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October 17, 2008

Ghost tour spooks even the most hardened of Chicago’s ghoul lovers

At the Jane Addams Hull House, paranormal researcher and Chicago history buff Dave Cowan was a little scared. Staying on the street curb, he refused to walk onto the site of the pre-Chicago–era Native American burial ground, where reports of unusual sights and sounds have marked the spot since the 1850s.

“I just don’t like the way that place feels,” Cowan said.

Cowan has conducted extensive research on Chicago’s haunted past. He led a ghost tour on Monday night, sponsored by Office of the Reynolds Club & Student Activities (ORCSA), and hit eight allegedly haunted city sites with a busload of U of C students.

Some tour-goers were believers. ORCSA staffer Stacey Ergan hoped she would see a ghost.

“We did this tour last year, and we did have someone catch something on her camera,” she said.

First stop: the Oriental Theater downtown, which stands on the site of the Iroquois Theater that burned down in 1903, taking 602 people with it and resulting in the deadliest single-building fire in history, according to Cowan. The alley behind the theater is a hotbed of haunted activity, he added. One hundred thirty-four people leaped to their deaths attempting to escape the flames. Cowan said that the Oriental Theater is “thought to be possessed by those who were killed,” due to reports of a phantom audience, screams, shouts, and lighting problems.

Cowan said that the best places to find ghosts are “where people died quickly, usually not of their own fault” and where there is “lots of humidity, coastlines.”

“Water is a primary conductor of electricity, and ghosts manifest themselves in the form of electromagnetic energy,” he explained.

The tour hit the site of the S.S. Eastland disaster, next to the Chicago River, where 844 people drowned when a ship capsized in 1915. Some visitors to the site have reported seeing faces in the water, hearing shouts or screams for help, and feeling a compulsion to go to the ledge and look down at the river.

Next on the agenda was Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios, where the victims of the Eastland disaster were taken. For eight days after the disaster, according to Cowan, the bodies were laid out for the victims’ families to identify. And the studio has the scars to prove it, said Cowan, who described it as a “sad” building where the grief is still palpable to paranormal specialists. A documentary by Oprah related stories about dysfunctional elevators, sounds of manual typewriters, and a “gray lady” who showed up on the video cameras.

“This is all true,” Cowan said.

These days, people shop in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, but between 1831 and 1871 the main park there held a city cemetery. Health concerns forced many of the graves to be moved to surrounding cemeteries, but some 13,000 bodies remain, and they keep popping up. When the Chicago Historical Society built a parking garage, they discovered 147 bodies from the period.

Not surprisingly, Cowan said, the park is subject to all sorts of paranormal activity at night.

Last stop: the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, where seven gangsters of the North Side mob were machine-gunned, supposedly by members of Al Capone’s South Side mob. Reports persist of the sounds of gunfire, a dog barking, and men screaming, Cowan said.

No one caught the supernatural on camera this year, but Cowan thought the tour was worth it anyway.

“It’s all about the folklore and the history, and it’s a lot of fun,” he said.