Friday, December 12, 2014


Or, How to Ruin the Holiday Season...

On December 12, 1928, two murders were committed in a historic home in Carbondale, Illinois and those who have lived and worked in the place since that time have come to believe that the spirits of the dead still linger within its walls. The legend of the house claims that “you can bury the bodies in Oakland Cemetery, but you can’t make them rest there.” Such stories are spread about a myriad of allegedly haunted houses in the state of Illinois, but few of them have seen the kind of carnage and violence that occurred in the Hundley House in 1928.

John Charles Hundley was a prominent wealthy citizen of Carbondale at the time of his death. He had been the mayor of the city in 1907 and 1908 and enjoyed many friendships and business acquaintances throughout the area. But Hundley’s life had not always been perfect. In fact, in 1893, he had committed murder. At that time, Hundley had killed a music teacher in town, but was acquitted by a jury after pleading the “unwritten law,” meaning that he had murdered the man who had been sleeping with his wife. The incident led to him divorcing his wife, which caused bitter feelings between him and his son, Victor. Although the problems between them had been supposedly been settled years before the elder Hundley’s death, some witnesses would later claim that the quarrel continued. This led to Victor becoming the chief suspect in the murder of his father.

Hundley remarried a few years later and in 1915, he and his wife, Luella, purchased a lot at the corner of Maple and Main Streets and constructed what became their sprawling and luxurious home. 

Luella Hundley was the daughter of Ruffin Harrison, one of the founders of the city of Herrin and the owner of numerous coalmines in the region. She was the sister of George Harrison, president of Herrin’s First National Bank. She was said to have been an accomplished musician and very involved in local charity work. Perhaps for these reasons, she was regarded as having no enemies, which made her murder all the more puzzling. 

The lives of the Hundleys were destroyed just before midnight on Wednesday, December 12, 1928. Investigators believed that Mr. Hundley was murdered first. His body was found in an upstairs bedroom, dressed only in a nightshirt and socks. He had been shot six times from behind by a .45-caliber revolver. His face had been ripped apart as the bullets exited his head. Mrs. Hundley was killed downstairs. She had been shot twice in the back of the head and once in the heart. She had been shot in a rear stairway, up which she had apparently started to climb in order to aid her husband. Her body had rolled into the kitchen and a pencil was resting next to her left hand. An unfinished letter on the table in an adjoining room was mute evidence of what she was doing when she was alarmed by the shots that killed her husband. 

According to newspaper reports, police officers called by neighbors across the street who heard the shots being fired, arrived at the scene of the crime within minutes. Chief of Police Joe Montgomery told the press the following morning that robbery seemed to be the most likely motive for the murders, even though the house was not disturbed when officers arrived. The only evidence that pointed to a robbery of the house, which contained valuable artwork, expensive furnishings, and a large amount of cash, was the discovery of an empty pocketbook on the floor near Luella Hundley’s body. Neighbors told police that they believed the purse was kept in a writing desk downstairs. For this reason, and others still to be discovered, the police soon began to believe that there were other, darker motives for the crime.

On the morning of December 13, police investigators thoroughly searched the Hundley House. Tracking dogs were brought in and placed on the trail of the killer and four times, the dogs led their handlers straight to the home of John Charles Hundley’s son, Victor, a prominent coal dealer in the city. 

Investigators believed that the killer might have been known to Mrs. Hundley because it appeared that she had opened the door and let him into the house, as she would have done, even at that late hour, for her step-son.

Victor also seemed to have a motive for the murders. At an inquest that was held that afternoon, Joab Goodall, a friend of the Hundleys and the last person to see them alive, testified that the elder Hundley had recently told him that he planned to make a new will and disinherit Victor “because he was no good.” A bitter feud had long existed between father and son and, while allegedly patched up, it had possibly flared into existence again. If this was the case, then Victor Hundley stood to lose a great amount of money if his father changed his will. With an estate worth more than $350,000, Victor would be left with only his trust fund, which amounted to less than $15,000. 

Goodall also told the coroner’s jury that the Hundleys had been in excellent spirits when he visited with them on the night of their murders. They were planning a motor trip to their winter home in Florida and they planned to leave on Sunday. Goodall left the Hundley home around 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday evening and stated that Mrs. Hundley had locked the rear door behind him. Officers who arrived at the house four hours later found this door unlocked.

Another neighbor, Olga Kasper, who lived next door to the Hundleys, testified at the inquest that she had heard the fatal shots fired and had seen the lights in the house turned off immediately after. She said she heard someone running past her home, coming from the direction of the Hundley house and toward Victor’s house, a short time later. The person was so close to the house, she said, that they stumbled against a radio ground wire. 

Investigators from the Jackson County sheriff’s office searched the route described by Mrs. Kasper and followed it to Victor Hundley’s home, which was just 200 yards away. Along the path, officers found several slips of paper that were presumed to have been lost in flight. One paper, dated December 5, was a notice of the termination of partnership of Mr. and Mrs. J.C. Hundley with Victor Hundley in his coal business. Another paper was a bank deposit slip, the back of which bore notes that figured out the interest on a loan that amounted to $532. The note was in Luella’s handwriting and at the top of the paper was written “Vic.” 

Victor Hundley was brought in for questioning and subjected to seven hours of interrogation by Sheriff William Flanigan and his investigators. His house was also searched and a bloodstained khaki shirt was discovered. Hundley claimed that he had been wearing the shirt when he was told about the crime. Police officers awakened him and told him that his father and stepmother had been murdered and asked him to come to the house. While he was wearing the shirt, Hundley said, he had picked up the body of his stepmother. According to investigators, Hundley had never touched the body, so the blood had to have come from somewhere else. Suddenly, Victor recalled that he had been wearing the shirt while quail hunting and that was where the blood had come from.

Victor denied that there was any trouble between him and his father. They had gone through some troubles in the past, he admitted, but that was all over. He told investigators that on Wednesday night, he had been home all evening, reading and playing with his son. He had gone to bed early and was awakened by the police. Hundley also admitted that he owned a .45-caliber revolver, but he claimed that he had recently loaned it to his father. A search of both of the Hundley’s houses failed to turn up the gun. To this day, it has never been discovered. 

After hours of exhaustive questioning, Victor broke into tears and cried out, “Oh my God! This is terrible!” He again swore that had had nothing to do with the murders. He was taken home, but was placed under house arrest as the investigation continued.

On December 15, immediately following the funeral of the Hundleys, Victor was arrested for their murders. While the coroner’s jury was unable to name the killer, Fletcher Lewis, the state’s attorney, believed that he could prove that Victor was guilty in a court of law. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t work out that way and on December 31, Lewis was forced to let Victor go. He filed a motion during Hundley’s preliminary to dismiss the case due to insufficient evidence. The judge sustained the disappointed prosecutor’s motion. 

Lewis made a statement to reporters after the hearing. “While the facts and circumstances learned from the investigation amply justified the holding of Victor Hundley and the filing of a complaint charging him with murder… I have decided to prosecute this particular case no further,” he said.

Then, he added, “I feel quite sure that the atrociousness of this crime will compel the conscience of the person who committed it to someday make public his guilt.”

But Lewis was wrong. No one ever came forward and the killers of J.C. and Luella Hundley were never found. The case languished in limbo for a time and then was relegated to the “unsolved” section of the city’s law enforcement files. There were many who believed that Victor Hundley had gotten away with murder, but they could never prove it. Victor never spoke of the crimes again and he continued to live on in the Carbondale area for the rest of his life. Eight decades later, the murders of Carbondale’s former mayor and his wife remain unsolved. 

And perhaps, for this very reason, many have come to believe that their spirits do not rest in peace.

The Hundley mansion at the corner of Maple and Main streets remained empty for two years after the murders. The only physical reminder of the horrific crimes that occurred there was a bullet hole in a wall near where Luella’s body had been found, but the memories of that night remained in the minds of people in town. 

The house remained vacant until 1930, when it was purchased by Edwin William Vogler, Sr. He bought the house and all of its contents from the Hundley estate. It remained in the Vogler family until 1972, when it was sold to a family named Simonds, who converted the huge residence into a gift shop with apartments upstairs. In 2000, it was sold to Victoria Sprehe, who ran the gift shop for five years before selling it to make more time for her young son. It was later turned into a bed and breakfast for a time. 

Rumors that date back many years claim that the Hundleys still haunt this house. A number of the past owners and tenants in the building have had strange encounters that they are unable to explain. One former resident told of loud knocking sounds that reverberated in her room at night and the faint sound of the downstairs piano as the keys tinkled by themselves. Her family also recalled hearing footsteps going up and down the stairs, as if perhaps the killer of the Hundleys was doomed to repeat his walk to J.C. Hundley’s bedroom again and again. 

Former owner Victoria Sprehe said that whenever she was alone in the house, lights would turn on by themselves, as if someone were watching over her. She said that she believed that Luella’s ghost followed her home from work on at least one occasion. Walking into the empty house, she heard pots and pans clanging and noticed that lights were on in the kitchen. However, she noted, “It’s not like a scary presence. It’s a very peaceful vibe.”

Perhaps it’s not a scary presence, but it could be unnerving. Sprehe was sometimes bothered by a door that opened by itself and by footsteps that she heard walking on the stairs – the same stairs where a previous family also reported disembodied steps. Tenants who lived in apartments on the upper floor also told stories of the creaking stairs and what definitely seemed to be the sound of boots, or heavy shoes, clomping on the wooden risers. One tenant laughed and stated that this was only the sound of the old house settling and then lost his grin when he admitted that he had never heard of a house that settled in just that way.

Victoria Sprehe’s daughter, Nina Bucciarelli, also recounted odd incidents in the house, like the front porch swing that would move by itself, even when there was no wind. Sprehe’s husband had also noticed this odd occurrence. Nina had her own explanation for the swing’s strange movement. “As night, if you drive by the porch swing, it’s just swinging away. I think Mr. and Mrs. Hundley still like to swing at night,” she said.

And perhaps she’s right, because if the stories of the past decades are to be believed, the Hundleys have not yet departed from the house they called their own – and the place where their lives were taken away too soon.

An excerpt from Troy Taylor's book, BLOODY ILLINOIS

Tuesday, December 9, 2014



On December 9, 1911, a tiny flicker of flame from a coal miner’s lamp ignited an explosion that caused a disaster in the small town of Briceville, Tennessee that is still being felt today. During the early morning hours of that fateful day, the deadly explosion – killing 84 men and boys who had just entered the mine – sent a cloud of smoke and dust billowing more than 100 feet into the air. Five miners survived the blast, while the rest died from the initial concussion or suffocated on the poisonous gases that filled the mine shafts.

Briceville became a town that “echoed with the cries of widows and children.”

After the Civil War, coal became king in the areas around Knoxville, where towns like Briceville would spring to life. Such areas were rebuilt more quickly than other parts of the South, in part because of a resurgence in manufacturing and mining. Coal provided the power to begin this industrial revival and it was discovered that a 46-inch-thick layer of the mineral called the Coal Creek seam ran through the mountains. Mine entrances began to dot the countryside, all operated by a company out of Knoxville. They opened the Fraterville and Thistle Mines, as well as the Cross Mountain Mine. In 1877, a series of labor disputes forced the company to bring in convicts to replace the striking miners. That unrest prompted the company to invest in the latest equipment to trim its labor force in its Cross Mountain Mine.

That mine opened in 1888, and Briceville grew up around it. At one point, it was the biggest town in Anderson County, with a population of 6,000 and boasting its own opera house. By 1911, the Cross Mountain mining operation included two power plants to furnish electricity. Coal was cut from the seam using electric chain-driven machines and hauled out on electric rail cars. The mine was designated as “methane-free” since the flammable gas was rarely detected there. It was considered one of the safest in the region.

But as in far too many cases where terms like “unsinkable” and “fire-proof” are used, disaster came to the Cross Mountain Mine in 1911.

On December 9, a portion of the roof collapsed inside of the mine and apparently freed a pocket of methane gas. A miner carrying a lamp with an open flame who had gone to check on the roof collapse touched off the initial explosion. And utter devastation followed.

Reminders of the tragedy linger today in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains. Some of the reminders are tombstones, some arranged in concentric circles around a central monument in one hillside cemetery, while others are scattered in the Briceville Church Cemetery. Inscriptions carved into markers include the poignant farewell message that 22-year-old miner Eugene Ault scrawled on barricade boards as he slowly suffocated: "I guess I have come to die. Air is not good now. Well, all be good and I aim to pray to God to save me and all of you."

The tragedy left other legacies, too, including rescue techniques that saved many lives in the future. In addition, the phrase "canary in a coal mine" originated in Briceville. For the first time, rescuers carried the caged birds into the Cross Mountain Mine as an early-warning system to alert them to changes in air quality. The explosion had rendered much of the air inside the mine deadly with afterdamp, the asphyxiating mix of toxic gases. According to an article in a 1912 issue of Popular Mechanics, "As long as the birds remained cheerful and hopped about in their cages, it was known that all was well with the surrounding atmosphere. But suddenly when the birds began to droop and gasp for breath it was realized that the traces of the deadly 'afterdamp' were present and the unmasked volunteers with no oxygen equipment had reached the place for them to stop. The canary birds drew the line of safety."

More importantly, it was the use of oxygen equipment that was first used at Briceville that became essential to future rescue efforts. The Cross Mountain Mine explosion was the first time that the U.S. Bureau of Mines, which was created 1910, mounted a full-scale rescue effort. Staff members from the Knoxville office arrived hours after receiving word of the disaster. Those rescuers used self-contained breathing apparatus as they combed the dark shafts of the mine, looking for survivors. Almost miraculously, five miners were found alive behind a barricade they erected far inside the mine 58 hours after the explosion. By that time, everyone had given up hope and the stories of the rescued miners were plastered across the front page of newspapers across the country.

And there were strange stories connected to the disaster as well...

The Cross Mountain Mine disaster occurred less than a decade after another nearby coal mine tragedy. That one was inside of the Fraterville Mine, located just a mile away, and it occurred in May 1902. Both mine explosions occurred at the same time – 7:20 a.m., or just shortly after the miners reported for work. At Cross Mountain, though, many men were spared by luck. The normal workforce was 125 miners, but only 89 went inside that morning.

One of them, Hugh Larue, claimed to be spared by a dream. His wife, who had a nightmare the night before of "scores of miners with their heads blown off," refused to make him lunch. Unsettled by her recounting of the nightmare, he stayed home that day.

Colonel Isaac Williams, a teenager at the time, had been barred from working on the day of the disaster. He had been forbidden to enter the mine because he'd refused to cross a picket line a short time before. It turned out to be a decision that saved his life. Williams did assist in the rescue effort, though, going deep into the mine to retrieve the bodies of his friends and co-workers. As he walked along the railroad tracks toward the mine, he later said that “every house along the way echoed with the cries of widows and children."

The man who led a rescue effort in the Fraterville Mine, Phillip Francis, also headed an effort at Cross Mountain. When he arrived at the mine, he found the same sorrowful scene awaiting him – scores of women and children, weeping and in great distress. When the initial plume of dust and smoke had risen over the town, they had flocked to the entrance to the mine, fearing the worst.

As the men from the Bureau of Mines worked to pump the poisonous gases from the mine, rescue workers edged through the darkness, hoping for a miracle. More than two days after the explosion, rescuers found a door in the mine with instructions on where one group of miners had gone. Following directions, they located a barricade, tore it down and found the miners huddled inside.

One of the miners was a man named William Henderson. The first thing that he asked for when rescue workers found him was tobacco for his pipe. He could survive without food and water, he told them, but it about killed him because he didn't have any tobacco.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Horror & Hauntings of the Winecoff Hotel

As has been proven time and time again throughout the years, words like “unsinkable” and “fireproof” seem to mean very little when it comes to the power of the forces of nature. Ships sink and theaters and hotels burn – but few of them burn with the kind of horror seen at the Winecoff Hotel on December 7, 1946. The hotel, with 285 guests crowded into 194 rooms, was gutted by a six-hour fire that claimed the lives of 119 guests and injured another 90, making it the worst hotel fire in American history.

There were 285 guests that checked into the hotel that night and it’s possible that even after death, many of them have never checked out.

The Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, was built at Peachtree and Ellis streets by W. Frank Winecoff in 1913. After he retired, Winecoff continued to reside at the hotel that he loved. He was convinced that it was a safe place, as were city officials, who deemed the hotel “fireproof,” a term that has since been discontinued by the National Board of Fire Underwriters. 

 Like most hotels in Atlanta in those days, it had no sprinkler systems and no outside fire escapes. It had been built with a central staircase winding around an enclosed bank of elevators and, aside from the elevators, the staircase was the only method of escape from the building. In spite of this, the hotel was pronounced safe when it was inspected only a short time before the disastrous blaze by the city’s fire marshal. The building was supposedly of fireproof construction, which merely meant that the framework of the building would remain sounds after a fire – it said nothing of the contents and unfortunately, people are not fireproof.

The hotel was 15 stories tall with the floors numbered consecutively except for number 13, which was eliminated from the numbered system for the usual superstitious reason. The structure was protected by a shielded steel frame, and the roof and floors were made from concrete. The exterior was composed of 12-inch-thick brick panels, and inside partitions were constructed of tile plastered on both sides, ensuring that the structure would remain stable. Unfortunately, the walls and hallways were covered with painted burlap from the wooden baseboards to the chair rails, above which they were papered. Corridor floors had wall-to-wall carpeting over felt padding. Doors to rooms were of light panel wood, with wood frames and transoms. The rooms were wallpapered, some with as many as five layers of paper, and ceilings were painted. A few of the guest room windows were fitted with wooden venetian blinds, but most were fitted with ordinary cloth drapes. While the building itself was indestructible, apparently little thought was given to its contents, which were, of course, highly flammable. A kitchen stove, for example, is a “fireproof” device that contains flame for controlled use and function, but it can still burn flesh if anyone were unwise enough to try and climb inside.

The hotel’s design also included many openings, mostly vertical, such as ventilating shafts. These openings also had a hidden use: In the event of a fire, they would serve as chimneys and fans to draw oxygen-seeking flames onto all 15 floors. The hotel was also equipped with transoms above the guest room doors, which, when opened, would also help to spread flames in the case of a fire.

The two elevators shafts, as mentioned, were centrally located with a single staircase wrapping around it up and down the length of the building. The stairs began on each floor as a single staircase, and then branched off into opposite directions halfway up, each stairway leading to two long corridors that ran parallel to each other. Since the elevator shafts were enclosed with fire resistive materials, a blaze, should it occur, would probably proceed up the staircase, feeding on the burlap wallcovering, wallpaper and woodwork.

On the morning of December 7, 1946, the Winecoff Hotel was filled nearly to capacity with almost 300 guests on the hotel register. It was 3:30 a.m. when the hotel’s night clerk, Comer Rowan, who was sitting in for his wife, noticed the switchboard light for Room 510 was blinking. The guest asked for some ginger ale and ice. Rowan rang for Billy Mobley, the only night bellhop on duty. Mobley took the items up in the elevator and was joined on the trip by the night engineer, who was making his routine nightly check. When they arrived at Room 510, they had to wait for three minutes because the guest was in the bathtub. 
Meanwhile, the elevator operator, a young woman, slowly took the car back downstairs. Around the third floor, she thought she smelled smoke and took the elevator down to the basement. From there, she ran up to the main floor and told Rowan. He told her to go to the fifth floor and find Mobley and the engineer. Leaping over the desk, Rowan raced up the stairs to the mezzanine and saw flames reflected there in a mirror. He dashed for the telephone and called the fire department. It was 3:42 a.m. and within a few minutes, three ladder and four pumper companies pulled away from their station, two blocks away.
On the fifth floor, Mobley and the engineer emerged from Room 510, where they had spent a few minutes talking to the night-owl guest. As they opened the door, flames and dense clouds of black smoke swept toward them. They slammed the door closed.

Rowan plugged in every guest telephone as fast as he could, shouting “Fire! Fire! Fire!” Then, the switchboard went dead. The guests that had been sleeping peacefully in their rooms were now on their own. There was no fire alarm in the “fireproof” hotel. By the time the firemen arrived, the building was in chaos, filled with rushing, frenzied people – many of them ready to jump from the windows high above the street.

The firemen urged them not to jump, even though the hotel, from the third to the fifteenth floor was a blazing inferno. The firemen were faced with the dilemma of fighting the fire or saving the frantic guests who were shrieking from the window ledges above them. They chose rescue, hurried to their ladders and sent them up. More fire brigades began to arrive, until the city’s complete 60-piece fire department was surrounding the burning hotel. Their ladders, though they reached to the tenth floor, could not be elevated quickly enough.

Everything inside of the hotel was burning – drapes, wooden trim, furniture, bedding – and with no sprinkler system to douse the blaze, the hungry flames swept through hallways and blasted up staircases and elevator shafts. Most of the transoms above the guest room doors were open, as were the windows, which created even more drafts to feed the flames. Bed sheets were hung from the windows to be used as ropes but were far from the ground.  

With no way to escape, the heat of the flames drove the guests to the windows. One woman appeared on a seventh-floor ledge holding her two children. A ladder shot up to meet her, but before it came within reach, she threw her small son into the air, followed by her daughter. Then fell into the darkness, hurting toward the street below. A newspaper reporter on the scene wrote about what happened next:

Her nightgown shone white against the flames behind her as she stood on the window ledge, high above the street. Then it, too, caught fire. She jumped. But she missed the net stretched by the firemen. She landed astride overhead wires. There she hung in flames. Finally, her body broke loose and toppled to the ground.

A fireman reached one woman on the fifth floor just as she was losing her grip on the window ledge. He swung her around the ladder and onto his back. As he backed downward with her, another woman jumped from a ledge several floors above. She struck the fireman and the woman on his back and all three of them fell to their deaths.

Even though firemen and spectators on the street urged those on the ledges not to move, scores of bed sheets tied together to form ropes began to be tossed from the windows and half-crazed guests began to lower themselves down toward the street. One girl crawled two floors downward on one of the makeshift ropes. A fire ladder swung over to get her and holding the sheets with one hand, she lunged for the ladder. But a split second before she could grab it, the sheets came apart and she crashed to the pavement.

The firefighters and the spectators held out safety nets, hoping to catch anyone who fell or jumped from a window. One man missed a net by inches after jumping from the tenth floor.

On the eighth floor, a woman stood on a window ledge, begging for someone to save her four-year-old son. As flames roared from the window behind her, she flung the little boy into the air. One of the spectators saw that there were no firemen near the place where the boy would land and he raced to the spot. Miraculously, he caught the boy in the air and the child was saved without injury. The mother fell a few seconds later, but was killed in the fall. 

After seeing others leap to their death, a suicidal frenzy spread among the endangered hotel guests. Perhaps they believed that a certain death on the concrete below was better than burning to death or worse, surviving with permanent injuries. Others began to jump, sometimes regretting the decision – after it was too late. A girl scrambled for a ladder two floors below as searchlights swept over her, highlighting a face that was filled with terror. She groped for the ladder, blinded by the light, and missed. Her body fell crazily, spinning out of control, and smashed through the hotel’s marquee. 

Another woman climbed out onto one of the makeshift bed sheet ropes and began to lower herself. It appeared that she might make it to one of the firemen’s ladders but then another woman crawled out of a window and flung herself onto the same bed sheet rope. Their combined weight caused the sheets to tear apart and both of them fell to their deaths.

Many of the guests were saved by the nets that were spread out by the firemen below. However, a few of them hit the nets with such force that the handles were ripped from the would-be rescuers’ hands, and hurtling bodies struck the earth. There was nothing that could be done for those who hit the pavement under those circumstances.

A girl on the seventh floor had been patiently waiting for rescue as the flames began creeping out of the window behind her. A net was finally arranged below. Spectators heard her shout, “I hope I live! I hope I live!” and then she jumped. She lived – although she broke a hip, one arm and one leg.

The suicidal mania that had gripped the guests stopped after 20 or so of them fatally plunged to their deaths. More and more of them crept out onto the window ledges to escape the deadly heat, flames and gas and waited their turn for rescue. Heroic firemen worked swiftly to get them down from the building safely. A number of the rescuers were injured during the effort and 25 of them were later hospitalized for smoke inhalation. 

While many of the firemen had set to work trying to rescue the hotel guests who were clinging to the window ledges on the sides of the building, others had rushed inside to try and get control of the blaze. Inside of the lobby, a section of firemen began battling their way up the main staircase from the second floor, their hoses blasting the flames with water. They could hear the screams of trapped guests burning to death in the rooms above them. One man tried to seal off his room, taking his family into the bathroom. He turned on all of the water faucets but the heat from the flames almost instantly turned the water into steam. The toilet exploded, as did many others, and the man was found later asphyxiated with his head in the shower. His wife, holding onto their children, lay next to him. All were dead.

One couple that was trapped on the fourteenth floor was determined to live. As flames shot through the transom over the door and ignited the room, they crawled out onto the window ledge and slipped into the room next door, where the transom was closed. The couple there was trying to barricade the door. The man and woman on the ledge climbed into the room and tried to help. Both couples jammed a mattress against the door, constantly soaking it with water from the bathroom. For two hours, they soaked the mattress as the room filled with steam – but they lived.

A military officer, Major Jake Cahill, was in another room with his wife. He had sealed the transom and then had waited anxiously until a ladder reached the seventh floor window ledge of their room. Cahill’s elderly mother was in the room next door, but he was unable to reach her because of the fire. After he climbed down the ladder to safety behind his wife, Cahill immediately rushed into the Mortgage Guarantee Building next door and ran up the stairs to the seventh floor. He went from window to window until he saw his mother’s room directly across an alley. He obtained a long plank from somewhere, extended it between the two buildings and then crawled across it. He then led his mother back across the shaking board to safety.

Cahill alerted other guests about the plank and one of those saved by this method was Major General Paul W. Baade, who had commanded the 35th Army Division in Europe during World War II. He managed to bring his wife with him into the building across the alley.

For six hours, the firemen fought their way, floor by floor, through the fire, extinguishing blazes on each floor before continuing upward. None of them had ever experienced a fire with such intensity, and as they broke into one room after another, they discovered scenes that were beyond their comprehension. Brass doorknobs and telephones had melted. Light bulbs were fused. Heavy metal elevator doors were twisted. In some rooms, only the bedsprings remained, the rest of the furnishings having been completely consumed by fire. 
The dead were everywhere. Bodies sprawled in hallways, smothered by the smoke and lack or air. A dead woman was found at an open window. She was untouched by the fire, seemingly asleep, with only a trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth. Room after room contained corpses of those who had died 
in bed, never realizing the hotel was ablaze around them.

Yet, in the midst of all of this, the hotel stood, its structure still sound and “fireproof.”

 When the pale winter sun rose that day in Atlanta, crowds assembled to see the firemen carry away the corpses of 119 people. Another 90 people were taken away on stretchers to area hospitals. The worst hotel fire in American history was finally over.

Among the dead was W. Frank Winecoff, suffocated in his tenth floor suite. Although he had sold his beloved hotel in 1937, he continued to live there in his retirement, insisting until the day that he died that Atlanta’s finest hotel was completely “fireproof.”

The building that was once the Winecoff Hotel survived the fire. Although nearly gutted, it reopened in the 1950s as the Peachtree on Peachtree hotel and then saw another incarnation in the 1960s as a retirement home. After changing hands several times, it sat vacant for years, dwarfed by the modern hotels and office buildings around it. More renovations were done in the 1990s and it is now open once again as the Ellis Hotel – a place that has its share of ghostly tales. 

Stories have circulated for years that lingering remnants of the fire remain behind at the new hotel. Some of these stories even date back a few years to when the Ellis was being renovated. At the time, workmen on the job claimed that they were hearing footsteps and voices in empty rooms and that their tools often disappeared from where they had been left, mysteriously turning up on odd places. More recently, guests and staff members have also reported footsteps, along with loud cries and noises in the corridors, as if a group of people were frantically running down the hall. When they look out from their rooms, or turn a corner in pursuit of the noisy guests, they find that no one is there. The hallway is empty and deserted. Some also claim that they have been awakened at night to the smell of smoke, only to find that nothing is burning. 
Perhaps most disconcerting, though, are the faces – eerie apparitions of people’s faces that have been reported peering out from the hotel’s windows. The tales regarding these ghostly visages began many years ago, when the building was abandoned. The faces were first believed to be those of homeless people or squatters, sleeping in the place after it had closed down. Security officers who searched the building, however, found no one inside. 

As the years passed, the faces remained and are still sometimes reported today. These chilling images are distorted and unreal, human but inhuman, and some claim that appear to be screaming in terror. Are they real, or the result of fevered imaginations? Some believe the faces are nothing more than simulacra – the result of people’s ability to perceive familiar images in random patterns (such as the play of light and shadow upon a window). There are others, though, who believe the images are real and that they are the horror-filled faces of the people who died screaming at the Winecoff Hotel in 1946. 

Those who spend the night at the Ellis these days can judge for themselves.   

Friday, December 5, 2014


The Final Curtain at the Brooklyn Theater

On December 5, 1876, a crowd of excited theater goers packed into the Brooklyn Theater in New York City to see a heldover show called “The Two Orphans.” When the curtain rose for the final act, no one had any idea that it really was the final act, or that in less than 30 minutes, nearly 300 of them would be dead.

Built on the site of the old St. John’s Episcopal Church, the Brooklyn Theatre opened its doors on October 2, 1871. The theater was intended to be one of the premier production houses in the sister cities: Brooklyn and New York. Within a short time, it became highly respected within the legitimate theater. The structure, which seated 1,600 patrons, was an L-shaped building on the corner of Washington and Johnson streets, just one block from the former Brooklyn City Hall. The Dieter Hotel was tucked into the “crook” between the two wings of the theater. The larger of the wings housed the proscenium theater with the rear stage wall fronting onto Johnson Street. Included in the proscenium theatre wing was the auditorium seating area, the stage, dressing rooms and storage for scene decorations, flats, furniture and props. To accommodate bringing in and removing large scenery flats and props, there were 20-foot-wide scene doors opening onto Johnson Street. The stage doors, located on the same side as the scene doors, were smaller but still wide enough to allow people carrying large loads to enter with ease. Though these doors were readily accessible to the stage, they were used solely for production purposes and never available to the general public.

As “The Two Orphans” was nearing the end of its run, materials for the next two productions were already being stored at the theater. The backstage area, usually fairly open and spacious, was now packed with stored items. These extra materials made it difficult for actors and support personnel to navigate backstage and in the wings. The managers ordered that the fire buckets filled with water be removed, so people would not knock them over and spill them while trying to maneuver around all the extra set pieces. The additional flats were piled up against the back wall, blocking the fire hose apparatus.

The smaller wing, fronting on Washington Street, was the public face of the Brooklyn Theatre. Here were the public street entrances, the main and secondary box offices for ticket sales, the lobby and the staircases leading to the two balconies. The production offices were located on the upper floors of this wing.

Each of the theater’s three seating levels had its own special designation and commanded different ticket prices accordingly. There were six hundred floor-level seats in two sections known as “parquet” and “parquet circle.” Parquet circle seats were the best of the floor seats and tickets sold for a dollar fifty. Parquet seating was very close to the stage and considered to be less desirable so the cost was lower at seventy-five cents. The lower balcony, known as “dress circle.” contained 550 seats and tickets sold for one dollar. The “family circle,” made up the upper balcony and seated 450 patrons. These seats were farthest from the stage and nearest the ceiling so tickets were just fifty cents. The most choice and elegant seating was in eight private boxes, four on each side of the stage. Each box held up to six seats at a premium ticket cost of ten dollars.

The theater’s architect, Thomas R. Jackson, was very conscience of safety. He designed the structure so that it could be completely emptied within five minutes in case of emergency, even though there were no external fire escapes. In addition to the public entrances and the large scene and stage doors, he built three special exits into the long wall that made up the far side of the seating auditorium at ground level. These were large six-foot-wide double doors opening onto Flood’s Alley, which in turn led to Washington Street. One set was near the rear corner, the second in the center of the wall and the third just in front of the stage. Although these doors were kept locked to thwart intended gate crashers, the ushers had keys so they could be opened easily and quickly.

The staircases were also designed for ease and safety. The main flight from the dress circle on the first balcony was ten feet wide and opened into the box office lobby. There was also a narrow emergency staircase on the opposite side of the balcony that lead to the Flood’s Alley exit nearest the stage.

The family circle had a different design than the parquet and dress circles on the two lower levels. It had only one exit staircase leading from the upper balcony. Though it was a generous width at nearly seven feet, guests still needed to traverse two full flights separated by a long corridor. As was the custom of the day, the theater’s family circle was viewed much as the steerage on a ship. Third class ticket holders were basically third class citizens. They had a separate entrance, separate box office and a separate set of stairs, so they could not mingle or interact with those patrons in dress circle or parquet.

On that fateful night in December 1876, there were nearly 1,200 people inside the Brooklyn Theatre including over a hundred theater employees and members of the acting company. The house manager reported that they had sold approximately 250 tickets for parquet and parquet circle, 360 tickets for dress circle and 400 for family circle. Not quite a packed house, but still, a very sizable crowd for a frigid Tuesday night.

The lighting for the body of the theater was provided by gaslights. The stage itself was lighted with gas-lit border lights equipped with reflectors. These lights were ignited by an electric spark and the level of light from each was controlled by regulating the gas flow. To ensure that these “open-flame” lights didn’t ignite drops, props, furniture or curtains, they were covered with a protective wire frame, intended to keep objects at least a foot away from the flame.

The fifth and final act of “The Two Orphans” involved a major setting change. This act was to take place inside an old, derelict boathouse, poor Louise’s family home. First, the drop and borders from the previous scene were raised into the fly space and the new set moved onto center stage. The set was a simple wooden frame draped with dark brown painted canvas. There was little in the way of set pieces, just a pallet of straw in the center of the “boat house.”

It was just past 11:00 p.m. on December 5. The border drop from the previous scene had been raised and the stage crew was preparing the stage for the boathouse scene. Shortly before the curtain was to rise, stage manager J. W. Thorpe noticed that a border that had just been raised into the fly space had a broken frame corner and seemed to be hanging down at an angle, as if it had snagged on something. More importantly, he saw a small fire, not much larger than a fist, burning in the torn corner. Apparently the drop had gotten caught on the protective wire cage over one of the boarder gaslights and had ignited.

Kate Claxton, star of the show, had taken her place on stage and was lying on her back upon the straw pallet. Also on stage were two other actors, Henry Murdock and J. B. Studley. Waiting in the wings for their entrance cues were Mary Ann Farren and Claude Burroughs. Everyone had taken their places. Everything was ready to go. The audience was waiting.

Thorpe was unable to get to the fire hose that was behind the stored flats on the back wall and the fire buckets had been removed. He thought that the fire could be easily extinguished, and not wanting to disrupt the play, he directed two nearby carpenters to put the fire out and for the curtain to be raised for the final act.

Waiting to start the scene, Kate heard a rumbling sound “as if the roof were coming down” as the two carpenters, armed with long poles, were attempting to beat the fire out over their heads. Kate, looking up as she lay on her bed of straw, could see sparks floating down from the flies. But the curtain went up and she began the scene, delivering her first few lines without hesitation. As she lay there, Lillian Cleaves knelt just behind her on the other side of the canvas, out of sight of the audience, and whispered, “Save yourself, for God’s sake! I am running now!”

More sparks and tongues of flame drifted down and were now in full view of the audience. Mary Ann Farren came on stage and knelt next to Kate, as if she were playing her roll, but instead whispered that the fire was steadily gaining. The audience, seeing the smoke and flames jumped up and began to lunge about as panic overtook them. A few, who were seated closest, tried to crawl up onto the stage. J.B. Studley, one of the actors on stage, tried to take command of the situation by addressing the audience directly. He stepped to the edge of the stage and shouted out at them that, “The play will go on and the fire will be put out. Be quiet. Get back in your seats.” The crowd began to quiet and some returned to their seats.

Kate, in a further attempt to quiet the crowd, stepped forward and tried to tell the audience that the fire was part of the play and to remain calm. Within seconds, it became apparent that this could not be true as sparks continued to rain down. As she spoke her last words, a burning piece of wood fell to the stage at her feet and all attempts to calm the crowd were abandoned and panic took over, on the stage and in the audience. Most of those in the stage area made their way to the large stage doors and out to safety, a route blocked from audience members by the growing fire.

As the crowd attempted to flee en masse, head usher Thomas Rochford was able to unlock the emergency exit onto Flood’s Alley at the rear of the floor seating area. Audience members in the parquet and parquet circle easily found their way out through that exit or to the Washington Street foyer. However, when Rochford opened the rear exit door, a rush of fresh air reinvigorated the fire and it rushed towards the back of the auditorium and up toward the balconies.

The story was quite different on the dress circle level. Almost no one knew of the emergency stairs on the opposite wall from the main staircase. In a panic, people will nearly always try to exit the same way they entered. And so, those in the dress circle all headed toward the main staircase that would take them directly into the Washington Street lobby and then out into the street. This should have been a simple process, but for the panic. As the frenzied crowd rushed toward the stairs, it quickly became jammed. Some stumbled and fell, and others piled on top of them. Feet were tangled up in the balusters. Still others pulled and clawed at those in front, trying to climb over the mass to get to safety. Escape became next to impossible.

Fortunately for these poor trapped individuals, the First Precinct Police Station was just next door so assistance was quickly at hand. Several police officers and theater employees, working at the bottom of the stairs, were able to untangle the crowd as the crush pushed them down toward the exit. Nearly everyone from the dress circle eventually made it out of the building. Almost all of their injuries stemmed from falls or the massive crush, rather than from the fire.

An anonymous witness described the scene in the dress circle balcony for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “With few exceptions, the audience in the orchestra [floor seats] rushed headlong toward the doors. Those in the dress circle followed suit, and the most fatal and appalling evils resulted. Bereft of calmness and self possession...the panic stricken throng dived headlong forward, using brute force to escape the disaster which was still comparatively distant, and which was only converted from an ordinary accident into an awful calamity by that very ruthless and reckless haste. The weaker went down before the charge of the stronger, and women and children were the sufferers, as usual. In the body of the theater and in the corridor scores were crushed and jammed almost to death, and many were thrown to the floor and trampled on.”

In the family circle, conditions were far worse. The seating area with the most people had the poorest evacuation possibilities. Within seconds, all 400 of the family circle patrons moved toward their only exit. As in the dress circle, the stairs became immediately jammed with bodies packed in so tightly that almost no movement was possible. Down below, the fire was raging, sending heat and smoke toward the ceiling where it collected in the upper balcony. In a short time, those who were trapped up next to the ceiling began to collapse, unable to breathe in the thickening smoke and hot gasses.

In the Washington Street lobby, District Engineer Farley and fireman Cain along with several policemen and theater janitor Mike Sweeny, had finally succeeded in clearing the dress circle stairs. They made their way up to the dress circle balcony but found no signs of activity. They then opened a connecting door to the family circle stairs. Met with thick black smoke, they were unable to continue any further. They shouted up but got no response. They heard no human sound or movement upon the stairs. Believing that everyone who had been sitting in the family circle had already escaped, Farley ordered everyone out of the building. Within minutes of their evacuation, large cracks appeared in the theater wall along Johnson Street. Just under half an hour after the tiny fire was first spotted, bystanders heard a giant crash as the entire wall collapsed into the burning theater, just feet from where the fire had started.

It took only a matter of minutes for anyone arriving at the site to acknowledge that the building was lost. When Brooklyn Fire Department Chief Engineer Thomas Nevins took command just before 11:30 p.m., he understood that his job was not to save the theater, but to keep the fire from spreading to other buildings. The Dieter Hotel, nestled in the crook of the theater, was at the greatest risk. With its lower profile, the chance that floating embers and burning debris landing on the roof and setting it alight was very likely. Several other buildings in the general vicinity were also in jeopardy. Nevins ordered that fire-fighting apparatus be positioned throughout the area, on and around buildings most likely to catch and spread the fire. As for the Brooklyn Theatre, she would burn herself out without any possibility of being saved.

Several of those who had made their escape, found refuge in the police precinct next door. At some point in the night, Kate Claxton was found standing alone in the frigid street, still wearing only the thin, ragged costume of Louise, her character in the play. She seemed to be in a daze, not really aware of the chaos around her. After being led into the police station she sat quietly, only occasionally asking of the whereabouts of some of her fellow actors.

The fire raged into the night, the crowd of onlookers grew; some merely curious, others frantic with worry as they searched for friends and loved ones among the survivors. Despite the growing number of people inquiring about the missing, authorities believed that few, if any had been lost to the fire. A physical search had been done of the dress circle balcony and it was found to be empty. No one had been able to get into the family circle balcony but rescuers had found no evidence of anyone still up there. They believed they had every reason to be optimistic.

Uncontrolled until well after 1:00 a.m. when the Flood’s Alley wall collapsed, the fire began to burn down. At about 3:00 a.m., Chief Nevins made his first attempt to enter the building through the Johnson Street lobby into the vestibule but was forced back by heat and smoke. Eventually, he was able to enter the building to just inside the lobby doors where he found the body of a woman, sitting on the floor propped up against a wall. She was horribly disfigured and her legs had been largely burned away. Nevins exited the building with a new understanding that where there was one body, there would likely be many more. He kept his discovery to himself, fearing the crowd might storm the crumbling building.

No one entered the building again until well after 6:00 a.m. The fire was nearly out and nothing remained of the auditorium except for a very small portion of the vestibule (seating area) nearest the lobby doors. The entire structure had collapsed into the cellar. Chief Nevins decided it was time to take in a recovery party.

The first sight that greeted them was a mass of charred and tangled debris in the cellar toward the rear of the auditorium. As they descended into the rubble, they made a grim discovery. The tangle of debris was in reality a tangle of human corpses. They had fallen into the cellar when the family circle balcony and staircases collapsed. Though their bodies were horribly burned, they had fallen victim to the smoke and heat long before the flames had reached them.

News rose from the smoldering crater that as many as twenty people had perished. The search, and body removal continued but by 9:00 a.m. the number had risen to nearly seventy. Within two more hours, twenty more were added to the growing total. By early afternoon the true depth of the tragedy became apparent as the estimation surpassed two hundred.

It would take nearly three days to remove all the bodies from the building’s wreckage. Some had been scattered when the balcony collapsed and became tangled in the debris. The task was made particularly difficult by the extremely poor conditions of the remains. Recovery became problematic as many body parts disintegrated at the slightest touch. Some bodies simply fell apart when rescuers tried to lift them from the floor of the cellar.

The crowd around the ruins grew throughout the day. Worried, distraught, and sometimes frantic people wandered from person to person, officer to officer, imploring of anyone who would listed for information about some missing person. In several cases, the only reason someone might have been thought to have been at the theater was that they didn’t come home that night, didn’t appear for work the next morning, or simply hadn’t been seen since the previous evening.

The city morgue filled quickly. An unused market was found nearby on Adams Street for the overflow. In the end, the market floor provided the best location for the victim’s remains and shreds of clothing, jewelry and personal items that survived the inferno. Identification was going to be difficult as most faces were burned beyond recognition. In many cases, the damage from the fire was so great that even gender was not evident. The victims who were identified were largely done so by personal items found on or near the bodies.

With the large open market space of the temporary morgue, human remains, extracted from the theater, could be prepared and arranged for viewing in the hopes of possible identification. A steady flow of mourners passed through the office of Kings County Coroner Henry C. Simms, requesting passes to enter the morgue. As they moved up and down the rows of the dead, they were guided by an official because so many had collapsed or passed into fits as they saw something they recognized on a particular body. As each individual was identified, their body was removed to their home or that of a family member. This procedure ensured a fairly rapid and simple reduction in the mass of human bodies laid out upon the floor. Regrettably, it also ensured that mistakes in identification would surely be made as well.

Brooklyn fell into a period of mourning. Funerals were held all over the city. Several neighborhoods and organizations held memorial services for the victims of the fire. Prayer vigils and special church services and masses were performed for those who died and their friends and families.

Nearly 100 of those who lost their lives in the Brooklyn Theatre fire could not be identified. The City of Brooklyn secured a large plot in the Green-Wood Cemetery to use as a mass grave. A large arch-shaped common grave was dug for those who remained unidentified and for families who couldn’t afford to pay for private burials. One hundred and three people, in donated coffins trimmed in silver, were laid to rest in the common grave, arranged with their heads towards the center of the arch. Over two thousand mourners braved the bitter cold to attend the graveside service and mourn the victims. After two hours of speeches, ceremonies and music performed by a sixty- voice German choir, fresh soil was shoveled over the long lines of coffins creating a large burial mound topped with a floral crown and cross. Later, the mass grave was marked with a thirty-foot-tall granite memorial, engraved with a brief history of the disaster. The memorial, also purchased by the City of Brooklyn, was placed atop the mound.

The final number killed would fluctuate for several days. It was hard to determine how many complete bodies could be made up from the piles of arms, legs, heads and torsos, and impossible to account for the body parts that had burned completely away. Henry Simms, the Kings County Coroner announced the death toll as 293 on Friday, but later scaled that back to 283. The number engraved on the memorial marker erected in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery was 278. That number is by no means definitive however as researchers have estimated the true number is likely nearer to 300. Regardless of the final count, the horrific tragedy could not be denied, nor its impact on a stunned city.

Three years after the Brooklyn Theatre had been reduced to ashes, Haverly’s Theatre was built on the same site, but was torn down just eleven years later. The next structure was a simple office building, used by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle until it went defunct. The approximate site is now a lovely wooded park-like seating area just north of the New York Supreme Court Building. Sadly, there is no marker of any sort, recalling or commemorating the terrible tragedy that had taken place there.

For the first two days, while the recovery efforts were continuing, much of the work going on inside the ruin and guard duty around the crumbling structure was done by the Brooklyn Police Department. Many of these men had been working around the clock with very little rest. They were near exhaustion and there were few officers on their regular patrol of the city. It was noted in the Brooklyn Union that: “The city is comparatively uncovered, and if New York thieves should make raid it would, no doubt, be highly successful.”

One hundred members of the Thirteenth Regiment of the New York National Guard presented themselves to the Brooklyn Police Commissioner, offering their services to take over for the police officers, that they might get some rest and return to their regular duties protecting the city. The Fourteenth Regiment did likewise and it was determined that they would rotate duties every twelve hours until the work was completed. The Fourteenth Regiment would have the night shift, starting at 6:30 p.m.

Those long nights in the frigid December weather must have worn heavily on the men of the Fourteenth. At first, they kept busy, as there were still crowds of mourners, curiosity seekers and scavengers. Soon enough, the crowds began to thin down to almost nothing after the bodies had been removed and the novelty of the tragedy had worn off. The long, dark vigil had gradually become a quiet one. The men walked or stood their posts and chatted quietly when they had occasion to pass each other.

But the nights were not completely quiet. As the guardsmen spoke in hushed tones, their attention was on occasion called to the cellar floor, where they reported hearing the soft sound of a woman’s sobs. This would continue until someone would call down for the woman to come out; that it was dangerous, especially at night, and that no one was allowed inside. Two of the men went so far as to venture into the building to find and escort her safely out. They later described what they saw as the dark, shrouded shape of what they thought was a woman. She was walking through the debris, bent over and weeping, as if she were looking for something. She stopped here and there as if to peer into some cavity, then moved on. One of the men climbed toward her to entice her away from the danger, but she simply vanished as he got closer. They knew that there was no other way out and that she hadn’t gone past them. They left the cellar area frightened and confused, but wondering if a poor lost soul was left searching for someone she had gotten separated from on that terrible night. The mysterious apparition appeared two more times over the next week, then was seen no more.

This story is an excerpt by Rene Kruse from the book AND HELL FOLLOWED WITH IT by Troy Taylor and Rene Kruse. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


The Vanishing of Ambrose Small

Out all of the people in history who vanished without a trace for no discernible reason at all, there are few who can compare to Ambrose Small. His disappearance on December 2, 1919 was so sensational and mystifying that it made a permanent mark on North American history. The marvelous and controversial showman would have undoubtedly wanted it no other way.

Ambrose Small was born in 1863 and at the age of thirteen went to work in his father’s modest establishment, Toronto’s Warden Hotel. As he grew older, he began managing the hotel bar and booking entertainment for the customers. With these minor musical acts, he realized that show business was to be his life’s work. In addition to working for his father, Small also took a part-time job as an usher at the Grand Theater. He slowly worked up the ranks to assistant manager and then booking manager, arranging florid and spicy melodramas for the venue. These programs met with much success and Small began to prosper. He began to buy interests in small theaters in and around Toronto. His ambition was to own the Grand Opera House, but his offers to buy it were frequently refused. This made him all the more anxious to possess it and he began to work harder than ever to amass the necessary wealth.

Small began to make a name for himself as a daring gambler. He was never afraid to bet huge sums on races and while he always paid off when he lost, he was not above being involved in fixed races either. He managed to win $10,000 in one fixed race and began making enemies in racing circles. He also gained a reputation with women. There were a number of rejected sweethearts and angry husbands who would have loved to see something bad happen to him. The short but handsome Small, with his luxuriant walrus mustache and fancy clothes, was often seen squiring young and beautiful women about town, especially the gorgeous showgirls who worked the local theaters. He left many a hopeful starlet feeling both used and disappointed when he moved on to another attractive lady. 

This is why it must have come as a great surprise when the rakish Small, just before his fortieth birthday, suddenly married the wealthy heiress to a brewing fortune. Whether or not Small loved his new wife, Teresa, or whether he simply loved her money is unknown. However, he did use her wealth to purchase scores of small theaters and to book the biggest-named talent that he could find into them.

Small now had his fortune and he finally realized his dream of owning the Grand Opera House. But within a few years, he began to grow tired of his marriage and his secure business life and he began gambling and seeing women again. In order to conduct his affairs discreetly, he ordered that a secret room be constructed to adjoin his office at the opera house. The room was fitted with heavy drapes to muffle sound, a deep Oriental carpet, a well-stocked bar and a gigantic bed with satin sheets and pillows. Many a beautiful young woman was willingly ravished in the clandestine chamber.

As his fortune grew, Small continued to make enemies. He made his prejudices well known to anyone who would listen, even strangers. He disliked children, Catholics and the poor and felt that making donations to charity was foolish. He continued to gamble, growing more and more daring with his wagers, and he began to win huge sums of money. Small was able to keep informed of the races at every track in the United States and he bet on most of them. He became more interested in wagering than in running his theatrical empire, which now included almost every theater in eastern Canada. He spent huge sums of money and treated his employees and business associates with disdain. Small placed much of his business dealings in the hands of his private secretary, John Doughty, who was well aware of his employer’s dark and secret habits. Doughty, though, had secrets of his own. 

By the late 1910s, the high life began to take its toll on Small. His hair had started to turn gray and to recede and his face was reddened by broken blood vessels, the result of too much drinking. While he was still gambling, his wagers were somewhat smaller and his womanizing was mostly confined to his long-time mistress, Clara Smith. He was also beginning to tire of the theater business and wanted out.

In 1919, he and Teresa began negotiating the sale of the Small chain of theaters to a British-owned firm, Trans-Canada Theaters Limited. The deal was concluded on December 2, 1919 and the Smalls received a check for one million dollars, with an additional $700,000 to be paid to them in installments over the next five years. The husband and wife endorsed the check and deposited it in their account at the Dominion Bank the next morning. That afternoon, Small told his lawyer, E.W.M. Flock, that he planned to inform his secretary John Doughty that not only had Doughty been retained by the new firm as a secretary and booking manager, but he would see a substantial increase in salary.

Attorney Flock saw Small again later that evening, around 5:30 p.m., at the Grand Opera House. Small was in a fine mood, laughing and smoking cigars to celebrate the sale of the chain. Flock spent a few minutes with him, but then left to catch a train. As he walked out of the front foyer of the opera house and into a driving snowstorm, he looked back and waved at Small. It was the last time that he would ever see his client.

A short time later, Small also left the opera house. Bundled up against the biting wind, cold and snow, he made with way to the corner of Adelaide and Yonge, ducking into the shelter of a newsstand operated by Ralph Savein. The newsstand owner knew Small well, as he habitually checked the racing results in the paper each day. Small always picked up the paper when it arrived by train, however on this day, the papers had not been delivered because the train had been delayed by a terrible snowstorm in New York. Savein said that Small cursed bitterly over the lack of the paper, which was something that he had never heard him do before. Small then trudged off into the snow and as he made his way down the block, Savein saw his form fade away into the blowing storm. He was the last person to report speaking with Ambrose Small.

Several days passed before anyone realized that Small had disappeared. His wife and friends were so used to his dalliances and gambling trips that they assumed he had simply gone out of town for a few days. They wanted to ignore his shortcomings so badly that they never dreamed he could have met with foul play. Once his disappearance became official, though, the authorities launched the biggest manhunt in Canadian history. Teresa Small offered a staggering $50,000 reward for information on her husband, inspiring every amateur sleuth and crackpot to join the hunt with the legitimate detectives already on the case. 

Meanwhile, the police were also seeking John Doughty, who had, coincidentally it turned out, vanished on the same day as Ambrose Small. The authorities learned that Doughty had not taken kindly to losing his position with Small and before leaving town, he had gone to the Dominion Bank and, using Small’s key to his safety-deposit box, had absconded with $100,000 in negotiable Victory bonds. Doughty was found one year later, working in a Portland, Oregon, paper mill under the name Charles B. Cooper. He was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for the theft of the bonds but was cleared of having anything to do with Small’s disappearance.

As the hunt for Ambrose Small continued, many began to fear that the theater magnate had been murdered. A man named George Soucy, a publishing house employee, reported that he had seen Small being forced into a car on the evening of December 2. Also, on that same night, a caretaker named Albert Elson insisted that he had seen four men burying something in a ravine just a short distance from Small’s home. A cleaning woman, Mary Quigley, swore to police that she had seen a notice pinned to the wall in the Convent of Precious Blood, located on St. Anthony Street, which requested “prayers for the repose of the soul of Ambrose J. Small” several days before the public or the press knew that he had vanished!

These turned out to be some of the best leads that the police had but they were among the hundreds that actually came in. The authorities conducted a painstaking search for the missing man. Every business in Toronto was searched and all six cities where Small had theaters were scoured for clues. Toronto Bay was dredged several times and the basement of the Small mansion on Glen Road was excavated. The search continued for years and even as late as 1944, investigators were still digging up the basement of the Grand Opera House, hoping to find Small’s bones.

Teresa Small was interrogated several times about her husband’s disappearance. She was convinced that he had been done in by one of the countless women he had been involved with over the years. She knew all about his affairs but had ignored them for a long time. Finally, she ran across some obscene letters that Clara Smith had written to Small and Teresa demanded that her husband stop seeing her. She had placed the letters on the dining room table so that he would know that she had seen them. Small came upon the correspondence and destroyed it all, insuring his wife that his cheating days were over. This occurred in 1918 but Teresa did not know that her husband had continued seeing Smith up until the day that he vanished. In fact, he even had dinner with her on December 1. The police concluded that Smith knew nothing of her lover’s fate.

By 1920, the case had become desperate and the police had resorted to following ridiculous stories and what turned out to be frequent hoaxes. That same year, though, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer who created Sherlock Holmes and who was known in England for helping the authorities with a number of seemingly unsolvable crimes, was touring the United States. A reporter asked him what he thought of the Small disappearance and he admitted that he was intrigued and had been following the story in the papers. He was asked if he might help out with it and Doyle agreed that if asked, he would consult on the case. Within days, newspapers in Canada and the United States were running headlines that cried “World’s Greatest Detective to Solve Small Case” and “Sherlock Holmes to Reveal Toronto Mystery.” For some reason, though, Doyle was never asked to consult and his interest in the case turned to other things.

And while the famous author was never asked to look into the case, the authorities were desperate enough in 1926 to contact a Vienna criminologist named Dr. Maximilian Langsner and to hire him to delve into the rapidly cooling affair. Langsner claimed that he was able to use psychic “thought processes” to find the missing man. While he was put up in the finest Toronto hotel, conducting seances and “astral trips”, he sent the police out to follow his divinations, digging up half the countryside and finding nothing. When the detectives complained, he replied that the policemen were clouding his vision and he would have to look more later. Public outcry sent Langsner packing and the police department was left with the huge bills that he had run up on the official tab.

Since 1919, Ambrose Small has been “spotted” in hundreds of places from owning a hotel in South America to living it up in France with a girl on each arm and a champagne bottle gripped in each fist. A psychic envisioned him buried in the Toronto city dump. An old friend claimed to catch a glimpse of him on the street in London. The magician Harry Blackstone swore that he spotted Small gambling in a Mexican cantina. 

Regardless, the courts pronounced him officially dead in 1923, so he has been placed in the “gone, but not forgotten” category from that point on. What really happened to the theater mogul is anybody’s guess and the mystery of Ambrose Small will undoubtedly live on for many years to come.

Monday, December 1, 2014


On December 1, 1958, one of the most soul-crushing fires in American history occurred on the west side of Chicago when 92 children and three nuns died at the Our Lady of Angels School. The horrific event shattered scores of lives on that day and the neighborhood where the school was located has never fully recovered. 

Our Lady of Angels was located at 3820 West Iowa Street. It was surrounded by a quiet Catholic parish of about 4,500 families from mostly Irish and Italian backgrounds. They lived modestly in apartments and brick bungalows until after the fire, when many of these hardworking families abandoned the neighborhood, never to return.

On December 1, between 1,200 and 1,300 students were sitting through their last hour of classes for the day at the parochial school. The fire started around 2:25 p.m., about 20 minutes before class was going to be dismissed. Like many other schools of that era, Our Lady of Angels was tragically without many of the safety measures that exist today. The forty-year-old building had no smoke detectors, no sprinkler systems, no outside fire alarm and the building had only one fire escape. Unbelievably, the school had passed a fire inspection two months before. By 1958 standards, the building was legally safe.

Two students on an errand returned to their classroom and said that they smelled smoke. The teacher took them seriously and after consulting with a teacher in the room next door, both decided to evacuate their students. The rest of the school was not, at this time, alerted to the fire. The two classes left the building – one using the fire escape, the other an inside staircase – and reported to the church, which was on the same grounds. The janitor entered the school building and noticed that it was on fire. He told the parish housekeeper to call the fire department. It was suggested later that she may have delayed calling for a few minutes since an alarm was not received until 2:42 p.m. This was the same time that the building’s fire alarm was also sounded. It was a manual alarm and not connected to the fire department. 

This was the first warning received by the rest of the school that the building was in danger. 

It is believed that the fire started in a trash can at the bottom of the basement stairwell. There, it smoldered for a good part of the day and then spread to the stairs, thanks to air from an open window. 

Once it was ignited, the fire quickly spread and burned up to the second floor, devouring the building as it went. By the time the first fire trucks arrived, the upper floor of the north wing was engulfed in flames. The fire had already been burning for a number of minutes before the alarm went off and more precious time was lost when the fire department trucks mistakenly pulled up to the church rectory, and not the school. The dispatchers had been given the wrong address by the person who phoned in the report. Then, when the first trucks arrived at the school, they had to break through a locked gate to get inside.

Inside the classrooms, which were rapidly filling with smoke, the students heard the sound of the fire trucks approaching, but then nothing, as the trucks went to the rectory instead. At that desperate moment, the nuns asked the children to bow their heads in prayer. When the trucks finally arrived, and the extent of the blaze was realized, another alarm was sent out, ordering all available vehicles to the scene. Before it was over, 43 pieces of fire equipment were at the school.

When the firefighters arrived, they saw children calling for help from the second-story windows. Since it was the rescue of the children that most concerned the firemen on their arrival, the fire continued to spread and eventually burned off a large portion of the roof.

Occupants on the first floor of the school were safely evacuated in orderly fire drill formation but the situation was more difficult on the upper floor, which was now filled with thick clouds of smoke. The fire escape had become unreachable through the burning hallways. The only way out was through the windows and soon, screaming children were plunging to the frozen ground below. The desperate firemen, icicles hanging from their helmets, behaved heroically and managed to save 160 children by pulling them out the windows, passing them down ladders, catching them in nets, and breaking their falls with their own bodies. One rescuer who climbed a ladder up to the building's second floor was Lieutenant Charles Kamin. When he reached the window of Room 211, he found a number of eighth graders were crammed together and trying to squeeze out. He reached inside and, one a time, began grabbing them, swinging them around his back and dropping them onto the ladder. He saved nine children, mostly boys, because he could grab hold of their belts. He was only stopped when the room exploded and the students fell back out of his reach.

In one classroom, the children were so gripped with fear that they refused to leave. The teacher instructed them to crawl to the staircase and she pushed them down and out, saving the entire class. Math was being taught in another room when the fire broke out. The quick-thinking teacher ordered the students to pile books around the doors where the smoke could seep in. She told them to put their desks in front of the doors to keep out the smoke and the tremendous amount of heat that was starting to come in. The alarm had not been sounded at that point, so she convinced all of her students to loudly chant in unison that the school was on fire; that way, she told them, they would help by alerting students and teachers in other classrooms who might not know what was going on. By keeping the children occupied, and by quick actions that increased their confidence in her, she was able to keep them calm while they awaited rescue. Some safely jumped to a staircase a few feet below, while others waited at the window for fire department ladders. After all of the students had been rescued, the teacher descended the ladder. Even though this room was heavily damaged by smoke and fire, only one child died. The students in the classroom across the hall were not so fortunate – the teacher and 29 students burned to death.

A nine-year-old girl named Margaret Chambers had stayed home that morning with a cold but she hated missing school and begged her mother to let her go for the afternoon session. Her mother, Rose Chambers, agreed and Margaret never returned home.

Max Stachura, father of a nine-year-old boy who attended Our Lady of Angels, rushed to the school as soon as he heard about the fire. He was able to save 12 children by either catching them as they jumped or breaking their falls. He couldn’t save his son, Mark, however. He found the boy standing at the window of his classroom and shouted for him to jump. Mark either didn’t understand what his father wanted him to do or was too frightened to jump. He perished in the fire.

Firemen groped their way through smoke and fire, searching for children who might be trapped. Hallways and rooms were filled with smoke and gases but the firemen remained, looking in every room for signs of life. They found many groups of children still alive but, unfortunately, they were too late for many. They fought their way into one classroom to find 24 children sitting dead at their desks, their books open in front of them. It was a scene that members of the rescue party would never forget.

The scene outside the school was one of chaos. Between children jumping from windows and screams and cries for help, firefighters also had to deal with the terrified parents who began to arrive. They hampered the efforts of the firefighters as they rushed the police lines, hysterically trying to reach their children who were trapped in the building. It took the crew a little over an hour to put out the fire. The blaze had consumed the second-story classrooms, claiming the lives of dozens of children and nuns. 

For the hundreds of parents and relatives who stood outside, the huge loss of life was soon apparent as cloth-covered stretchers began to emerge from the smoldering building. A long line of ambulances and police squadrons slowly collected the bodies and took them to the Cook County Morgue, where family members could identify them. Confusion and mystery made the tragedy even worse. Many parents had no idea if their children were dead or alive. Some of them were discovered standing in the street outside the school. Others were given shelter in nearby homes. However, many parents had no choice but to search the seven hospitals to which the injured were taken or, worse yet, to wait in the grim line at the county morgue. 

Chicago was stunned by the appalling loss of life and word of the disaster spread around the world. In Rome, Pope John XXIII sent a personal message to the archbishop of Chicago, the Most Reverend Albert Gregory Meyer. Four days later, Meyer conducted a mass for the victims and their families before an altar set up at the Northwest Armory. He called the fire "a great and inescapable sorrow."

Nearly as tragic as the fire itself was the fact that no blame was ever placed for the disaster. In those days, there was no thought of suing those responsible (the Catholic Church, which ran the school) for the conditions that allowed the fire to happen. Outwardly, the families accepted the idea that the fire had been simply "God's will," but it cannot be denied that a number of those involved left the Church, their faith as shattered as their lives. No one dared to challenge the Church over what happened and life moved quietly on.

But in January 1962, the fire was news again when police in Cicero questioned a 13-year-old boy about a series of fires that had been set in the city. When they learned that he had been a troubled student at Our Lady of Angels at the time of the fire, their interrogations took another direction. The boy's mother and stepfather hired an attorney, who recommended that the boy submit to a polygraph test. 

In the interview, polygraph expert John Reid learned that the boy began starting fires at the age of five, when he set his family's garage alight. He had also set as many as eleven fires in buildings in Chicago and Cicero, usually by tossing burning matches on papers at the bottom of staircases. This was exactly how most believed the Our Lady of Angels fire started and so Reid pressed him harder. The boy denied starting the fire at first, but test results indicated that he was lying. Later, the boy admitted that he had set the blaze, hoping for a few extra days out of school. He said he hated his teachers and his principal because they "always wanted to expel me from school." His attendance record had been poor and his behavior was described as "deplorable." 

In his confession, he said that he had started the fire in the basement after leaving his classroom to go to the bathroom. He threw three lit matches into a trashcan and then ran upstairs to his second-floor classroom, which was soon evacuated. When Reid asked him why he had never told anyone about setting fire to the school, the boy replied, "I was afraid my dad was going to give me a beating and I'd get in trouble with the police and I'd get the electric chair or something."

Reid turned the confession over to the police and the boy was placed in the Arthur J. Audy Juvenile Home. Charges were filed against him, but after a series of hearings that ended in March 1962, Judge Alfred Cilella tossed out the boy's confession, ruling that Reid had obtained it illegally. Also, since the boy was under the age of 13 at the time of the fire, he could not be tried for a felony in Illinois. He did charge the boy with starting the fires in Cicero, and he was sent away to a home for troubled boys in Michigan. The boy's identity has never been released, but there are those who know it. Despite pleas from surviving family members of the Our Lady of Angels victims, it has never been publicly released. 

Despite the passage of time, the fire has never been forgotten. A new parish school was constructed on the site in 1960, but it was closed in 1999 because of declining enrollment. The only memorial to the victims of the fire is located in Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside, where 25 of the victims are buried. It was constructed from private donations in 1960 and to this date, no official memorial to the fire has been erected.

For those who survived the fire, or lost friends or family members to the blaze, the Our Lady of Angels disaster remains a haunting memory that has been impossible to shake. To this day, they continue to hold reunions and services in memory of those who died, and many of those with connections to the fire tell strange stories and personal experiences with those who died in 1958. 

One woman recounted how her parents were relieved to see that she and her brother had survived the fire when they found them on the street outside the school. Her mother later told her that, shortly after arriving, she saw her son running from the building and heading toward his parents. He had a big smile on his face, thrilled to have escaped the burning school with his life. The parents and son became separated in the confusion and after the fire was out, they were unable to find the boy. Hours later, it was learned that he had died in his second-floor classroom and had not left the school at all. Until the day she died, the woman’s mother was convinced that she saw her son outside the school that day. 

Others with a first-hand connection to the fire have also spoken of encounters with loved ones who did not survive. Mothers claimed their children came to visit them and some who were children at the time of the fire stated that they were consoled by perished brothers and sisters, who stayed only briefly before moving on. Some visitors to the fire memorial at Queen of Heaven Cemetery say that they sometimes smell the strong presence of smoke nearby. 

Are such stories merely imagination, or perhaps wishful thinking? No one can say for sure, but there is no denying that the Our Lady of Angels Fire remains one of the most poignant and heart-breaking in Chicago’s history and will continue to be a wound that cannot be healed for many years to come.