of whom were married. He had recently lost his job as a house mover and it was believed that his worries about the future caused him to take his own life.

The bridge attracted not only suicides, but the strangest of Chicagoans as well. “Strange mortals used to frequent the place,” the newspapers stated in 1919, the year the bridge was finally taken down. One old woman used to come to the bridge every night with a bottle of whiskey and drink herself into a stupor. There was an old military man who lived at a soldier’s home in Milwaukee and he came to visit the bridge every time he got a furlough and would stand on the span and sing martial songs at the top of his voice. A young man used to come to the bridge almost every night and whistle at the moon in an eerie tone that sent shivers up the spines of police officers who patrolled the park. The bridge was almost like a magnet for the strange, weird and unusual.

The western side of Suicide Bridge in Winter

No one knows how many people ended their lives on the bridge before it was finally torn down. Some have estimated between 50 and 100. “The fall and spring were suicide seasons,” said Charles Shaw, the head of the park’s police force. He mused that the bridge had been a trysting place for those who had a rendezvous with death. Disappointed old men and girls who were crossed in love, despondent youths and all the lurid ladies from the street – all of them sought the mysteries of the beyond from its heights. One man hanged himself from the girders but all of the others chose to jump.

By the time the bridge was closed, it was in poor shape and there had not been a suicide attempt in more than a year. Lieutenant Charles Thoren told a reporter, “For several years it was a fad. There used to be as many as two suicides a week. About 20 years ago, it go so bad that the newspapers suggested covering the bridge with a screen, like a bird cage, and there was even some talk about closing to the public.”

“Suicide Bridge” is long gone now, but the stories remain of a place where only the most desperate people of Chicago went to seek solace from the despair of this world and a hope for a better life beyond. 

Monday, April 14, 2014



One of the most disturbing unsolved disappearances of the last half century occurred in the town of Jacksonville, Illinois in 1959 when a man named Bruce Nelson Campbell stumbled out of his hotel room one night, dressed only in a pair of green pajamas, and was never seen again. What happened to the New England stockbroker has never been determined – he simply vanished without a trace.

In April 1959, Bruce Campbell, age fifty-seven, and his wife, Mabelita, drove to Illinois from Northampton, Massachusetts. The reason for their visit was meant to be a happy one. They had traveled to see their newly born first grandson, son of Bruce, Jr., who was an assistant professor of chemistry at MacMurray College, in Jacksonville.

For some reason, the long drive to Illinois was especially hard on Campbell and he began feeling sick while he was in the car. The stock investment counselor became confused and disoriented and when they arrived in Jacksonville, Mrs. Campbell checked them into the Sandman Motel, a small, family-owned establishment that was typical of motor lodges of the day. It was located on the northwest side of town, on Walnut Street, where a Casey's store now stands. Each room had a door that opened to the outside and parking was located right outside the guest’s room. Campbell was put immediately into bed after they checked into the motel. Bruce, Jr. arranged for a doctor to visit his parents and Campbell was treated for two days before he started to show some improvement.

The Sandman Motel in Jacksonville in 1959

On the evening of April 14, Campbell visited with his family and Bruce, Jr. later recalled that his father was “rational but still disoriented” during his last visit with him. Twice, later on that night, Mrs. Campbell said her husband asked her if their station wagon, which was parked outside of their room in the motel’s parking lot, was locked up. She told him that it was, shortly before going to sleep.

She later woke up at 2:15 a.m. and saw that the other double bed in the room was empty – her husband was gone. She immediately got out of bed to look for him and when she realized that he was not in the bathroom, hurried to the door of the room, which was unlatched. There was no sign of him in the parking lot and the desk clerk on duty said that he had not seen anyone walking past the office. The Campbells’ car was still sitting in the lot. The doors were locked and it was undisturbed.

Because of her husband’s weakness and disorientation, Mrs. Campbell quickly called the police. When officers arrived at the motel, she offered a description of the tall, balding man with a slight limp and explained that when he left the motel room he was wearing only a pair of bright green pajamas, a wrist watch and a ring with the Delta Upsilon fraternity crest on it. His wallet containing all his money, his shoes, his eyeglasses  and his car keys were still in the motel room.

Police officers searched the surrounding area, the darkened streets and the Jacksonville downtown area, but there was no sign of Campbell. The next morning, a request was put out for information and theories of murder, suicide and amnesia led searchers to local creeks, farm buildings and wells. No body was ever found.

The search for Bruce Nelson Campbell, the man in the green pajamas, continued for days and weeks and then it stretched into years. His family refused to give up hope that he would be found alive until 1967, when he was finally declared legally dead.

What became of Campbell? No one knows. He simply walked away into the darkness of a quiet Illinois town and was never heard from again. 

The story of "The Man in the Green Pajamas" will be featured in a longer version in the upcoming book, HAUNTED JACKSONVILLE by Troy Taylor & Lisa Taylor-Horton -- coming in fall 2014!

Sunday, April 13, 2014



On Friday, April 13, a man named Alfred Packer was found guilty of a murder that he committed in the mountains of Colorado. But this just wasn’t any murder – Packer was charged with killing and eating his victims, earning him the nickname of the “Colorado Cannibal,” which endures to this day.

Cannibalism, the practice of consuming human flesh, is considered one of the great taboos in human history. And yet, from the dawn of time, man has devoured the bodies of his enemies after triumph in battle or has consumed them for nourishment under conditions when no other food is available. North America has been cursed with cases of cannibalism since the beginnings of its recorded history.

While some tribes of American Indians practiced cannibalism, most abhorred it. Indians in the Great Lakes region even told an evil spirit they called the Windigo. It was a monster that was once a man who ate human flesh and then was banished to the forests to prey on the helpless.

Stories of cannibalism also emerged from the settlers who came to North America. Some have become famous, like that of the Donner Party, a group of settlers who were stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter months and turned to eating the dead to survive. But there are other cases in American history where a taste for human flesh came about not from gnawing hunger and desperate circumstance. In some cases, men resorted to cannibalism by choice, engaging in bloodshed, murder and depravity to fulfill their horrific needs.

Alfred Packer, the so-called “Colorado Cannibal”

Alfred Packer earned his place in the history of the American West during the late fall and winter of 1873. The cold temperatures of autumn promised a bitter winter ahead but this meant little to men seeking gold. There were 20 would-be prospectors who left Bingham Canyon, near Salt Lake City, to seek their fortune in the San Juan Mountains. All of the men were novices and newcomers with no knowledge of the wild regions of the area; all except one, the self-proclaimed mountain man named Alfred G. Packer, who the other men had hired as their guide.

Alfred Packer was born on November 21, 1842 in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. He learned the cobbler trade as a boy but enlisted in the army when the Civil War broke out. Instead of joining up with a local unit, he went west and joined the 16th U.S. Infantry in Winona, Minnesota. Strangely, though, he was mustered out by the end of the year with “epilepsy,” which earned him an honorable discharge. In June 1863, he joined up again, this time with the 8th Regiment of the Iowa Cavalry, but was again discharged because of “epilepsy.” In those days, “epilepsy” was often a word used to describe a strange condition or bizarre behavior but whether or not Packer actually suffered from the illness, or was mustered out for some other odd condition, is unknown.

After leaving the military, Packer came west and worked odd jobs. In 1873, he was among the men who left Utah on the mining expedition. He told the men who hired him that he had driven ore wagons in some mining camps, which gave him the expertise needed for him to be their guide, but it turned out that he really knew very little about the area into which they were going. Packer was leading them to their doom.

As the men crossed into Colorado, their enthusiasm for gold-seeking began to wane. They began to bitterly complain as they stumbled through the wilderness, fighting winter winds and snow. They lost most of their equipment and their food ran out but fortunately, since most of Packer’s claims of wilderness skill were nothing but lies, the band wandered into the camp of a friendly Indian, Chief Ouray. The tribe fed them and the chief warned them not to go any farther. The mountains were snowed in for the winter and it would not be gold that they found in the snow-covered passes, but death.

The prospectors argued among themselves about what they should do. Out of the group, 10 of the prospectors elected to return to Salt Lake City, while the others were swayed by Packer’s belief that gold could be found along the Gunnison River. He convinced the men that a huge strike was waiting for them and to bolster his argument, he convinced Chief Ouray to give the remaining men enough food to get them to the river. Ouray reluctantly agreed but warned the men to stay near the river. He told them that venturing into the mountains during the winter months meant certain death. Packer all but ignored the chief’s warnings, telling the men that if things got bad, they could also find shelter at the Los Pinos Indian Agency, a camp that was not far from their intended diggings.

The party left Ouray’s camp the following day and began to work their way up the river. They had a 10-day supply of food to make the 75-miles trip, which Packer convinced them was only 40 miles. As the food supply began to dwindle, vicious arguments broke out, causing four of the men to leave and to try and make it to the Los Pinos Agency camp. Only two of them ever arrived. The other men, swayed by Packer’s tales of gold, continued on. The doomed men who stayed with Packer were Shannon Wilson Bell, Israel Swan, James Humphrey, Frank “Reddy” Miller, and George “California” Noon, who was only 18. Aside from Packer, this was the last time anyone ever saw these men alive.

On April 6, 1874, a man walked into the Los Pinos camp. His clothing was in rags and his eyes were wild but otherwise, he was in good condition. Oddly, he had several wallets in his possession, from which he removed wads of money, and although he claimed to have gone more than a day without food, he asked for nothing to eat. He just wanted whiskey. The man said that his name was Alfred Packer and that he had become separated from his party after injuring his leg. He said he expected the other prospectors had beaten him down from the mountains.

But the other men had not been seen. People who listened to Packer’s tales in the saloon thought that perhaps he had robbed the other men but then an Indian guide, who had passed along a nearby trail, found strips of meat which turned out to be human flesh. Packer’s stories now began to sound like lies and the pressure was on to try and get the facts out of him. Packer’s answers were vague and evasive and General Charles Adams, the commander of the agency, had him arrested. It would be more than a month before Packer would reveal what happened to the others in his party. On May 8, he gave his confession to General Adams.

Packer told Adams that the poor weather conditions had hindered the party’s progress from the beginning. Their supplies soon ran out and the lakes were too treacherous to fish and wild game became scarce. They were soon trapped by the snow and unable to turn back. Packer’s statement claimed that the other five men had died at various stages of the journey, either as starvation overtook them or when they were killed during attacks by men who were driven mad with hunger.

Israel Swan, the oldest man at 65, died first, about 10 days after the group left Ouray’s camp. The survivors had all taken pieces of him to eat. Then, four or five days later, James Humphrey died and was also eaten. He had $133 in his coat and Packer confessed to taking it. The third man to die was Frank Miller, who met his end in an “accident” while Packer was searching for wood. The other men decided to eat him and Packer returned to the camp after they had already butchered him and placed his flesh on the fire. The next victim was young George Noon. Packer claimed that he was away from camp for several days hunting game and when he came back, Bell had killed the boy. Packer admitted that he had taken part in eating him.

Packer told General Adams that he had killed Bell in self-defense. His confession stated, “Bell wanted to kill me. He struck at me with his rifle, struck a tree and broke his gun.” This left only Packer alive and he sustained himself on Bell’s flesh until he could make it back to the Los Pinos Agency.

Why Packer did not offer this story when he first came down from the mountains is unclear but regardless, questions soon began to arise about his account. A search party was sent out, led by a reluctant Packer, and he took them to where the men had last been seen, but failed to find the bodies of the prospectors. It was now apparent that the prospectors had not been killed one by one and left along the trail. Packer’s confession was a lie and he had obviously been scheming for a way to get himself released from custody so that he could disappear. Before that could happen, he was jailed in Saguache on suspicion of murder.

In August 1874, John A. Randolph, an artist sent to Colorado by Harper’s Weekly magazine, came across a gruesome scene at Slumgullion Pass: five sets of human remains near the bank of the Gunnison River. Among the remains were pieces of clothing, blankets and even a few scraps of flesh. Animals and the elements had clearly been at work but Randolph quickly realized that the bodies must belong to the vanished prospectors. Upon examination, he found that the men’s feet had been tied with piece of torn blanket and there were no shoes, cooking utensils or guns around them. The men appeared to have been murdered and horribly ravaged. One set of remains was even missing its head. The victims had obviously been butchered and likely eaten. Randolph quickly sketched the scene and then reported his discovery.

The Hinsdale County coroner, W. F. Ryan, hurried to the scene to hold an inquest and brought 20 men along with him. A member of the original party that had left Utah, Preston Nutter, identified the remains as those of his former companions, and eventually, it was determined that Frank Miller was the man without a head. The bodies were buried together on a nearby bluff and in time, the area became known as “Dead Man’s Gulch.”

Once this grim task was completed, the men returned to town to confront Packer with his lies. Word had spread of Randolph’s discovery and apparently, Packer heard about it in the jail. Desperate, he escaped and vanished into the wide open country of the west. Months passed, then years, but the “Colorado Cannibal” was nowhere to be found.

Packer managed to stay ahead of the law for the next nine years, living under the assumed name of John Schwartze. It is unknown what he did to earn a living during this time but whatever his work, it brought him to Fort Fetterman, Wyoming, in March 1883. Frenchy Cabizon, a former member of the original mining party, recognized Packer’s laugh while drinking in a local saloon. Exposed, Packer was arrested again and a grand jury returned five indictments against him for the hatchet murders of the five luckless prospectors. Packer offered a second confession on March 16, 1883.

He said that he and the others had left Ouray’s camp with only seven days’ worth of food for one man – hardly enough to sustain their numbers for even a few days. After two or three days, a snowstorm swept into the area and made conditions even worse. By the fourth day, only a pint of flour remained from their provisions. They had no choice but to keep going, barely surviving on rosebuds and pine sap. They tried to catch fish on the frozen lakes but had no luck. The men were now showing signs of depression and even madness.

Israel Swan ordered Packer to go up on the mountain and scout out the terrain. When Packer returned with nothing to report, he found Shannon Bell, who had been acting “crazy” all morning, roasting a large piece of meat over the fire. The meat turned out to be the leg of Frank Miller. Bell had apparently gone berserk and slaughtered all of the men while Packer was away. Packer said: “The latter’s body was lying the furthest off from the fire down the stream, his skull was crushed in with a hatchet. The other three men were lying near the fire, they were cut in the forehead with the hatchet. Some had two, some three cuts.”

As Packer came closer, Bell picked up the bloody hatchet and tried to attack him. In self-defense, Packer claimed that he shot the man through the stomach. When Bell dropped the hatchet and collapsed, Packer said that he used the weapon on the other man, hitting him in the top of the head to insure that the man was actually dead. He spent the night in despair. He tried to leave the camp the next day, leaving the men behind, but the snow was too deep and he was forced to stay. He covered the dead men, but for weeks, lived on the flesh that Bell had already cut from them.

Each day, he tried to leave, but the weather was just too fierce. He survived on the cuts of flesh for about two months. He confessed, “I could not eat but a little at a time.”

Finally, as the snow began to thaw, Packer took a few strips of flesh, a gun, about $70 that he found on the dead men, and started down toward the Los Pinos camp. Just before he reached the agency, at his last camp, he ate what was left of the meat that he had preserved, not accounting for how some strips of flesh were discovered on the trail.

Once again, Packer claimed that this was a true confession but it would turn out not to be his final version of the story.

Alfred Packer’s trial began on April 6, 1883 at the Hinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City, Colorado. He was placed on trial for the murder of Israel Swan. Preston Nutter, who had identified the five victims that John Randolph had discovered, testified as a witness. Using illustrations, he described for the jury the positions that the men had been found in and said that all but one had suffered hatchet wounds to the head. When he was recalled later in the trial, Nutter described a hole that he had seen in one of the bones that were severed from a body. He said that it looked like a gunshot wound. He also described how the clothing of the dead men had been “cut and ripped up.” He never explained what he meant by that, or what he was inferring that Packer might have done with the bodies.

Oddly, the coroner, who was the only one able to offer a professional opinion about the remains, was never called to testify in the case. For some reason, he had never recorded his observations about the bodies or the details of the inquest that was held at the murder scene. With nothing in writing that the court could refer to, his testimony was meaningless. In fact, no one with any experience in criminal investigation testified during the trial. It was mostly a matter of who the jury would believe and there was no one who really knew what happened in the mountains except for Alfred Packer, who had already changed his story twice.

Packer took the witness stand and defended himself for more than two hours. In the process, he told several significant lies. He lied about his age, the nature of his military service (that he had enlisted and been discharged two times) and the cause of his epilepsy, which he claimed that he got from walking guard duty.

When it came to the case at hand, Packer denied that he had any part in the deaths of the men, aside from the hatchet-wielding Shannon Bell. He spoke of the deaths of the other men and said that some of them had survived longer by eating the flesh of those who died first (a direct contradiction of his second confession, which named Bell as the killer and cannibal). Packer continued to claim that he was not present when the murders took place and only ate the dead men to stay alive.

Because he had offered several versions of events at different times, and had admitted to stealing the victims’ belonging and money, things did not go well for him at the trial. To make matters worse, he was argumentative and sarcastic on the witness stand.  Most of his story was an obvious lie, concocted to try and save himself. The jury wasn’t having any of it and on Friday, April 13, 1883, they returned a verdict of guilty against Packer for the murder of Israel Swan.

Judge Melville B. Gerry pronounced a death sentence on Packer. Although convicted only of Swan’s murder, the judge was convinced that Packer had murdered all five men. He issued a long statement on the fairness of the trial and the impartiality of the jury. He refused to address Packer’s cannibalism, on the grounds that the trial had been about murder and robbery. He finally stated, “You, Alfred Packer, sowed the wind. You must now reap the whirlwind. Your life must be taken as a penalty of your crime.”

Alfred Packer was sentenced to hang on May 19, 1883, but it was not over yet. The Colorado Cannibal was not about to go willingly to the gallows; he still had one more version of his story to tell.

Two years later, Packer was able to get a new trial. The Colorado Supreme Court had set aside the murder conviction, based on a technical legislative oversight. Packer could not be tried in 1883 for a crime that he had committed in 1874, because there had been no state murder statute in 1874 that allowed for it. He had been arrested when Colorado was still a territory but had been tried when Colorado was a state, making the verdict worthless. Packer was tried again in 1886 for all five deaths – not just for that of Israel Swan – on the charge of voluntary manslaughter. The jury quickly convicted him. He managed to avoid the death penalty this time and was sentenced to 40 years (eight years for each of the five men) in the state penitentiary.

 Eventually, Packer wrote another version of the events that occurred along the Gunnison River. He sent it to D.C. Hatch of the Denver Rocky Mountain News and much of it was reprinted in the newspaper. The story had changed yet again.

This time, Packer claimed that even before the last party of men set out, the entire group had been suffering from extreme hunger due to a shortage of supplies on the trip from Utah. They ended up living on horse feed until Chief Ouray gave them assistance and let them camp near his settlement. Packer said that a man named Lutzenheiser and four others decided to go across the mountains to the Indian Agency. Ouray supposedly told them that it was 40 miles but it was actually closer to 80. They soon ran out of supplies and cast lots to see who would become sustenance for the others. Luckily, they killed a coyote soon after, then came across a cow and killed that, too. The cow’s owner followed Lutzenheiser’s tracks and took him back to camp. He also found the others and helped them but the men later set off again. They were found later near exhaustion and starved.

At this point, Packer returned to the travails of his own party. They left about a week after Lutzenheiser departed and they took a different trail. Their supplies lasted for about nine days and three days after they ate the last of their provisions, they boiled and ate their rawhide moccasins, wrapping their feet with cloth and blankets.

They kept going into the mountains. He insisted that Bell was deranged from hunger and that the others were afraid of him. They finally descended to the lake fork of the river and camped there. In the morning, Packer went looking for help and when he returned, he found Bell alone with the bloody corpses of the other men. In this version, though, he did not know the other men were dead until after Bell attacked him. He also claimed that he did not willingly eat any of the men’s flesh. He said that his “mind failed him” and that he did not want to believe that he had eaten any of the flesh but that he could not recall.

Packer went on to say that he did not remember how long he stayed at the bloody encampment but one day when he was out looking for food, he wandered into the agency camp. Without realizing it, he had traveled 40 miles. Although by all reports he came to the camp looking healthy, Packer claimed in his letter that he had to be nursed back to health over a three-week period. He learned that Lutzenheiser and his party had made it out of the wilderness alive, and that the rest of the men who had begun the trip had also survived. Packer said that he confessed at once to the murder of Bell (not based on the original confession given to General Adam) and that he had been unable to show anyone where his companions had been killed because deep snow had driven the search party back to the Los Pinos Agency.

In addition, he had not escaped from jail at the time the remains were discovered. He insisted the sheriff had let him go. He had been unjustly dealt with, Packer complained, for there was no motive for him to have killed his comrades. He wrote, ‘The ghosts of the dead men know me to be innocent.’

After serving 16 years in prison, Packer made a petition for parole. His case was reviewed and parole was denied. A reporter at the Denver Post, Polly Pry, grew interested in his case and for some reason, came to believe that Packer was innocent. She began a campaign for his release and, with the newspaper’s assistance, gained the attention of the governor.

Packer made another petition for parole, this time based on his deteriorating physical condition and, in 1901, his parole was finally approved. The prison doctor certified that Packer was suffering from Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment which made further confinement dangerous in that it would aggravate his illness. Packer had also persuaded a number of prominent men around the state, notably reporters and the owners of the Denver Post, to sign a petition on behalf of his release. The newspaper owners were swayed more by greed than by any conviction about Packer’s innocence. They believed they could get him to be a sideshow attraction in the Sells-Floto Circus and make a fortune.

Packer was released, but not pardoned, and took a job at the newspaper, working as a security guard. City life did not please him, though, and he moved to Deer Creek Canyon in Jefferson County. His final years were spent managing two mines and telling stories to children about his adventures as he lived with liver and stomach ailments. He was remembered by everyone as a nice old man.

Late in 1906, Packer was found unconscious on a trail a mile from his home. He lived for only a few more months and just before he died from a stroke on April 24, 1907, he wrote a letter to the governor and asked for a full pardon. No action was taken and Packer was buried in Littleton, Colorado, in the Prince Avenue Cemetery. He went to his grave still claiming his innocence and as time passed, he gained many supporters who believed that he was a victim of tragic circumstance. He had killed other men because he was starving, they believed, even though Packer denied this during both of his trials.

It would be more than 80 years before the truth would actually be known and what was revealed was something that many people knew all along: that Alfred Packer was a liar and a cannibal.

In the summer of 1989, James E. Starrs, a law professor from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., took an interest in the Packer case. He managed to get permission from land owners around Dead Man’s Gulch to start an archaeological dig that would unearth and examine the remains of the five men that Packer had allegedly murdered and eaten. After the bodies were found, they were carefully studied by forensic anthropologists, who not only found evidence of murder but also found nicks on the bones that appeared to have been made by a knife during the process of cutting away flesh.

While not everyone on the team agreed about how much support there was for making a definitive statement, Professor Starrs went on record as saying that Alfred Packer was a murdering cannibal and a liar.

The strange story of Alfred Packer remains mired in controversy, even after all of these years. There are those who believed that he murdered and cannibalized five men and those who insist that he was innocent of murder and only ate human flesh to survive.

Was Alfred Packer a guilty man, as Professor Starrs believed, or was he a victim himself, forced to survive in whatever way that he could? According to evidence, Packer likely killed his five companions, stripped them of their flesh and ate the meat over the course of the next several weeks. Was he forced to do so? Perhaps, but if this was the case, why hide the fact by trying to dispose of the strips of flesh on the trail before coming to the agency camp? And why continue to lie about what he had done, telling story after story until no one could believe anything but the worst?

Was he guilty of stupidity when he took those men into the mountains to search for gold, knowing that the trails were impassable during the coldest months of the winter? Or did he lure them to their deaths, either for profit or for some dark reasons of his own? Was it really “epilepsy” that got him drummed out of the military, or did his commanding officers see a pattern of disturbing behavior that made him unfit for duty?

And perhaps most frightening of all, did Alfred Packer commit cold-blooded murder and then dine on the corpses of his victims, driven not by starvation but by blood lust and depravity?

In the end, I suppose the man’s life and motivations will always remain a mystery. From books to newspaper accounts to official documents, there are as many versions of Alfred Packer’s life as Packer himself told. Only Packer and the men who died really knew the truth and tragically, the true story died with all of them.