My turn

Learning about our hometown through ghost stories

2011-05-25T00:00:00Z Learning about our hometown through ghost storiesBy Jennifer Pallay Times Columnist
May 25, 2011 12:00 am  • 

For my husband's 29th birthday, I wanted to plan an outing he would always remember.

I found a company's website that offered private bus tours of Chicago. But these were not regular tours, these tours focused on the "weird" stories of Chicago's history. It seemed like a good fit.

A few weeks later, as we boarded a small black bus that had "Haunted Tours" written on the side in an eerie font, I knew I had made the right choice.

The tour lasted three hours and included stops at a haunted alley, drinks at a few haunted pubs and hearing ghost stories along the way. Many of our stories were tailored to the birthday boy and his firefighting friends. Did you know there is a theory that the great Chicago fire of 1871 started from a meteorite? Neither did I, and it sure made a fascinating story.

"Our first stop will be Death Alley," Sunny, our tour guide, said as we drove around the Chicago theater district. That definitely didn't sound like a place a regular tour bus would take passengers.

We passed the Oriental Theater, where millions of Chicagoans, including me, saw "Wicked" during its long run here. Sunny told us this was at one time the site of another theater, a theater with a deadly history.

A 1903 fire at that theater, named the Iroquois and ironically hailed as "fireproof" by its builders, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people. There were countless mistakes made in its design and tons of missteps the day of the fire that contributed to the horrible deaths of many women and children who were there seeing a show over Christmas break.

Ghost aficionados say it's still haunted and that patrons and workers at the Oriental Theater often hear children screaming and crying and see strange things in the alley. So, of course, that's where we headed with our cameras ready to capture something from beyond. We took a lot of pictures, but nothing appeared for us. We found out that not only did people jump to their deaths from the theater in this alley, but that in later years they also jumped to their deaths from the parking garage across the alley.

That parking garage used to be the family court's parking lot and our guide said many people threw themselves from the garage after getting bad news in court. She showed us stains on the ground and said they were human stains (apparently, you can tell because stomach acid never comes out). I'm pretty sure some of our friends stopped to take pictures of the body stains, but I was on my way to the bus, mentally preparing for the next destination.

We next stopped at the present day Fado Irish Pub, but this spot was once a house where a rich couple lived. The husband had a problem remaining faithful so the wife decided that in order to make him realize how much he loved her, she would set the house on fire and save his life. The crazy plan didn't work because she set her nightgown on fire by accident and died, burning the house to the ground with her. They say if you look in the mirrors of the women's restroom at Fado, you'll often see her behind you in her nightgown. The girls all went in but none of us saw her.

We next drove toward the North Side of the city and as we passed by Lincoln Park Zoo, our guide told us how the entire area was once the city cemetery. As the city grew, they eventually realized they shouldn't be putting corpses near the water supply so some of the bodies were moved. But some weren't. She said they guesstimate there are 20,000 bodies beneath Lincoln Park, including a silver casket beneath the petting zoo at Lincoln Park Zoo itself.

We drove by the Biograph Theater where John Dillinger was shot, and we passed by a former factory where the then sausage king of Chicago disposed of his wife by putting her in the sausage vat. They say her ghost still walks the streets but even though she disappeared May 1, 1897, and our tour was May 1, 2011, we did not see any sad-looking ghosts traveling the street.

Our last two stops were a bar that used to be a funeral home and a bar that is supposedly one of the most haunted spots in Chicago. She said they often catch orbs in photos, see things fly off the wall or have cameras break or lights flicker. We saw nothing, except a TV telling us Osama Bin Laden was dead.

The tour turned out to be a success. My husband loved the stories, our zany bus driver and our funny tour guide. He said, "I liked my obnoxious birthday," and it doesn't get much better than that.

The opinions are solely those of the writer. She can be reached at


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