A year or so ago, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial about how nice it would be if CHICAGO could get wrecked by a hurricane so we could redo the school system without a teachers’ union, like New Orleans. It was, perhaps, the most tasteless piece they’d published in decades, and widely noted as such.
But no one seemed to point out the general lack of class after the Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903, when an illustration in the paper labeled the alley behind the theater as “The Alley of Death and Mutilation.” How many people died in that fire is not really known, but it’s in the range of 600—the theater had cut every corner and was probably filled about 10% over its capacity (when a fire marshall tells a political candidate they can’t cram more people into a rally, that’s not a conspiracy—they’re just doing their jobs). No one was ever convicted of wrongdoing, except a man named Louis Witz who was caught stealing a couple hundred bucks and a watch off one of the corpses.
The alley was the first ghost tour stop I ever saw, back when I first came along on a tour as part of a job interview. At the time, I was told that the place was called “Death Alley” (sources from 1904 used that occasionally); it was only when I dug up the old Tribune archives that I found the longer name.
Shortly thereafter, a story started going around that serial killer John Wayne Gacy had picked up most of his 1970s victims in the alley after meeting them in the Trailways bus station that ran along the alley. It’s not at all true (his main pickup ground was Bughouse Square, which also appears in the book), but I know just how it started. A tour guide (not me) heard that Gacy met a victim at the Greyhound Station at Randolph and Dearborn, which is right near the alley. When that guide (again, it wasn’t me) found out that the bus station that ran adjacent to the alley was really Trailways, he transferred the story across the road and added considerably to the number of victims. The same guide took the story of Louis Witz (which he might have just heard a vague version of) and said that the one man convicted was Mr. Thompson, owner of the Thompson’s restaurant nearby, who had been caught stealing gold fillings from dead bodies’ teeth.
All of this is sort of instructive in how ghost stories grow and develop. You start with a true story, but people telling ghost stories can seldom resist exaggerating a bit, and then people get attached to the fake story enough that they don’t want to hear that it’s not true, so the fake story becomes the official one—the one TV shows will insist on telling.
You see this a lot in other stories, as well. Take HH Holmes, the guy from Devil in the White City who is said to have killed hundreds of World’s Fair patrons in his “murder castle” from 1893. Nearly everything written about the guy in the last century is based on two or three very bad sources, and has almost no basis in fact – the version that’s become the “official” story of Holmes essentially takes every theory the police and the tabloids dreamed up in the 1890s (most of which were either debunked at the time or too outrageous and out of sync with known facts to take seriously in the first place), and assuming that they’re all true. I don’t know how many TV shows have contacted me about Holmes and cut off all contact as soon as I tell them where the stories really came from. The real story is no longer the official one.
They sometimes call this the Roswell Syndrome—a pattern happens with a lot of supernatural and “strange history” stories. A strange story is reported, then debunked or explained away, then goes underground for a few decades before re-emerging, stranger than ever and having taken on a life of its own.
But even when you strip away all the BS, there’s a good enough story back at the root of it that you don’t really NEED the exaggerations. The Chicago Tribune really did call this The Alley of Death and Mutilation on Dec 31, 1903, and hundreds of people died there in a fire that killed roughly twice as many people as the Great Chicago Fire had a generation earlier. And people have been telling ghost stories about it ever since.
Adam Selzer lived in Des Moines back before it was cool, then tried out a series of small Georgia towns that will probably never be cool before settling in Chicago. In addition to several books on Chicago history and ghostlore, he’s the author of several young adult and middle grade novels, including How To Get Suspended and Influence People (which is part of the ALA’s Banned Books Week packet), I Kissed a Zombie and I liked It, and Sparks (under the name SJ Adams, a Stonewall Honor book for 2013). He has seen Bob Dylan in concert more than forty times, holds a world record for “Most Richard Nixon jokes in a Children’s Book,” and often performs music, both solo and with various bands, at science fiction conventions. Visit him online at AdamSelzer.com.