Tuesday, March 8, 2011

More crooked than a Chicago politician: Burlington’s Snake Alley

It’s been called the Crookedest Street in the World—although some would say that distinction belongs to San Francisco’s Lombard Street—and it goes by the name of Snake Alley.

Located in the historic Mississippi River town of Burlington, Iowa (located about 48 miles northwest of Macomb, Ill.), Snake Alley was built in 1894. Its winding design was an attempt to construct a road down a very steep hillside in order to link the downtown business district to the North Sixth Street neighborhood shopping area. It was hoped that such a street would be safe for horse-drawn carriages.

The man behind the street was Charles Starker, a German-educated architect and landscape engineer, who came up with the street’s curvy design. George Kriechbaum, a prominent local paving contractor, constructed the road, which is made of tooled, curved limestone curbing and locally kilned, blueclay bricks.

Because of the hill’s steepness—it rises nearly 60 feet from Washington Street to Columbia Street—the alley has five half-curves and two quarter-curves spread over a distance of some 275 feet.

Ironically, because of the number of tight hairpin turns on the street, it didn’t prove to be particularly safe for horse carriages, which tipped on the steep curves. But over the years, Snake Alley did evolve into a popular local landmark that today attracts thousands of people eager to navigate its twists and turns.

Snake Alley is open for vehicle traffic between May and October, when the brick pavement isn’t too slick from snow or rain.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Booksigning in Galesburg on April 9

I just set up a booksigning for my new book, "Illinois Curiosities," at Stone Alley Collectibles and Books, 53 South Seminary Street in Galesburg, IL on Saturday, April 9, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Anyone who is in the area please stop by to say hello.

Also, here's a link to a nice story about the book written by Erin McCarthy for the Galesburg Register-Mail: http://www.galesburg.com/lifestyles/x639358092/Curiosities-attract-attention-to-Knox-County-earn-book-blurbs.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Illinois Curiosities Book Released

My newest book, "Illinois Curiosities," is now out. Here's a link to a cool story about the book: http://www.mcdonoughvoice.com/news/x1179526575/WIU-author-pens-Illinois-travel-book.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Site of the Infamous Murder Castle

One of the most bizarre stories in Chicago history is the tale of America’s first serial killer, Dr. Henry H. Holmes, and his Murder Castle.

In the summer of 1886, Holmes, whose real name was Herman Mudgett, went to work in a drugstore owned by Dr. E.S. Holton, in Englewood, a suburb of Chicago that is now part of the city.

Holmes, who graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School, had already racked up a fairly impressive resume of fraud, forgery and petty theft by this time, including, while still a med student, taking out insurance policies on cadavers he stole from the school. He would disfigure the bodies, claim they were the victims of accidents, and then collect on their insurance.

Unaware of Holmes’ previous activities, Dr. Holton, who was dying of cancer, was easily charmed by the young man. After Dr. Holton died, Holmes took over the drugstore—mysteriously, the widow Holton soon disappeared and was never seen again—claiming he had purchased it from Mrs. Holton who had moved to California.

In addition to being a killer, Holmes was also a bigamist and a philanderer. In 1878, he had married Clara Lovering in New Hampshire but later abandoned her. Nine years later, he married Myrtle Belnap in Minneapolis, despite still being married to his first wife.

That marriage ended in 1889 but a year later he was having an affair with Julia Conner, the wife of one of his employees. By 1893, he had tired of Connor and began a relationship with Minnie Williams. Shortly after, Connor and her daughter disappeared. A year later, he married Georgianna Yoke and shortly after that Williams and her sister, who Holmes had also seduced, disappeared.

But the murders of those women only hinted at the horrors that would be attributed to Holmes. In 1889, he purchased a large lot across the street from the drugstore and started building a three-story, block-long hotel, which the media later dubbed the Murder Castle.

During the hotel’s construction, Holmes repeatedly changed builders so only he completely understood the design of the structure.

And it’s no understatement to say the design was unusual. While the ground floor seemed normal enough—it housed his relocated drugstore and several shops—the upper two floors contained his personal office and a maze of more than 70 rooms with no windows as well as doors that opened into brick walls, hallways built at odd angles, secret passages, trap doors, soundproof rooms, stairs that led nowhere and doors that could only be opened from the outside.

Even more bizarre were the more special design elements he incorporated, such as a hot burning, gas-fueled kiln in the basement and vault rooms with mysterious gas lines controlled from his office.

In 1892, Holmes’ lodging house was completed and he began advertising rooms for rent, specifically targeting out-of-town visitors coming to Chicago for the upcoming World’s Fair.

Additionally, he placed classified ads in small town newspapers in the various parts of the Midwest, offering jobs to young ladies. His ploy was to offer a young woman a position but stress she needed to withdraw all her money from the bank because she would need funds to get started. He would also take out a large life insurance policy on her. Once the young woman had settled into the hotel, she would become his captive and disappear.

No one knows for sure how many people Holmes killed, although he later said 27, and some sources have claimed he murdered as many as 200. At the conclusion of the World’s Fair, Holmes, who was being harassed by his creditors as well as detectives hired by the families of some of the missing people, tried to burn his castle in order to collect $6,000 in insurance money. When that failed, he abandoned the hotel and set out for Texas, where he planned to build a duplicate.

But it wasn’t Holmes murders that brought him to the attention of police. In 1895, he was arrested for trying to defraud an insurance company of $10,000 for the death of an accomplice, Ben Pitezel. The company originally thought the body wasn’t Pitezel, but realized that not only was it Pitezel but he had been murdered by Holmes.

A dogged Philadelphia detective began retracing Holmes’ tracks and discovered that not only had Holmes murdered Pitezel but also the dead man’s three missing children.

Chicago police began searching the abandoned hotel and discovered in the basement a vat of acid with a human skull and parts of eight ribs not quite dissolved, mounds of quicklime, the kiln, a dissection table, surgical tools and more bones.

In August 1895, much of the Murder Castle was mysteriously destroyed by fire. Some believed it was set by a Holmes associate who didn't want the police to discover anything else while others felt it was someone who wanted to rid the neighborhood of such a blemish. A month later, Holmes was convicted in Philadelphia of Pitezel’s murder and sentenced to death by hanging.

Throughout his incarceration, Holmes wrote different confessions, each a blend of rationalization, prevarication and a bit of truth. In one version written shortly before his execution, he wrote, “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer no more than the poet can help the inspiration to song.”

On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged and buried, according to his wishes, in a coffin filled with cement that was covered with even more cement (he was concerned about his body being dug up by grave robbers). He lies in the Holy Cross Cemetery, located south of Philadelphia.

As for the Murder Castle, following the fire the upper floors were removed while the street level shops reopened. In 1937, the aging structure was sold to the U.S. government, which demolished it for a post office, which still stands on the site.

There are no plaques or signs memorializing the heinous crimes once committed on the site. It’s as if it was all just a bad dream.

The former site of Dr. H.H. Holmes notorious Murder Castle is on the corner of South Wallace and 63rd streets in Chicago, which is now the Englewood Post Office.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Beware the Maneaters of Tsavo

The lions in the Kenyan region of Tsavo are different. For instance, fully grown males don't have full manes of hair like other African lions.

Additionally, for a period of time in 1898, a pair of Tsavo lions acquired a taste for something that most lions tend to shun---human beings.

The tale of the man-eating Tsavo lions began in March of 1898 when Indian workers erected a railway bridge over the Tsavo River, started being attacked by two lions. The British, who controlled Kenya at the time, had brought the workers to Africa to help build the Kenya-Uganda Railway.

During the next nine months, the two big cats killed and ate at least 72 workers—with some claiming nearly double that many were attacked and consumed. Frightened by the seemingly supernatural pair of lions, workers tries to scare them off by surrounding their camp with bonfires and fences made of thorn bushes. Yet despite these efforts, the lions continued their reign of terror.

Lt. Colonel John Henry Patterson, who supervised the construction, set traps and attempted to ambush the lions—even sitting in a tree all night with his rifle—but the killing continued.

Finally, on December 9, 1898, he managed to shoot one of the big cats. In his later published account, which became the basis for the 1996 film, “The Ghost and the Darkness,” Patterson said he initially wounded the lion in the hindquarters but it escaped.

He claimed that as he continued to hunt the animal into the night, it, in turn, began stalking him. He shot it several more times but wasn’t certain it was dead until he found the body the next morning. It had taken five shots to finish the job.

Three weeks after killing the first lion, he managed to track down the other. In his account, Patterson said he shot the beast five times and, despite having a shattered leg, it continued to charge him and chased him up a tree.

After the animal limped off, he came down from the tree only to have the cat charge him again. He fired two more shots, hitting it in the chest and in the head.

The last bullet finally stopped it in its tracks.

Patterson rather melodramatically noted that the beast “died gamely, biting savagely at a branch which had fallen to the ground.”

Patterson, who claimed the lions had killed 135 people, took the remains of the two lions and made them into trophy rugs. In 1924, when he came to lecture at Chicago’s Field Museum, Patterson agreed to sell the hides and skeletons to the museum, which reconstructed them as lifelike models and put them on display.

In recent years, Field Museum biologist Bruce Patterson (no relation to John) and others have studied the lions to discover why the males lack manes and why the two rogue animals started eating humans.

The new research has revealed several things about the two Tsavo lions: they didn’t eat as many people as claimed by John Patterson (somewhere between 35 and 72) and they weren’t oversized, mutant killing machines, as they’ve sometimes been portrayed.

Additionally, it’s thought they may have acquired their taste for people after digging up the bodies of dead or dying slaves dumped by ruthless slave traders on the Tsavo caravan route or because one of them had a severe tooth abscess, which would have made relatively soft humans an easier thing to eat.

As for the lack of a mane, again researchers have several explanations. One is that Tsavo lions live in an extremely dry climate so they’ve evolved to have less hair, which keeps them cooler. Another theory is that their manes are torn off by the many thorn-bushes that proliferate in the region.

But regardless of whether they killed 135 people or 35, the legend of the man-eating cats remains a compelling one that helps to make them one of the most popular attractions in Chicago's Field Museum (1400 South Lake Shore Drive).

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Lord Speaks in Mysterious Ways: Quincy's 'Jesus Tree'

It takes a bit of faith to see the so-called Jesus Tree, located in the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery in Quincy.

Maybe quite a bit of faith.

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a cemetery worker was strolling through the cemetery grounds when he stopped to look at an ancient birch tree. The tree, estimated to be more than 150 years old, had a protruding knot on one side.

As the worker looked at the tree he saw, for the first time, that the growth and surrounding darkened bark resembled a life-sized, bearded, longhaired man in a long robe, standing with his arms wrapped around a lamb---clearly the image of Jesus Christ, he thought.

At first, he kept his discovery to himself but then decided he had to share it with others. Word quickly spread about the miraculous image of Jesus on the tree and stories soon appeared in the local media.

Within a short time, thousands of visitors were stopping by daily to view what became known as “The Jesus Tree” or “The Good Shepherd Tree.” A nearby guest book recorded more than 30,000 signatures.

The cemetery responded by roping off the area around tree, primarily to keep true believers from striping off pieces of bark to take home as souvenirs.

These days, the number of people wanting to see the Jesus Tree appears to have dwindled. Still, it’s said that the best way to view the image is to stand 15 to 20 feet away from the tree at the northeast corner of the roped off area. From there, you can clearly see the big knot, which, from the right angle and in the right light, does appear to look like a person holding something. If you stare long enough you begin to see eyes and long hair in the bark.

It could look like Jesus. Or just a tree with a big knot on its side.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Where Wyatt Earp was born—or not

One of Illinois’ most famous native sons is a man not usually associated with the Land of Lincoln. Legendary western lawman Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, Ill. on March 19, 1848, the fourth of six children of Nicholas Porter Earp and Virginia Ann Earp.

The place Earp is believed to have been born is a two-story, pioneer Greek-Revival style house at 406 3rd Street (however, a local Monmouth College history professor has argued he was born in a different house).

Regardless of whether he was actually born in that house, which is officially known as the Wyatt Earp Birthplace and Museum, he certainly didn’t initially spend a whole lot of time there or in any other home in Monmouth. Less than two years after his birth, his father announced plans to move to California but made it as far as Pella, Iowa (about 150 miles west of Monmouth).

By 1856, the Earp clan was back in Monmouth, this time residing in a house at either 409 or 411 South B Street (historians aren’t sure about this, either), before returning to Pella in 1859.

The peripatetic Earps apparently finally headed out to California by wagon train in 1864. About five years later, Earp cropped up in Lamar, Missouri, where he took a position as the town constable, his first stint as a lawman (ironically, about two years later he fled amidst charges he had stolen money from the community and was a horse thief).

Earp’s ties to Illinois, however, weren’t completely severed. By 1872, he was living in the Peoria area, apparently operating a brothel with his brother, Morgan.

Both brothers were arrested in February 1872 and charged with “keeping and being found in a house of ill-fame.” The two Earps were picked up again a few months later at the same house of ill repute and then shifted their business to a floating whorehouse on the Illinois River.

In August 1872, authorities also broke up this operation and it is believe that the Earp brothers soon left the area for good.

Of course, after that Earp went on to become one of the West’s most renowned lawmen.

His later exploits as a deputy marshal in the lawless town of Dodge City, Kansas, and his role in the infamous shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881 made him famous. He died in Los Angeles in 1929 at the age of 80.

As for the Earp Birthplace and Museum, in 2007 its owners, Robert and Melba Matson, who have fought long and hard to persuade the world that their house is the real deal, put the popular attraction up for sale (they’ve retired in Arizona).

So far no one has met the minimum asking price of $100,000 but the owners remain optimistic. In the meantime, the museum is open daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and by appointment. Additionally, the museum hosts an annual Wyatt Earp Day in late July.