There are few places that can claim a more dramatic and murderous history than Chicago, IL. This reputation can be traced back to the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871. No one truly knows what caused the Great Fire. The myth of Mrs. O'Leary's cow causing the fire is just that, a myth. That story was created by reporter Michael Ahern who later admitted to the falseness of the tale for the purpose of "colorful copy". Although certainly the town's most famous disaster, it can be hardly described as its most deadly. For such a large fire (2,000 acres burned), only 200 -300 people were estimated to have died in it. All it would take would be the burning of one more building to claim the most deaths by fire in Chi-town.
The Iroquois Theater
Fate played harshly with probability the afternoon of December 30th, 1903. Although the 37 days-old Iroquois Theater could safely hold just over 1,700 patrons, there were 2,000 customers squeezed into the building for a holiday show. Most of those were women and children. During the course of the show an arc-light shorted and set the curtains high above the backstage aflame. The show went on while they tried to extinguish the flames. Unfortunately, a wire used for a flying fairy effect prevented the asbestos fire curtain from dropping all the way when it finally did go out of control. Eddie Foy, a popular comedian of the time, tried to calm the audience. When some of the actors tried to rush out the back door, the chilled winter air from outside fueled a fireball that virtually reducing those in the balcony and gallery areas to ashes. Unfinished ventilation, hidden fire escape doors, incomplete fire escapes and unfamiliar European style locks contributed to the death of a total of 602 people.
The area behind the theater is still called "Death Alley" to this day. Bodies were piled ten high in Death Alley until they could be carted away. Currently a new theater stands in its place, the Oriental Theater
. According to some, the scent of burning flesh can still be smelled outside of the Oriental. Ironically, just 12 years later water would claim even more Chicagoan lives.
The SS Eastland Disaster haunts Oprah Winfrey
Built in 1903, the USS Eastland had a history of problems almost from the very beginning. Very early on it was obvious the vessel, used mostly as a Great Lakes cruise ship, had a problem with listing. The boat was excessively top heavy! From time to time the boat would lean to far to one side. This ended in disaster in 1915 while passengers were on their way to a Western Electric company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. Irony seems to love major disasters! Due to the recent sinking of the RMS Titanic just three years earlier, extra lifeboats were added to the Eastland. This mad the ship even more unstable. The passenger capacity of 2,752 was reached about 7:10 AM that morning. Shortly afterward a canoe race on the port-side caused passengers to race over for a look. At 7:28 AM the ship could take it no more and tilted over onto its side. Trapped by water, many of the passengers inside could not make it out. This disaster caused the deaths of 841 passengers. Many of them women and children.
When they were trying to identify the bodies, many of them were stashed away at the local armory. This building would eventually Harpo Studios, the production company owned by Oprah Winfrey. According to show staff and even Oprah herself, strange things have been reported all over the building! An apparition of a woman known as the Gray Lady has been reported as well as footsteps, music and other strange sounds. Near the location where the disaster occurred, people claim to hear the sounds of agonizing moaning and screaming masses.
Spirits of Gangland
Everyone knows something about the old gangs of Chicago. Even before Prohibition gangs were a problem. From immigrating Italian Mafioso to highly organized Irish crime-lords, organized crime ruled the Windy City with an iron fist. Corruption was everywhere, from the highest in Government, to the lowest thug. Even many of the police were in the mob's pockets. Of course, with the advent of Prohibition, things only got worse thanks to most famous gangster of them all - Al "Scarface" Capone.
Alphonse "Al" Gabriel Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York January 17th, 1899. Capone started his life of crime early. Still in his early 20s, he joined the infamous Five Points Gang
. In 1921 Scareface moved to Chicago at the behest of Johnny Torrio, his mentor in Brooklyn. Torrio wanted to get in on the bootlegging operations growing in Chicago. Capone quickly gained a well deserved reputation for ruthless behavior. In 1925, after "Bugs" Moran's rival North Side Gang tried to off Torrio, he placed all his operations in the hands of Capone and then retired to Italy.
Capone was quick to retaliate in what would become, perhaps, Chicago's most notorious hit. There were actually several reasons why Scarface's crew planned their revenge hit on Moran. The least of which was his muscling in on Capone's lucrative waterfront bootlegging operation. On February 14th, Valentine's Day, 1929 five of Moran's men met at the Clark Street Garage which a friend of Moran owned. Adam Heyer, the garage owner, was working on a truck when Peter Gusenberg, Frank Gusenberg, Albert Kachellek - Moran's second in command, Reinhart Schwimmer, Albert Weinshank and John May showed up for a meeting with Moran. The Gusenbergs were two of Moran's enforcers, Weinshank, who looked a little like Moran, manages several businesses for the gang, Heyer was the gang's bookkeeper, May was not a member of the gang and only worked as an occasional mechanic and Schimmer was an optician who simply enjoyed hanging out with gangsters. Moran was running late that day. A police car pulled up as Moran neared the building. Probably spooked by the cops, Moran ducked into a store nearby and ordered a coffee to avoid, what he thought, would be a simple, but time consuming, shakedown. In reality, the police car was filled with hit-men hired by Capone or his people. Five men got of the car in which two of them were wearing police uniforms. The lined up Moran's men and fired away more than seventy machine gun rounds and two shotgun blasts. Hence, the St. Valentine's Day Masacre
Capone would later take up residence in the Lexington Hotel. There he would claim to be regurly visited by the ghost of Albert Weinshank.
More tales from Haunted Chicago
If you are visiting Chicago anytime soon, you can hear the above tales in greater detail as well as many more from local tours. I recommend staying at the famously haunted Congress Plaza Hotel
. When you are ready to head for one of Chicago's famous ghost tours you have several excellent options to chose from!
Based on the series of books on Weird US
, popular paranormal investigator and author Troy Taylor
brings you Weird Chicago
! Learn all about the crime, history and weird hauntings of Chicagoland! Weird Chicago also has tours of Archer Avenue, prowling grounds of the original hitchhiking ghost - Ressurection Mary
! Oh, did I forget to mention her?