Wednesday, April 30, 2014



On April 20, 1904, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition – the 1904 World’s Fair – opened to the masses in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a time of a great celebration and the chance for the city to finally come into its own. It was no longer the frontier outpost that provided the gateway to the Wild West – it was now a glittering, modern place, ready to take its place on the world stage.

The Louisiana Exposition was proclaimed as the “greatest World’s Fair to ever be held.” St. Louis had campaigned hard for an earlier fair in 1893 but the Columbian Exposition had gone to Chicago. The loss of this event instilled a great desire on the part of the eminent citizens of St. Louis, especially David R. Francis, who would soon be elected governor of Missouri, to snag the next gala event to come along. A few years later, people began to talk of a fair to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase in 1904. What better place to have it than in St. Louis, the Gateway to the West? Civil leaders pledged to raise $15 million to the event, the same amount Jefferson paid for the Louisiana Purchase, and the 1904 World’s Fair came to St. Louis.

After lengthy debate, the western side of Forest Park was chosen as the site of the fair. Businessmen of the south side of the city, especially the powerful brewers like William Lemp and Adolphus Busch, were very unhappy with the decision, stating their part of the city was a more attractive and viable location, mostly thanks to the proximity of the Mississippi River, but their lobby was unsuccessful. It would not be until the construction of the Jefferson Hotel and the improvement of streetcars and other city services that much enthusiasm could be raised about the fair being held on the west side. By 1903, though, ninety-four hotels had been built to meet the needs of fair attendees and fifteen more were completed by April 1904.

The section of the park that was chosen for the fair covered a little more than six hundred and fifty acres but it was soon obvious that more land would be needed. Additional tracts were leased from the new, but unoccupied, Washington University campus and this nearly doubled the size of the fairgrounds. Preparations ran at a feverish pitch for several years and as the actual centennial date of April 1903 approached, it was obvious that the fair was not going to open on time. A dedication was held anyway on April 30, 1903 with thousands of troops parading through the grounds and President Theodore Roosevelt on hand to deliver the opening address. Right after that, everything was shut down again and Congress granted the request for a postponement of one year to 1904. This gave the organizers more time to obtain foreign exhibits and to get more companies to plan displays.

By the cold spring of 1904, the Exposition was ready to open. Organizers began to panic, though, on April 20 when a late snowstorm slowed all of the operations. Luckily, the snow was cleared away and on April 30, the fair opened. The (second) Opening Day ceremony was held in the Plaza of St. Louis and included prayer, music and an assortment of speeches. John Phillip Sousa led his band and a choir of four hundred performed a song called “Hymn of the West,” which had been written for the occasion. William Howard Taft, the United States Secretary of War, made the principal address and Mayor David Francis touched a gold telegraph key that alerted President Roosevelt to officially start the fair. At that same moment, ten thousand flags unfurled, fountains began to spray geysers into the air and the fairgrounds opened to almost twenty million visitors from around the world over the course of the next seven months.

The Grand Basin at the 1904 World’s Fair

The architecture and design that went into the fair was breathtaking. A few years before, Peninsular Lake in the park had been re-shaped and re-designed. The lake acquired a new name, the Grand Basin, and it was connected throughout the park with lagoons to provide waterways for boating during the festivities. Above the lake, on the natural semi-circular hill now known as Art Hill, was the Festival Hall, the centerpiece of the fair and one of its foremost attractions. It had a gold-leaf dome that was larger than the one atop St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On each side were smaller pavilions from which three cascades of water descended 400 feet from the top of the hill to the lake. Along the cascades were large staircases that were adorned with statues, benches and landscaped gardens.

Another view of the Fair

The Colonnade of States, linking Festival Hall and the many fair pavilions, was flanked by giant seated figures, seven on each side, each representing a state that had been carved from the Louisiana Purchase. Eight ornate exhibition palaces surrounded the Great Basin. These included Mines and Metallurgy, Liberal Arts, Education and Social Economy, Manufacturing, Electricity, Varied Industries, Transportation and Machinery. The building that housed the Palace of Machinery had parking space for the 140 automobiles that had been driven to the fair from as far away as Boston. That fact alone was almost as much a marvel as the other wonders of the fair. Long-distance driving was still in its infancy and it was only the year before, in 1903, that an automobile had been driven from coast to coast for the first time. Each of the exhibition palaces was different in design and all were massive in size, each covering several acres.

Although the buildings were detailed, highly decorated and looked as though they had been built to stand forever, they were actually made from temporary, insubstantial materials. They had been constructed from what was called “staff,” a mixture of fibers such as burlap and manila fibers soaked in gypsum plaster, commonly known as plaster of Paris. The hardened material was very adaptable and could be used just like wood. By pouring staff into molds, many ornamental pieces that appeared to be carved by hand in marble could be achieved in a short time. The structure under the staff was always steel or wood so that the buildings didn’t simply collapse.

The Palace of Art

A few of the fair structures were meant to be permanent. One of these was the Palace of Art, constructed of limestone. The building that would be used by more than twenty nations to house priceless works of art during the exposition. Two temporary buildings flanked the center one and a smaller sculpture building was located on the south, creating a beautiful courtyard between them. The temporary buildings were removed after the fair and the Art Palace was donated to the city and today houses the St. Louis Art Museum.

The area of the park now occupied by the St. Louis Zoo was called the Plateau of States, where many states erected houses to greet visitors and to show off their individual attractions. Some of the buildings were replicas of important historic sites like the Cabildo of New Orleans where the Louisiana Purchase had been signed, Tennessee’s Hermitage and Virginia’s Monticello. Missouri, the host state, constructed a lavishly decorated building made entirely of native materials. It was designed to be permanent, with a large dome and a heating and cooling system, something that no other building on the fairgrounds could boast at the time. Unfortunately, on November 19, just two weeks before the end of the fair, the building and all of its contents were destroyed by fire. The fire was caused by faulty electric wiring. Electric lighting, still in its infancy in 1904, was a requirement in all the buildings for its decorative effect. Some of the furnishings were saved from the blaze and are on display today in the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City. No attempt was made to replace the structure.

The U.S. Fisheries building was one of the fair’s most popular attractions. It had forty glass-fronted fish tanks that surrounded a center pool for seals. Nearby was the Bird Cage, the largest of its kind ever built. It was created by the Smithsonian Institution to allow sightseers to walk through the cage and interact with the numerous species of birds inside. After the fair, the cage was donated to the city and it became a part of the St. Louis Zoo. Visitors can still experience it today.

The Grand Basin was the focal point of the fair’s activities. Boat parades were held daily along the lagoons and waterways that led away from the Basin and flowed between the exhibition buildings. North of the Basin was the Plaza of St. Louis, where the official proceedings were held. The Plaza was graced with a tall monument for the Louisiana Purchase and the statue of St. Louis. Stretching away from the Plaza was Louisiana Way, the main thoroughfare of the grounds. On one side of it was the United States building and on the other was the French Palace, honoring the two countries involved in the Louisiana Purchase.

The Agricultural Palace and its great Floral Clock

The hill to the west of Forest Park provided a space large enough for the agricultural exhibits and the largest building on the fairgrounds, the Agriculture Palace. It was here that brewers and distillers from around the country showcased their wares. The Agriculture Palace had an eastern facade that was one-third of a mile long. The area was covered with displays showing various types of grasses, pools containing water plants, and windmills. Livestock shows took place there every day. Near the north entrance to the Agriculture Palace was a giant floral clock that was one hundred and twelve feet in diameter. It was made from flowers and foliage and had giant hands that were operated by compressed air. The hands were controlled by a master clock in a small pavilion at the top of the clock at the number twelve. The gardens were illuminated at night with thousands of lights hidden in the foliage, a breathtaking sight when artificial lighting was still a novelty. Thomas Edison himself was brought to the fair to oversee the proper installation of the electrical exhibits.
Washington University’s new campus not only provided much of the space needed for the fair, but it also served as the model for the ideal university. The Administrations Building (Brookings Hall) was the site of all the official meetings and the receptions for important guests. Other buildings furnished space for exhibits and offices and meeting rooms. At the western end of the campus, the athletic fields and gymnasium were used for an elaborate physical culture program and also for the Olympic games of 1904.
At the eastern end of the campus were halls representing foreign countries, including China, Sweden, Brazil and others. The British Building was a copy of Queen Anne’s Orangery at Kensington Gardens. After the fair it was purchased by the university and for years it housed the School of Fine Arts. The college abandoned the building in 1926 when the school was moved into the new Bixby Hall.

A scene from the Philippines Reservation, where fair-goers could observe the “exotic” life of “primitive” people

Perhaps the most fascinating of the exhibits at the fair to turn-of-the-century visitors was the Philippines Reservation. This was the largest and most expensive of the foreign displays and it brought eleven hundred Filipinos to live in St. Louis for almost seven months. One of the goals of the fair’s Anthropological Division was to show Americans how people of “exotic” cultures lived. The U.S. had taken control over the Philippines from Spain in 1898 and people were curious to see the various communities of “primitive” people set up on forty-seven acres around Arrowhead Lake. Each tribe constructed its own village of thatched huts and houses on stilts along the water. The tribe’s customs and homes fascinated visitors and in turn, the Filipinos were enthralled by the trappings of modern society. One tribal chief created a problem when he refused to let his tribe be viewed until a telephone was installed in his hut. Another tribe caused a scandal with their demand for dogs, the main staple of their diet.

The Pike – one of the most exciting and popular attractions at the fair

What most people remembered when they later recalled the 1904 World’s Fair was the Pike, an inviting one-mile section along the northern edge of the fairgrounds. This area was like a giant amusement park with concessions and attractions that had not yet become standard at fairs everywhere. It was here that hotdogs and ice cream cones were first sampled. Fairgoers were introduced to “fairy floss,” a new treat that was to become known as cotton candy. The fair popularized peanut butter and Dr. Pepper, billed as a “health drink.” The forerunner of the ice pop also made its first appearance at the Pike. Known as the “fruit icicle,” it was made of fruit juice frozen in a narrow tin tube. Another welcome “first’ from the Pike was iced tea. It was first served almost as a fluke. A tea house was having a hard time selling hot tea on summer days and one of the employees suggested that they try serving it over crushed ice.

A postcard of the Tyrolean Alps concession at the fair, where St. Louis brewers introduced their superior beers to fair-goers from all around the country

The attractions of the Pike undoubtedly influenced the design of future fairs and amusement parks, just as the White City at the Columbian Exposition in 1893 had influenced the St. Louis event. At the eastern end of the Pike was the spectacular Tyrolean Alps concession, which had been created by the brewers of St. Louis. A castle had been built, along with other structures, to create the illusion of life in the Alps. There were yodelers, musical shows, and a storybook Alpine village. The massive manmade mountain range was crowned with real snow. Visitors could take a train ride into the mountains and dine in the Great Hall, where many official gatherings were held. President Roosevelt was honored there at a banquet given by the brewers. An elevator took guests to the peaks of the Ortler, where a waterfall tumbled into the lake. The whole exhibit was a stunning display created from humble paint, canvas, rock and plaster. It left quite an impression on fairgoers, most of whom would never have the opportunity to visit the real Alps. It also sold enormous quantities of cold beer, which was what it had been designed to do.

Next to the Alps was an Irish village with reproductions of medieval buildings. It featured a restaurant, a facsimile of Blarney Castle, and a theater where visitors could enjoy a show. Also on the Pike was Hagenbeck’s Animal Paradise, which attracted large crowds in those days before modern zoos. There, visitors could see bears and an assortment of exotic animals.

All types of foreign cultures were represented, as were displays about topics as diverse as the deadly Galveston flood, the North Pole and the Siberian wastelands. When visitors had enough of education, they could enjoy entertainment. Fairgoers could catch a performance by a little-known comedian named Will Rogers or hear the new ragtime music, which originated in St. Louis. Scott Joplin, one of the most famous ragtime composers, wrote “Cascade Rag” in honor of the fair. Other rags at the time were “On the Pike” and “Strolling Down the Pike.” In addition to hearing the strains of “Meet Me in St. Louie,” visitors might experience the Magic Whirlpool, the Water Chutes or the Scenic Railway.

The great Ferris Wheel from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago was used again in St. Louis for the 1904 fair. When the fair ended, the wheel was destroyed and buried beneath Forest Park.

There was no greater ride at the fair than the immense Observation Wheel. The two hundred and fifty foot-high wheel was created by George Ferris, an engineer who debuted his creation at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The “Ferris Wheel” was so successful that it was brought to St. Louis. Sadly, the wheel never left the city at the end of the fair. It was scheduled to be taken to Coney Island but the demolition contractor for the fair found it to be too much trouble to disassemble. So, he dynamited it and sold the scrap for $1,800. The original wheel became the model for all such attractions to follow, but there has never been another of such gigantic proportions.

The visitors came throughout the summer and into the fall of 1904. But as December approached, a sense of sadness filled the air. The Exposition closed down at midnight on December 1. From early morning right up until the time the clock struck midnight, thousands gathered to stroll the Pike one last time and to pay homage to David Francis, the man responsible for bringing the fair to the city. Schools and businesses closed for the day. It was like a carnival that was tinged with grief. The fair’s closing night became one of the wildest nights ever witnessed in St. Louis with the authorities on high alert, should the celebration turn overly buoyant.

As the midnight hour approached, Mayor Francis made a final speech from the Plaza of St. Louis and then he threw a switch that plunged the entire fairgrounds into darkness. A band played “Auld Lang Syne” and then suddenly the air was filled with blinding fireworks as “Farewell” was spelled out, followed by “Good Night.”

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 had come to an end.

The destruction of the fairgrounds began on December 2. Demolition was started by the Chicago Housewrecking Company, which had been awarded the $450,000 contract to remove the fair buildings. Even though the fair was officially closed, visitors were able to view the demolition for a twenty-five cent admission. The demolition process produced mountains of staff, the fiber and plaster of Paris material from which nearly all of the pavilions had been constructed. Useful only for landfill, it was hauled away over miles of railroad tracks that had been laid down before the fair for the construction and removal of the buildings on the grounds. The tracks were covered with asphalt during the fair and then opened again to remove the debris when the fair ended.

The exhibition buildings were removed quickly, as the contract specified that the demolition be completed within six months, but many of the concessions on the Pike remained in place for months. Some of the buildings were so unusual that it was believed that buyers could be found for them.  One of them, a cabin that once belonged to General Ulysses S. Grant had been moved to the fairgrounds to be used by the Blanke Coffee Company. No one knew what to do with it at the end of the fair but it was finally purchased by Adolphus Busch and moved to Gravois Road. It is now a part of the Anheuser-Busch company attraction, Grant’s Farm.

The buildings representing the various states and countries were the easiest to get rid of. Many of the ones made from permanent materials were purchased and hauled to nearby sites for use as homes. The New Jersey building was moved to Kirkwood, where it served as an apartment building for a time. The New Hampshire house, after undergoing alterations, became a home on Litzinger Road. The Oklahoma structure was taken to El Reno, Oklahoma, where it became an Elks Lodge. The Michigan and Minnesota structures became permanent fair buildings in their home states. The New Mexico building became a public library in Santa Fe. The Iowa building become an asylum for alcoholics. Belgium’s building was purchased by Anheuser-Busch and was used for many years as the company’s glass works. The Swedish building was taken to Lindsborg, Kansas, where it became the Art Department for Bethany College. The fifty-foot statue of Vulcan, a donation from the city of Birmingham, Alabama, was removed to its home city on seven freights cars and while it rusted in storage for years, it was later restored on Red Mountain overlooking the city. Many other statues from the fair were given to the city of St. Louis and were assigned to parks and public places.

An attempt was made to preserve the Pike as a permanent attraction in St. Louis, with the reproduction of the Alps being the major benefit of the plan. However, officials at Washington University viewed an amusement center of this sort as being too big a distraction for the students and lobbied against the idea. Adolphus Busch finally purchased the Alps, planning to install them as an attraction in Forest Park, along with a summer theater. This plan never came about and eventually the mountain range was destroyed.

Although little remains from the fair in the city today, the Louisiana Exposition has never been forgotten. Never again would a World’s Fair be held that had the magnitude of the St. Louis Fair and while others would follow, the magnificence of that brief season in 1904 would leave a lasting mark on the country, and perhaps the world.

Friday, April 25, 2014



The story of the kidnapping and murder of a young girl named Elsie Paroubek in the spring of 1911 is almost a forgotten tale in the annals of Chicago crime. Few but the most dedicated historians remember much about the case today, but at the time, her disappearance and the subsequent search for her involved law enforcement officials from three states and galvanized the people of Chicago. Nearly everyone was transfixed by the newspaper articles dedicated to the story – a story that did not have a happy ending.

To this day, the murder of Elsie Paroubek has never been solved.  

Eliška "Elsie" Paroubek’s mother was born Karolína Vojáček in November 1869, in Míčov, East Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. Elsie's father, František (Frank) Paroubek, was born in Bohemia in 1867. At the age of 15, he came to the United States, but later returned to Bohemia for a ten-year span between 1882 and 1892. He and Karolina were married in Bohemia in 1892 and returned to America. Frank worked as a painter while Karolina took care of their home and raised a large brood of children. Eliška (Elsie) was their seventh child. She was a happy child with light, golden hair, blue eyes and a ready smile.

The only known photograph of Elsie Paroubek

On the morning of April 8, 1911, five-year-old Elsie left her home at 2320 South Albany Avenue in Chicago, telling her mother that she was going to visit “Auntie,” who was Mrs. Frank Trampota, who lived around the corner at 2325 South Troy Street. Turning left on 22nd Street, then left again on Troy, she met her nine-year-old cousin, Josie Trampota, and a number of other children who were listening to an organ grinder on the street. When the organ grinder moved on to the corner of 23rd Street, the children followed him past Mrs. Trampota’s gate – except for Elsie, who stayed behind. At that point, no one realized that she was missing.

 Several hours later, Elsie’s mother followed her daughter to the Trampota house. When she arrived at her sister’s, Karolina learned that Elsie had never arrived. Because the little girl had many friends in the neighborhood, the women assumed that she must be visiting at another home, perhaps even spending the night and returning in the morning. At 9:00 p.m. that evening, Frank Paroubek came home from work and learned about Elsie’s absence. He was not as unconcerned as his wife and sister-in-law and went immediately to the Hinman Street police station to report her missing. Initially, the police agreed that it was likely she was staying with friends, but when Elsie had not returned home the next morning, Captain John Mahoney took personal charge of the search for the missing girl.

Detectives from several stations canvassed the neighborhood and suspects soon emerged. A boy named John Jirowski told detectives from the Maxwell Street station, led by Inspector Stephen K. Healey, that he had seen a “gypsy” wagon (identified as Romani people in some accounts) on Kedzie Avenue, a block west of Troy Street. There were two women on the wagon and one of them was holding a little girl. The police knew of several gypsy camps along the Des Plaines River, near Kedzie, and went down to speak with the residents. They told investigators that one wagon had decamped and left on the morning of April 9. While the idea of being “stolen by gypsies” sounds far-fetched today, the theory was plausible at the time because Elsie’s disappearance was almost identical to that of a girl named Lillian Wulff, who had been found with gypsies four years earlier.

A gypsy family photographed in Chicago around 1911

 Meanwhile, Frank Paroubek had offered his life savings of $50 (about $1,165 today) as a reward for the girl’s return. Detectives from Maxwell Street searched the Italian neighborhoods around West 14th and South Halsted Streets, where it was reported that a girl fitting Elsie’s description had been seen with an organ grinder. Inspector Healey ordered that the drainage canals be dragged for the child’s body on April 12, and again on April 15, and Illinois Governor Dan S. Deneen asked the public to assist with the search. Soon, there were thousands of people on the lookout for the little girl – but she was nowhere to be found.

Frank Paroubek, accompanied by Detectives Komorous and Sheehan, went in search of the departed gypsy wagon, which was originally believed to be headed for Round Lake, Illinois, a small town about 50 miles northwest of Chicago. There were about seven wagons encamped there at the time and local farmers were alerted to be on the watch for Elsie. Unfortunately, many of them took it upon themselves to question the gypsies and attempt to search their wagons. In the middle of the night, they broke camp, now headed for Volo, Illinois. Volo residents reported a child matching Elsie’s description with the gypsies, adding that she appeared to be “stupefied” or “drugged” and partly covered with a blanket. They also attempted to search the wagons, but the gypsies again escaped and departed for McHenry, Illinois, about 60 miles from Chicago. When the police finally caught up with them at McHenry, they discovered the little girl was a gypsy and did not match Elsie at all, other than they were about the same size and age. 

According to the police, the gypsies often kidnapped small children because of the “natural love of the wandering people for blue-eyed, yellow-haired children.” The Chicago Daily News consistently described Elsie as small, “having long curly golden hair, blue eyes and pink chubby cheeks, with a prominent dimple in each. At the time she disappeared she wore a red hat, a red dress, black stockings and high top black boots.”

The entire city was on the lookout for the girl. On April 17, Police Captain Mahoney received an anonymous telephone call saying that a child of Elsie’s description had been seen with a man at a hotel in Western Springs, Illinois. Again, detectives dispatched to the hotel found nothing. In Sycamore, Illinois, the local police chief accompanied Frank Paroubek when he investigated several gypsy wagons at Cherry Valley. But they found no children resembling Elsie. Meanwhile, Hinman Street police officers fielded reporters' questions about a $500 ransom note received by Karolina. They "denied official knowledge of the communication, but admitted it might be true.” Nothing ever came of the alleged ransom note.

Lillian Wulff, who advised police on how to proceed in case Elsie Paroubek had been stolen by gypsies.

In the second week after Elsie’s disappearance, Lillian Wulff, now age 11, came to the police to offer her assistance. She had been the subject of an identical manhunt four years earlier when she had been stolen by gypsies and forced to work for six days as a beggar. She was recovered after being spotted by a farmer as she was walking behind a gypsy wagon outside Momence, Illinois. Lillian provided what details she could about the typical behavior of the gypsies and offered to lead a “rescue party” if Elsie was found. One of the men who had kidnapped Lillian was tracked down in prison and suggested that the police contact Elijah George – the “King of the Gypsies” -- for help. George was found in Argyle, Wisconsin and brought to Joliet, but “failed to give the desired information” and was released. At this point, Inspector Healey again ordered the drainage canal dragged, along with a search of wells, cisterns and other places into which Elsie might have fallen. 

By April 30, Elsie had been missing for three weeks and the city was in an uproar. The superintendent of schools, Mrs. Ella Flagg Young, requested that all of the schoolchildren in the Chicago area organized neighborhood searchers during their spring break. Around this same time, Frank Paroubek, out of desperation, consulted a psychic medium, who said that Elson was in Argo, Wisconsin. Chicago politician Charles J. Vopicka sent officers to the area that she indicated, but there was no sign of the girl. The search went from Illinois to Wisconsin, from Wisconsin to Minnesota and then back again to Illinois – but with no luck.

In the midst of the investigation, something sinister was going on. A few days after Elsie had vanished, Frank Paroubek began receiving anonymous letters from an unknown source. The letters, described as “insulting,” were all written in English, which he could not read. He asked neighbors to translate. The letters claimed that Elsie had been taken by someone who “hated” the Paroubeks and accused the family of mistreating her. Frank was so angry about the accusations that he burned the letters. Regardless, detectives attempted to follow up on the lead. 

The Czech community in Chicago rallied to support the family. All Czech-speaking policemen were put into plainclothes and assigned to the investigation. The women’s auxiliary of the Club Bohemia also helped with the search, creating what they called an “endless chain letter,” which was mailed to every party of the city, asking that recipients mail copies to everyone they knew. Various Czech-American politicians became involved and the Bohemian Charitable Association offered a $500 reward. Other reward offers poured in. Governor Deneen asked the legislature to revise the statutes so that a reward could be offered by the state of Illinois. At that time, state laws did not allow the offering of a reward for the apprehension of kidnappers, as it did for murderers. Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr. contributed $25 ($600 in today’s money) to a personal reward fund that was set up. Anton Cermak, then a Chicago alderman, stated that if Elsie was not found by the next city council meeting on May 1, he would call upon the city council to offer an even larger reward.

The police were overwhelmed with calls. Every time a girl in a red dress was sighted in a gypsy camp, the tip was called into the police. By May 1, though, investigators had all but abandoned the idea that Elsie had been stolen by gypsies and returned to their efforts of searching wells and dragging rivers and canals. Judge Joseph Sabath objected to what he said was a lackluster search. He claimed that the police hunt was becoming "listless" because Elsie's parents were poor. He had been receiving contributions to the reward fund from all over the country and increased his own contribution to $100.

Meanwhile, Detectives Zahour and Zalasky were still searching for the writer of the letters that had been sent to the Paroubeks. They believed that the man lived near Madison and Robey Streets and that he knew more about the disappearance than he was saying. Lieutenant Costello, supported by Inspector Healey, flatly declared: "Elsie Paroubek fell into the drainage canal from the Kedzie Avenue Bridge or near it. She was not murdered." They believed the author of the letters witnessed her fall. Their search turned up no trace of him, however.

The search of the gypsy camps continued. By May 7, twenty-five camps had been searched and several false leads had turned up nothing. Police Captain Mahoney sadly announced his belief that Elsie was dead, but vowed that the police would continue to search for her body.

The drainage canal near Lockport in 1911

The search didn’t last much longer. Two days later, an electrical engineer named George T. Scully, along with other employees of the Lockport power plant near Joliet, discovered a body floating in the drainage canal. At first they thought it was an animal from one of the nearby farms, but three hours later, realizing that it looked like a child, they sent out a boat to bring it to shore. Undertaker William Goodale, who was called to examine the body, said that it appeared to fit the description of Elsie Paroubek: "The description tallied to the shade of the hair, the texture of the stockings, and the stuff and tint of the dress of little Elsie.” He stated that he believed the body had been in the water for several weeks. It was badly decomposed and original reports said there were “no marks of violence” on the body.

Goodale notified Chicago authorities, who sent Police Lieutenant Costello to the Paroubek home. When she saw the grim-faced policeman on her doorstep, hat in hand, Karolina Paroubek cried out, “Mé drahé dítě!” (My dear child!) and she begged to be told Elsie was alive. Frank was taken to the Goodale funeral home at midnight. He said, "The clothes look like Elsie's. But the face -- I can't recognize it. Her mother alone can tell.”

The next morning, Karolina was brought to the Lockport undertaker’s parlor by trolley car and she positively identified the dead girl as her daughter. She was quoted, “It's you, my darling. Thank God we've found you and you're not in the hands of the gypsies.” For the next hour, she paced back and forth or sat nervously with her husband in an adjoining room. Frank held her hands and they wept and prayed together. Goodale, who had followed the investigation into the girl’s disappearance in the newspapers, made a statement to the police: “The body appears to have been in the water for about a month, which would tally with the date of Elsie Paroubek's disappearance. The child, when she left home, was without hat, and her clothing tallies in every respect with that found on the dead body. There was no ring or other ornament, and in that respect the descriptions correspond. Excepting only as to the color of the eyes, which cannot be clearly observed as to color, the descriptions are identical.”

Arrangements were made for an inquest, with Coroner William Wunderlich of Will County presiding. Frank Paroubek was called as the first witness. Disregarding questions asked of him by the coroner, Paroubek insisted that his daughter had been murder. Through a translator, he told the jury, “I am sure the gypsies stole my girl and then when they knew we were after them they killed her and threw her body into the canal.”

At this assertion, chaos broke out in the jury room. Karolina began screaming and ran from the funeral parlor where the inquest was being held, shouting, “My Elsie is dead! She was murdered, murdered!” Her husband and Detective Zelasky tried to calm her down but in her extreme distress, she started running up and down the street, drawing a crowd of curious onlookers. She insisted that she had known for three weeks that “gypsies” had killed Elsie and that the police had done nothing about it. Frank eventually was able to calm her down and assisted her in boarding a trolley car for home.

The results of the inquest were inconclusive. Coroner Wunderlich stated, “This case has attracted such attention that a minute examination will be made. We will be content with no perfunctory inquest such as this. The jury will refuse to state its convictions -- for it has none -- until after the autopsy has been held. We want the stomach of the little girl examined, and the lungs as well. The father charges murder. It is certainly possible that he is right.”

During the autopsy, two physicians, E.A. Kingston and W.R. Paddock, confirmed that Elsie had not drowned – there was no water in her lungs. Kingston said that she had been “attacked” (a euphemism for rape) and murdered before her body was placed in the water. Paddock said that there was evidence that she had been “wounded” before she was killed. Lieutenant Costello later told the press that she had been “mistreated,” which seemed to indicate that her death had not been the work of gypsies. They also found “deep cuts” on the left side of her face. Although these doctors reported “blue marks on the throat as though the victim had been choked,” another examination by Dr. E.R. LeCount and Dr. Warren H. Hunter of the Coroner’s Office revealed that Elsie had been suffocated, not strangled. The official cause of death was listed as “unknown.” Coroner Peter Hoffman agreed with Frank Paroubek as to the probably circumstances of Elsie’s death – the little girl had been murdered, he believed.

Coroner Hoffman announced, “It is our belief that the abductor of the child suffocated her to death -- possibly by putting a hand over her mouth." The coroner's report recommended that officials continue to investigate. Inspector Healey immediately detailed detectives on a case that had changed from a missing girl to a murdered one. He told reporters, “We have one or two theories, but nothing specific enough to talk about. I intend to place more men on the case tomorrow.” Meanwhile, Lieutenant Costello returned to investigating the anonymous letters that were sent to the Paroubeks, believing them to be the key to solving the case.

On the evening of May 9, Karolina was considerably calmer and gave an interview to reporters at her home. Surrounded by friends and neighbors, she told them, "Before the doctors found that Elsie's lungs were free from water and discovered reasons for believing she had been strangled, I knew she had been murdered. A picture of the crime has been in my mind since the second week of her disappearance, and I am convinced that when the truth is known, as it surely will be, it will be shown that she was choked to death a week from April 8, when she was kidnapped on her way to visit her 'auntie.'" Karolina urged the police to find and punish the killers.

Judge Joseph Sabath

Unfortunately, the poor family had other matters to deal with – Elsie’s funeral, which they could not afford. Karolina told Judge Sabath that the search had exhausted all of the money the family had and there was nothing left to bury her with. The judge gave her a check for $25 and promised to raise more funds. Friends and family members pitched in and gave money and also raised more money for the reward fund. Mrs. Sophie Johanes raised over $50 by giving a benefit party and soliciting donations from Bohemians on the West Coast.

Elsie’s funeral was held on May 12, on the front lawn of the Paroubek home. Hours before it was scheduled to begin, mourners and onlookers began to gather, numbering almost 3,000. They crowded into the yard, around the house, along balconies and on porches of nearby homes. There was no hall in the neighborhood large enough to hold them all. The Paroubeks had been offered the use of a union hall, but Frank knew there were just too many people and he didn’t want to turn anyone away. He said, “They have come to say goodbye to my Elsie. Don't let them be disappointed.” Reserve police officers from the Hinman Street station were tasked with keeping order and preventing the crowd from breaking down the fence.

Elsie’s tiny white coffin was placed on two brass stands, surrounded by lilies of the valley, roses and carnations sent by Mayor Harrison, Judge Sabath and numerous city officials. Eight little girls dressed all in white brought out huge sprays of lilies and roses and encircled the stand. Someone brought out two chairs from the Paroubek home, set them near the casket, placed a board across them and used it as a platform to hold the hundreds of floral offerings. Karolina was seated at the head of the coffin, while Frank and the other children stood nearby. The Paroubeks were not religious, so a simple service was read by Rudolph Jaromir Psenka, editor of the Bohemian Chicago Daily Svornost. He spoke of the need to cooperate with the police to find Elsie’s killers. As the undertaker went to lift the coffin into the hearse, Karolina begged him to open it so she could see Elsie's face once more, but her relatives persuaded her to let him go about his duties. Most of the attendees followed Elsie's casket to Bohemian National Cemetery, where Psenka gave another address.

Police Chief John McWeeny

With the funeral over, the police investigation was reinvigorated, despite the time that had passed. Police Chief John McWeeny vowed to devote the entire Chicago police force to finding the killer. Alderman Cermak asked Governor Deneen to increase the reward by another $200 and he announced that he would, “Ask the governor to issue a proclamation calling upon all the people of the state to interest themselves in this case, in order that her murderer be apprehended." Coroner Peter Hoffman also started a public reward fund, contributing $25 out of his own pocket.

Investigators soon had a suspect – a man named Joseph Konesti. Described as a “bearded Bohemian” and a “hermit peddler,” he was said to have “frequently enticed little girls to his hut by the drainage canal” – the same canal where Elsie’s body was discovered. He lived in a shack about a mile and a half from the Paroubek home and had been “frequently been seen” nearby. The owner of the shack that he lived in, Mrs. David Shaughnessy, told police that she had complained to Konesti about “bringing children around the house,” and had evicted him on May 9. The following day, knowing he was suspected by the police for the murder, he threw himself in front of a train and was killed. Five days later, though, he was cleared of any wrongdoing. 

On May 15, Frank Paroubek had information for the investigators. He told detectives that he had spoken to a man he did not know, who told him that he had seen Elsie later in the afternoon on April 8 on Kedzie Avenue, south of 28th Street, long after she was supposed to have been taken by gypsies. Lieutenant Costello tasked detectives with finding the man. A previous sighting of Elsie had her walking toward the canal on South Troy Street, a half block south of her aunt’s house. If the unknown man was telling the truth, Elsie had been only three blocks away from the bridge. Costello had his own thoughts about the case. He disagreed with the coroner’s report and had become convinced that Elsie’s death was an accident. She had simply fallen into the canal and died and if he could prove that she was closer to the canal than was previously thought, it would give more weight to this theory. The problem was that Inspector Healey had repeatedly dragged the ditches and canals during the search and her body was not found. In addition, there had been no water in her lungs and she had been molested. Costello was clinging to the initial examination by Dr. Kingston, who told Costello that Elsie had drowned and there were no marks of abuse on her body. He changed his report the following day, but Costello was convinced the first report was accurate.    

Costello followed his leads – which led nowhere – while other detectives chased suspects of their own. At one point, they surrounded a house near Madison and Robey Streets and then conducted a house to house search on the southwest side for a former boarder in the Paroubek home. They also looked for the unknown witness who passed on information to Frank and the anonymous letter writer who seemed to know more than he should. Unfortunately, none of these men – like Elsie’s killer himself – were ever found. After more than a century, we still don’t know what really happened to little Elsie Paroubek.

The same cannot be said for her parents, who were destroyed by their daughter’s death. Two years later, on the anniversary of Elsie’s funeral in 1913, Frank Paroubek died. He was only forty-five years old. Karolina lived until December 9, 1927. In death, they have been reunited. All three of them are buried together in Chicago’s Bohemian National Cemetery, leaving a haunting mystery in their wake.

Monday, April 21, 2014



On April 21, 1930, a fire broke out at the overcrowded Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus and claimed the lives of more than three hundred inmates. If prisons are truly haunted because of the death and tragedy that takes place in them, then the Ohio Penitentiary must have been one of the most haunted buildings in the region.

Even though the prison itself is no more, this has not stopped the stories of murder, brutality and of course, ghosts, from being told. The prison may be gone, but some say the spirits of the past still linger.

The Ohio State Penitentiary before the fire

The Ohio Penitentiary opened in late October 1834 when 189 prisoners were marched under guard from a small frontier jail to the partially completed building. As they walked along the banks of the Scioto River, they must have been amazed and dismayed by the stone walls of their new place of incarceration, as many other men would be in the years to come. Hundreds of thousands of men were sent to this prison over the next 150 years and thousands of them died, usually violently, behind the high walls.

The penitentiary that was located on Spring Street was actually the third state prison in Ohio and the fourth jail in early Columbus. The first jail in the city had been built in 1804 and was a two-story log stockade that was surrounded by 13 whipping posts. Author Dan Morgan noted that "horrible stories were told about this primitive prison" and said that men, women and children were all brought there. They were stripped of their clothing and then tied to the posts. This was followed by whippings that left their backs resembling raw beef. Further torture was inflicted with hot ashes and coals that were spread onto their bleeding flesh. It was obviously a horrifying place.

Between 1813 and 1815, the first state prison was built along Scioto Street, which later became 2nd Street. It was a simple structure that housed prisoners in 13 cells on the third floor. The prison was full within a year so the General Assembly commissioned a larger structure, designed for 100 prisoners, that was completed in 1818. This building provided unheated cells, straw mats on the floor, infestations of lice and rats and was plagued by several cholera epidemics. It also had several subterranean places of punishment, called "holes," where conditions were even worse.

The prison remained in use until a new building was constructed on Spring Street, however an odd occurrence took place there in 1830. At that time, a fire of "incendiary origin" destroyed most of the prison workshops. Strangely, a century later in 1930, another fire of “incendiary origin” destroyed an entire cellblock and claimed 332 lives at the new penitentiary. It is still considered the worst fire in the history of American prisons.

American penitentiaries were originally designed as a place of contemplation for the mistakes made that caused the inmates to break the law in the first place. Prisoners "labored in silence during the day and were locked in solitary confinement at night." The men worked in factory shops, located behind the walls, to make leather harnesses, shoes, tailored goods, barrels, brooms, hats and other common goods that were not manufactured by legitimate business in Ohio.

The paltry food the prisoners ate usually consisted of cornbread, bacon and beans and was served on "rust-eaten tin plates" and eaten with crude implements fashioned from broom handles. They slept on hay sacks and although fold-down beds were installed around the time of the Civil War, blankets were only issued in the wintertime. The clothing and the bedding were filthy and were major carriers of disease as laundry facilities were non-existent in the early days. There was also no medical treatment to speak of and epidemics, dysentery and diarrhea killed many. In 1849, a cholera outbreak killed 116 of 423 prisoners. The guards fled the grounds and the prisoners begged for pardons.

The inmates were routinely punished for both major and minor infractions. Whipping remained the major form of discipline until 1844, but was replaced by no less cruel methods of causing pain. These included dunking inmates in huge vats of water, hanging them by their wrists in their cells and of course, the sweatbox. In 1885, the prison would begin carrying out executions, as well.

The "golden age" of the prison came during the tenure of Warden E. G. Coffin, from 1886 through 1900.  A number of flattering books were written about the institution during this era and visitors who came to tour the place could even buy picture postcards and souvenir books. One section of the souvenir book stated: “It is to Mr. Coffin's revolutionary methods of inaugurating, perfecting and successfully establishing humane but repressive methods in the management of the prison that the Ohio Penitentiary owes its world-wide celebrity.”

On Christmas Day 1888, Columbus newspapers reported that Warden Coffin had decided to do away with such punishments as the dunking tub and the stretching rings. Coffin said, “A hard box to sleep on and bread and water to eat will cause them to behave themselves. It may not be so speedy but it is more humane.”

Despite the fact that things at the Ohio Penitentiary seemed to be changed from the outside, the prisoners had a different story to tell. In 1894, a newspaper reporter learned that prisoners were still being locked in sweatboxes as punishment and that the ball and chain were also in use. The newspaper denounced the state of Ohio for "a partial return to the dark ages when the stocks and pillory were used for punishment." In addition, the prisoners were still being given bad food and medical care was still very poor. They also complained of pay-offs and political graft that resulted in some prisoners being blindfolded and tortured with water hoses, while well-connected inmates were given large cells and special privileges.

It was also during this era when the Death House was brought within the walls. Prior to that, the gallows had been set up on a place called Penitentiary Hill, located in a ravine near the present-day intersection of Mound and 2nd streets in Columbus. The first execution in the county had been carried out in 1844, when a convict was hanged for murder. The day of the hanging was regarded as “truly the greatest event in the history of Columbus” and was remembered as a day of “noise, confusion, drunkenness and disorder” during which one bystander, Sullivan Sweet, was reportedly trampled by a horse. Two sets of physicians were anxious to obtain the remains of the hanged man. One of the groups went to his grave and exhumed him and while they were making off with the body, they were shot at by the other doctors. The first party ran off, leaving the body to the second group, along with the now-empty grave. The dead man’s foot was, for many years, preserved in alcohol and kept on display by Drs. Jones and Little, who had an office on East Town Street.

In 1885, the gallows were moved behind the walls of the Ohio Penitentiary. Starting with Valentine Wagner in 1885, 28 men, including a 16-year-old named Otto Lueth, were hanged at the end of the prison’s East Hall. The electric chair (considered a humane form of execution) replaced the gallows in the hall in 1897 and 315 men and women were put to death in it.

This aspect of prison life became hated and feared by guards and prisoners alike. Corrections Major Grover Powell, who spent 31 years as a guard at the Ohio Penitentiary, told reporter David Lore in 1984, "Nobody ever really wanted to work the executions; nobody ever volunteered.” Death House duties, such as staying with the prisoner during the last meal, fastening the straps or flipping the switch, were rotated. The warden would get $75 overtime pay to split among the attending officers. Powell recalled that many of the men, even during the lean days of the depression when extra money came in handy, did everything they could to get out of working the executions.

But nothing in the history of the prison, even the macabre execution devices, matched the carnage and horror of April 21, 1930.

The penitentiary in flames

The fire began as a candle flame in a bundle of oily rags on the roof of the West Block of the prison, paralleling Neil Avenue. Authorities later reported that three prisoners had set the blaze in hopes that it would really start to burn around 4:30 p.m. They hoped that it would divert the guards’ attention from their escape, which they planned to take place when most of the prisoners were still in the dining hall. The fire smoldered too long, though, and didn’t erupt for an hour after that, just after the hundreds of prisoners had been returned to the cellblock. Most of the 322 inmates who died that evening perished because of the poisonous smoke given off by green lumber being used in some construction scaffolding on one part of the cellblock, but others suffered a more gruesome fate. Photographs of the debris from the fire showed evidence of incredible heat, which turned the levels of catwalks and bars into a tangle of blackened and twisted metal. Many of the prisoners were literally cooked alive.

Rescue workers try to assist the burned and dying inmates

It was the worst fire in Ohio history and the worst in the history of American prisons. The cellblock had been dangerous and overcrowded, critics said, citing concerns about too many men in the prison that dated back to 1908. At that time, over 4,500 men had been jammed into the century-old prison (with room for 1,500) and this had created the volatile conditions that had ended in the fire. The attention on the prison led to a repeal of judicial control over minimum sentences, which was thought to have contributed to the overcrowding. A package of new laws in 1931 established the Ohio Parole Board and established parole procedures, which by 1932 released 2,346 prisoners from the Ohio Penitentiary alone.

Rows of caskets belonging to the inmates who died in the fire

Officially, the fire was blamed on three inmates, two of whom committed suicide in the months following the tragedy. This was the official word, anyway, although many suggested that the fire had been accidental and that prison officials had blamed the disaster on the prisoners to cover up their own incompetence. Only a handful of people named a more sinister source for the fire, noting with interest that the doomed West Cellblock, which had been added to the original prison in 1875, had been built directly on top of the old prison cemetery. The bodies, the legends say, were never removed. Were some of the former prisoners having their revenge against the prison from the other side?

The 1930s saw more problems at the Ohio Penitentiary. This era began to see an increase in problems at the prison. Many believe that the growth of the "rackets" and the general disrespect for the law in the 1920s and 1930s resulted in an upsurge of prison terms that had the available prisons filled to overflowing. The one-man cells at the prison were converted to handle three or more men and the average daily count swelled to 4,100 inmates by the end of the decade. In 1939, Warden William Amrine once again recommended the construction of a new prison, stating that "conditions at the Ohio Penitentiary are a disgrace to the state of Ohio." His request was turned down, but World War II marked the beginning of a new era for the prison.

The 1930s had been a horrendous time at the prison but changes came about because the inmates were now desperately needed to produce goods for the war effort. Warden Ralph "Red" Alvis is credited for the major changes in the prison, eliminating lock step marching, the strict requirements of silence and striped prison uniforms. And while many of the restrictions were lifted and the men were kept productive during the war, the food became worse. Wartime restrictions and rationing were hard on the ordinary public, but even worse on the prisoners. Gentry Richardson, a prisoner who began serving time at the prison in 1942, recalled, “They would give us butter beans with a piece of fat sowbelly in there with hair on it, big hairs up to an inch long.” Bad food, in fact, was a reason for the 1952 Ohio Penitentiary riot, the first of three to rock the institution over the next two decades. It would not be until after this incident that the rations would start to improve.

Warden Alvis began to implement recreation programs for those incarcerated in the Ohio Penitentiary and began to assume a more humane posture toward the prisoners. His goal was to improve prisoner morale and to encourage a sense of dignity in the men. He believed this was the best way to rehabilitate the inmates and hopefully to release changed men back onto the streets.
Holiday boxing and wrestling matches came about as early as 1940 and a bandstand was built on the O. Henry Athletic Field, the home of the inmate’s baseball team, the "Hurricanes."  
For years, the Ohio Penitentiary drew celebrities, athletes and performers like fighters Joe Lewis and Jack Dempsey and entertainers such as Lionel Hampton. Ohio State University students performed classical music and opera behind the walls and pilots from the Lockbourne Air Force Base led literary discussions. Legendary coach Woody Hayes even once offered to help start an inmate football team. The high point of each year was always the inmate Christmas show, which was performed by the prisoners and always played to a full house. A few outsiders were allowed in for each show and the tickets were always in high demand.

Despite all of this, the conditions of the prison building continued to deteriorate and overcrowding became more of an issue. The prison population reached a record high of 5,235 in April 1955. Classrooms and visiting areas had to be used as dormitories and many of the programs fell apart. With more men came more danger. One former prisoner stated, “I saw a lot of men die behind the walls. How many? I can’t even remember half of them, but there was a lot of killing.”

On June 24, 1968, the worst series of riots in the prison’s history began in the print shop, forcing a number of political decisions that would end with the closing of the penitentiary 16 years later. The initial June riots led to at least $1 million in fire damage and the destruction of nine buildings and damage to six others.

Tensions continued to mount through July and led to more riots in August, when inmates not only started fires, but also took nine guards hostage. This forced a 28-hour standoff between the leaders of the convicts and the authorities that ended with an assault on the prison on August 21. Officers blew holes in the south wall and the roof and invaded the prison with deadly force. Five of the convicts were killed but the guards managed to make it through alive. This strengthened the conviction that the prison needed to be closed down.

Governor James A. Rhodes ordered a new maximum-security prison to be built in remote Lucasville, Ohio, and placed the old prison under the control of Warden Harold Cardwell, who immediately cancelled the Christmas shows, the exhibitions and the team sports. The prison was now under a permanent lock-down and would remain that way for the rest of its existence.

In 1972, most of the prisoners were transferred out and sent to the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, which had just been completed. The old prison now housed only the sick, the psychotic and the troublemakers. Except for the most secure areas, the place was falling into ruin. The fire-gutted buildings had been left to rot and decay and were slowly crumbling away.  
In 1979, the prison was ordered closed down for good as of December 31, 1983. For the first time in more than 150 years, the Ohio Penitentiary was completely silent and empty. Or was it? Not long after the last of the inmates departed, new stories began to be told about the legendary place. And there were stories of a much darker sort.            

While some stated that the only “ghosts” that remained in the prison were those of legend – remnants of the history and memories of the place, others soon began to argue that point. They believed that the fires, the executions, the stabbings, the shootings and the quiet, desperate, suicides that snuffed out thousands of lives behind the prison walls were not the only horrors to be imprinted on the desolate location. They began to believe that the spirits of many of these angry and sinister men remained behind.

Stories began to spread about the old prison site. Those who wandered too close to the old buildings or who dared to go inside began to believe that the otherwise empty cell blocks were haunted by the spirits of the men who died in the prison. There were those who even claimed to experience the phantoms connected to the horrendous fire of 1930. It was said that by standing out in the prison yard, you could hear the roar of ghostly flames from inside and the horrible screams of the men who burned alive in their cells.

These stories continued for several years until finally, the prison was torn down and the site where it stood was cleared away. A sports arena was built where the prison once stood and in the fall of 2000, the arena became the home of the Columbus NHL hockey team. All traces of the old prison were finally destroyed. Or were they? According to reports, witnesses have spotted apparitions and have heard disembodied screams echoing across the arena’s parking lot at night. This has led many to believe that the site continues to be haunted today.

Years ago, when it was first proposed that a tourist attraction or development would take the place of the prison, one of the former guards spoke up, “I wouldn’t care if they dynamited the place. It’s the entrance to Hell itself... I can’t tell you what is there, what is seen and unseen....”

Could the destruction of the prison have erased the ghostly memories and restless souls that once lingered here? Or do they remain, still hoping for some sort of redemption to appease their troubled past?

Thursday, April 17, 2014



On April 17, 1897, something very strange happened in the small town of Aurora, Texas. A mysterious metallic airship crashed down on a local farm, killing the pilot in the process. He was buried in the town cemetery and has been there ever since – the source of a mystery that will likely never be solved. Over the years, UFO buffs have claimed this “airship” as their own, speculating that the pilot was an alien, based on a newspaper story that stated he was “not of this world.”

But I don’t think that’s what the witnesses meant when they described the pilot, or his strange craft. I believe the Aurora crash is just one small part of a much greater mystery that was taking place in the skies over America in late 1896 and 1897.

In the last years of the nineteenth century, a rash of sightings occurred in the skies across the United States of strange, airships – cylindrical-shaped and constructed from weird metal and shiny steel. The reports came in from everywhere, despite the fact that their construction, and very existence, was seemingly an impossibility at the time. No known aircraft, save for hot air balloons, flew under their own power before the Wright Brothers left the ground at Kitty Hawk. So, what were these strange ships? Who had constructed them and perhaps strangest of all, who was flying them?

Reports of the alleged crewmen and pilots usually described them as human-looking. Most of them carried extraordinary messages to the people on the ground, while others seemed to have superior intelligence, odd skin tones and weird speech patterns. It was popularly believed that the mystery airships were the product of some inventor who was not yet ready to make knowledge of his creation public. Thomas Edison was so widely speculated to be the source behind the alleged airships that in 1897 he "was forced to issue a strongly worded statement" denying his responsibility.

Reports of the aircraft, which had vast metal wingspans and arrays of bright lights, first appeared in California in 1896. Hundreds of people saw the airships as they began what seemed to be a leisurely eastward tour across America.

The first sighting occurred on November 18, 1896 and was reported in the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Call newspapers. Witnesses claimed that they saw a light moving slowly over Sacramento on the evening of November 17. Some witnesses said they could see a dark shape behind the light. A man named R. L. Lowery reported that he heard a voice from the craft issuing commands to increase elevation in order to avoid hitting a church steeple. There were no churches in the area, but there was a tower on a local brewery. Lowery further described the craft as being powered by two men exerting themselves on bicycle pedals. Above the pedaling men seemed to be a passenger compartment, which lay under the main body of a dirigible. A light was mounted on the front end of the airship. Some witnesses reported the sound of singing as the craft passed overhead.

The next day, a witness claimed to see the airship – or one just like it – on the ground. According to the November 19 edition of the Stockton Daily Mail, Colonel H.G. Shaw stated that while driving his buggy through the countryside near Stockton he came across what appeared to be a landed aircraft. Shaw described it as having a metallic surface, which was completely featureless apart from a rudder, and pointed ends. He estimated it had a diameter of twenty-five feet and a total length of around one hundred and fifty feet. Three slender men, each standing close to seven feet tall, were outside the airship "emitting a strange warbling noise." The men reportedly examined Shaw's buggy and then tried to seize him, apparently attempting to force him to accompany them back to the airship. When the doughty Colonel Shaw resisted, they fled back to the ship, which lifted off the ground and sped out of sight.

On November 21, the airship with the mystery light appeared again over Sacramento. It was also seen over Folsom, San Francisco and Oakland later that same evening and was reportedly viewed by hundreds of witnesses.

Soon after, the mysterious ship began traveling eastward across the country, wreaking havoc, creating mayhem and leaving very puzzled witnesses in its wake. Some of the stories of the airship were very strange. For instance, one witness from Arkansas – allegedly a former state senator named Harris – was supposedly told by an airship pilot (during the tensions leading up to the Spanish-American War) that the craft was bound for Cuba, to use its "Hotchkiss gun" to "kill Spaniards.” In one account from Texas, three men reported an encounter with an airship and with "five peculiarly dressed men" who reported that they were descendants from the lost tribes of Israel. They had learned English, they said, from the 1553 North Pole expedition led by Sir Hugh Willoughby, an early English Arctic voyager. An article in the Albion, Nebraska, Weekly News reported that two witnesses saw an airship crash just inches from where they were standing. The airship suddenly disappeared, leaving a man standing where the vessel had been. The airship pilot showed the astonished men a small device that supposedly enabled him to shrink the airship small enough to store the vessel in his pocket.  

In April 1897, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story reporting that one W. H. Hopkins encountered a grounded airship about twenty feet in length and eight feet in diameter near the outskirts of Springfield, Missouri. The vehicle was apparently powered by three large propellers and was crewed by a beautiful nude woman and a bearded man, also nude. Hopkins attempted with some difficulty to communicate with the crew in order to ascertain their origins. Eventually they understood what Hopkins was asking of them and they both pointed to the sky and "uttered something that sounded like the word 'Mars.’”

The mysterious aircraft arrived in Illinois a short time later. The first sightings were in Evanston and in several other communities near Chicago. The local newspapers quickly spread the news that the airship was filled with “English spies,” although why the English would have wanted to dispatch spies to the American Midwest was left unstated. More than five hundred people witnessed a ship that was said to be in full view for over forty-five minutes. One description stated that the airship was “composed of two cigar-shaped bodies attached by girders” and others claimed that it had wings and sails.

A newspaper illustration of the Chicago sighting

The airship reportedly stayed in the Chicago area for three days and was there long enough to be photographed by a newspaper dealer named Walter McCann. He was picking up his daily newspapers at the Northwestern Railway depot when he saw the ship coming toward him from the south. A short time before, his son had won a camera in a contest for signing up newspaper subscribers and McCann ran into his store and snatched it up. He ran back outside and snapped a photo of it. He then ran down the railroad tracks and took another photo a few minutes later. After the plates were developed, McCann gave copies of the photos to all of the newspapers who requested them but he refused to sell the negatives. The staff artists and etcher for the Chicago Times-Herald subjected the photos to acid tests and proclaimed them to be authentic. Sadly, the photos have since been lost.

After departing from Chicago, the airship began a tour across Illinois. It was spotted in dozens of cities and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to its route. It appeared in both northern and southern Illinois, being in one region on one day and the other on the next. For instance, on April 5, it made an appearance in the southwestern Illinois town of Nashville and on April 8 was seen up north in Dixon, Rock Island and Sterling. The craft buzzed over Elgin, Jerseyville, Kankakee, Taylorville, East St. Louis, Edwardsville, Jacksonville, Ottawa, Quincy, Decatur, Lincoln, Hillsboro, Peoria and many other locations. Even if we discount many of the reports as being merely excitement or practical jokes that were generated by newspaper stories, there are still scores of credible and very similar accounts. The last Illinois airship sighting took place in Rossville on April 25, and then the ship continued on its strange journey.

In the midst of the airship reports, one of the strangest incidents linked to the craft (or apparently one of many such crafts) allegedly took place in the town of Aurora, Texas. The story appeared in the Dallas Morning News on April 19, 1897, but the incident had occurred two days before, on April 17. According to the reporter:

About 6 o’clock this morning the early risers of Aurora were astonished at the sudden appearance of the airship which has been sailing around the country. It was traveling due north and much nearer the earth than before.

Evidently some of the machinery was out-of-order, for it was making a speed of only ten or twelve miles an hour, and gradually settling toward the earth. It sailed over the public square and when it reached the north part of town it collided with the tower of Judge Proctor’s windmill and went into pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over several acres of ground, wrecking the windmill and water tank and destroying the judge’s flower garden.

The pilot of the ship is supposed to have been the only one aboard and, while his remains were badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not an inhabitant of this world.

As mentioned, the occupant of the craft was dead and mangled, and while UFO researchers believe that the pilot was an alien, the newspaper only states that he was “not an inhabitant of this world.” This could have referred to his looks, his dress, or the fact that he was flying an airship that should not have existed – not that he was an alien. However, there was a note that strange "hieroglyphic" figures were seen on the wreckage, which resembled "a mixture of aluminum and silver ... it must have weighed several tons." In 1973, interest was revived in this story and metallic material recovered from the presumed crash site was shown to contain an unusual percentage of aluminum and iron. The story ended by noting that the pilot was given a "Christian burial" in the town cemetery. During the investigation of the possible crash site, researchers discovered the alleged stone marker used in this burial. Their metal detectors indicated a quantity of foreign material might remain buried there. However, they were not permitted to exhume whatever may have lain below, and when they returned several years later, the headstone was gone. Incidentally, there is now a Texas Historical Commission marker in the cemetery mentioning the incident.

The Aurora Cemetery. The Texas Historical Commission marker is located to the right of the cemetery gate and mentions the airship crash and the pilot that was buried in the graveyard.

The stone marker that was placed on the pilot's grave. The design of the airship was etched crudely on the stone. 

According to local legend, wreckage from the crash site was dumped into a nearby well. Adding to the mystery was the story of Brawley Oates, who purchased Judge Proctor's property around 1945. Oates cleaned out the debris from the well in order to use it as a water source, but later developed an extremely severe case of arthritis, which he claimed to be the result of drinking contaminated water from the wreckage that was dumped into the well. As a result, Oates sealed up the well with a concrete slab and placed an outbuilding atop the slab in 1957.

It’s not surprising that many have come to believe this story is a hoax. One of the most outspoken believers in the hoax was Barbara Brammer, a former mayor of Aurora. Her research revealed that in the months prior to the alleged crash, Aurora was plagued by a series of tragic incidents. The local cotton crop was destroyed by a boll weevil infestation, a fire on the west side of town destroyed several buildings and killed a number of people, a spotted fever epidemic caused the town to be quarantined and finally, a planned railroad reached a point twenty-seven miles from Aurora, but never made it to town. Essentially, Aurora, which had nearly three thousand residents at the time, was in danger of dying out. Brammer believed the story was designed as a last-ditch effort to keep Aurora alive. Her theory was further supported by the fact that there was never any follow-up to the story. She also pointed to the fact that Judge Proctor never had a windmill on his property.

Unfortunately, Brammer’s theories of the hoax also work toward making the story seem legitimate. For starters, Judge Proctor did have a windmill on his property. The remains of it have since been found, along with the well that Brawley Oates thought was contaminated. They also found melted metal at the site, which turned out to be aluminum, which was very rare in the late nineteenth century. There was an actual grave marker at the site in the cemetery (later stolen) that supposedly marked where the pilot was buried and ground-penetrating radar has revealed the presence of a casket-shaped object under the ground.

And as far as the idea that the story was a hoax cooked up to save the town? Well, the tragic incidents might also explain why there was no follow-up story to the airship’s crash. With all of the terrible things that had just occurred, it’s not really that surprising that the pilot was simply buried and the people moved on with their lives. There were more important things going on in Aurora at the time than the crash. It wasn’t until the 1970s that anyone really took an interest in the story again.
What really happened in Texas in 1897? Who knows? While I don’t think there is any conclusive proof that an airship crashed to earth on that day in April, I do think something unusual happened, but what it was, we’ll probably never know.

In time, the airship reports faded away, leaving a mystery behind – and a lot of people to argue about what really happened. As one can imagine, theories abound. Attempts to uncover the truth about the airship reports reveal some unhappy realities: newspaper coverage was unreliable; no independent investigators spoke directly with alleged witnesses or attempted to verify or debunk their testimony; and, with a  only one exception, no eyewitness was ever interviewed, even in the 1950s, when some were presumably still living. That single witness was a former San Francisco Chronicle employee named Edward Ruppelt. In 1952, Ruppelt stated that he had been a copyboy in 1897 “and remembered the incident, but time had cancelled out the details.” He did say that he, along with the newspaper’s editor and the news staff had seen the airship but they never told anyone what they had seen because they didn’t want people to think they were “crazy.”

There will always be many who dismiss the 1896-1897 airship wave as some massive hoax. Even at the time, there were many attempts to explain the airship sightings as hoaxes, pranks, publicity stunts and hallucinations. One man suggested the airships were swarms of lightning bugs that were misidentified by observers. It’s also very likely that many of the newspaper reports were, in fact, hoaxes, riding the wave of a national craze for goofy, off-beat tales. Stories created out of whole cloth by enterprising reporters do tend to stand out, though, since most of them have a tongue-in-cheek tone and are heavily sensational. Furthermore, the supposed authors of many such newspaper hoaxes make their hoax obvious by stating – in the last line – that he was writing from an insane asylum, or something to that effect.

Over time, the 1896-1897 airship wave has become probably the best investigated of all historical anomalies. The files of almost 1,500 newspapers from across the United States have been combed for reports, an astonishing feat of research. The general conclusion of investigators was that a considerable number of the simpler sightings were misidentification of planets and stars, and a large number of the more complex sightings were the result of hoaxes and practical jokes. A sizable number, though, remain perplexing.

What were the ships and better yet, who was flying them? In 2009, author J. Allan Danelek made a case for the idea that the mystery airship was the work of an unknown individual, possibly funded by a wealthy investor from San Francisco, who built an airship prototype as a test vehicle for a later series of larger, passenger-carrying airships. Danelek not only laid out a plausible scenario, but demonstrated how the craft might have been built using materials and technologies available in 1896 (including speculative line drawings and technical details). The ship, Danelek proposed, was built in secret as a safeguard from patent infringement, as well as to protect investors in case of failure. Noting that the flights were initially seen over California and only later over the Midwest, he speculated that the inventor was making a series of short test flights, moving from west to east, and following the main railroad lines for logistical support, and that it was these experimental flights that formed the basis for many – though not all – of the newspaper accounts from the era. Danelek also noted that the reports ended abruptly in late April 1897, suggesting that the craft may have met with disaster, effectively ending the venture and permitting the sightings to fall into the realm of legend.

These ideas were not far off from some of the theories posed at the end of the nineteenth century – a time of great popularity for science-fiction writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. In fact, the idea that a secretive inventor might have developed a viable craft with advanced capabilities was the focus of Jules Verne's 1886 novel Robur the Conqueror. Steerable airships had been publicly flown in the United States since 1863, and numerous inventors were working on airship and aircraft designs. In fact, two French army officers and engineers, Arthur Krebs and Charles Renard, had successfully flown in an electric-powered airship called the La France as early as 1885, making no fewer than seven successful flights over an eleven-month period. Also during the 1896-1897 period, David Schwarz built an aluminum-skinned airship in Germany that successfully flew over Tempelhof Field before being irreparably damaged during a hard landing. Both events clearly demonstrated that the technology to build a practical airship existed during the period in question, though if reports of the capabilities of the California and Midwest airship sighted in 1896-97 are true, it would have been considerably more advanced than any airship built up to that time.

Several individuals, including Lyman Gilmore, Charles Dellschau and Thomas Edison (who issued a strong denial) were later identified as possible candidates for being involved in the design and construction of the airships, although little evidence was found in support of these ideas.

How can we explain the mysterious airship (or airships) that crossed America in 1896-1897? Was it a hoax, a case of mass hysteria? Perhaps, but this seems unlikely based on the unrelated and completely unconnected witnesses who spotted and reported it. In Chicago, there was a sighting that allegedly included several hundred people, all describing it in almost exactly the same way.

If the ship was real, then who were the passengers? They had strange messages to pass along and seemed to be almost constantly at work on their vessel. During one encounter that took place in Texas, an airship passenger actually asked for help in repairing his craft. He handed the witness current American money and asked him to fetch supplies from the local hardware store. But how could ordinary materials function in the baffling airship?

The mystery remains unsolved. It seems unlikely that the airship was built by the mechanical means of the time period and yet it apparently existed. The passengers on the ship appeared to be normal humans, taking what seemed to them to be a normal trip, aboard a machine that could not exist – and yet did.

This is a small excerpt from Troy’s book, CABINET OF CURIOSITIES 2. If interested in more about the unexplained, click on the link to see more about the book!