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.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Purple Martin's Majesty

People in Griggsville really love purple martins.

They like the birds so much that more than 5,000 birdhouses line the city streets and in the town center they erected a 562-unit avian high-rise, which serves as home to hundreds of the blue-black birds (members of the swallow family) that are valued for their alleged ability to allegedly consume 2,000 mosquitoes per day.

The town is so enamored with the birds that it has proclaimed itself the Purple Martin Capital of the Nation. The claim even appears on the town’s water tower.

Griggsville’s purple martin-mania can be traced to 1962, when the local Jaycees were trying to combat a persistent mosquito problem—in the summer months Griggsville is a magnet for the bloodsuckers because it’s near both the Illinois and Mississippi rivers—but hesitant to use increasing amounts of chemical pesticides.

A local man, J.L. Wade, suggested that purple martins might be the answer because they eat nothing but tons of flying insects and, at the time, were an endangered species. Also, he knew that the birds don’t build their own nests but like to inhabit manmade structures.

Wade and the Jaycees consulted with ornithologists and developed a two-story, aluminum bird abode, which became known as the M-12K house. The design was so successful that Wade, who previously manufactured TV antennas, began commercially building the structures; his company is now known as Nature House Inc.

Later that year, the Jaycees installed more than two-dozen of the distinctive green and white houses, attached to tall aluminum poles at 100-foot intervals along the community’s main road. However, the service club’s crowning achievement was erecting a tower of martin manors rising 70-feet high and featuring 562 apartments.

The giant avian condo attracted hundreds of the little birds and thrust Griggsville into the forefront as the country’s most purple martin-friendly town.

These days, the town and the purple martins have settled into a comfortable state of co-existence. The birds find convenient, welcoming quarters when they hit town (they winter in Brazil) while the townspeople gain a natural predator that devours pesky flying insects including dragonflies, damselflies, mayflies, stinkbugs, leafhoppers, Japanese beetles, June bugs, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, cicadas, bees, wasps and flying ants.

The community also sells plenty of t-shirts and other chotchkies labeled with a silhouette of a martin and the words, “America’s Most Wanted Bird.”

Of course, 5,000 birdhouses and a comparable number of birds (and bird guano) beg the question—do those little aluminum abodes come with bathrooms?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Casbah on the Mississippi

One of the more unusual sights in the historic town of Quincy is a two-story Moroccan-style castle that overlooks the Mississippi River.

Located south of the downtown, the structure known as Villa Kathrine was erected in 1900 by a wealthy local eccentric named George Metz.

Metz’ fortune was inherited; in fact, he never worked a day in his life. His father, William, was a successful local pharmacist. After his mother died in 1897 (his father had passed away four years earlier), Metz embarked on a two-year tour of the Mediterranean and Africa.

When he returned, he began planning a private residence that would incorporate the architectural style and design of the Mediterranean/Northern African buildings he had admired during his travels, Specifically, he wanted to re-create the look of the Villa ben Abhen in Morocco.

IN 1900, Metz purchased a site on a bluff south of State Street (now known as 532 Gardner Expressway) and began working with a local architect, George Behrensmeyer, to design the plans for his dream house, which, it is said, was named after his mother (although, weirdly, her name was spelled Katherine).

He shared sketches, notes and drawings he’d made during his journeys with Behrensmeyer, who incorporated many of the concepts into the final plans.

A year later, the structure was completed at a total cost of $7,000. Despite its exotic look, the house was constructed using local materials, including local limestone in the foundation.

From the outside, Villa Kathrine certainly has nothing in common with the other turn-of-century Victorian and Queen Anne mansions in Quincy, which boasts a sizeable inventory of such homes.

On its north end is a tall, rectangular tower topped by a large dome while at the opposite end there is another, similar-sized tower, decorated with diamond lattice work and capped with a small minaret decorated with red and white stripes —said to resemble the Mosque of Thais in Tunisia.

Mediterranean-Arabic furniture, artifacts and antiques, which Metz had purchased during his travels, were used to furnish and decorate the house.

Few photos of the house’s interior exist so it’s not known how it originally was arranged or appeared.

A very private person who never married, Metz, however, was no shut-in. A 1908 Quincy Daily Journal article noted that the Ladies of the Round Table, a Quincy women’s social club, were given a tour of the residence by Metz, who “told them all about the treasures in it that he had gotten in Algiers.”

Metz main companion for many years was a 212-pound bullmastiff, named Bingo. According to reports, Metz bought the dog, said to be the biggest mastiff in the world, in 1900 in Denmark.

When Bingo died in 1906, the enormous canine was said to have been buried in Metz’ rose garden, wearing a diamond-studded collar. In later years, after the house was abandoned, fortune hunters dug up the grounds in the hope of locating the collar.

Historians, however, believe the story of the jeweled collar is apocryphal since there’s no record Metz ever purchased such an item.

In 1912, Quincy grocer Archibald Behrens and his wife persuaded Metz to sell his home to them. At the time, Metz was 63 years old and his family was concerned about him living alone in the two-story house. Behrens and his wife said they loved the house and all of its furnishings and promised to be good stewards.

The Behrens, however, were merely fronting for a local railroad, which wanted to tear down the house and use the site for a railroad yard. In return for their role in the purchase, the railroad promised the contents of the house to the Behrens.

Once Metz vacated the house, however, vandals carted off many of the antiques and furnishings. It’s said that the Behrens ended up with only a single rug.

By 1913, when Metz visited the house with a reporter from St. Louis, he found it in sorry condition with most of its beautiful furnishings gone. He vowed never to return, although he did nearly two decades later, only to be saddened by the sorry state of his dream castle.

After selling the house, Metz moved into the Hotel Newcomb in downtown Quincy and, later, the Lincoln Douglas Hotel. He died of pneumonia in 1937.

Interestingly, the railroad never built its railyard and the house sat vacant for several decades. In 1939, it was partially restored and during the next decade passed through several owners. In 1955, the Quincy Park District obtained the villa and surrounding property, which became a neighborhood park.

Starting in the 1970s, local preservationists began an effort to restore the castle to its original splendor. In recent years, the house has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised to renovate the structure, which is now home of the Quincy Tourist Information Center, which offers daily self-guided tours of the villa.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Biggest Man in Fishhook, IL. Ever.

There was nothing small about Robert Earl Hughes. By the time he was six years old, he weighed an incredible 203 pounds—and, over the years, he just kept getting bigger.

Hughes was born in 1926, the son of Abe and Georgia Hughes, in the tiny farm hamlet of Fishhook, Ill., located about 20 miles northwest of Quincy. Weighing a hefty but not abnormal 11-pounds and 4-ounces at birth, Hughes was a fairly average-size baby until he contracted whooping cough when he was about five months old.

The ailment permanently threw his pituitary gland into hyper-drive and he began rapidly gaining weight. By age 10, he weighed 378 pounds, and three years later he was a whopping 546 pounds.

Friends and family note that Hughes’ weight gain was not because he over-ate—they describe him as having a healthy but not piggish appetite—but because of his out-of-control pituitary.

In spite of the challenges of being so enormous, by all accounts Hughes was a friendly, gentle soul, who tried to live as “normal” a life as possible, including doing chores around the family farm and walking to school each day.

At age 13, however, his schooling came to an end when, while walking to school, he lost his balance and fell into a ditch. It took several adults with ropes to pull him out of the hole.

Realizing he could no longer safely support his own weight, his parents reluctantly decided he shouldn’t return to school. Fortunately, Hughes was a motivated reader and continued his education by devouring any book he could lay his hands on.

Since there was no local library, neighbors often stopped by to loan him books.

At the age of 16, Hughes had grown to more than 600 pounds. Two years later, by which time he had gained another 100 pounds, he had to register for the draft (it was 1944). His parents informed the draft board there was no way they could get him to the registration in Mount Sterling, which was 12 miles away, so the board came to him.

The story about the unusual nature of his predicament titillated the local newspapers, which wrote about Hughes, calling him the largest man to ever register for the draft. The papers told their readers his vitals—he wore size 56 overalls, which his mother had to expand with another 17-inches of material, and how she handmade all his shirts.

The attention brought fame to Hughes, who began making public appearances at local festivals and selling photos of himself. While his mother objected to him being treated like a freak, Hughes apparently enjoyed the attention.

Following her death in 1947, he began regularly appearing in newsreels and making paid public appearances. He endorsed products; one tuxedo shop made a special mondo-sized tux for him, which he wore in print advertisements.

In 1954, he signed with a traveling carnival and spent the next several years touring the country. By late 1956, the five-foot, nine-inch Hughes had reached 1,041 pounds and officially became the heaviest man ever (the previous record holder, seven-footer Miles Darden, weighed 1,020 pounds when he died in 1857).

Two years later, while touring Indiana with the carnival, Hughes developed a skin rash as well as dark blue fingernails. A doctor diagnosed him with measles, which were making his kidney malfunction.

On July 8, 1958, Hughes slipped into a coma and died two days later of congestive heart failure.

At the time of his death, his weight was estimated to be 1,069 pounds. While his weight record has since been broken, Hughes still holds the Guinness World Book record for largest chest measurement ever recorded: 124 inches (10-feet, 4-inches).

It’s been erroneously reported that because of his enormous size Hughes was buried in a piano case. The truth is that he was laid to rest in a custom casket of heavy cypress reinforced with steel that was built by the Embalming Burial Case Co. of Burlington, Iowa. The casket measured 85-inches long, 52-inches wide and 34-inches deep. His body was placed in the casket using a forklift.

Hughes was buried in the small cemetery behind a tiny church in the town of Benville, located 10 miles north of Fishhook.

On his hefty tombstone is carved: “Robert Earl Hughes: June 1, 1926-July 10, 1958; World’s Heaviest Man’ Weight 1.041 pounds.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Abingdon's Big Totem Pole

Despite the fact that no native Illinois tribes or any other Indians built it, the massive totem pole standing in the small town of Abingdon, known as “Big Daddy,” is pretty impressive.

Billed as the tallest totem pole “east of the Rockies,” the 83-foot wooden monumental sculpture was carved by artist Steve Greenquist in 1969. When the project was conceived, town fathers believed that it would be the tallest totem pole in the world and were confident it would attract tourists to the out-of-the-way community, located 12 miles south of Galesburg.

Unfortunately, just a few years later a Canadian town snatched away the town’s claim to fame. Today, there are least a half-dozen totems taller than the Abingdon pole including a 173-foot one in Alert Bay, British Columbia, a 140-foot pole in Kalama, Washington and a 137.5-foot monument in Kake, Alaska.

Despite that, the Abingdon totem remains a popular roadside attraction. The pole, carved of red cedar, stands in the center of a landscaped median on the town’s Main Street, adjacent to a city park.

At the top are the words, “Abingdon, Illinois,” painted on a representation of wings. Carved into the length of the pole are various images of objects, people and animals, including portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, ears of corn and the state flower (a violet). Near the base, the pole has another wide set of wings in the shape of the state of Illinois covered with a variety of designs.

Greenquist, who was sponsored by the Abingdon Development Council, was only 18 years old and a student at Illinois State University when he conceived and created the work. Since 1998, he has been a high school art teacher in Ankeny, Iowa.

There is, however, a certain ‘fish-out-of-water’ aspect to the pole. Totems are monumental sculptures carved by the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest coastal region (British Columbia, northern Washington, Alaska).

While no one is certain of their purpose, it is generally believed the carvings recounted local legends, familial ties and important tribal events. The native Illini people had no tradition for building totem poles and probably wouldn’t have a clue as to why it’s in Abingdon.

Nor would anyone else.