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Windy City Ghosts

*The following is a transcript of Season 1, Episode 4 of the Ghost and Grub Podcast.


Chicago. To some, it’s the Windy City, referencing the blustery weather which often blows off the waters of Lake Michigan, whipping around the skyscrapers and city streets.


To others, it’s the City of Big Shoulders, always bouncing back stronger despite the obstacles placed before it - a city that hosted the World’s Fair just two decades after much of its downtown was burned to the ground.


Chicago has also been referred to as the Second City, giving a nod to its status at the time as the second largest city in the US. But, when it comes to ghost sightings, Chicago is no Second City.


Each block and every corner seems to hold a new mystery or tell the tale of a spirit who for whatever reason refuses to move on. And, I don’t blame them - Chicago holds a special place in my heart as it does for so many, filled with stories of triumphs and tragedy that only a city like Chicago can tell.


Congress Hotel

(Chicago Theatre, Chicago)


History


The year is 1893. The Great Northern Railway connects Seattle with the East Coast. Auburn beats rival Alabama 32-22 in the first Iron Bowl. And, Chicago has the honor of hosting the World’s Fair, also known as the Columbian Exhibition.


Snacks like Juicy Fruit gum and Cracker Jack made their debut at the fair, as did the all-beef sausage that later became the hallmark of the Chicago-style hot dog.


The Columbian Exhibition also introduced the most iconic amusement park ride. The story goes that Chicago wanted to outdo France when it introduced the Eiffel Tower at the previous World’s Fair. Gustave Eiffel himself offered to build a tower for the Chicago World’s Fair that would rival his French masterpiece in size. However, American and Pittsburgh engineer George Washington Ferris got the job, and the Ferris Wheel made its debut to the world.


Chicago’s central location allowed many across the country to travel to the City and experience the Columbian Exhibition. Several hotels were also created at the time to accommodate the influx of visitors, including the well-known Congress Plaza Hotel.


First named the Auditorium Annex when it opened in 1893, the Congress Hotel is widely considered one of the most haunted places in Chicago.


Dozens of documented deaths have occured at the hotel over the years. So, it may be no surprise that there have been countless stories of ghost sightings at the Congress. However, there are a few that have captured the attention of many and tell the tale of some of the most popular spirits who haunt the historic hotel.


From gangsters and celebrities to US presidents and Chicago elite, the Congress has seen a number of high-profile people walk through its doors, as well as lesser-known individuals unfortunately forgotten by time but nonetheless important to the hotel’s story.


Ghostly Encounters


Many visitors to the Congress report being greeted by the ghost of a man dressed in 1920s style apparel. He is often seen in the entryway of the hotel and lobby. A harmless spirit, the apparition does not appear to interact with people and seems to disappear as quickly as he appears. Some say he’s the spirit of a former gangster. Others believe him to be the residual energy from a bygone era.


Throughout the years, employees and guests alike have also reported TVs turning on and off for no apparent reason, as well as channels randomly changing. And, regardless of how many times the issue has been investigated by professionals, no one can figure out why it happens.


Some speculate it is the ghost of a former judge who is behind the recurring shenanigans involving the TVs throughout the Congress. The story goes that he lived at the hotel, and as his health deteriorated, he would spend some of his last remaining days at the hotel playing pranks on other guests by standing outside their rooms and using his remote to manipulate their TVs. It seems the judge hasn’t left the Congress and continues his old antics to this day.


While the Congress Hotel has its fair share of ghosts who appear to have loved the hotel so much in life that they refuse to leave long after they’ve passed, there are some who may be sticking around due to the violent nature of their death.


Some have reported seeing a dark, ominous shadow of what is believed to be the ghost of U.S. Army officer Captain Louis Ostheim. He was found dead in his hotel room with a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head. After recently serving in the Spanish-American War, he suffered from night terrors. Some speculate that Ostheim shot himself unintentionally during one of those night terrors. What’s even more tragic is that Ostheim was reported to be wed the morning after he died and is the first violent death recorded at the hotel.


Another tragic story involved a man named Roy Gormley. Gormley reportedly frequented one of the ballrooms at the Congress and spent his money with reckless abandon. It’s said that one night, he paid the orchestra leader $500 to play “The Death March” - a song typically played for a soldier who had just passed. It’s reported that the band was not familiar with the song, so Gormley offered to hum the tune for them. Once the orchestra played the song, Gormley purchased a round of drinks for the entire orchestra then paid for another round in full for the band to enjoy the following week.


The story goes that once Gormely had paid for the drinks, he had officially run out of money. He went upstairs to his room at the Congress and committed suicide. From time to time, people have reported hearing someone humming in one of the ballrooms. Perhaps it’s Roy Gormley, humming the very song he paid the band to play before tragically ending his life?


There are many more incidents and goings on at the Congress, from phantom gunshots and more gangster ghosts to the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt who reportedly haunts the famed Florentine room. However, the most tragic story involves a mother and her two children who checked into the hotel but sadly never checked out.


Adele Langer and her family fled Czechoslovakia when Germany invaded Prague in 1938. The family sold nearly everything they owned for pennies in order to escape quickly, arrived in Chicago, and lived in a basement located in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. But, the family’s troubles were not over, as Adele found out her visa had expired. It’s said that the stress of living in a new country and the fear of being deported back to Czechoslovakia and into the hands of Hilter’s regime caused Adele to have a mental breakdown.


Adele checked into the Congress with her two young boys and requested a room on the 12th floor. It’s reported she pushed the boys out the window before jumping herself. Adele, as well as her children, died from the fall. Over the years, countless stories of the paranormal involve the 12th floor of the Congress, including seeing the spirit of a young boy roaming the halls.


When You Go


It has been over a hundred years since the Congress opened its doors for the visitors of the Columbian Exhibition. However, it is still today known for its charm and elegance, hosting a number of weddings and other special events each year. While staying at the Congress, ghost hunting throughout the halls is not permitted. However, many who hope to have a first-hand, ghostly encounter at the hotel will often request to stay the night on the 12th floor.


The Congress Hotel is conveniently located across from Grant Park on Michigan Avenue. Enjoy the luxury accommodations, soak in the historical significance, and keep an eye out for guests who, for whatever reason, wish to extend their stay at the Congress for eternity.


Eastland Disaster

(Reid Murdoch Building, Chicago)


Have you ever heard of the Peshtigo Fire of 1871? Chances are you haven’t. Called the most devastating forest fire in US history, the Peshtigo Fire consumed over a million acres, destroyed more than 17 towns, and killed at least 1,200 people.


Weather conditions during the fall of 1871 were ripe for fires, with the Great Chicago Fire happening on October 8, the very same day as the Peshtigo Fire, killing 300 people and doing damage to about 2,100 acres.


So, why have most of us heard of the Great Chicago Fire, but the Peshtigo Fire, happening just 300 miles away in neighboring Wisconsin? It’s relatively unknown and yet did more damage and killed more people. The answer is simple: Ever heard of Peshtigo? Most likely you haven’t and neither did most people in 1871. Afterall, Chicago was nicknamed the Second City, and because of its notoriety, the Great Chicago Fire gained more press, overshadowing the Peshtigo Fire at the time by leaps and bounds.


The same can be said about the Titanic in 1912 which took the lives of approximately 1,500 people. Only three years later, another rather unknown tragedy occurred involving a passenger ship in Chicago, killing what some estimate to be near 1,200 people.


Considered one of the worst maritime disasters in American history, the Eastland Disaster has gained more notoriety in recent years thanks to the Internet. However, it’s still largely unknown to most.


On July 24, 1915, the weather was unseasonably mild with light rain. Western Electric invited its employees and their families for a day on Lake Michigan with a stop along the beachfront in neighboring Michigan City, Indiana. The boat that was going to take them there was the SS Eastland.


The sinking of the Titanic influenced new laws requiring ships to carry enough lifeboats for everyone. The Eastland’s maximum capacity was 2,200, and lifeboats required for all of those passengers should have increased the ship’s safety. However, the Eastland already had a reputation for its top-heavy design; therefore, the additional weight from the lifeboats made the ship even more unstable.


Whatsmore, those who managed the Eastland decided that if they provided enough lifeboats for 2,500 people, they could increase the ship’s maximum capacity to that same amount. And on that cool, summer morning in 1915, the ship was scheduled to board 2,500 people and 72 crew members.


Nearly half of the passengers had boarded the Eastland when the ship began to lean back and forth while still docked along the Chicago River. As the passengers reportedly laughed and applauded each time the ship tilted, the crew below was having trouble with the ballast tanks which were used to help balance the distribution of the ship’s weight. As a result, the Eastland began to take on water.


Just then, passengers on the ship rushed to one side of the boat to watch another ship pass by, causing the Eastland’s balance to become even more unstable. Suddenly, furniture below the deck gave way to the imbalance and began sliding. The combination of passengers, heavy furniture, and water proved to be too much for the ship, and the Eastland collapsed entirely on its side and into the River.


At once, the passengers of the Eastland fell into the water. The scene was horrific, with some being pulled under the water to their deaths by other passengers trying to reach the surface. Others sank into the water immediately, being weighed down by their layers of wool clothing worn for a milder summer day. Then, there were those under the deck who were either crushed by the heavy furniture or trapped inside with no way out.


People watching the disaster unfold from land tried to help by throwing whatever they could find into the River in the hopes that it would serve as a flotation device. Unfortunately, the well-meaning actions of some turned out to be deadly, as the items crowded the water, making it even more difficult for those to swim and escape. By the time Firemen were on the scene, they found it was already too late for most. What’s even more devastating is that those who drowned did so in water that was no more than 21 feet deep.


It’s unknown how many people actually died as a result of the Eastland disaster. The number is often estimated anywhere from around 800 to nearly 1,200 people. The bodies that were recovered were transported to the first floor and basement of the Reid Murdoch Building, located along the Chicago River across from where the ship sank. After the bodies were embalmed, they were taken to the Second Regimental Armory on Randolph Street. It’s said that tens of thousands of people filled the armory, although most were there not to claim their loved ones who had perished, but showed up instead with a morbid curiosity to catch a glimpse of the dead.


At one time, the Second Regimental Armory building housed Harpo Studios - the home of the Oprah Winfrey Show. For years, those who worked in the building had reported seeing shadows in the halls, hearing children’s voices late at night, and coming face to face with the ghost of an angry male spirit.


But the most talked-about ghost at the Second Regimental Armory building is the Gray Lady. She has been reportedly seen on security cameras and throughout the hallways by many over the years. Although Harpo Studios is now gone from the building, there continue to be reports of spirits roaming the amory and surrounding area.


The Reid Murdoch building is also reported to be a hotspot for paranormal activity. Those who have worked at the restaurants and other businesses in the building throughout the years have reported countless stories of furniture and other fixtures moving on their own, as well as lights flickering on and off for no apparent reason. Others have reported seeing shadow people throughout the building and hearing voices in parts of the building where no living people can be found.


It’s easy to believe that both the Reid Murdoch and Second Regimental Armory buildings could be haunted, especially with the amount of death and emotion which passed through the buildings' doors as a result of the Eastland Disaster. But, the most terrifying accounts of paranormal activity appear to happen directly at the disaster site.


Over the years, there have been countless stories of people seeing faces and bodies in the River. Others have reported seeing someone drowning in the River, then calling 911, only for rescue workers to arrive on the scene but not finding anyone drowning or in distress.


Today, a memorial for those who lost their lives in the Eastland Disaster is placed on the corner of Wacker Drive and Lasalle Street. Visitors can also stroll along the riverwalk in the very spot where the Eastland tipped over. Although evenings can be noisy in and around the area, there is still something foreboding and quite sad about looking into the dark waters, knowing what had happened to so many who boarded the Eastland back in 1915 and had no idea of the chaos and terror that was about to ensue.


Fado Irish Pub

(Source: Courtesy of Fado Irish Pub)


History


Just blocks from the site of the Eastland Disaster stands Fado Irish Pub, located in the River North area on the corner of Clark Street and Grand Avenue. While Fado has been around since 1997, the building it operates in was constructed sometime in the 1870s after the Great Chicago Fire burned through the district.


Throughout the years, past owners have debated whether the building was located on Clark or Grand. Whatsmore, poor record keeping over the years, as well as a major renumbering of the City that began in 1909 have caused little to be known about the building and its history.


What is known is that the area Fodo is located in was not the family-friendly, tourist spot it is today. In fact, up until sometime in the 1980s, the area had a poor reputation, filled with seedy bars and strip clubs. Whatsmore, crimes that took place in the area often went undocumented.


Considering the type of unsavory individuals who might have inhabited the space in and around the Fado building, it’s no surprise the energy left over from that time may have lingered. However, there is one incident which may help explain Fado Irish Pub’s reputation for paranormal activity, as well as the ghost who haunts it.


Ghostly Encounters


The apparition of a woman is often seen in a nightgown, particularly on the second floor of the building. She is also sometimes seen in the ladie’s restroom on the same floor. Despite little history of the area, there are records of a woman who lived above a tavern at what is believed to be the very spot where Fado sits today. In 1898, she was reportedly murdered in the middle of the night. Could the woman be the ghost often seen by employees and patrons today? It certainly is possible.


It’s also worth noting that on its website, Fado proudly mentions its interior was designed and constructed in Ireland, including a reclaimed bar from Dublin that is hundreds of years old. A widely agreed upon idea within the paranormal community is that spirits can attach themselves to objects. So, the question is: are the owners of Fado dealing with a centuries old ghost from Ireland or the spirits who once roamed the streets of Chicago? No one knows for sure, and until we find out, the stories will have to suffice.


What to Order

(Source: Courtesy of Fado Irish Pub)


I love pub food, and Fado Irish Pub is definitely the kind of place for a great beer and some small plates to share with friends. But, what I like most about Fado’s menu is that it changes with the seasons, offering the perfect mix of traditional Irish fare with American favorites. The drink selection is also worth noting, offering a large domestic and international beer selection, craft cocktails, and - you guessed it - some of the best Irish whiskey.


The restaurants in the River North area can get busy during peak times, so I recommend maybe stopping in for a late lunch or early dinner. For an appetizer, the Guinness BBQ wings are a must - enough for two people unless you’re super hungry. And, if that’s the case, I’d also order the smoked salmon bites.


For the main dish, it’s always Fado’s signature fish and chips for me which goes perfectly with a good black and tan. However, if you’re looking for a delicious non-seafood option, you can’t go wrong with the pub’s corned beef and cabbage, served in a white wine mustard sauce with plenty of potatoes and carrots.


Chicago Day Trip


I created Ghost and Grub because I’m passionate about making an evening, full day, or even an entire weekend out of experiencing the spooky side of any travel destination. Therefore, next time you’re in Chicago, be sure to grab an early dinner at Fado, then get tickets to any one of the number of ghost tours throughout the City. Afterwards, take a stroll along the riverwalk near the Eastland Disaster and check out the memorial. Finally, stay on the 12th floor of the Congress for a good night’s sleep. However, the ghosts may have other plans, giving you a real night to remember. Sleep tight.


Tell Us Your Story


If you own a haunted restaurant, bar, or hotel, or have visited one of the locations mentioned in this episode send us a note at hello@ghostandgrub.com. Your story could be featured in an upcoming episode.


Until next time, stay hungry for all-things haunted.


References


History.com Editors. “Chicago Fire of 1871.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 4 Mar. 2010, https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/great-chicago-fire.


Peshtigo Fire Museum, Peshtigo Historical Society, 2019, https://www.peshtigofiremuseum.com/.


Selzer, Adam. The Ghosts of Chicago: The Windy City's Most Famous Haunts. Llewellyn Publications, 2013.


“The 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.” Chicagos 1893 Worlds Fair, 15 Nov. 2020, https://worldsfairchicago1893.com/.


“The History: What Happened.” Eastland Disater, Eastland Disaster Historical Society, https://eastlanddisaster.org.