Sunday, January 24, 2016


A Few of Chicago's Other Highway Phantoms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Tragic Tale of Louisa Luetgert

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

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

Herman Lutegert

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

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

Louisa Luetgert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How the City of Chicago was born in blood...

It may not have been a cold morning in April 1803, when Captain John Whistler climbed a sand dune around which the sluggish Chicago River tried to reach Lake Michigan but chances are it was. A chilling wind would have been a characteristic greeting from the landscape that Whistler had come to change. His orders had been to take six soldiers from the 1st U.S. Infantry, survey a road from Detroit to the mouth of the river, and draw up plans for a fort at this location. The British had also planned to build a fort at the entrance to the Chicago River but Whistler managed to beat them to the site. One has to wonder how the city might be different today if the British had managed to show up first.

After claiming the site, Captain Whistler returned to Detroit to get his garrison and his family. He was 45 years old and neither his poor Army pay nor the dangers of the frontier stopped him from living a full domestic life. Eventually, he fathered fifteen children.

Captain Whistler’s family was spared the arduous trek over erratic Indian trails to the Chicago River. While the troops marched on foot, the captain and his brood boarded the U.S. schooner Tracy, which also carried artillery and camp equipment. It sailed to the mouth of the St. Joseph River, where it met the troops. The Whistler family took one of the Tracy’s rowboats to the Chicago River, while the troops marched around the lake. 

There were 69 officers and men in the contingent that had the task of building Fort Dearborn, which was named in honor of Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, a man who would go on to be considered one of the most inept leaders in American history. During the War of 1812, Dearborn was placed in command of all the American troops between Lake Erie and the Atlantic. He tried to capture Montreal, but his troops were so disorganized that they never even made it across the Canadian border. Dearborn was finally relieved of his command by President James Madison in 1813 after he narrowly avoided being court-martialed. In spite of this, a number of Chicago parks and developments were named in his honor, leading author Norman Mark to refer to him as “an example of one of history’s most successful failures.”

The hill on which Fort Dearborn was built was eight feet above the Chicago River. The water curved around it and, stopped from flowing into a lake by a sandbar, ran south until it found an outlet. To this spot, the soldiers hauled the wood that had been cut along the north bank. The fort was a simple stockade built of logs, which were placed in the ground and then sharpened along the upper end to discourage attackers. The outer stockade was a solid wall with an entrance in the southern section blocked with heavy gates. An underground exit was located on the north side. As time went on, the soldiers built barracks, officers’ quarters, a guardhouse and a small powder magazine made from brick. West of the fort, they constructed a two-story log building, with split-oak siding, to serve as an Indian agency, and between this structure and the fort they placed root cellars. South of the fort, the land was enclosed for a garden. Blockhouses were added at two corners of the fort and three pieces of light artillery were mounted at the walls. The fort offered substantial protection for the soldiers garrisoned there but they would later learn that it was not enough.
When the War of 1812 unleashed the fury of the Native Americans on the western frontier, the city of Chicago almost ceased to exist before it got a chance to get started. On August 15, 1812, the garrison at Fort Dearborn evacuated its post and, with women in children in tow, attempted to march to safety. But it was overwhelmed and wiped out, in a wave of bloodshed and fire, after traveling less than a mile. The story of the massacre will be repeated for as long as Chicago continues to stand and marks not only the deadliest event in the history of the city but also serves as one of American history’s great disasters. 

At the start of the War of 1812, tensions in the wilderness began to rise. British troops came to the American frontier, spreading liquor and discontent among the Indian tribes, especially the Potawatomi, the Wyandot and the Winnebago, near Fort Dearborn. In April, an Indian raid occurred on the Lee farm, near the bend in the river (where present-day Racine Avenue meets the river) and two men were killed. After that, the fort became a refuge for many of the settlers and a growing cause of unrest for the local Indians. When war was declared that summer, and the British captured the American garrison at Mackinac, it was decided that Fort Dearborn could not be held and that it  should be evacuated. 
   General William Hull, the American commander in the Northwest, issued orders to Captain Nathan Heald through Indian agent officers. He was told that the fort was to be abandoned; arms and ammunition destroyed and all goods were to be distributed to friendly Indians. Hull also sent a message to Fort Wayne, which sent Captain William Wells and a contingent of allied Miami Indians toward Fort Dearborn to assist with the evacuation. 

There is no dispute about whether or not General Hull gave the order, nor that Captain Heald received it, but some have wondered if perhaps Hull’s instruction, or his handwriting, was not clear because Heald waited eight days before acting on it. During that time, Heald argued with his officers, with John Kinzie, a settlement trader who opposed the evacuation, and with local Indians, one of whom fired off a rifle in the commanding officer's quarters. 

The delay managed to give the hostile Indians time to gather outside the fort. They assembled there in an almost siege-like state and Heald realized that he was going to have to bargain with them if the occupants of Fort Dearborn were going to safely reach Fort Wayne. On August 13, all of the blankets, trading items and calico cloth were given out and Heald held several councils with Indian leaders, which his junior officers refused to attend. 

Eventually, an agreement was reached that had the Indians allowing safe conduct for the soldiers and settlers to Fort Wayne in Indiana. Part of the agreement was that Heald would leave the arms and ammunition in the fort for the Indians, but his officers disagreed. Alarmed, they questioned the wisdom of handing out guns and ammunition that could easily be turned against them. Heald reluctantly went along with them and the extra weapons and ammunition were broken apart and dumped into an abandoned well. Only 25 rounds of ammunition were saved for each man. As an added bit of insurance, all of the liquor barrels were smashed and the contents were poured into the river during the night. Some would later claim that Heald’s broken promise was what prompted the massacre that followed.

On August 14, Captain William Wells and his Miami allies arrived at the fort. Wells has largely been forgotten today (aside from the Chicago street that bears his name) but at the time, he was a frontier legend among soldiers, Native Americans and settlers in the Northwest Territory. Born in 1770, he was living in Kentucky in 1784 when he was kidnapped by a raiding party of Miami Indians. Wells was adopted into the tribe, took a Miami name – Apekonit, or “Carrot Top” for his red hair – and earned a reputation as a fierce warrior. He married into the tribe and his wife, Wakapanke (“Sweet Breeze”) was the daughter of the great Miami leader, Little Turtle. The couple eventually had four children and remained together even after Wells left the Miami and settled at Fort Wayne as the government’s Indian agent. 

When Wells received word from General Hull about the evacuation of Fort Dearborn, he went straight to Chicago. His niece, Rebekah, was married to the fort’s commander, Captain Heald. But even the arrival of the frontiersman and his loyal Miami warriors would not save the lives of those trapped inside Fort Dearborn.

Throughout the night of August 14, wagons were loaded for travel and the reserve ammunition was distributed. Late in the evening, Captain Heald received a visitor, a Potawatomi named Mucktypoke (“Black Partridge”), who had long been an ally to the Americans. He knew that he could no longer hold back the anger of his fellow tribesmen and he sadly gave back to Heald the medal of friendship that had been given to him by the U.S. government. He explained to Heald, “I will not wear a token of peace while I am compelled to act as an enemy.”

Heald had fair warning that the occupants of Fort Dearborn were in great danger.

Early the next day, a hot and sunny Saturday morning, the procession of soldiers, civilians, women, and children left the fort. Leading the way was William Wells, riding a thoroughbred horse. Wells, in honor of his Miami heritage, had painted his face black. He was now a warrior prepared for battle – and for death. 

A group of fifteen Miami warriors trailed behind him and they were followed the infantry soldiers, a caravan of wagons and mounted men. More of the Miami Indians guarded the rear of the column. The procession included 55 soldiers, twelve militiamen, nine women and eighteen children. Some of the women were on horseback and most of the children rode in two wagons. Two fife players and two drummers played a tune that history has since forgotten, perhaps marching music to inspire the exodus.

The column of soldiers and settlers was escorted by nearly five hundred Potawatomi and Winnebago Indians. In 1812, the main branch of the Chicago River did not follow a straight course into Lake Michigan. Instead, just east of the fort, it curved to the south, struggled around the sand dunes, and then emptied into the lake. The shoreline of the lake was then much closer to the present-day line of Michigan Avenue. The column from Fort Dearborn marched southward and into a low range of sand hills (near what is now Roosevelt Road) that separated the beaches of Lake Michigan from the prairie. As they did so, the Potawatomi moved to the right, placing an elevation of sand between them and the column. They were now mainly hidden from view.

The procession traveled to an area where 16th Street and Indiana Avenue are now located. There was a sudden milling about of the scouts at the front of the line and suddenly a shout came back from Captain Wells that the Indians were attacking. Captain Heald ordered his troops to charge and the soldiers scurried up the dunes with   bayonets fixed, breaking the Potawatomi line. The Indians fell back, allowed the soldiers in, and then enveloped them. Soldiers fell immediately and the line collapsed. Eventually, the remaining men retreated to the shoreline, making a defensive stand on a high piece of ground, but the Potawatomi overwhelmed them with sheer numbers. 

The soldier’s charge led them away from the wagons, leaving only the twelve-man militia to defend the women and children. Desperate to protect the families, the men fired their rifles until they were out of ammunition and then swung them like clubs before they were all slain. What followed was butchery. A Potawatomi climbed into the wagon with the children and bludgeoned them to death with his tomahawk. The fort's surgeon was cut down by gunfire and then literally chopped into pieces. Rebekah Heald was wounded seven times but was spared when she was captured by a sympathetic Indian chief. The wife of one soldier fought so bravely and savagely that she was hacked into pieces before she fell. 

Aware of the slaughter taking place at the wagons, William Wells rushed to the aid of the women and children. Overcome by the massive number of Potawatomi, he never made it. Wells was said to have fought more than one hundred Indians, single-handed and on horseback. He shot and hacked at them until his horse fell beneath him. Indians pounced on him and killed him in the sand. One Potawatomi took Wells’ scalp, while another cut out his heart, divided it into small pieces and gave them to other warriors. Honoring the slain hero, and hoping to gain a small amount of his great courage, they ate the heart of William Wells.

Then a Potawatomi attacked Margaret Helm, the wife of the fort’s lieutenant. As the two fought, a second Potawatomi joined the fight, seized Mrs. Helm, and dragged her into the lake, where he proceeded to drown her – or that was how it appeared. The second warrior was Black Partridge, a close friend of Lieutenant Helm. The pretend drowning was actually a ruse to save her life.

Although it must have seemed much longer, the battle was over in less than fifteen minutes. Captain Heald, who had been wounded twice in the fighting and would walk with a cane for the rest of his life, agreed to parlay with Potawatomi chief Black Bird. After receiving assurances that the survivors would be spared, Heald agreed to surrender. Sixty-seven people had lost their lives in the massacre: William Wells, 25 army regulars, all twelve militiamen, twelve children, two women and fifteen Potawatomi.  

The surrender that was arranged by Captain Heald did not apply to the wounded and it is said that the Indians tortured them throughout the night and then left their bodies on the sand next to those who had already fallen. 

Many of the other survivors suffered terribly. The Potawatomi divided up the prisoners and most were eventually ransomed and returned to their families. Others did not fare so well. One man was tomahawked when he could not keep pace with the rest of the group being marched away from the massacre site. A baby who cried too much during the march was tied to a tree and left to starve. Mrs. Isabella Cooper was scalped before being rescued by an Indian woman. She had a small bald spot on her head for the rest of her life. Another man froze to death that winter, while Mrs. John Simmons and her daughter were forced to run a gauntlet, which both survived. In fact, the girl turned out to be the last survivor of the massacre, dying in 1900.

Captain Heald, along with his wife, was also taken prisoner. He and Rebekah were taken to Fort Mackinac and were turned over to the British commander there. He sent them to Detroit, where they were exchanged with the American authorities. 

After the carnage, the victorious Indians burned Fort Dearborn to the ground and the bodies of the massacre victims were left where they had fallen, scattered to decay on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan. When replacement troops arrived at the site a year later, they were greeted with not only the burned-out shell of the fort, but also the grinning skeletons of their predecessors. In 1816, the bodies were finally given a proper burial, likely around present-day Prairie Avenue and 17th Street, and the fort was rebuilt. Twenty years later, it was finally abandoned when the city of Chicago was able to fend for itself.  

The horrific Fort Dearborn Massacre is believed to have spawned its share of ghostly tales. The actual site of the massacre was quiet for many years, long after Chicago grew into a sizable city. However, construction in the early 1980s unearthed a number of human bones around 16th Street and Indiana Avenue. First thought to be victims of a cholera epidemic in the 1840s, the remains were later dated more closely to the early 1800s. Due to their location, they were believed to be the bones of the massacre victims. 

The remains were reburied elsewhere but within a few weeks, people began to report the semi-transparent figures of people wearing pioneer clothing and outdated military uniforms wandering around an empty lot that was just north of 16th Street. The apparitions reportedly ran about in terror, silently screaming. The most frequent witnesses to these nocturnal wanderings were bus drivers who returned their vehicles to a garage that was located nearby, prompting rumors to spread throughout the city.

In recent times, the area has been largely filled with new homes and condominiums and the once-empty lot where the remains were discovered is no longer vacant. But this does not seem to keep the victims of the massacre in their graves. Current paranormal reports from the immediate area often tell of specters dressed in period clothing, suggesting that the unlucky settlers of early Chicago do not rest in peace.


The Haunting Mystery of the One of Chicago's Greatest Disasters

The afternoon of July 24, 1915, was a special day for thousands of Chicagoans. It was the afternoon that had been reserved for the annual summer picnic for employees of the Western Electric Company. Officials at the company had encouraged the workers to bring along as many friends and relatives as possible to the event, which was held across the lake at Michigan City, Indiana. Even after this open invitation, managers were surprised to find that more than 7,000 people showed up to be ferried across Lake Michigan on the three excursion boats that had been chartered for the day. The steamers were docked on the Chicago River, between Clark and LaSalle streets, and included Theodore Roosevelt, Petoskey and Eastland. 

Eastland was a rusting Lake Michigan steamer that was owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company. It was supposed to hold a capacity crowd of 2,500 people, but it is believed that on the morning of July 24, more than 3,200 climbed on board. In addition to being overcrowded, the vessel had a reputation for being unstable. Years before, it was realized that design flaws in the ship made it top-heavy. In July 1903, a case of overcrowding had caused Eastland to tip and water to flow up one of its gangplanks. The situation was quickly rectified, but it was only the first of many such incidents. To make matters worse, the new federal Seaman's Act had been passed in 1915 because of the RMS Titanic disaster. This required the retrofitting of a complete set of lifeboats on Eastland, as well as on other passenger vessels. Eastland was so top-heavy that it already had special restrictions about how many passengers it could carry. The additional weight of the mandated lifeboats made the ship more unstable than it already was. 

The huge crowd, the lifeboats, and the negligence of the crew created a recipe for disaster.

On the unseasonably cool morning of July 24, Eastland was moored on the south side of the Chicago River in downtown Chicago. After she was loaded with passengers, the aging vessel would travel out into Lake Michigan, heading for the Indiana shoreline. Excited, happy, and nervous passengers lined the riverside docks, eager to get on board. The morning was damp, but better weather was promised for the picnic in the afternoon.

After the passengers were loaded on board, the dock lines were loosed and the ship prepared to depart. The massive crowd, dressed in their best summer clothes, jammed onto the decks, calling out and waving handkerchiefs to those who were still on shore. Many of the passengers went below decks, hoping to warm up on this cool, cloudy morning. As the steamer eased away from the dock, it started to tilt to the port side. Unknown to the passengers, the crew had emptied the ballast compartments of the ship, which were designed to provide stability, so that more passengers could be loaded on board. They didn't count on a sudden shift in weight that would cause the vessel to lean even farther toward the port side. That sudden shift was caused by a passing fireboat, which fired off its water cannons to the delight of the crowd. The passengers hurried over to the port side for a closer look and moments later, Eastland simply rolled over. It came to rest on the river bottom, which was only 18 feet below the surface. 

The Eastland after she rolled onto her side in the Chicago River

The passengers who had been on the deck were thrown in the river, thrashing about in a moving mass of bodies. Crews on the other steamers, and on passing vessels, threw life preservers into the water, while those on shore began tossing lines, boxes, and anything that would float to the panicked and drowning passengers. The overturned ship created a current that pulled many of the floundering swimmers to their doom, while many of the women's long dresses were snagged on the ship, tugging them down to the bottom. 

The unluckiest passengers were those who had been inside the ship when it turned over. These ill-fated victims were thrown to one side of the vessel when it capsized and many were crushed by the heavy furniture below decks, which included tables, bookcases, and even a piano. As the river water rushed inside, those who were not immediately killed were drowned a few moments later. A few of them managed to escape to the upturned side of the ship, but most of them didn't. Their bodies were later found trapped in a tangled heap on the lowest side of Eastland.  

Firefighters, rescue workers, and volunteers soon began to arrive and started cutting holes in the ship's hull that was above the water line. A few who had scrambled to safety inside the ship emerged from the holes, but for most of them, it was simply too late. Those on shore eagerly watched for more survivors, but no one emerged from the wet darkness. The men who had come to rescue the trapped and the injured had to resign themselves to pulling waterlogged corpses from the river instead. The bodies were wrapped in sheets and placed on the nearby Roosevelt, or lined up along the docks. The large stores downtown, like Marshall Field's, sent wagons to carry the dead to the hospitals, funeral homes, and the makeshift morgues. 

Corpses were fished out of the river using large grappling hooks, but those who had been trapped beneath the ship had to be pulled out by police divers and volunteers. According to newspaper accounts, one of these divers, who had been bringing up bodies from the bottom of the river for hours, went insane. He had to be subdued by friends and police officers. City workers dragged the river where Eastland had capsized, using large nets to prevent the bodies from being pulled out into the lake. By the time it was all over, 841 passengers and four crewmembers perished in the disaster. Many of them were women and children and 22 families – husbands, wives, children, even grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles -- were completely wiped out. 

The hundreds of bodies that were recovered on the morning of the disaster were taken to the nearby Reid-Murdoch Building and to local funeral homes and mortuaries. The only public building that was large enough to be used as a morgue was the Second Regiment National Guard Armory, which was located on Carpenter Street, between Randolph Street and Washington Boulevard. The dead were laid out on the floor of the armory in rows of 85 and assigned identifying numbers. Any personal possessions that were found with the corpses were placed in envelopes bearing the same number as the body. 

The rows of the Eastland dead at the National Guard Armory

Chicagoans with loved ones who had perished in the disaster filed through the rows of bodies, searching for familiar faces, but in the mentioned 22 cases, there was no one left to identify them. The names of these unidentified victims were learned through the efforts of neighbors, who came searching for their friends. The weeping, crying, and moaning of the bereaved echoed off the walls of the armory for days. The American Red Cross treated 30 women for hysteria and exhaustion in the days following the disaster. 

The final body was identified on Friday, July 30. A 7-year-old boy named Willie Novotny of Cicero, #396, was the last. His parents and older sister had also died on Eastland and his identification came from extended family members, who arrived nearly a week after the disaster took place. After Willie's name was learned, a chapter was closed on one of Chicago's most horrific events.
Officially, the mystery of what happened to Eastland that day was never solved. No clear accounting was ever made to explain the capsizing of the vessel. Several hundred lawsuits were filed, but almost all of them were dismissed by the Circuit Court of Appeals, which held the owners of the steamer blameless in the disaster. After the ship was raised from the river, it was sold at auction. The title was later transferred to the government and the vessel was pressed into duty as the gunboat U.S.S. Wilmette. The ship never saw action but was used as a training ship during World War II. After the war, it was decommissioned and put up for sale in 1945. Finding no takers, it was scrapped in 1947. 
Eastland was gone, but her story has continued to linger for years. 

On the morning of the Eastland disaster, many of the bodies of the victims were taken to the Second Regiment National Guard Armory. As the years passed, there was no longer a need for a National Guard armory to be located so close to downtown Chicago. It was closed down by the military and the building was sold off. It went through several incarnations over the decades, including uses as a stable and a bowling alley, before being purchased by Harpo Studios, the production company owned by Oprah Winfrey.

Unfortunately, though, the success of the Winfrey’s talk show, which was filmed in the former armory, did nothing to put to rest the spirits that lingered from the Eastland disaster. A number of staff members, security guards, and maintenance workers claimed that the ghosts of the disaster victims who perished in 1915 restlessly wandered the building. Many employees had encounters with things that could not easily be explained away, including the sighting of a woman in a long, gray dress who walked the corridors and then mysteriously vanished into the wall. There were many occasions when this woman was spotted, but each time she was approached, she always disappeared. Some surmised that she was the spirit of a mourner who came looking for her family and left a bit of herself behind at the spot where she felt her greatest pain. 

The woman in gray may not have been alone in her spectral travels throughout the old armory. Staff members also claimed to hear whispers, the sounds of people sobbing, moaning noises, and phantom footsteps. The footsteps, which sounded as though they belonged to a group of several people, were usually heard on a staircase in the lobby. Doors that were located nearby often opened and closed by themselves. Those who experienced these strange events came to believe that the tragedy of yesterday was still replaying itself on the former armory in its later incarnation. 

The site of what became the Second Regiment Armory morgue was not the only location in Chicago that resonated with chilling stories of Eastland disaster ghosts. 

There were reports of the ship itself being haunted that date back to the time just after the disaster and prior to its sale to the Navy. During that period, it was docked near the Halsted Street Bridge and regarded with superstition by passers-by. One lonely caretaker, Captain M.L. Edwards, lived aboard it and said he was awakened by moaning noises nightly, though he attributed them simply to the sound of the ship falling apart. Amused as he claimed to be to see people hurry across the bridge, terrified when they saw a light in his cabin, he was very glad to move off the ship after its sale to the Navy in December 1915.

The site on the river where the disaster occurred has its strange stories to this day. For many years, people who have passed on the Clark Street Bridge have claimed to hear moaning and crying sounds coming from the river, along with bloodcurdling screams, and pleas for help. In addition, some witnesses state that the cries are accompanied by the sounds of someone splashing in the river, and even the apparitions of people helplessly flailing about in the water.
During several incidents, witnesses have called for help from emergency services, believing that someone was actually drowning in the river. At least one man jumped into the water to try and save what he thought was a person who was unable to swim. When he returned to the surface, he discovered that he was in the river alone. He had no explanation for what he had seen, other than to admit that it might have been a ghost.

In the same way that the former armory seems to have replayed an eerie recording of past events, the Chicago River also seems to be haunted. It appears that the horror of the Eastland disaster has left a memory behind at this spot and it continues to repeat itself over and over again - ensuring that the luckless victims from the Eastland will never truly be forgotten.  


Legends & Lore of Chicago's Greatest Nightclub & "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn

 If I were forced to name only one location in Chicago as my favorite spot connected to the days of Al Capone, it would be legendary jazz club known as the Green Mill on North Broadway.

As the city’s oldest nightclub, it’s been offering continuous entertainment since 1907 and remains today as an authentic link to not only Al Capone but to the club’s former manager ---- and Capone henchman ---- “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn.

The Green Mill opened in 1907 as Pop Morse’s Roadhouse and from the very beginning, was a favorite hangout for show business people in Chicago. In those days, actors from the north side’s Essanay Studios made the roadhouse a second home. One of the most popular stars to frequent the place was “Bronco Billy” Anderson, the star of dozens of Western silents from Essanay. Anderson often rode his horse to Pop Morse’s and the proprietor even installed a hitching post that Anderson’s horse shared with those of other stars like Wallace Beery and William S. Hart. Back then, even screen greats like Charlie Chaplin stopped in sometimes for a drink.

Around 1910, the Chamales Brothers purchased the club from the original owners. They installed a huge, green windmill on the roof and re-named the place the Green Mill Gardens. The choice of the name “Green Mill” was inspired by the infamous Moulin Rouge in Paris (French for “Red Mill”) but green was chosen so that it would not be confused with any of the red light districts in Chicago. The new owners added outdoor dancing and live entertainment in the enlarged sunken gardens and also added a rhumba room next door. The Green Mill Gardens was more of a roadhouse that spanned an entire block than a cocktail lounge in those days.

Vintage Postcard of the Green Mill Gardens

Tom Chamales later went on to construct the Riviera Theater, around the corner from the Green Mill. He and his brother leased the Green Mill to Henry Van Horne and it soon began to attract the best --- and worst --- of the late-night denizens of Chicago.

By the time that Prohibition arrived, the Green Mill had become known as the most jumping place on the north side. Jazz fans flocked to the club to savor this new and evolving musical art form, which had been born in the south but had been re-created in Chicago after World War I. The jazz crowd ignored the laws against alcohol and hid their bootleg whiskey away in hip flasks, which they eagerly sipped at the Green Mill. The club helped to launch the careers of singers who went on to become legends like Helen Morgan, Anita O’Day, and Billie Holliday. It also offered an endless procession of swinging jazz combos and vaudevillians, who dropped in to jam or just to relax between sets at other, lesser clubs.

In the middle 1920s, Van Horne gave up his interest in the place and the Chamales Brothers leased the club to Al Capone’s south side mob. Capone himself, although straying into the enemy’s territory on the north side, often enjoyed hanging out at the club, listening to the music, and drinking with friends.

In the case of the Green Mill though, it’s not the remnants of Al Capone that attracts crime buffs to the club, it’s the legend of Jack McGurn, who managed the club for Capone in the 1920s.

James Vincenzo De Mora, or Jack McGurn as he later became known, was born in Chicago’s Little Italy in 1904. He grew up as a clean-cut kid from the slums who excelled in school and was an excellent boxer. A fight promoter managed to get him into the ranks of professional fighters and at the man’s suggestion; James adopted the ring name of “Jack McGurn”. He seemed to have a great career ahead, until his father, Angelo De Mora, a grocer with a store on Halsted Street, ran into trouble with the terrible Genna brothers and McGurn stepped over the line into the world of crime.

At the start of Prohibition, the Gennas had transformed all over Little Italy into a vast commercial area of alcohol cookers. Stills were set up in almost every home, franchised by the Gennas, making homemade rotgut whiskey that was popular in neighborhood speakeasies. Angelo De Mora sold sugar to the Gennas for their operations, a relatively safe enterprise until some competitors for the position appeared on January 8, 1923. Angelo was found shot to death in front of his store.

McGurn rushed home when he heard about his father’s death. He was only 19 but he immediately took the role of head of the household, shielding his mother and five brothers from the police. The police asked him if he was afraid for his life now that he was the man of the house.

“No,” McGurn answered ominously. “I’m big enough to take care of this case myself.”

McGurn never got back into the ring. He picked up a gun and started working for Al Capone, who regarded him as his most trustworthy gunman and the man to carry out the most dangerous and grisly assignments. Within a few years, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn was the most feared of Capone’s killers.

McGurn relished his work, especially when six of his targets were part of the Genna mob, which he believed was responsible for his father’ death. In just over a month’s time, he wiped out the Genna's top men and he learned that one of these men had referred to his father as “a nickel and dimer.” So, after each of them had been machine-gunned to death, McGurn pressed a nickel into their palms, his sign of contempt and a trademark that would be forever linked to his murders.

McGurn continued to earn his pay --- and his reputation. Joe Aiello’s feud with Capone over west side beer territories reached its peak when Aiello offered a $50,000 reward for Capone’s murder. He imported four out-of-town killers to do the job when no one in Chicago took him up on his offer. Days after their arrival, the four men met with the wrath of Jack McGurn. All of them were found riddled with machine gun bullets --- and with nickels pressed into their palms.

When not working for Capone, McGurn frequented Chicago’s hottest jazz spots and managed to become part owner of several of them through intimidation and violence. By the time he was 23, McGurn owned pieces of at least five nightclubs and managed a number of other lucrative properties. He also managed the Green Mill for Capone and was later given 25 percent of its ownership in exchange for his loyalty. This became his usual hangout and he could often be found sipping liquor in one of the green-plush upholstered booths.

Jack McGurn

McGurn was fiercely loyal to the Green Mill and so in 1927, became enraged when the club’s star attraction, singer and comedian Joe E. Lewis, refused to renew his contract, stating that he was going to work for a rival club. He opened to a packed house at the New Rendezvous the next night. Days later, McGurn took Lewis aside as he was about to enter his hotel, the New Commonwealth. McGurn had two friends with him and all three of them had their hands shoved in their pockets. 

McGurn told Lewis that they missed him at the club and that “the old Mill’s a morgue without you.”

Lewis assured him that he would find another headliner and when McGurn told him that he had made his point and needed to come back, Lewis refused. He bravely turned his back on the killer and walked away.

On November 27, three of McGurn’s men stormed into Lewis’ hotel suite, beat him and then cut his throat almost from ear to ear. The comedian survived the attack though, managed to recover his singing voice and continued with his career. Capone, unhappy with McGurn’s actions but unable to rebuke one of his best men, was said to have advanced Lewis $10,000 so that the performer could get back on his feet.

A short time later, McGurn’s own career was almost cut short. Two machine gunners for George Moran, Pete and Frank Gusenberg (both later killed during the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), caught up with McGurn in a phone booth inside of the McCormick Inn. Several bursts from their tommy guns almost finished McGurn for good but major surgery, and a long period of secluded convalescence, saved the killer. Interestingly, this phone booth can now be found in a little inn called the Ruebel Hotel in Grafton, Illinois. How it managed to end up here is anyone’s guess.

In early February 1929, McGurn visited Capone at his Palm Island, Florida home for a discussion about the north side gang run by George Moran. Ten days later, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre took place. This hardly seems to be a coincidence!

McGurn has always been connected to the massacre, as has Fred R. “Killer” Burke. George Brichet, a teenager, was walking past the garage when the five men entered on February 14 and overheard one of the men say to another one: “Come on, Mac.” He picked out McGurn’s photograph from police mug shots. Armed with an arrest warrant, police broke into McGurn’s suite at the Stevens Hotel on February 27. As they hauled the gangster away, they were cussed out by McGurn’s sweetheart, showgirl Louise Rolfe. The press dubbed her “the blonde alibi” and she swore that McGurn was with her at the time of the murders. McGurn was later indicted but he married Louise soon after and thanks to this, she was not required to testify against him.

McGurn’s defense attorneys insisted four times that their client be brought to trial --- so that he could prove his innocence, of course. Each time, the prosecution stated that it was not ready to proceed. Under Illinois law, the prosecution was only allowed four legal delays of this kind. After they, they had to drop the case. McGurn was set free on December 2, 1929.

McGurn’s likely role in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre led to Capone putting him “on ice”. He was just too hot to use again as an enforcer. He began to be seen less and less with the boss and was not seen at all during Capone’s tax trial, the job of bodyguard given over to Phil D’Andrea.

Once Capone went to prison, McGurn’s prestige started to slip. He busied himself with his nightclubs, most of which went under during the Depression and Louise left him when his money ran out. Alone and flat broke; McGurn met his end on February 15, 1936 ---- the day after the anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

McGurn was in the middle of his third frame at the Avenue Recreation Parlor, a bowling alley located at 805 North Milwaukee Avenue, when remnants from the old Moran gang finally caught up with him. Five men burst into the place and while three of them pretended to rob the place, the other two machine-gunned McGurn to death on the hardwood lanes.

In his left hand, the killers had placed a comic valentine, which read:

You’ve lost your job.
You’ve lost your dough,
Your jewels and handsome houses.
But things could be worse, you know.
You haven’t lost your trousers.

In the palm of “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn’s right hand, the killers had placed a solitary nickel.