Mysterious Chicago: History at Its Coolest

Mysterious Chicago: History at Its Coolest

by Adam Selzer


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From Chicago historian Adam Selzer, expert on all of the Windy City’s quirks and oddities, comes a compelling heavily researched anthology of the stories behind its most fascinating unsolved mysteries.

To create this unique volume, Selzer has collected forty unsolved mysteries from the 1800s to modern day. He has poured through all newspaper, magazine, and book references to them, and consulted expert historians. Topics covered include who really started the great Chicago fire, who was the first “automobile murderer,” and even if there was actually a vampire slaying at Rose Hill cemetery.

The result is both a colorful read to get lost in, a window to a world of curiosity and wonder, as well as a volume that separates fact from fiction—true crime from urban legend.

Complementing the gripping stories Selzer presents are original images of the crime and its suspects as developed by its original investigators. Readers will marvel at how each character and crime were presented, and happily journey with Selzer as he presents all facts and theories presented at the time of the “crime” and uses modern hindsight to assemble the pieces.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510713420
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 10/25/2016
Pages: 276
Sales rank: 1,142,096
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Adam Selzer is the host of the Mysterious Chicago blog, podcasts, and tours, and has spent many years researching the more gruesome side of Chicago history—criminals, ghost stories, gangsters, mysteries, and folklore. He regularly writes Chicago history stories for websites such as and Atlas Obscura, and speaks about it on WGN radio. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.

Read an Excerpt


Does the Historical Society Have the Bones of an Early Settler?

If you want to see a dead body, cemeteries aren't going to help you. They're in the business of keeping the dead hidden beneath the sod and behind marble slabs. But plenty of corpses can be seen in Chicago's museums. The Field Museum has its mummies. The Museum of Science and Industry recently hosted Body Worlds, an exibit with over 200 preserved human specimens. The Museum of Surgical Sciences has all kinds of wonderful stuff. The Chicago History Museum isn't quite as morbid as some of them, but it does have the bed on which Abraham Lincoln died on display.

And, someplace in storage, they have a box containing the skeleton of one of Chicago's pioneers.

Or, anyway, they think it's him.

In 1896, the Chicago Historical Society opened their first museum in a new space on Dearborn Street, a hulking gothic mansion (now a nightclub) featuring displays of weapons from the Haymarket Affair, items that belonged to George Washington, and a fireplace that had survived the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, among other curios. In the corner of the south room on the second floor were the bones of Jean LaLime, one of the city's earliest non-native settlers, and possibly the city's first murder victim.

Back when the eighteenth century was drawing to a close, the land that would one day be Chicago sat right about on the edge of the frontier; you could hunt big game where Chicago Avenue is now, and wolves were common in the woods where Halsted Street now sits. Further west was the sort of wilderness we can barely imagine today. Though a Potowatomie tribe lived nearby, the first non-native settler to live in what is now downtown Chicago is generally agreed to have been Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who arrived in the late 1700s and set up an impressive house for himself.

Little about du Sable or his background is really known; some say he was a Haitian native who had studied in France and returned to America to sell coffee, and a fictionalized biography in 1953 theorized that he was the son of a pirate and a freed slave. There's not really enough data to establish either of those as true. The commonly seen portrait of him was drawn decades after his death, and may be strictly the result of the artist's imagination. Du Sable is as big a mystery as any in the city. To call him the "founder" of the city, as we sometimes do, is a bit of a misnomer; he was the first non-native to live here, but didn't set out a plan of roads or anything, and abruptly left town around 1800. A couple of nineteenth-century biographies suggest that he left the area because he was angry that the Potowatamie wouldn't make him chief of the tribe, though these stories weren't based on any real data, either.

What we do know comes largely from Augustin Grigoon, a Wisconsin man who heard from his brother that du Sable was "[a] negro ... my brother visited Chicago about 1794 and told me that Point deSaible [sic] was a large man; ... he was a trader, pretty wealthy, and drank freely."

For decades, school children were taught that the founder of the city was John Kinzie, who moved into du Sable's old house around the time that Fort Dearborn was built across the river from it. Kinzie, too, was not exactly a founder, per se; his social-climbing daughter-in-law, Juliette, just promoted him as such, and no one got around to checking her story for years. Modern historians have generally said that she exaggerated.

Jean LaLime, another early settler, moved to town about 1804, and became something of a rival to Kinzie. Both worked with the soldiers at Fort Dearborn and as traders with the occasional travelers who came through. Since practically no one did come through town looking to trade in those days, the rivalry between the two men may have been fierce. It came to a head in June 1812, when Kinzie stabbed LaLime to death.

One pioneer, Gurdon Hubbard, wrote about what he knew about the killing in an 1881 letter to former mayor Long John Wentworth:

"Mr. Kinzie," he said, "never, in my hearing, alluded to or spoke of it. He deeply regretted the act. Mrs. Kinzie said that her husband and Lalime [sic] had for several years been on unfriendly terms, and had had frequent altercations; that at the time of the encounter Mr. Kinzie had crossed the river alone, in a canoe, going to the fort, and that Lalime [sic] met him outside the garrison and shot him, the ball cutting the side of his neck ... Mr. Kinzie, closing with Lalime [sic], stabbed him and returned to the house covered with blood."

Mrs. Victoire Porthier, who claimed to have witnessed the act, wrote her account in 1883, when she was about ten years old:

"It was sunset when they used to shut the gates of the fort. Kinzie and LaLime came out together and soon we heard Lt. Helm call out for Mr. Kinzie to look out for LaLime, as he had a pistol. Quick we saw the men come together; we heard the pistol go off, and saw the smoke. Then they fell down together. I don't know as Lalime [sic] got up at all but Kinzie got home pretty quick. Blood was running from his shoulder where Lalime [sic] had shot him ... You see Kinzie wasn't to blame at all. He didn't have any pistol nor knife — nothing. After Lalime [sic] shot him and Kinzie got his arms around him, [LaLime] pulled out his dirk and as they fell he was stabbed with his own knife. That is what they all said ... I don't know what the quarrel was about. It was an old one — business, I guess."

Kinzie hid out in the woods for several days after the brawl, afraid that he'd be arrested for murder and hanged. The officers at Fort Dearborn, who seemed to like LaLime, decided to bury the body right near Kinzie's house, supposedly so that his front porch would always offer a haunting view of the grave. As much as they liked LaLime, though, they eventually ruled that the killing was in self-defense, though whispers suggest that this was only to stop Kinzie himself from telling the authorities some sort of dirt he had on the officers. In any case, Kinzie returned home and kept LaLime's grave in order.

The bones were eventually said to have been exhumed and moved to St. James's churchyard in the 1830s, near the present-day corner of Illinois and Wabash streets; the church burned down in the Great Fire of 1871, and people of the post-fire city seem to have forgotten there was ever a grave there.

In April 1891, workers were digging out the foundation for a new building at Illinois and Rush (where the Jazz Record Mart would stand in the early twenty-first century). One turn of the shovel accidentally uncovered a human skull, which flew out of the ground with the rest of the rubbish and rolled into the gutter, where nearby kids promptly began to use it as a football. Several other bones were found in a rotten coffin that crumbled as soon as someone touched it.

A man named Robert Fergus heard of the discovery, had an idea that they might be LaLime's bones, and ran off to collect them. The workers were inclined to disregard his request and throw them out, but Fergus brought in the cops. The officers thought the whole thing was hilarious, but took the skull away and put it in a box with the other bones in the cellar in the Chicago Avenue police station. In the days that followed, a few people came forward and agreed with Fergus: the new foundation workers were digging right about where the yard of St. James Church had been, and no one except LaLime was ever buried there, so the bones were presumably his.

A month later, the bones were turned over to the Chicago Historical Society, which conducted their own investigation. Judge Blodgett testified that he remembered that in 1831 and 1832, when playing with other boys on the North Side, he used to run past the old Agency House, which they called "Cobweb Castle." Behind Cobweb Castle was a maze of brushes, and the boys told him that in the middle of them was the grave of a man that "Old Man Kinzie" had killed back in the old days. The brush behind Cobweb Castle was right about where St. James Church was built a few years later.

None of the old-time members of St. James Church remembered the yard ever having been used for burials, but a man named John C. Haines had a "dim recollection" of LaLime's grave being on the grounds. Another man remembered a grave on the space, but had no idea whose it was.

The best forensic analysis 1891 could offer determined little more than that the remains were probably about old enough to be LaLime's, but that was enough for the historical society. Without any better idea of who the bones could belong to, they agreed to identify them as LaLime and added what was left of the skeleton to their collection of historical memorabilia. Five years later, when the museum opened, they were a prominent exhibit.

Years passed, the museum moved, and the building on Dearborn became a series of nightclubs, perhaps most famously the Excalibur Club. In a stage show there in the early twenty-first century, it was said that the building was now haunted by LaLime's ghost, though in their version of the story, the bones had been in a previous building on the spot that was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire, skeleton and all. In reality, the remains weren't even dug up until nearly twenty years after the fire.

In fact, not only did the bones not burn in the fire, the Historical Society still has them. They'll admit it when asked, but they seem a bit sheepish about it; the identification was not entirely scientific, and if they're not LaLime's bones, they might be subject to reburial under the Native American Grave Repatriation Act.

But the evidence given by the Historical Society in 1891 is fairly persuasive; the full testimonies they collected from early settlers and scientists were published in 1893 as Appendix F in Joseph Kirkland's The Chicago Massacre of 1812.


Did George Green Steal the Gallows?

And Is His Wife Still Buried Near the University of Illinois at Chicago Campus?

Just after Lucretia Thompson's dead body was found being swarmed by pigs in 1840, a man named John Stone was caught burning his pants nearby. He said in court that he was burning them because they were dirty, but when asked why he didn't burn his shirt, too, he slipped up and said, "There was no blood on it." That slip of the tongue led Stone to be the first man hanged in Chicago.

A custom-built gallows was set up on the South Side dunes; a noose was prepared by George White, the town crier and local jack-of-all-trades; and Stone was hanged before a small crowd. After a vote on what to do with Stone's remains, his body was turned over to Dr. Dyer, a local physician, for dissection.

Days later, according to later reports, the gallows themselves were stolen by a man named George Green, who used them to make furniture that he then sold to unsuspecting people. For years, many Chicagoans could have been using gallows wood in their homes without even knowing it. It might not have bothered them much; bits of hanging ropes were sought-after relics in those days. But keeping a bit of rope in your drawer was one thing; eating your dinner off of an old gibbet was something else.

The story of Green stealing the wood comes from Life of the Chicago Banker Geo. W. Green, alias Oliver Gavit, Who Was Found Guilty of Poisoning His Wife, which is likely Chicago's first "true crime" book. Published in 1855, after Green himself had cheated becoming the next local man to be hanged by committing suicide in prison, the book portrays Green as a sort of Dickensian villain who poisons his neighbors, tortures animals, and murders babies, laughing all the while.

In looking over Green's now-forgotten case, several outstanding mysteries come up:

George Green, one of Chicago's first villains.

1. Did he really steal the city's first gallows, as the biography claimed?

2. Could his wife's body still be buried right near the University of Illinois at Chicago campus?

3. Is the photograph of his dead body hanging in his prison cell still extant?

George Green was an early settler who made his home near 12th and Loomis (which would be Roosevelt and Loomis today). Surviving drawings of the house make it clear that this land was still mostly prairie in the 1830s, with lots of space for farming and livestock; being a mile or so away from the future site of the Loop, now the main downtown area and then pretty much the whole of the city, was as good as being out in the country in those days.

It would have been a fairly short walk from Green's house down to the dunes around 26th Street, where John Stone was hanged in 1840, and it's to be assumed that Green was in the crowd that day. The authors of the book on Green said that they were hesitant to tell the tale of him stealing the gallows, but "since we are fully able to corroborate it on the testimony of some of our most respectable citizens," they put it right alongside all of the many, many stories they collected of him torturing animals.

"The gallows had been erected by Mr. Isaac R. Gavin, the Sheriff, and remained upon the ground for some time subsequent to the execution," they wrote. "Mr. Daniell B. Heartt, commonly known as Popcorn Heartt, purchased the gallows of the sheriff, and proceeded to the spot where it stood with his team in order to draw it off. He found, however, that somebody had been beforehand ... and subsequently learned that Green had actually stolen it, and that by that time, it had probably been worked up into articles of furniture for the use of our citizens generally!"

Green, according to the authors of the book, spent the next several years on a veritable crime spree that cost him no more trouble than making him unpopular with his neighbors and in-laws. But fourteen years after the hanging, he finally took things too far by murdering his wife.

Green and his wife had, by all accounts, a stormy relationship. He would send her off on financial errands knowing that she wasn't familiar enough with currency to know that she was cheating people; when she found out and objected, he whipped her.

In September 1854, Mrs. Green was four months pregnant. Green had one grown son with whom he didn't particularly get along, and anecdotal evidence strongly held that the early deaths of some of his other children had been largely due to his neglect, or even that he actively had a hand in their deaths. It was generally agreed that he wasn't thrilled to have another baby coming.

One Saturday morning, some friends of Mrs. Green came to visit her and George casually informed them that she had just died of cholera. He had already dug a grave in the garden in which he planned to bury her, in fact.

Cholera was a common enough killer at the time for it to be a plausible story, and it killed people fast, so the fact that she'd been fine the day before didn't necessarily indicate any foul play. But her friends were suspicious all the same; Green said that she'd been dead for only a few hours, but from what they could smell from the porch, she'd had time to decompose. Soon, a casual investigation found that Green's young son had been showing off a bottle of "medicine" that his father had given his mother and had demonstrated how far he could throw it. The broken bottle was rounded up, and appeared to have contained strychnine.

Green's brother-in-law, S. J. Noble, had heard Green say many times that he wished to God his wife was dead, and that then he would get rid of her whole damned family. When word got around that his sister was now being buried in the garden, Noble charged into the house.

"Green," he said, "I knew you would kill my sister some time; you have done it, and now I hope you are satisfied." Green walked away, muttering that she'd died of cholera, then chatted with neighbors about the price of lots and horses, seemingly unconcerned that his wife was dead.

The next day, Noble came back with the sheriff. Green met them at the door with a loaded gun, threatening to shoot, but the sheriff persuaded him to drop the weapon and be taken in peacefully.

After all of his testimony was taken, it was decided that a post-mortem examination would be performed. Mrs. Green's body was exhumed from the garden, and three corked jars were used to preserve the stomach, a bit of the intestines, and the undigested food that was found inside of them.

The resulting trial became something of a landmark case in the history of forensic chemistry. Dr. James Blaney (who would one day be among the founders of Rosehill Cemetery) made a careful analysis of the remains and presented his findings to the jury in great detail. The testimony was transcribed in medical journals worldwide; a portion went:

The etherial residue was dissolved in alcohol, in which it dissolved without residue, and the alcoholic solution set aside to evaporate spontaneously. The residue left by evaporation of the alcohol exhibited a great number of exceedingly minute crystals, contaminated with a delinquent animal matter. ... On inclining slightly the small glass capsule with contained the crystals, the aqueous solution drained to the lower side, leaving the most of the crystals in a tolerable state of purity. The aqueous solution drained from the crystals had an intensely bitter taste.

One can only hope that he didn't actually taste them, but how else would he know about the intensely bitter taste?


Excerpted from "Mysterious Chicago"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Adam Selzer.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Does the Historical Society Have the Bones of an Early Settler?,
Did George Green Steal the Gallows?,
Who's Buried in Ira Couch's Tomb?,
Is There a Revolutionary War Soldier at Rosehill Cemetery?,
Can You Find the Huck Tunnels in the Gold Coast?,
Was Walter Newberry Buried in a Barrel?,
The Lonesome Death of Barton Edsall,
What Started the Great Chicago Fire?,
Did George Francis Train Predict the Great Chicago Fire?,
The Missing Mansion of Old Man Storey,
Did Thomas Neill Cream Kill Alice Montgomery?,
Charles Volney Dyer and the Vampire of Chicago,
Where Was Zanzic's Ultimate Spiritualistic Studio?,
H. H. Holmes and the Vanishing Skeletons (and Other Outstanding Holmes Mysteries),
Did Inspector Shippy Employ a Tell-Tale Corpse?,
Who Was Mr. Dove?,
How Many Wives Did Johann Hoch Kill?,
Was Marshall Field, Jr.'s Death Really an Accident?,
Hypnotized to the Gallows?,
The Strange History of Eternal Silence,
Is That Really Belle Gunness in a Forest Park Grave?,
Whatever Happened to Conway, the One-Legged Killer Clown?,
The Fool Killer Submarine,
Who Shot Big Jim Colosimo?,
Did Nick "The Choir Singer" Viana Rise from the Grave?,
Whatever Happened to Tommy O'Connor?,
How Many Husbands Did Tillie Klimek Kill?,
Virginia Harrison, Lillian Collier, and the Snuggle Puppies of Wind Blew Inn,
Who Killed McSwiggin (and Why Was an Assistant State's Attorney Hanging Out with Gangsters)?,
Did the Murder of "Tommy the Greek" End a Gang Truce?,
Who Was the Chicago Hangman?,
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre,
The Woman in Black at the Drake Hotel,
Was the "Lipstick Killer" Innocent?,
Was There a Shark in Lake Michigan?,
Who Killed the Grimes Sisters?,
The Kangaroo Scare of 1974,
Was the Man Who Killed John F. Kennedy Killed on Grand Avenue?,
Did a "Voice from Beyond" Finger Teresita Basa's Killer?,
Who Was the Tylenol Killer?,
Who Was that Masked Man?,
Did Aliens Visit O'Hare Airport?,
The Puzzling Career of Vivian Maier,

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