A Ghostly Gathering of Strange Tales from 1907
Police stations, jails and prisons are not uncommon places to find ghosts, as has been detailed in earlier installments of my Dead Men Do Tell Tales series. However, in late 1906 and early 1907, a number of police stations – and even the old Cook County Jail – came to the Chicago public’s attention as being infested with ghosts.
In 1907, six Chicago police stations, officials said, were definitely haunted. Ghosts had been seen at many stations from time to time, but those six stations were regularly haunted. In one of the stations, a patrol driver resigned his position rather than continue in the “ghost-besieged” headquarters where he was assigned to duty. In another station, one of the patrolmen was attacked by a ghost while he was sleeping in the off-duty quarters upstairs. He was so frightened that he fired his revolver at the phantom and left six holes in the plaster wall. In still another station, a shadowy intruder so affected the mind of a patrolman that he went insane and had to be taken away to an asylum.
The Stockyards, Hyde Park, Grand Crossing, Englewood, Des Plaines and New City stations were all reportedly haunted. The Stockyards station was said to be the most spirit-infested and evidence of the spectral activity was vouched for by the commanding officer and the patrolmen. Desk Sergeant William Prindeville, who had been at the station since 1896, had seen so many ghosts in his time, he claimed, that he had become used to them and rather enjoyed their company.
The first ghost made an appearance at the Stockyards station in the winter of 1902 and was seen on the night that followed his death in the basement of the building. The “old soldier,” as the officers described him, was worn out after tramping through the snow all day, came into the station, and asked to be allowed to spend the night there. Sergeant Prindeville, who was on desk duty at the time, told the man to go down to the basement, where they often allowed “bojacks,” as the homeless were known to the police, to sometimes spend the night. The old veteran made his way down to the warm basement and curled up on one of the bunks. Early the next morning, a number of “regulars” who had seen the old man come in the night before, found him dead on his bunk and reported it to the officers upstairs.
The Stockyards Police Station
It the early morning hours of the following day, as Sergeant Prindeville was dozing in his chair and waiting for dawn to end the night watch and send him home for breakfast, he heard a slight rapping on the door. He first thought the wind had caused the door to rattle, but listening carefully, he realized that it was a sound made by someone knocking. He went over to the door and opened it. As he turned the knob, a flurry of snow whipped into his face and in the dim light, he saw the faint outline of the old soldier who had asked him for a place to sleep on the previous night. Knowing that the man had died, Prindeville quickly realized that he was facing a ghost. He hurriedly slammed the door and went back behind his desk, unnerved by what would turn out to be the first of many such encounters.
When the shift changed later that morning, Prindeville told the other officers what he had seen. Not surprisingly, they refused to believe him, insisting that the swirling snow must have been playing tricks on his eyes. After that, however, Prindeville began watching for the ghost, and so did some of the other men. Nearly everyone at the station saw the ghost at one time or another, because he returned every winter whenever the snow would fly. Each night following a storm, a knocking would come at the door and when answered, officers would find the other soldier standing outside. Prindeville stated that he often spoke to the ghost when it appeared, but he never received an answer.
According to an account from 1907, Detective John Shea, one of the most reliable and trustworthy officers at the Hyde Park police station, nearly shot out the back wall of the station house one night when a ghost invaded his sleeping quarters. Shea had gone to sleep just after midnight in the sleeping quarters on the third floor of the building. Just after 2:00 a.m., he reported, something began tugging on the bed covers, awakening him from a sound sleep. The room was pitch dark and Shea, who was only half awake, did nothing more at first than reach down and try and retrieve the disappearing blankets.
Detectives at the Hyde Park Station
A few minutes later, the bed covers were again pulled from the bed and the police officer, now thoroughly awake, thought that somebody was trying to play a trick on him. He decided that he would wait until it happened again, and if anyone appeared, he would fire off his revolver into the ceiling to frighten them and show that he too enjoyed playing pranks. As he lay there with his finger on the trigger, he was horrified to see a phantom shape step out from behind a clothes locker and approach the bed.
Shea later stated that the ghost was shaped like a woman, except that it only had one eye, which shined with a blue sort of light. It slowly approached the bed until it was only about a foot away, and then it reached out a hand toward him. By this time, Shea was as cold as an icicle and his hand was gripping the butt of his revolver so tightly that his knuckles had turned white. Slowly, the ghost’s fingers gathered up the corner of the bed quilts and gradually pulled them off onto the floor. Then, it seemed to draw backward, retreating to the place where Shea had first seen it, as it watched with its one blue eye as he pulled the bed covers back up again.
Shea declared that he stayed there looking at the ghost of nearly an hour. By that time, he said, his courage had returned to him and he raised the pistol in his hands and fired six times. The sound of the shots created a commotion downstairs, where some of the other night watch men were playing cards, and across the street at the Holland Hotel, where dozens of guests later reported hearing the sound of shots being fired. Shea’s fellow officers crashed up the stairs and burst into the room. The lights were turned on to see what was happening and all of the men saw Shea sitting on the edge of the bed with sweat beaded on his brow and smoke curling from the barrel of his gun. He pointed to the wall on the south end of the room, where six large holes had been bored by the bullets from his revolver.
He only uttered one word: “Ghost!”
A Chicago Police Patrol Wagon from the early 1900s
Patrol wagon driver Thomas Murnane quit his job at the Grand Crossing station rather than put up with the ghost that he, and others, claimed haunted the place. For an entire year before Murnane resigned, the ghost appeared regularly at the station every night and found its chief delight in removing the harness from the patrol wagon horses. As required by the rules of the department, one team of horses had to be kept harnessed all night, and Murnane declared before he left service that the black figure of a man entered the barn every night and calmly removed the harness from his team.
Murnane and two other men who worked on the wagon with him always went to sleep between night runs. One night, Murnane was lying on his cot, not asleep but thinking, when he saw a man walk into the stall occupied by the team and remove the harness from the horses. In the darkness, Murnane thought it was one of the police officers and that he had been wrongly told to keep the horses harnessed all night.
The next morning, he told the other men what he had seen and they only laughed at him and told him that his night visitor was probably “Johnny Reeves.” Murnane had never heard of the man, but not wanting to show his ignorance, he kept quiet and went on about his work. Later that day, though, he asked one of the police officers about Reeves and was told that he had been a tramp who had died one night while sleeping in the barn. Murnane became convinced after this that the figure he saw each night was that of a genuine ghost.
The sightings of “Johnny Reeves” continued and the patrol wagon driver, frightened out of his wits by the ghost, tried in vain to sleep as the other men did. Every night, he told them afterward, he lay in a cold sweat, watching the intruder. Finally, after he had worried himself sick, he wrote out his resignation, even though he knew that it meant never fulfilling his dream of being a police officer. Even that lifelong goal was not enough to convince Murnane to stay and brave the nightly visits from “Johnny Reeves.”
According to police officials, Denny Lang, one of the detectives at the Englewood station was pushed out of bed and then chased down Wentworth Avenue for several blocks one night in the summer of 1906. Lang had been told that the ghost of a Polish laborer, who had been killed by a switch engine on the Rock Island Railroad tracks just behind the station, had taken up residence in the sleeping quarters on the station’s second floor. The ghost was said to carry a bag filled with bricks to attack anyone who came near it.
Lang didn’t believe the story and laughed at his fellow officers who were too scared to sleep at the station house. He was determined to prove that he was no coward. One night, about an hour after he had climbed into one of the iron cots offered for use by men on reserve duty, Lang was startled by a heavy thumping on the floor under his bed. He looked around, trying to determine where the disturbance was coming from, and was terrified to see a ghost standing in the far corner of the room. He claimed that it had eyes that glowed like fire and a bag filled with bricks – just as the other men had described it.
Lang’s courage immediately vanished and he ran to get out of the room. He pounded down the stairs and just kept running, out onto Wentworth Avenue and down the street. He reported that the ghost came after him, hurling pieces of bricks at him as it pursued him. Eventually, the ghost vanished but the experience was not lost on Lang and he never slept in the station house again.
A remodeling of the station in 1907 caused the ghost to appear less often than it had in the past. Even so, most of the men claimed they still wouldn’t sleep there alone.
Cops and prisoners at the Des Plaines Street Station
Des Plaines Street
The ghost that haunted the station on Des Plaines Street was said to be that of a tramp who had been killed there several years before. One night, two tramps were sleeping in Cell No. 3, having been given shelter from cold weather outside, and they got into fight that led to one of them choking the other to death. After that, men who slept in that cell, prisoners and tramps alike, claimed to be awakened by cold hands squeezing their throats. The cell was soon widely avoided and old timers, familiar with the story, stated that they would rather sleep on the cold Chicago streets than in Cell No. 3 at the Des Plaines Station.
New City Station
According to officers at the New City station, their resident ghost was that of a prisoner who died while trying to escape from his cell one night. After that, officers and prisoners were often aroused at night by an eerie sound like that of a file grating on an iron bar. They came to believe that the prisoner was still trying to escape from confinement, many years after his death.
Haunts of the Old Cook County Jail
In October 1906, startling reports reached Chicago readers of ghosts and hauntings that were taking place at the old Cook County Jail, a largely abandoned structure that had been built after the Great Fire in 1871 and had been recently replaced by a new jail. Chicago’s executions still continued to occur on the old gallows, though, and unfortunately, due to overcrowding, some of the cells in the old structure had been put back into use again – much to the dismay of the prisoners and of the guards assigned to watch over them.
Officers at the entrance to the Old Cook County Jail
Many stated that the haunting had already begun when the “Car Barn Bandit,” Peter Neidermeir, went to the gallows, but his final words on the scaffold did nothing to ease the minds of those who believed in spirits. Just before his execution, he declared, “You can’t kill me, you scoundrels. I will come back and when I do, you will be sorry for what you have done.”
Neidermeir was one of three men sentenced to hang for a series of robberies in Chicago and northern Indiana. Along with Harvey Van Dine and Gustav Marx, Neidermeir had earned his nickname of “car barn bandit” after the murder of two Chicago Street Railway employees at one of the company’s barns. He went to the gallows in 1904 and became the 45th man to die at the county jail.
Soon after, the haunting of the jail intensified, leading many to believe that Neidermeir had made good on his threat of coming back.
Even before his execution, though, prisoners often reported the sounds of hammers banging away at the gallows. The sounds always occurred at night, when no workmen were present.
Even the most skeptical admitted that the old jail at Dearborn and Illinois avenues, built after the fire and then closed off from view by the courthouse and the new jail, was the perfect setting for a haunting. The place had long since fallen into a state of decay and disrepair and was made up of four grim, brick walls without partitions of any kind. In the center, with corridors all around, were the four tiers of cells that were eventually abandoned. Overcrowding in the new jail put many of the cells back into use again and thank to the number of men who died within the walls of the old edifice, it was no wonder that whispers began to circulate of ghosts.
Before each hanging that occurred, the strange manifestations began. Prior to one execution, prisoners and guards came to believe that the resident spirits carried out an execution of their own. The carpenters had put the scaffold in place and made all of the preparations for a hanging to be carried out the next night at midnight. The old jail corridor was dark, the workmen had departed, and the lights were turned down low. Then, there suddenly came a loud noise that startled every prisoner in the building and caused the jail guards to come running --- the drop of the scaffold had fallen on its own.
No effort was made to investigate the situation that night, but when Jailer Whitman arrived the following morning, he sought to discover the reason for the accident. He found that the executioner’s rope, the line that leads back to the small box where a deputy sheriff awaits the signal to use his knife when the noose has been drawn around the neck of the condemned man, had been cut just as cleanly as if a deputy himself could have severed it.
Whitman was never able to explain the incident and, although he was not a believer in ghosts, he admitted there was something unaccountable about the affair.
In October 1906, an anonymous reporter went inside the old jail to speak with the guards and the prisoners and to try and get to the bottom of the rumored haunting. He described the walls of the old structure as being devoid of paint and plaster, just bricks and the cement between them. The old building opened into the new jail, a large structure that faced onto Dearborn and hid the old jail, where the executions took place, from sight. A barred door and a second, steel door, separated the two jails, but at the time, only the barred door was being used because the old cells had been put back into service. Because of this, many of the strange sounds reported in the old building were being heard by inmates in the new one.
The reporter wrote, “Yet the prisoners in the new building have no fear, while in the cells of the squatty old structure the occupants are frightened and admit it frankly. They claim they are kept awake at night by poundings at their very heads. One of the prisoners said that almost every night a light was thrown over his eyes until he was awakened and that no sooner did he sleep than the demonstration was repeated. So many things have happened recently in the corridors of the old jail and down in the scaffold room of the basement that the belief has spread that the place is actually haunted. Along the 125 prisoners in the cells of the old structure this belief is supreme, and they assert the punishment by imprisonment is second to their punishment by fear.”
According to the guards, prisoners were startled by weird happenings on a nightly basis. Screams were often heard and men were seen suddenly sitting up on their bunks, their faces a mask of stark terror. When asked what was wrong, most attempted to laugh off their feelings, but invariably admitted to be frightened by the ghosts. Even the guards admitted to often being frightened themselves.
Chairs were moved from place to place in the night and papers often disappeared, only to turn up later in unusual locations. One of the jail guards stated firmly, “I don’t believe in ghosts but somehow I am getting creepy in this place. Last night, I sat here and heard someone pounding. I got up and the sound stopped. I went to the place I thought the sound had come from, but there was no one. I asked some of the prisoners and they said they had heard the pounding. So, what are you going to think about that? I wouldn’t say the place is haunted, that would make me look foolish, but I want to tell you that I wouldn’t stay in this place alone.”
The prisoners that the reporter spoke with freely admitted to being frightened and most volunteered their encounters with the ghosts. One prisoner stated: “I know there are ghosts here. A few nights ago, I woke up and there was a dim light over my cot. I felt a hand placed on my head, and then the light went out. I jumped up, but the cell door was locked. No living man could have possibly been in my cell. You ask me if this place is haunted – I know it is haunted.”
One prisoner, a young man, was so frightened by one night’s stay in the old jail that Jailer Whitman, upon hearing his story, had him removed to the new section of the building.
Whitman himself was hard pressed to believe in ghosts, although sometimes he wondered about the strange incidents in the old jail. He was sometimes inclined to believe in the ghosts but, usually, after an investigation, was able to explain most of the mysterious happenings with natural causes.
He told the reporter, “I know of no way to determine whether or not the old jail is haunted. Certainly, it is a likely place for ghosts, if such things exist. Forty-five men have been hanged in those old corridors, and one, at least, vowed to come back and do us injury. I would keep no prisoners in the place if it were not absolutely necessary. The new jail is full and there are 125 prisoners being kept at present in the old jail. They are frightened at night, every sound disturbs them, and while I know that it is true that they have a creepy feeling the old place is haunted, I am unable to relieve them, except as vacancies are made by discharges from the new jail. When some person more superstitious than others is brought in, I seek to make a place for him that will not cause undue fear.
“And while I personally have no belief in ghosts, I must admit there are some strange happenings in the old jail.”
For more stories of ghosts and hauntings related to crime, jails and prisons, see Troy Taylor’s Dead Men Do Tell Tales series, available as Kindle titles or [ClickHere to see autographed editions of the books]