Every region has its historical legends and fantastical stories, and our communities are no exception. Chris Linden shares incredible tales of Prohibition gangsters and criminals, ghosts and tall tales.
Every town has its stories of ghosts, famous criminals and legendary characters. Thanks to its proximity to Chicago, our region is rich with them. Whether we tell them in person, in school or online, these stories excite our imaginations.
Is it plausible that a stalled car on the railroad track will be pushed by ghost children? Not really. Is it true that McHenry County was a hotbed for Prohibition’s most notorious gangsters? Most definitely. And are those silly online ghost stories really true? Depends on who you ask.
Northwest Quarterly has collected some of our region’s best-loved tales of gangsters, ghosts, true crimes and totally tall tales. As you’ll discover, the line between true history and fantastical lore is sometimes distinct, sometimes blurred and always entertaining.
During Prohibition, quiet McHenry County was a hub of gangster activity and corrupt politicking.
Along the Chain O’Lakes and Fox River area, speakeasies never ran dry and wooded resorts offered hideouts for gangsters such as John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and George “Bugs” Moran. These hangouts were big business for Al Capone’s underground breweries, one of which was located in Ridgefield. In Fox River Grove, gangsters were openly welcomed by Czech immigrant Louis Cernocky.
“It turns out he was good friends with none other than John Dillinger,” says Craig Pfannkuche, a local historian and retired Crystal Lake high school history teacher. “In fact, you may have heard of Little Bohemia Restaurant, where the FBI attacked the Dillinger gang. The reason they were staying there was because Louis Cernocky had written a letter of introduction to a resort owner, where the Dillinger gang used to stay.”
Famous bank robber Baby Face Nelson met his unfortunate end here in 1934, along U.S. Route 14, just outside of Barrington. Today, a McDonald’s stands on the site, near Illinois Route 59. According to FBI reports, Nelson was traveling from a Lake Geneva hideout to Chicago, when two FBI agents spotted him and gave chase.
Pfannkuche’s grandfather, a Chicago cop, swore he saw the ambush happen. “He was coming home, and he says to his wife, ‘I know those two guys, they’re FBI agents. What are they doing here?’ So they pull over, and boom, a big ambush takes place,” Pfannkuche recalls his grandfather saying. “The story in Fox River Grove goes that Baby Face was casing a bank, but the story can’t possibly be true. There was no bank in town when Nelson was killed. He’d just been visiting with Louis Cernocky.”
Other gangsters also met their end in McHenry County, during the beer wars between Capone and Moran. In June 1930, several Capone-aligned mobsters were gunned down inside Manning’s Hotel, a resort that was based inside a Fox Lake alderman’s home on Pistakee Lake. Historians believe the shooting was related to the St. Valentine’s massacre, in which members of Moran’s gang were murdered.
Capone was known to travel through the area, often on his way to a Lake Geneva hideout. The Cicero mob boss maintained a stiff hold on McHenry County’s slots and booze trade, says Pfannkuche.
Local legend suggests that Capone maintained a hideout on the Fox River between St. Charles and Elgin, where the Al Capone’s Hideaway & Steakhouse operated for 38 years, before closing in 2012. But did Capone ever stay there? Though he’s found evidence of bootleggers nearby, Pfannkuche has never found evidence that Capone himself stayed in Valley View.
“If the building dated back to the ’20s, I’m sure that it was a speakeasy, and I’m sure it was Capone beer, and I’m sure a Capone salesman came by,” he says.
Corruption in McHenry County ran so rampant that one clean-nosed state’s attorney was actually run out of town in 1927. Supported by temperance advocates and Methodists, Alford Pouse defeated the mob-connected Vincent Lumley to become county state’s attorney. Pouse quickly attacked every corrupt lawyer and politician, much to the chagrin of Capone’s associates.
“He’s going to indict a whole bunch of people, including Cernocky and [speakeasy owner Sunny] Grome,” says Pfannkuche. “So they come to the courthouse to say, ‘It’s not us, we didn’t do it.’ Except the state’s attorney doesn’t show up, because he knew that Cernocky and Grome were going to say that Pouse was the one who’s really violating Prohibition.”
Where’d he run off to? Pfannkuche tracked down Pouse’s granddaughter, who had the attorney’s journals. Turns out Pouse became an egg farmer in New Jersey.
Outside of Prohibition, our region has also seen its share of hideous crimes. In St. Charles, the state’s first medical school met its end because of a young student’s daring crime.
The Franklin Medical College was established in St. Charles in 1842 by Dr. George Richards. At the time, it was common practice for medical schools to perform research and learn anatomy through cadavers, which were often stolen quietly from cemeteries. In 1849, student John Rood was desperate for money to finish his education, so he hatched a plan to steal a corpse and sell it to the school.
Rood’s subject was Marilla Kenyon, a Sycamore girl who died shortly after her wedding. With help from Richards’ son, he successfully stole the body, but the pair left mud prints and obvious traces of their work. An angry mob from Sycamore rushed to St. Charles and surrounded Dr. Richards’ home, which still stands at 511 Illinois Ave.
Kenyon’s body was moved off-site before the mob arrived, but after the mob discovered another cadaver in the barn, outrage erupted into violence. Rood was fatally shot; Richards was seriously wounded when someone fired through the front door he was blocking. Richards soon left town and the school folded; the bullet hole remained – until the door was replaced in the late 1980s.
The Woodstock Jail has also seen its share of famous criminals, including the only person ever publicly hanged in McHenry County. James Dacey was executed in 1886 for killing a Chicago alderman in a saloon. To avoid a Chicago mob, officials moved him to Woodstock for his final days. Inside the Woodstock jail, Dacey went mad, attacking a priest, howling wildly and using a broken bedpost to fight the guards who attempted to subdue him.
The Woodstock Square was filled with spectators the next morning, as Dacey was led to the gallows. A sensational Chicago Tribune account describes the scene:
“Then he looked curiously at the dangling rope, and then gazed at the breathless crowd before him. He made no response whatever to the prayers, and at no moment from leaving his cell did he show the slightest emotion.”
A decade later, Woodstock’s jail welcomed Eugene Debs, the labor leader whose American Railway Union organized the violent Pullman Strike in 1894. But his 11 months in Woodstock were hardly a tough prison term. Newspaper accounts describe Debs dining with Sheriff George Eckert, playing football in the street behind the jail and using the sheriff’s dining room as a personal office, to answer fan mail.
“Oh, he was popular,” says Pfannkuche. “He’d talk to people on the steps of the jail. He eventually ran for president.”
A century later, McHenry County would be rocked by a hometown killer. Mark Allan Smith, just 20 at the time, confessed in 1970 to brutally assaulting, raping and murdering at least 12 women in Germany and in McHenry County. He was arrested after being connected to the death of 17-year-old Jean Ann Lingenfelter, a McHenry resident whose body was found in McCollum Lake. While in police custody, Smith confessed to killing other women, including 27-year-old Jean Irene Bianchi, another McHenry resident and mother of two small children, whom he abducted from a laundromat. Under a plea deal to avoid the death penalty, Smith was sentenced to serve 500 years for his murders.
The 1972 book Legally Sane, written by Smith’s lawyer, shows detailed evidence of his client’s crimes. Today, Smith resides in the Pontiac Correctional Center, his home for the past 43 years, where he is eligible for parole every three years; his next hearing is in 2014.
Geneva has its own stories of brutal crimes and restless spirits, but its most enduring are the lighthearted tales of ghosts. Each fall, author Donna Latham and the Geneva History Center lead a ghost walk through downtown Geneva, highlighting fun ghost stories passed down from longtime residents. This year’s walk is scheduled for Oct. 26.
Some of Latham’s most memorable stops are along James Street, between Second and Third streets. A tiny blue home on this block is supposedly haunted by Vere Cory, a talented pianist who once played for U.S. presidents and trained generations of local children after retiring from performing.
“People comment that Vere Cory was very refined, but they say there was something about her house that absolutely creeped them out,” says Latham.
After Cory died in 1982, locals said they could still hear her piano playing, even after it was removed from the building. Today, Pat Delp’s needlework shop is inside Cory’s former home. Delp says she’s never heard Cory’s music, but she did capture unexplained lights on a basement security camera. Delp thinks of the spirit as an inspiration, rather than a menace.
“We are a very creative bunch, and she was very creative,” Delp says. “I think we get along just fine.”
Next door to the Cory house is another friendly, lingering spirit, reputed to be The Rev. Augustus Conant. As the tale goes, Conant was a staunch abolitionist who was forced out by his congregation at the Unitarian Universalist Church, because of his views. Though he died serving in the Civil War, the former pastor is said to light up a long-broken chandelier and move objects around the church. His apparition has been seen, too.
“He is amazingly contemporary looking,” she says. “He died during the Civil War, and usually men in that era had whiskers and beards. He looks clean-shaven and modern. He’s seen most frequently of any ghost in town.”
She’s also met locals who claim to have experienced “Courthouse Clarence,” a troublesome spirit said to haunt the Kane County Courthouse.
“Nobody knows who he is,” Latham says. “He’s a prankster or joker. He runs around the courthouse and drops papers down the rotunda.” They’ve also experienced him stomping and slamming doors and windows. Others claim to have seen a man in a long, black coat and derby hat on the courthouse steps.
Latham verifies many of her ghost walk stories through research at the history center. Most stories are connected to historical facts and people.
“I think some stories are really whimsical, and I can’t say they’re truthful,” she says. “With others, there’s something strange going on in the structure itself. There’s a restaurant downtown that’s notoriously haunted. It’s switched hands over the years, and everyone has stories of things they can’t explain. Employees feel invisible hands on their shoulders and glimpse fleeing shadows from the corners of their eyes.”
Latham has experienced ghosts firsthand, but not everybody believes. And not every story is absolutely true. Take the Woodstock Opera House tale of “Elvira.”
“The story is either about a young woman who got jilted by a lover and hanged herself in the tower, or didn’t get the lead role in a play and threw herself from the tower,” says managing director John Scharres. “None of it is true. We have papers that go back to the 1850s, and there’s no reference to anything about it.”
Scharres has traced the story to comedian Shelley Berman, who performed in Woodstock in the late 1940s, with a group from Chicago’s Goodman Theater. At the time, the opera house was in severe disrepair, and had weighted seats that were prone to random movements – the perfect environment for a ghost story.
“Shelley Berman was apparently rehearsing by himself onstage, and when he was done, one of the seats in the balcony apparently went up by itself,” says Scharres. “That’s like seeing a light bulb burn out. I’ve been in big theaters and I’ve seen it.”
Once Berman shared the story with his fellow actors, it became legend. “It’s not quite chance that they name the ghost, because the show they were doing was Blithe Spirit. The name of the ghost in Blithe Spirit was Elvira. So, there we have the makings of an urban legend.”
It’s almost weekly that Scharres hears from ghost hunters, curious high school students and paranormal sensitives. When the theater was renovated, several patrons dedicated a seat to Elvira, in the approximate location of the seat that Berman saw move. While it’s all nice publicity, Scharres says, there are no ghosts here.
“I always tell them that we hear creaks and bumps in the night, and every time I go to investigate them, it costs me money,” he laughs. “The last bump in the theater cost me $30,000.”
But in Elgin, the best bumps in the night are reported on the site of Channing Elementary School, just west of downtown. Ghost stories online suggest that the school is haunted and has cold spots, unexplained noises and eerie footsteps.
The stories are rooted in the fact that the school sits atop Elgin’s first cemetery. Opened in 1844, the Channing Street Cemetery was the city’s only burial ground, until Bluff City Cemetery opened in 1888. By the 1900s, the area had become overgrown; by the 1920s, plans were made to transform the land into a public park, but burials continued anyway.
Channing Street Cemetery was officially closed in 1945, but not all of the remains were removed. When the school was built there in 1968, several bodies were discovered on-site. Before an addition was built in 1998, state archaeologists discovered two full skeletons and 13 graves. Only one marked grave remains, that of a former Elgin National Watch Co. employee who died in 1885.
Urban Legends, or: Totally Tall Tales
Have you heard the one about the haunted road, where a school bus full of kids was hit by a train?
That’s the story of many a quiet country drive, including Munger Road, near Wayne. Legend suggests that if you put baby powder on your bumper and stall on the tracks, you’ll see the small handprints of children pushing the car.
The story inspired filmmaker Nick Smith, whose 2011 horror film Munger Road was filmed locally. The thriller is about a group of teens who explore the legend, with terrifying results.
Like Munger Road, most of these urban legends aren’t true, but they’re fun to tell anyway.
There’s the one about a submerged train at the bottom of Crystal Lake. Every so often, school kids visit the library, asking to research the train. Crystal Lake Public Library technical assistant Alice Hayes can’t much help – the story isn’t true. It stems from an ice house that used to operate on the lake.
“They’d cut ice and load it onto the train, and that’s how they’d get it to town,” says Hayes. “The story says that in the winter, they’d extend the tracks onto the lake when it iced over, and then one day, when the ice wasn’t strong enough, the train fell in.”
Diana Kenney, president and co-founder of the Crystal Lake Historical Society, is skeptical. “I’ve scoured newspapers and I’ve seen nothing, unless it was before 1870, when the newspaper started,” she says. “Even then, I’d expect to see some evidence. I have absolutely no proof that there’s a train down there.”
Kenney believes the story began in the 1970s. “There had been a couple of divers in the lake about 30 or 40 years ago, and they said they thought they saw a train car or engine at the bottom of the lake,” she says. “But nothing’s ever been dredged, and even though there was ice harvesting, they would never put tracks on the ice.”
Kenney has debunked other whoppers, too, like the one online about the historical society’s headquarters, the Colonel Palmer House, built in 1858.
“The websites [about haunted locations] say Colonel Palmer ran an orphanage, and you can still hear the children’s screams in the basement,” she says. “He never had an orphanage there – there were never any kids there besides his own. That one just frosts me, because it’s painting a negative picture of this upstanding man, and evidence of his work is everywhere. I find their stories offensive.”
With the historical society based in Palmer’s former home, Kenney has spent a great deal of time there, and neither she nor her colleagues have encountered paranormal activity. “I’ve been at the Palmer House alone at night, in the morning – all times of day – and have never had any unusual things happen there,” she says.
It’s not the only online inaccuracy. Some stories suggest that Elgin State Mental Hospital is shuttered, and is ripe for ghost hunting. The hospital, in fact, is still fully operational, and “No Trespassing” signs are clearly posted.
Share a Story
Whether or not you believe in ghosts, it’s still fun to share the surprising stories of our local history and the products of our collective imagination.
“People like to be connected,” says Pfannkuche. “I was watching TV, and Tiger Woods is signing lots of peoples’ hats. I thought, ‘Why do they want a signature?’ That signature says, ‘I stood next to a famous person.’ So Capone’s famous. My family had connections to Capone, to Dean O’Banion. It’s fun.”
Editor’s Note: Many of these locations are private property and do not welcome ghost hunters.