Thank you, Chicago Hauntings.
Having lived in Chicago for six years, I ran around Navy Pier, did my homework at the Art Institute and walked to the John Hancock Building to check out the amazing view in the Signature Lounge whenever I had the chance. Knowing these popular tourist attractions so well (and eventually taking them for granted) it was refreshing to have a unique attraction when I returned to Chicago over the weekend as a (gasp!) camera-wielding tourist.
That attraction came courtesy of Chicago Hauntings, a tour of some of the Windy City’s most infamous allegedly haunted locations. Even if you dismiss such things as hogwash, you will still have a good time. Being a “believer” is by no means a prerequisite for the tour, but a sense of humor and ability to suspend disbelief for a few hours is.
The tour starts the moment an old schoolbus, painted in black, pulls up to the Rock and Roll McDonalds. Yes, the bus certainly attracts a lot of stares and heckling throughout the evening.
Inside the bus is decorated with smiling skeletons and purple lights. As “colorful” as this decor may be, it pales in comparison to the tour guides who immediately launch into vivid accounts of the dark and little-known chapters of Chicago history. I knew of many of the stories simply because I am a huge history buff and lover of lore and all things unexplained, but no one else on the bus seemed to know the stories our guides shared. In other words, there’s a good chance you won’t, either.
It wasn’t long before we were off the bus and actually experiencing these spooky locations firsthand. The first stop was the Iroquis Theatre, the site of the 1903 fire that killed more than 600 people, mostly women and children who were attending the musical comedy Mr. Bluebeard.
Our guide launched into horrifying details I had not heard before, despite reading pretty extensively on the subject, like how fleeing actors opened a door to escape, allowing cold air to rush into the building, creating a backdraft that literally charred the first thirteen or so rows of attendees so severely that all those seated in the balcony could see were shiny skulls below.
Perhaps the most horrifying elements of the story were the many factors created by human greed that contributed to this catastrophe. Our guide shared many details about how those building the theatre bribed city leaders, so they could cut corners to open the new theatre more quickly.
The fire curtain became stuck when it was lowered, coming up 30 feet too short. Most of the doors were locked. The door from the balcony to the lower parts of the theatre was locked, because owners did not want their lower-paying customers to sneak into better seats during the performance. The theatre’s capacity was roughly 1,700 but more than 1,900 people were crammed in for the Bluebeard matinee, with many mothers holding their children on their laps.
No one was ever forced to pay the families (those who had families left) for their loss, and those responsible were not jailed. No plaque marks the spot. What remains is the alley where frantic mothers and children flung themselves out of the 6-story window trying to escape from the flames, creating a growing mound of bodies on the ground below.
Standing there in the dark alley with such vivid images, it’s easy to hear or see things. This did not happen to me. Throughout the tour, I overheard many others in the group feeling as if people were watching them in certain strange spots or feeling tension in their chest in certain locations. It seemed this happened to two young girls at each and every location that we went to.
I believe that if someone opens their mind up enough to an experience that they will “create” that experience. If you tell yourself something enough, you will inevitibly believe it. I believe that is what happened with some of these people, it’s the incredibly rational people that I know, who have come up to me at certain points in my life, telling me in hushed tones about experiences that they can’t comprehend, that really make me shun the notion that these accounts are all simply elaborate stories manufactured by overactive imaginations.
Oh, and we did capture something on camera at our last spot — the infamous Jane Adams Hull House. No, it wasn’t the “devil baby” or Jane Adams herself but I’d like anyone to share their theories about “what” this image is.