Chicago Hotels: Hotbeds of Haunting

3 08 2010

Life lesson #45,786: never start a project just before going on vacation. Even if you’re really excited about it. But I’m back now! Sorry to have kept you waiting so long. If it’s any consolation, I added another ghost book to my collection whilst tramping the wilds of New England. And by ‘wilds’ I mean ‘quaint, well-air conditioned small town bookstore.’

But I digress. As you gleaned from the title (which is terribly corny, but I could not help myself), our first stop on American Ghosts is in my adopted hometown of Chicago. Specifically, we’re going to look at two of Chicago’s apparently-haunted hotels. Hotels are revolving doors of humanity, and tend to attract some pretty interesting stories. Movies like Century Hotel, The Shining, and 1408 are all based on the many layers of history to be found in hotels. Naturally, some of that history has inspired rumors of ghosts.

As a group, Chicago’s old hotels are pretty interesting. My first home in the city was in the Shoreland, a 1926 luxury hotel converted to a dorm for University of Chicago students. Dorm lore held that in its heyday, the Shoreland hosted the likes of Al Capone and Jimmy Hoffa. By the time I lived there the splendor was largely covered over by institutional carpet and untold layers of off-white paint, but glimpses remained. The ballroom was pretty much intact, chandeliers and all, though its fanciness was pretty well lost on us. We used it for study breaks. And despite what would probably have been a very willing audience of impressionable youths, no ghost stories ever circulated about the Shoreland Hotel. Capone and Hoffa notwithstanding, it has led a relatively quiet life on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The same cannot be said for the Lexington Hotel, located at Michigan Avenue and 22nd Street. Even though the building was demolished in the mid nineties, rumors have persisted about its haunting. For one thing, Al Capone definitely did have an office there. Actually, not just an office — a whole block of rooms devoted to Capone and his gang. Local history buff Mario Gomes has a website with images of the Lexington and info about Capone’s suite. Elsewhere on the site, Gomes has numerous pictures of the Lexington both in its original state and just prior to its demolition. There was even a television special (hosted by non other than the esteemed Geraldo Rivera) that promised to expose, on live feed, the contents of “Al Capone’s Vault” in the basement of the Lexington. Nothing was in the vault. (See the first five minutes of the special here.) However, there was some evidence that the hotel contained hidden staircases and tunnel systems to expedite a quick escape if the place was ever raided.

So who haunted the Lexington? Capone himself? Surprisingly, no: Capone claimed to be the haunted, rather than the haunter. But who was haunting him?

On February 14, 1929, six men affiliated with gangster Bugs Moran were lined up against the back wall ofย  a parking garage and shot to death. Since Moran had been stonewalling Al Capone’s efforts to control the north side of the city, Capone became the prime suspect in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. (Beware: gory picture in the link. Just in case the word ‘massacre’ wasn’t a tip-off.) But because Capone himself was in Miami at the time of the killings, he was never charged with the crime. No one else from his gang was ever charged, either. However, it was pretty universally thought to be a Capone-ordered hit.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of Capone’s guilt is the fact that he claimed to be haunted by one of the massacre’s victims, James Clark (whose real name was Albert Kachellek). During a short stretch in jail several months after the murders, Capone allegedly began seeing Clark in his cell. Other inmates reported that they could hear Capone talking to “Jimmy” and pleading with the mysterious visitor to leave him alone. Capone continued to report the hauntings when he again took up residence in the Lexington. Nothing seemed to get rid of James Clark, including a seance. Other members of Capone’s retinue, including his valet Hymie Cornish, reported weird experiences that they blamed on Clark’s ghost. Whether those encounters were genuine or simply an attempt to placate the Big Fella, nobody can say.

So why James Clark? Two of the other Valentine victims, mechanic Johnny May and optometrist Reinhardt Schwimmer, were apparently innocent bystanders, while James Clark was an active member of the Moran gang. One would think that if anyone were going to haunt Al Capone, it would be somebody who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But then, we’ll probably never know the whole story.

(For more on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, check out this excerpt from Get Capone, by Jonathan Eig. The author makes the case that the job was done by another local criminal, William White, who had no known ties to Capone.)

Another prominent Chicago Hotel, the Congress Plaza, was built to accommodate visitors to the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Prior to 1909, the Congress Plaza was known as the Auditorium Annex. It was built adjacent to the Auditorium Building, which includes the famous theater and hotel. The Congress Plaza is also frequently listed as one of the most haunted places in Chicago. Many ghost aficionados claim that the hotel is haunted by our friend Capone, saying that he owned it for a time. Nothing that I’ve found indicates that Capone ever owned or even had an office at the Congress Plaza; some of the references to secret tunnels make me think that folks confuse this hotel with the aforementioned Lexington. After all, the Capone stories are a bit more fun to apply to a place that still exists.

However, just because the Capone tie to the Congress Plaza is weak or nonexistent doesn’t mean that creepy stuff didn’t happen there. Take, for example, the story of Clarence Russell Chetwynd. Information is thin on the ground, save for this article from the September 21, 1897 edition of the New York Times. Who knows if Clarence ever even made it to the hotel? We know for sure that Captain Louis Ostheim did; he was found dead in his room at the Auditorium Annex on April 8, 1900. He was set to be married the following day, and had reportedly been in good physical and mental health. As an active-duty soldier, there’s always the possibility of post-traumatic stress manifesting itself – or perhaps it was something more sinister.

Even though this event apparently took place in the Auditorium Hotel as opposed to the Auditorium Annex, I’m including it because it’s just too intriguing not to share: FELL FROM WINDOW; KILLED. That’s from the October 5, 1912 edition of the New York Times. Whether Mrs. Taylor fell accidentally, was pushed, or jumped to her death, I can easily imagine this incident resulting in an extremely unhappy ghost.

Whether any of these unfortunates haunt the halls of Chicago’s hotels, I can’t say, but they certainly provide good story-telling fodder. And, since the Congress Plaza is still open for business, maybe you ought to go see if anything really does go bump in the night.

To close, I offer you an unrelated but hilarious story:

Mrs. Mack Finds Husband. NY Times October 9, 1908.

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5 responses

4 08 2010
Judith Bergdahl

Hi Meg,
This is terrific! I wanted to add that my father (Esther’s grandfather) who would have been 100 years old now, was a specialist in “Dermatology and Syphilology” as a resident at Columbia in the 1930’s. At that time, if you wanted to study what became the science of Epidemiology, you studied the spread of syphilis, and that was his original plan – after the 1919 flu epidemic, epidemiology was the place to be. Anyway, right in the middle of his training, Penecillin came into broad use, although it was discovered much earlier – in the 20’s, I think. So my father was left with Dermatology and morphed into a doctor of “diseases of the skin and Cancer of the skin” – mainly Malenoma, a very deadly cancer at that time.
The long and short if this is that “everybody” knew that Al Capone had syphilis, and one of the traits is seeing things and having hallucinations,not to mention grandiosity, violence ,and other nasty behavior. So maybe Old Al really was seeing things, etc.!
Anyway, we really enjoy the blog – and send all our best to you –
Fondly
“Esther’s Mom”

4 08 2010
Meghan Smith

Hi Esther’s Mom! ๐Ÿ˜€

I definitely think syphilis had a part in the Big Fella’s whole persona, not to mention possible ghost sightings. It would be VERY interesting to know when he contracted it, and how long it took to get to the tertiary stage of the disease. His mind was mostly gone by the end, apparently, but I bet it had been eroding for quite some time.

So interesting to hear about your dad’s early career! Was there a connection between dermatology and syphilology, or were those two separate specialties he was interested in? Given the skin component of syphilis, I could definitely see people drawing a line between the two.

I’m tickled you’re reading along! Thanks for piping up. ๐Ÿ˜€

Best,
Meg

10 08 2010
Becky

Hey Meg!

I wish I had read this BEFORE I stayed at the Congress a few weeks ago….but at least nothing freaky happened!

Also, purely for your entertainment, I may have to dig out the report I did on the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in high school.

Complete with video re-enactment.

Oh yes.

13 08 2010
William Smith

Well done! Although, I’m guessing that what Capone really did is worse then any haunting he may have done, or had done to him. If he was haunted he probably deserved it. BTW, I wonder if Capone left any descendants?

13 08 2010
Meghan Smith

Becky, I beg you to find that tape. It’s necessary for my health and happiness. ๐Ÿ˜€

Dad, I think you are correct re: Capone getting what he deserved. And I’m pretty sure there are descendants out there; he had one son, Albert Francis (nicknamed “Sonny,” which reportedly inspired Sonny Corleone’s name). He died in 2004. There was a guy a few years ago claiming to be Al’s grandson, but I’m not sure he ever proved it.

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