We Ain't Afraid Of No (Chicago) Ghosts!
Search “haunted Chicago” online and you’ll get a list of websites and articles, each clamoring to be your number one source for all things ghost related. The lists are long enough to occupy you for an eternity.
Which makes sense, given that Chicago has a reputation for being terribly haunted. The city is the home of America’s first serial killer (reference to “murder castle” included), as well as the cloven-hooved “devil baby.” And, don’t forget the swanky, downtown nightclub that once served as the morgue for victims of the Eastland disaster.
Fibbed or fact-checked, these stories and dozens of others have been told and retold, spun into ghost-tour monologues and stamped into scary story books.
Well, we’re taking our turn in re-spinning two of Chicago’s spookiest stories, but this time in service to two Curious Citizens. The first wanted to meet the local specter who has (allegedly) been seen the most often. The second asked to find the location that ghost census-takers say is crawling with spirits.
To ease into this, let’s consider what good can come out of a ghost story, especially if you’re on the skeptical side. For this, we turn to folklorist Sue Eleuterio, who says these stories fulfill a number of psychological needs. Among them: Supernatural stories transform real-life dangers into ghoulish monsters. In theory these tales spook kids away from sneaking out after dark.
“We know there are risks associated with certain behavior, so being out alone when it’s dark, or you know, after a certain time, is dangerous, or can be dangerous,” she says.
Ghost stories can also make it safe for young people to experience uncomfortable emotions. “There’s something thrilling about being afraid, especially if it feels controlled,” Eleuterio says. “One of the things I love about folk culture is we still have that need. We have all those needs to be afraid, we have those needs to be reassured, we have those needs to be warned and protected.”
With this in mind — and with help from an antique dealer and a couple of ghost experts — we pursue two ghost stories that answer our Curious Citizens’ questions. Along the way we learn how ghost tales can not just haunt us, they can help us, too.
For both questions we enlist the help of Adam Selzer, the author of The Ghosts of Chicago and a local ghost tour guide. Selzer traces his interest in the supernatural back to his childhood, which was spent watching Scooby Doo. That detail, though, doesn’t mean he’s light when it comes to comparing legends to facts.
“If you’re interested in ghosts you deserve better,” he says. “You deserve proper backstories.” For him, that translates into “digging through old newspaper archives, old 19th century books, stuff from the property records, the legal archives occasionally, contacting relatives when possible.”
Alright ... but for the record: Does our ghost expert believe in ghosts?
“I’ve seen some strange stuff,” he says, “but not necessarily anything that I would swear in front of a panel of scientists was really a dead person. But certainly some things that I can’t explain.”
Ok. Onto our first question, which comes from Chicagoan Ben Albers, a self-described history buff and ghost enthusiast:
Which is the most legitimate ghost story in Chicago?
And ... here’s his caveat: He’s looking for evidence. “Anyone can make up a ghost story,” Ben says. “A new bar owner, in order to get publicity, they could say that Al Capone used to sit in that booth and eat his lasagna. It’s just [that] you need the evidence to back it up in order for it to be legitimate.”
Whew. Well, Ben meets Adam Selzer and producer Katie Klocksin at Resurrection Cemetery in Justice, Illinois, a southwest suburb. Selzer explains that, for him, evidence “is primarily first-hand accounts, actual stories of somebody seeing the ghost.”
By this metric, the winner for most legitimate ghost story is that of Resurrection Mary, sightings of which began in the early 1930s. Selzer has encountered a few dozen first-hand accounts. “So a few dozen is a lot more than we’ve got of everything else, really,” he says.
According to Selzer, Resurrection Mary sightings usually go like this. First, someone will be driving near Resurrection Cemetery — our ghost’s namesake. Then, they’ll see a girl. “Now and then you’ll hear a story of somebody dancing with her, but mostly it’s just they see her by the side of the road crying,” Selzer says. “They offer her a ride home, and then she disappears outside of Resurrection Cemetery.” Sometimes she’ll jump out of the car near the cemetery, but “usually they just look over at the passenger seat and find that she’s gone.”
The disappearing act happens one of two ways: Mary either gets out of the car the old fashioned way or ... she just vanishes. Selzer recalls a story from a man who believes he encountered Resurrection Mary when he was a high school student in the ‘60s. The man thought he recognized a girl sitting by the side of the road crying, so he pulled over and offered her a ride. “And when she looked up he saw that it wasn’t the girl that he thought it was,” Selzer says. Still, the driver still felt like he had to make good on his offer of a ride.
“So she got into the car and just kind of pointed him down road. They were only about a block away from Resurrection Cemetery. Then, when he looked into passenger seat she was just gone,” Selzer says.
Was there really a Mary?
Ghost experts have tried to link the Resurrection Mary legend with actual people who died around the time the sightings began. One theory involves Mary Bregovy, a girl who died in a car accident in 1934, according to Adam Selzer. “And we like to talk about her as a possible candidate,” he says, “mainly because she fits the template so well: died on coming home from a dance.”
But Selzer notes that the Resurrection Mary sightings had already begun by the time Mary Bregovy died. Also, Resurrection Mary is usually described as a blonde, which Mary Bregovy was not. According to Selzer’s research, there are 60 to 70 young Marys buried at Resurrection Cemetery, all having died during roughly the right time period to be candidates. “And even then, we’re really just making the broad assumption that it’s actually a girl named Mary at all,” Selzer says.
In Bielski’s account, Norkus was scheduled to be buried at St. Casimir Cemetery, near Resurrection. But there may have been a problem. Bielski cites fellow ghost lore researcher Frank Andrejasich, who noted that grave-digging in the 1920s was difficult manual labor and strikes were common. Andrejasich discovered a man named Mr. Churas, who was in charge of the gravediggers at the time Anna Norkus died. During strikes, Bielski writes, Churas would retrieve unburied bodies in wooden boxes and temporarily bury them at Resurrection until the strike ended. This practice was necessary, “because of poor coffin construction and the lack of refrigeration,” Bielski writes.
If grave diggers at St. Casimir were striking when Norkus was scheduled to be buried, her body may have been temporarily buried at Resurrection. “If the strike dragged on, identification at the time of relocation could be gruesomely difficult,” Bielski writes. She concludes: “The result? A mislaid corpse and a most restless eternity, if only one is willing to believe.”
Vanishing hitchhikers: a broader trend
Sue Eleuterio says folklorists consider Resurrection Mary a vanishing hitchhiker story, variants of which appear all around the world. “There are legends in China, there are legends in Korea,” she says. “As immigrants have come to the United States they’ve often brought these legends with them.”
For example, a vanishing hitchhiker story told in Northwest Indiana has elements of the traditional Mexican story of “La Llorona,” the weeping woman, she says.
While there’s often discussion about whether or not urban legend style ghost stories are true, Eleuterio says “what’s more interesting to me is that it always has a pattern, and then there are variations in the pattern. ... A vanishing hitchhiker story is always going to have some aspects of a ghostly figure that appears, and then disappears,” and the stories are always connected to a specific place.
Ursula Bielski suggests a psychological cause for some vanishing hitchhiker sightings, rather than restless ghosts. “Night travel along cemeteries may encourage the unwitting creation of phantoms to inhabit these curiously and suddenly empty lengths of highway,” she writes. “The dreamlike state imposed by lonely late-night driving could be the culprit in so many of these cases.”
Our questioner, Ben Albers, got this investigation started with his question about a legitimate ghost story. Adam Selzer’s strongest evidence for Resurrection Mary is several dozen first-hand accounts.
How does this sound to Ben?
“I think this is the most convincing case, just because there’s been so many sightings of her and first-hand accounts,” he says. “This is definitely the most convincing and legitimate ghost story I’ve heard in Chicago, and I think your evidence backs it up.”
Our next Curious Citizen with a penchant for the supernatural is Paul Vaccarello, who says he loves two things: being afraid, and being afraid during Halloween.
Little wonder, then, that he submitted this question to Curious City:
What’s the most haunted place in Chicago?
But how the heck should you quantify “most haunted” in this case? Expert ghost guide Adam Selzer had offered up these options:
A. The place with the most number of ghosts.
B. The place with the most frequently seen ghosts.
C. The place with the best quality of ghosts.
D. The place you’re most likely to get sucked into the netherworld.
E. The place you’re most likely to get possessed.
With help from Paul, we settle with: “A. the place with the most number of ghosts.” That is, we settle for quantity over quality.
“My goal is to see a ghost,” Paul says. “To experience something supernatural, you know? See something that I can’t explain.”
‘The alley of death and mutilation’
Luckily, Selzer knows just the spot for Paul to maximize his chances for otherworldly experiences — or at least hear accounts about them.
On the night of October’s blood moon, we meet in front of the Oriental Theater on Chicago’s Randolph Street. We then curve around the corner into an alley. There, we see a ghost segway tour. (That’s right. Selzer says he’s seen them before.) A guy takes out the trash. It kind of smells like pee. (Something Selzer says he’s noticed many times.)
“Right now we are in an alley that the Chicago Tribune once called the alley of death and mutilation,” Selzer says, as he pulls out a news clipping to prove it. He scrolls through his iPad to show this:
Selzer tells us we are standing right in the spot this illustration depicts — just about where that lady on the bottom left is falling to her death.
The image depicts a tragedy that happened in this alley on December 30, 1903. The building, then known as the Iroquois Theater, had caught fire and 600 people perished inside the building and in this alley. (It’s safest to say “about 600 people” died, as figures run between the high 590s and a tad over 600). The blaze was the deadliest single-building fire in United States history until the World Trade Center towers were destroyed in 2001. While the Iroquois Theater fire eventually led to monumental leaps in nation-wide fire code improvements, it also led to the reason why Adam Selzer says the alley behind the Oriental Theater is the most haunted spot in Chicago.
The Iroquois Theater: ‘Absolutely fireproof!’
The Iroquois Theater was built in the summer of 1903 and opened around Thanksgiving that same year. It had 1,600 seats, three main thoroughfares, and enough French-Renaissance architecture to rival the Tuileries. A program distributed on the day of the theater’s opening boasted its “many avenues for exit” and called its interior the “most majestic in this city or in this country.”
On the day of the fire, the theater was packed beyond capacity. The crowd, mostly women and their children, had arrived to watch a matinee of a show named Mr. Bluebeard (If you’re not familiar, this is a French folktale about a wealthy guy with a blue beard who murders his seven wives, and nearly kills his eighth. It was considered a children’s Christmas show. This song, Let Us Swear It By The Pale Moonlight, was playing as the theater fire began to spread. (Special thanks to Andrew Edwards for his performance of the sheet music).
The show’s playbills advertised the theater as “absolutely fireproof.” At the time, this was an admirable (and profitable) attribute, considering the Great Chicago Fire just 32 years before.
And, as Selzer likes to say, most of the theater was fireproof. It’s just the things inside it that were not.
He cites the theater’s ornate wood trimming and hemp-stuffed seats as obvious examples of the theater’s flammability. Selzer also points out that the asbestos fire curtain required of all theaters had, in this case, been blended with cotton and wood pulp.
The Iroquois Theater wasn’t an anomaly in this. A lot of theaters at the time were just as flammable, says Judy Cooke, an antique dealer in Elkhart, Indiana. Years ago, while liquidating the estate of a descendant of William J. Davis, the Iroquois’ owner, she found a trunk full of documents that sparked her interest in learning more about the Iroquois tragedy.
One popular narrative, she says, is that Davis cut corners trying to open the Iroquois before the busy holiday season. She says there’s truth in this, but there’s more to the story, too.
“I can’t make any excuses for the man because he simply wasn’t paying attention to details,” she says. “But what is sad, and not ever communicated in books and newspapers is that that theater was his crowning achievement. He’s a bit of a Horatio Algers story.”
Davis came from modest means, Cooke says, and the Iroquois Theater was his chance to prove to the world what he could do. While she says Davis ultimately bears responsibility for that day’s deaths, she adds that it’s not enough to say the Iroquois was a death trap; instead, she prefers to say the theater experienced “a perfect storm” on the day of the fire. The circumstances included a flammable “fire curtain,” bad ventilation, as well as locked or unmarked fire exits. Cooke says the large presence of women and children in the crowd didn’t help, either, because women wore floor-length skirts that prevented them from running or climbing over seats.
In the alley behind the former Iroquois, Selzer can point to another detail, one just a few dozen yards above our heads. That’s where the Iroquois’ single accessible fire escape used to be. Selzer says the fire escape couldn’t hold all the people fleeing the theater that afternoon, so many, many people simply fell over the rails. Or ... they were shoved over them. In one account, the pile of bodies rose six feet high.
Like it or not, Selzer says the grim details pertain to Paul’s question. Death by sudden and traumatic head or spine injury, he says, cause the dead to enter a spiritual no-man’s-land.
“Imagine you’re getting shoved off a fire escape and what’s going through your head the last split seconds before you hit the pavement,” Selzer says. “That kind of heightened state of emotion, some people say, is where ghosts come from …. the reeks and fumes of your puddled brain.”
If you subscribe to this theory, it wouldn’t surprise you to learn that several hundred ghosts roam the former Iroquois Theater and the "alley of death and mutilation" behind it.
Wouldn’t you want to haunt them, too?
But there’s another reason that makes this alley a candidate for the most haunted place in Chicago: Nobody was ever punished for cutting the corners that made the fire so deadly.
In the trials after the disaster, the jury recommended Davis’ arrest and the arrest of seven others — including the arc light operator, William McMullen (the fire was caused by this light shorting out, and the sparks igniting the closest curtain). Five of those men were charged with manslaughter for negligence, but none was convicted.
The only person to serve any jail time, Selzer says, was a man who stole a wristwatch off a corpse in the alley. And even by graverobbing standards, that’s pretty basic.
“Some of the first people inside of the building were not rescue workers or firefighters,” Selzer says. “They were people yanking necklaces off dead bodies’ necks, cutting off women’s fingers because it was faster than shimmying the rings off.”
The combination of traumatic death and lack of political accountability — especially on such an enormous scale — Selzer says, makes the alley a breeding ground for ghost stories. And there’s one more factor to consider, too: lack of commemoration.
“You know, ghost hunters don’t agree on much,” Selzer says. “We all have our own theories about everything and think everybody else is a quack. ... But one thing that everyone seems to agree about is when there’s some kind of lack of commemoration there do tend to be more ghost sighting there.”
At least on the numbers of dead, he’s got a point. Roughly twice as many people known to have died in the Great Chicago Fire died within 15 minutes during the fire at the Iroquois. Yet, there are only a handful of easy-to-miss monuments to the event.
Shortly after the fire, a memorial sculpture was dedicated to the victims and placed inside the Iroquois Hospital, which was demolished in 1951. The memorial then spent nine years in City Hall storage until it was moved to its current location near the building’s LaSalle Street entrance.
A couple of cemeteries also have plaques or small monuments dedicated to the victims. But you won’t find anything about the fire in the spot where it occurred. Not even the Oriental Theater, built over the Iroquois’ grounds, bears any visible reminder of the tragedy.
Ghost story as ‘a people’s history’
Simply put, the story of the Iroquois fire barely permeates the city’s public memory unless, of course, you count the people showing up for ghost tours.
On that count, Selzer says he’s got some pretty weird photographs.
Above, the ghost of what Selzer says may be Nellie Reed, a trapeze artist who died in the fire, appears on the top right of the image … or it could always be a trick of the light.
“I have occasionally been pretty freaked out here,” Selzer says. Occasionally, he’ll see a silhouette of a woman in a tutu that he can’t explain, or strange, human-like shadows zipping across the walls.
“When you think of a ghost story you don’t really think of the actual events that occurred to cause this ghost story to happen,” he says. “You normally just think: ‘Oh, ghost! Cool!’ ... But hearing all these facts makes it a lot more real.”
We turn to Selzer, to see whether the Iroquois fire is even really a ghost story at all.
“You don’t have to exaggerate it too much,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s the ghost stories that’s all that’s really keeping these stories alive.”
After leaving the ‘alley of death and mutilation,’ we thought we’d see how Adam Selzer’s insight into ghost storytelling and history sits with Judy Cooke, who, again, has researched the Iroquois fire. She feels ghost stories aren’t enough to satisfy true historical curiosity, and she prefers a vertical route — diving deep into individual stories. So far, she’s researched and written nearly 300 accounts of people affected by the fire on her website.
“I want every single person that was at that fire to have something said about them,” Cooke says, referring to herself as a genealogical completist. “If you start going into a deeper exploration per person, you turn up more information. You turn up family histories in the geneology.”
And many of the family histories she’s excavated often don’t align with newspaper stories or even coroners’ documents at the time of the fire. Many immigrants’ last names were misspelled, for example. She also found accounts in which people were documented as dead, but were very much alive. Conversely, she says some of the dead were left off the list of victims.
And consider the perspective that ghost tours might leave out. Cooke mentions a particular detail that sticks in her mind. The son of Iroquois owner Will Davis wrote the following in his father’s obituary: “He never recovered after the fire.”
The bottom line: Cooke finds it hard to believe any story she’s read about people who died at the Iroquois … much less their ghost stories.
“Before I was going to start believing in the spook, I’d want to make sure that spook was even at the fire, you know?” she says. “That person might not have even died.”
But she doesn’t fault people like Selzer for keeping stories about the Iroquois Theater alive. She says she’d just rather ask the ghosts herself.
We’ve got our answers. Who asked the questions?
For Ben Albers of Chicago’s Buena Park neighborhood, history and ghosts are inextricably linked. He’s not only interested in the spooky elements of ghost stories, but also “the rich history behind” these tales. After going on a ghost tour, Ben even did some of his own research into the intersection of local history and ghost legends. Which is not to say Ben doesn’t want to see a ghost. He does.
“I really want to experience one,” he said “but I never had the opportunity to go into the field and do it.” He’s heard creepy sounds, “but I never really think that’s a ghost. I never get real excited like: ‘Oh, there’s a ghost in my house, I need to investigate more.’” Before Ben, Adam Selzer and producer Katie Klocksin left Resurrection Cemetery, Klocksin asked what should be done if they would come across a hitchhiker. Should they give her a ride? Selzer replied, “Absolutely,” and Ben seconded
“Yeah. I agree one hundred percent,” he said. “When you have your chance you’ve got to take it.”
You might remember Paul Vaccarello from another question he submitted to Curious City, the one about the Amish at Union Station. We like to think Paul’s satisfaction with our answer led him to a heightened state of curiosity when he asked us about Chicago’s ghosts.
But, instead, Paul said asked about ghosts because ... he just happens to like Halloween (in fact, it’s his favorite holiday). And that’s one of the reasons he asked us this question about Chicago’s most haunted spot. The other? He wanted affirmation he’s sought all his life: proof of the afterlife.
While our investigation didn’t quite convert Paul into a (ghost) believer, he said learning about the “alley of death and mutilation” from a historical perspective taught him something else: You don’t have to believe in ghosts to believe in ghost stories.
Another takeaway? Scope out the fire exits next time you’re at a matinee.