Cemeteries and Chicago and History and Music and Outside Chicago and Southwest Suburbs/Chicago24 Apr 2016 07:10 pm

By Dan Kelly

Steve Salter praises forgotten men.

For some 20 years the Michigan resident has made a mission to provide headstones for deceased bluesmen with unmarked graves. Blazing a thin trail through the Midwest, the sixtyish blues fan has helped mark the last resting places of performers like Otis Spann, Big Maceo Merriweather, “Hound Dog Taylor“, Washboard Sam, Charley Jordan, and others. But for every one commemorated, more remain, still laying unknown in the earth. Salter wants to rectify that by leaving markers at all his musical heroes’ gravesites.

“I just want to see that they get proper recognition,” he explains by phone. “Lying in an unmarked grave is not proper recognition.”


Death and the blues are inextricably linked. Within every blues musician’s repertoire—amidst the howls, growls, notes, and chords about wicked women, bad booze, life’s cruelty, and more—lurks the Grim Reaper. But no matter how bad a bluesman was (or how bad he claimed to be), many begged that their mortal remains be treated kindly. Supposed satanic soul-seller Robert Johnson pled to be buried by the highway, allowing his “old evil spirit” to catch a Greyhound bus. Blind Willie McTell’s rounder in “Dying Crap-Shooter’s Blues” requested that his grave be dug with the ace of spades, a deck of cards serving as his tombstone. Down in Texas, Blind Lemon Jefferson plaintively asked that his grave be kept clean. As it stands, Lemon’s and others’ pots have yet to be located, much less maintained. All the more reason why Salter and kindred spirits have made it their business to find and mark those we do know about.

Music looms large in Salter’s life. He shared one particularly sharp childhood memory of falling asleep while listening to his “grandfather’s old radio with the green eye.” First experiencing the blues the way most white Baby Boomers did—the British Invasion—he followed a liner note trail and discovered names like Willie Dixon, Sunnyland Slim, and Muddy Waters. Record store excavations led to new discoveries, and soon he was hooked. After years of  ollecting music and attending shows, Salter founded Killer Blues, selling CDs and t-shirts on the blues festival circuit, while maintaining his day job designing parts for an car factory in Whitehall, MI.

A 1997 road trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival inspired the gravestone project. Salter took the scenic route, stopping in Chicago to pay homage to his favorite performers who’d passed on. Visiting a pre-scandal Burr Oak Cemetery—last resting place of Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Dinah Washington, Emmet Till, and other African-Americans of note—he was shocked to discover Spann’s grave unmarked.

“I couldn’t understand how somebody who I thought was huge in the blues wouldn’t have a headstone,” Salter told me by phone. That same day he drove a short distance west to Restvale, another black cemetery housing the remains of Muddy Waters, “Hound Dog” Taylor, Magic Sam, and others. Waters’ modest gravestone—a simple granite marker bearing his real name, McKinley Morganfield, and a picture of a guitar—surprised him, but he was more disturbed at the absence of any memorial for Taylor, an idol of his. Salter made his way to New Orleans, pondering what he’d seen. After the festival, he returned home to Whitehall and fired off a letter to Blues Review magazine about Spann’s lack of a marker. Blues Review’s readers and editors agreed it was an onerous omission. Money flowed in from across the globe, and a stone was purchased, etched with a keyboard and sporting the epitaph:

“Otis played the deepest blues we ever heard

He’ll play forever in our hearts”


They held a ceremony and a marker was laid, and for many of the participants that was that. But not for Salter:

“I couldn’t stop. I found too many guys who didn’t have markers, and so I vowed to do something.”

Salter’s next honoree was “Hound Dog” Taylor. A fixture on Maxwell Street and in West Side blues clubs during the 50s through the 70s, the Hound played slide on cheap Japanese electric guitars, and had an extra finger on his left hand to boot. He passed in 1975. While not a household name, he was one of Salter’s idols, and he called the guitarist’s label, Alligator Records, reaching owner Bruce Iglauer.

“[Iglauer] thought that there was a stone, and apparently it never got placed. And so we talked back and forth and Hound Dog eventually did get his headstone.” No ceremony was involved this time.


The more contemporary a performer, the easier it is to find his last resting place. The Internet, of course, has simplified the lives of tombstone tourists—people who enjoy visiting cemeteries—through sites like Find a Grave and Dead Blues Guys. But not every blues performer has been located and marked. Records have been lost, memories have grown fuzzy, friends and family members have died themselves, and oftentimes a bluesman was simply planted in a potter’s field or old churchyard and forgotten. Word of mouth in the music community powers Salter’s searches. Salter cites Chicago piano player Erwin Helfer as a source. The two met some time ago when Salter sent him a letter asking about drummer Odie Payne.

“Whenever I meet any musician, especially in Chicago, the first thing I do is ask him, ‘Do you know where this guy is buried?’ Erwin doesn’t have an e-mail. He has a Web site but he doesn’t have an e-mail. So, the only way you can communicate with him is via snail mail. So I sent him one of my calendars and a short little letter saying who I was and [does he] know where any of these individuals are located?”

Three months later, Helfer wrote back. He wanted to help but didn’t know where any of Salter’s subjects were, though he did know Payne’s daughter. He passed along her phone number. Salter called over the course of a month, eventually reached her, and outlined his intentions to honor her father. She appreciated the gesture, but explained that Payne already had a headstone, and directed him to where it was located.

“That’s very rewarding too,” says Salter. “Here’s another guy that’s no longer lost. At least, to me he was lost, because there didn’t seem to be any information out there that I could get a hold of… I was there last week at the cemetery and took a photograph of the headstone.” Mr. Payne rests at Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago’s South Side, in good musical company with Little Brother Montgomery, Junior Wells, and Georgia Tom Dorsey.

Big Maceo Merriweather’s grave was his first challenge. The WWII era singer and pianist passed away in 1953, seven years after a stroke ended his career at age 48. Salter located Merriweather in Detroit Memorial Cemetery in Warren, MI. Salter took a methodical approach that he sticks with to this day. On a cemetery expedition he’ll befriend the groundskeepers and office workers, asking if they’re aware of a performer’s location. Speaking with the Detroit Memorial Cemetery people about setting up a gravestone, but a new concern arose.

“It always can be a touchy thing because I’m not family… First we have to see if we can find family, and I have yet to find family for any of the ones that I’ve purchased stones for.”

Usually, he’s asked to sign a waiver stating that if a family member appears and objects to a marker, the stone has to go. “I’m fine with that,” said Salter, adding, “It hasn’t happened yet.”

After two years of work and negotiations, Salter was permitted to place Big Maceo’s headstone. During that time he searched and traveled further. More turned up. In Chicago there was Walter Vinson of the Mississippi Sheiks at Holy Sepulcher in Hillside, IL; Luther Tucker, back in Restvale Cemetery; and so on. The project continued to grow. Killer Blues switched from being a small-time business to a nonprofit foundation in 2005. Alongside getting familial and cemetery officials’ approval, the project faces another ongoing challenge: raising money. One way to raise dough is a yearly calendar featuring gravestone photos sold on the Killer Blues site. Salter also brings in cash by hosting blues shows in his hometown, starring local performers. The project has done well enough to place 53 markers in the past dozen years

Once permission is acquired, creating and placing the stone is a collaborative process with the cemetery personnel. With Washboard Sam, buried in Washington Memory Gardens Cemetery in Homewood, IL, followed the pattern. First, found it was best to buy locally.

“Most often the cemetery has a connection to someone who makes stones,” he explains. “I ask them who would they prefer that I use for this stone. And they’ll go, ‘Oh, we deal with this person,’ and I say, ‘Okay, then that’s who I will deal with.'”

The stones lack frills, sticking to a basic combination of name, birth and death dates, either a nickname or the designation “BLUESMAN,” and an appropriate graphic. Most get guitars or keyboards. Johnny “Daddy Stovepipe” Watson, and “Stagger Lee” inspiration/murderer “Stag”  Lee Shelton received their trademark chapeaus—Watson a top hat, and Shelton a Stetson. Robert “Washboard Sam” Brown got a washboard topped by…a round thing.

“Generally, I have a design in mind. With Washboard Sam—if you’ve seen any of the one or two pictures of him out there—he’s holding a washboard that has a circle on it. I don’t know if it’s some kind of a resonator or what, but I wanted that washboard on his headstone. So, I presented a hand drawing and said this is kind of what I want.”

He refers to the stones as “entry-level.” Flat, modest, granite, and a uniform size of 12 inches by 24 inches by 4 inches thick, Salter guesstimates a typical cost of about $800. Washboard Sam’s was $835.16. When the stones are placed, Salter does it with little fanfare. He’ll drive a stone to a cemetery, but usually doesn’t stay to see it placed. While celebrating performers, he has no interest in the limelight.

The first time we spoke, I asked Salter if he knew of anybody else doing this kind of work, and if he interacted with them. No. For many years it was just him, his wife, and a few friends.

“I did talk with people from the Detroit Blues Society, because there’s a number of blues artists in the Detroit area that don’t have headstones. One of them was Calvin Frazier. I’ve talked to them about that and they’ve taken it upon themselves to have a fundraiser to get a headstone for him.” (The stone has since been placed).

There are others. For example, Arlo Leach of Portland, OR, a website designer and jug band performer aficionado. Leach raised money with benefits at the Old Town School of Folk Music for gravestones for Will Shade (Shelby County Cemetery in Memphis, TN) and the McCoy brothers, Papa Charlie and Kansas Joe, (resting in Restvale Cemetery under their newly provided stones).

Like Salter, I have a mania for visiting  graves, and 10 years ago I made a road trip to the Deep South for barbecue and dead blues performers. Throughout the Delta I saw several stones arranged by the Mount Zion Memorial Fund. Formed by Skip Henderson in 1989 to prevent foreclosure on the Mount Zion Church in Morgan City, MS, and to raise a cenotaph to Robert Johnson (supposedly buried there, but no one knows for sure), the fund has gone on to provide markers for Charley Patton, Elmore James, Memphis Minnie, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Tommy Johnson, and others. The fund isn’t just about grave markers. It’s about preserving southern African-American culture and history. Over the decades, black churches and their graveyards were slowly appropriated by surrounding white landowners, plucked of stones, then plowed under or paved over. On my own expedition through the Mississippi Delta, my favorite prewar  bluesmen required some roadwork to reach. With Charley Patton’s grave (kindly paid for with a donation from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty) I found myself standing in a dusty field, stripped of crops and wispy with red soil and dry grass. A few ordinary basic and homemade stones surrounded Patton’s taller one, which simply indicated he was buried around there…somewhere. The Mount Zion Memorial Fund and its gravestones make a sharp point on the cultural landscape as well, reminding people about what’s been lost and who’s been ignored, even as the modern world profited from the music generated by the region.


Compared with Salter’s honorees, Patton, Johnson, and the other original Delta bluesmen are untouchable historical wraiths floating through Greil Marcus’ Old, Weird America (a phrase I think I’m required by law to mention in an article like this)—real-life, tall-tale figures on par with Johnny Appleseed and John Henry. Salter’s subjects are different. He deals not with legendary revenants, but rather post-Great Migration performers. Semi-famous musicians’ musicians and respected sidemen who played night clubs and worked day jobs, with life stories noticeably lacking in satanic pacts.

With the exception of Burr Oak—one deeply hopes—urban and suburban blues performers’ graves, whether marked or unmarked, remain intact and undisturbed. Compared with the Delta, they’re more accessible too, concentrated in the city’s South Side and southwestern suburbs. Still, it’s doubtful  they’re tourist draws for anyone but the most devoted fan. My son and I made a trip to Washboard Sam’s grave several years ago on a chill bastard of a winter’s day when he was two years young. We arrived and I snapped my shots, and within a minute he asked in begging, broken toddler language, “Back in car now?” I agreed. Our tribute was brief, but it was something. Which seems to be Salter’s goal.


Do the bluesmen appreciate Salter’s work and sacrifice? Don’t be ridiculous—they’re dead. Do their families appreciate it? The few living descendants Salter has encountered have been amenable, but most performers without markers invariably had no families to mourn and memorialize them, and probably lacked the funds. Salter’s work is for fans like himself. Gratitude motivates Salter, though he worries that he might be seen as putting on airs, or shaming those who might have provided stones, but didn’t.

“My goal’s not to embarrass anybody or to put anybody down for what they’re not doing. And somehow it calls attention, at least in my mind, that…there’s a lot of Chicago blues guys that don’t have stones. And there’s a lot of Chicago people making money off the blues that could easily do this. But…” He pauses. “I don’t try to judge why other people aren’t doing what they’re doing, or doing what they are, I’m just trying to do what I’m doing.”

“I’ve been pretty fortunate in my life and this is a way for me to give something back. It makes me feel good and I tell people that I do that and I suggest that they find a way to give something back in their life. Irregardless of what the purpose is, but find a way to give something back. Make the world a better place for all of us.”

Note: My apologies to Steve for the unconscionably long delay in writing this. I had some writer’s block issues these past few years. That’s an essay all by itself.

Chicago and Museums and Old Photos and Old Town05 Aug 2015 05:53 pm

One of my favorite parts of running this blog is hearing from folks with memories and, even better, photographs of the subjects I cover. I like the sites that pore over city records and architectural plans, but some forget that people make up a city too. In a strange parallel, I’m currently reading ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. I won’t run the exact paragraph, but King makes the nice observation (in this case, for a tiny New Engand town overrun by vampires), that a city is made of three parts: the buildings, the people, and the land. Personally, I view the people as the best source of info, the buildings and the land being poor conversationalists.

Recently, I was contacted by two individuals, Page Townsley and John Mohr, who shared their memories of the museum. It’s heartening to know that bits of the original place still survive. As my original article indicated, many of the props were damaged and/or scattered hither and yon.

Hi Dan!

My name is Page Townsley and I lived at 1511 N. Wells Street in Chicago from 1969 (when I was born) until 1979. I was Googling for 70’s era photos of Old Town and stumbled across your 2013 article about the old Ripley’s Believe it Or Not museum. That place was directly across the street from the building I lived in (believe that or not!) and I went in there fairly often (once all by myself!) and had many of the same surreal experiences that you did. I remember being particularly creeped out by the pair of Chinese shoes that forced women’s toes into grow into a conical point!

It was great hearing the names of all the places that were there on Wells when I lived there. I remember well Piper’s Alley, the wax museum, the Fudge Pot, Crystal Pistol, Bizarre Bazaar, Granny Goodfox and many of the other places that were in Old Town. Sadly none of those things are there anymore (except the Fudge Pot). Our old building was torn down sometime between 1994 and 2003. Condos are there now.

Anyway. thanks you for the article and the memories!


Page Townsley


Page might be able to provide another photo of the famous faucet illusion in the museum’s foyer. Stay tuned.


John Mohr sent two e-mails, which I’ve reproduced below:

Hi Dan,

I recently ran across your article on the Chicago Ripleys Believe it or Not museum. I just wanted to let you know that Chang Tung is alive and well on the northwest side. I was lucky enough to get him when they closed down and still have the Tribune article which pictures him at the sale. He was only 100 bucks, and I have had him ever since.

Thank you for writing a great piece on the museum, it was my favorite place to go when I was young.




Follow-up letter:

Hi Dan,

I included a few more pics. The one shows the newspaper article, which shows Chang at the sale. Notice the price tag hanging from the candle. The other one shows the booklets you could buy at Ripley’s. That’s Chang above the shrunken head. And maybe a better pic of Chang plugged in, you can see the flickering light from the candle. Actually, it’s the same bulb.

The lettering on the marker is all hand done. I was at work in Elk Grove Village that day, and over the radio, I forget what station, they announced they were selling off the displays at Ripley’s. I grabbed my buddy and high tailed it down to Wells street. In my mind I was hoping to get the shrunken heads and the miniatures. Unfortunately those were headed to another museum. So I grabbed Chang Tung, the spider webs still attached, and now had to figure out how to get him to my car which was three blocks away. We carried him flat, straight down Wells and the media people were filming us. I asked them not to show photos of us as we had ditched work to pull this off. They agreed and used that inside photo in their story. That’s not me looking at the price tag in the newspaper photo, I snatched him up the second that guy walked away.

You certainly can use the photos or whatever as you wish. I just wanted a piece of Chicago history and Chang Tung was a no brainer. We went there as kids with the scouts and as we got older we took our girlfriends there on dates. Always will be my favorite Chicago museum. Let me know if you do do a follow up story.

Thanks Again,






Architecture and Chicago and Demolition and Loop11 Jul 2014 04:01 am


















































Architecture and Art and Chicago and Logan Square and Loop and Louis Sullivan and The Hidden10 Jul 2014 06:03 pm

When not committing crimes against humanity, Hitler committed smaller ones against aesthetics. But while we owe him thanks for rendering toothbrush mustaches eternally unsavory, the man was a semiotic son of a bitch for taking the innocent swastika—a millennia-old symbol associated with power, energy, luck, divinity, and the life-giving sun—and turning it into a symbol of unfathomable evil. Argue all you want by citing which way the arms spin, Native American handicraft, and disconcerting/hilarious vintage photos, when most people see that crippled cross, their heads will fill with visions of jackboots and death camps. Naturally, that makes it all the more startling when the symbol turns up in our local architecture.

Until Hitler and his thugs reversed and dubbed it the Hakenkreuz (“hooked cross”) the swastika was a perfectly nice symbol. Historically and worldwide, it pops up in every culture. Deriving its name from the Sanskrit svastika—meaning “well-being” per Merriam-Webster—while modern folks immediately picture a cross with four branches bent at 90° angles, “turning” rightwards, the swastika comes in assorted shapes and sizes. You’ll find it in Buddhist and Hindu rites and temples; British heraldry; ancient Greek, Trojan, and Roman buildings and mosaics; native American arts and crafts (where it’s known as the “whirling log” among the Navajo); and, in its allegedly oldest incarnation, a 10,000 year old carving on a Ukrainian mammoth tusk. Sometime between the 1890s and 1920s, the symbol began to appear in company logos, clothing, medals, and elsewhere across North America. Architecture did not go unstamped.

There’s no hard and fast reason why the swastika became so popular back then. Contemporary archaeological digs may have had a hand in it, as 1890s and 1900s discoveries spurred revivals in decoration and forms. Explorations of the Pharaohs’ tombs in 1920s Egypt inspired Chicago’s Graceland and Rosehill Cemeteries’ obelisks, pyramids, and sphinx-attended mausoleums and tombs, and more eye-poppingly at the Reebie Storage Warehouse on North Clark Street. Swastikas were likewise carried over with the day’s humdrum obsession with neoclassicism/Italian renaissance revivalism. Rich folks requested their own (fingers crossed!) eternally standing Egyptian, Roman, and Greek edifices, so architects of the day carried over the conceits of the aforementioned styles. Others probably supported the symbol’s status as a good luck symbol—but why we don’t see horseshoes, four leaf clovers, and rabbit feet around town is unclear. Perhaps the swastika, like egg and dart patterns and dentils, was a simple yet striking way to decorate borders, friezes, and cornices. It may well be that people just thought the swastika looked awesome—though not in the way today’s racists do.

Tastes shifted. Sometime in the 20s, European nationalist groups adopted the symbol. Among these was the National Socialist Party, regrettably headed by a leader with art school background. Imagine the dismay of the world’s designers, companies, and architects, who’d placed swastikas every which way before Hitler came to power (though some showed feisty adherence to their brands). During the build-up to the war, materials with swastikas on them were often destroyed in shows of patriotism, while post-WWII the stigmatized swastika was obliterated or redesigned on many public and private buildings. Not everywhere. Cost, tradition, and a lack of angry protesters and the desire to deface public structures saved some swastikas—and it probably helped if they were the “good” left-rotating kind. Detroit’s Penobscot Building, for example, features a Native American tribute motif with legitimate, left-rotating swastikas.

In Chicago there aren’t many swastikas adorning public structures, but they’re there if you look for them. And you HAVE to look—usually up and out of the way.

Tessellating friezes are the most common way for the swastika to hide in plain sight in the Windy City. The proper term is the meander or Greek key design. Most often meanders appear in structures from the 10s and 20s, usually running the building’s perimeter a floor or three up amidst less memorable ornamentation. The middle building in the Gage Group (24 S. Michigan Ave.) features one, which most people probably miss while gazing at Louis Sullivan’s facade next door at 18 S. Michigan Ave. Evidence of Chicago architectural firm Holabird and Roche’s National Socialist sympathies? Not in the 1890s when they were built.





Columbia College’s Congress-Wabash Building (33 E. Congress Building), designed by Alfred S. Alschuler (who turns up later in this article), not only has a stylized swastika pattern but a set of terra-cotta Roman fasces for good measure.


Metropolitan Tower (formerly the Straus Building when constructed in 1924 by the firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White) at 310 S. Michigan Ave. features another Greek key border, though these are broken up by squarish flower ornaments. The Tower is a swirl of symbology that would keep any conspiracy theorist awake at night. Aside from the swastikas, the building is capped by a pyramid topped by four bison statues holding a 20-foot glass ornament in the shape of a beehive on their backs. The “beehive, “symbolizing industry, is actually a multifaceted light fixture containing six 1,000 watt bulbs. Unless you have binoculars, none of this is viewable from the ground, but the beacon’s glow continues to burn blue each night.





Meanwhile, in an opposite corner of the Loop, the Builder’s Building (222 N. LaSalle) bears markings similar to the Metropolitan Tower’s. Not surprising, since they shared a firm in Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. Perhaps they bought in bulk.


Elsewhere, at Navy Pier, Bubba Gump shrimp-seeking tourists may double-take at the meandering swastikas decorating the towers of the Charles Sumner Frost designed building (1914). Only a few are visible, the rest of the frieze covered by a shield ornament.



Arguably, Greek key/meanders are swastika-inspired, perhaps, but not swastikas proper. Some meanders go without the distinctive broken cross shape (see the Marquette Building’s second floor for an alternate pattern).


Those seeking singular swastikas, however, must crane their necks to see them. The Baha’i House of Worship up in Wilmette is one place. It features swastikas (closer to fylfots than Hakenkreuz) toward the tops of its nine pillars, representing both Buddhism and Hinduism and sharing each pillar with a Christian cross, Hebrew Star of David, Muslim star and crescent, and the Baha’i nine pointed star.

Back downtown, the Bank of America Building’s (230 S. Clark St.) meanders periodically turn into left-spinning swastikas, with two set off at each corner. Once again, another 20s building (1924) built by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White.



At the northeast edge of the Loop, we find an even more surprising swastika-decorated structure. Fans of Perfect Strangers—may God forgive you—will recognize Balki and Cousin Larry’s workplace the “Chicago Chronicle,” in Alfred S. Alschuler’s London Guarantee Building (360 N. Michigan Ave). Credit sequence footage and cutaway shots likely never showed the men gaping up with shock at the very distinct swastikas in the meander running across the building’s Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue sides. At the time of writing, most of the swastikas are covered by trellises, but if you stand beneath them on the Wacker Drive side you can see a few. Alshuler, interestingly, was a student of Dankmar Adler’s, and also designed several Chicago synagogues (among other buildings), including the sanctuary for Hyde Park’s ‪KAM Isaiah Israel‬ synagogue.




If there’s a category for “lost” swastikas, Huehl and Schmidt’s 1912 Medinah Temple (600 N. Wabash Ave.) would head it. The Shriner clubhouse’s floors once featured good luck swastikas inlaid in the floor tiles before being carpeted over at some point. I recall visiting and seeing them in the late 80s. Photographic evidence has yet to turn up, but the swastikas have been noted elsewhere. I have no idea if Bloomingdale’s preserved them under the current flooring, and I doubt a phone call would garner further information.

Leaving downtown (and aside from the Baha’i House of Worship mentioned above) swastikas are scarce. Who’s to say how many were demolished, painted, or bricked over before and after the war? However, two surprising examples stand out in Logan Square. One house that likely continues to startle passers- and drivers-by is 2711 N. Kimball. A cheerful little red-bricked building with a charming peaked facade and not one but eight chipper little swastikas skipping above the lower cornice. The house was built in 1906, and while I’m no expert, owing to Logan Square’s formerly large Scandinavian population, I’d say it was designed by some jolly burgher to emulate architecture from the old country.



A similar house turns up a few blocks away on Central Park Ave. Built in 1916 or 1920 (sources vary), it’s basically the same design, though it lacks 2711 N. Kimball’s panache. The peaked facade is absent, the bricks a duller shade, and the swastika in the southeast corner is weirdly muddled. A failed attempt to eliminate the symbol’s stigma? Not the first, and probably not the last, attempt to do so in this town or elsewhere.



Architecture and Chicago and Irving Park and Jefferson Park and Mayfair26 Jun 2014 07:08 pm

Examples of lovely light green terracotta and/or brick around the Mayfair, Jefferson Park, and Old Irving park neighborhoods. Click to expand. I’ll try to dig for more information.












Chicago and Crime and History and Museums and Old Town09 Jul 2013 07:17 pm


The long-gone Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum on Wells Street was my first direct exposure to humanity’s heart of weirdness. I’m not exaggerating when I describe my visits to the place as transformative.

From an early age I’ve always liked strangeness. If it’s scary, unexpected, or bizarre, I’m fascinated by it. Some kids were jocks, others were nerds. I was a weirdo. Over time, it reflected itself in my readings, writings, and collections, giving pause to peers and family members who practiced normalcy. Whenever my father questioned my peculiar interests though, Mom would level her gaze and answer, “Well, Berni, he came by it honestly. ”

Too true. On the surface, Dad is a respected businessman and public servant, but from an early age he’d introduced me to plenty of oddness through the personal library he maintained in his basement den. Among the sci-fi and apocalypse-themed fiction, comic strip collections, coffee table editions of old-time Hollywood and horror films, and books covering disaster, war, and other fun stuff, he favored books about the strange and anomalous. We’ve never discussed why, but we really should. It may explain why, during my formative  years, I never indulged in the more obvious rebellions like funny haircuts, confrontational fashion, or substance abuse. Unusual was my normal. I assumed everyone’s dad was like mine—an intelligent and benign weirdo. Like father, like son.

Among Dad’s books were several paperbacks reprinting the cartoons of Robert L. Ripley. I pored over them during my most gullible childhood years, when Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, and King Tut’s curse seemed utterly plausible. I was likewise fueled by readings of DC, Marvel, Charlton, and Gold Key horror comics—through which the Ripley Company published a terrifying (if you’re nine years old) collection of “real” ghost stories. Really, my parents should have known better.

How appropriate then that Dad accompanied me on one of my only two trips to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum on Wells Street, toward the tail-end of the 70s. Some dads took their kids to ball games. My dad took me to Ripley’s. I recently asked him if he remembered our visit. Yes, he did, but he couldn’t provide any specifics. No doubt he simply stood back and let me delightedly run from exhibit to exhibit, agog at the displays of shrunken heads, creepy wax figures, brutal weaponry, and other esoterica. I remember every step. I revisit the museum in my dreams.

And I thank him for it.

Perhaps I exaggerate. Back then, a visit to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum wasn’t too out of the ordinary. If you’re a Chicago kid, there are certain inevitabilities. You liked the Cubs or the White Sox (or, in my case, could care less). You eat your hot dogs with ketchup until age six, before city ordinance banishes the condiment from your red hots forever. And through parental visit or school outing, you end up taking field trips to several locations. The Museum of Science and Industry, for which most Chicagoans my age (45) have fond, fearful memories of the older, darker place, featuring the futuristically gloomy “Hooray for Petroleum!” exhibit/ride, the grim yet loud coal mine, and the giant, walk-through fiberglass heart. Lincoln Park Zoo is another destination, though you may have—as in my southwest suburban case—ended up at Brookfield Zoo more often because parking was easier. The Field Museum is dinosaur bone Mecca for Chicago kidlings, and a trip to the nose-bleeding summits of the John Hancock and Sears Tower were always de rigueur. Some places are no longer with us. As my parents remember Riverview, so I recall Kiddieland, Old Chicago, and Santa’s Village. Gone, gone, gone.

Such was the case with the Ripley’s Museum, another faded field trip memory. Not to be overly dramatic, but it was an experience today’s kids can’t have without mixing a hodgepodge of disturbing exhibits from the MSI, Field Museum, and International Museum of Surgical Sciences, with a few haunted house props and sideshow  and tropes thrown in.

Or, you know, visiting one of the several other Ripley’s museums across the world.

But, dammit, this one was ours.


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The Man

If you haven’t read the newspaper comics section or seen the TV shows, LeRoy Robert Ripley was a cartoonist, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! was the oddly popular comic strip that brought him fame and fortune. Supposedly born on Christmas Day 1890, in Santa Rosa, CA, Ripley had to grow up quickly after his father died. Peripatetic in employment from age 12 on, he took jobs as they came: unloading vegetable wagons, painting houses, polishing gravestones, and other scut work. Art and sports became abiding interests, and eventually he combined the two, pitching semipro baseball and painting posters to advertise the games. At age 14, he sold his first cartoon to LIFE magazine, and by 16 he joined the staff at the San Francisco Bulletin. Injured while trying out for the NY Giants in 1913, Ripley’s baseball dreams ended, but his illustration career took off.

After working for several newspapers, Ripley became the sports cartoonist at the New York Globe. Working against a deadline in December 1918, and scrambling for ideas, he gathered unusual sports trivia about high jumpers, backwards runners, three-legged racers, and the like; illustrated the piece; and dubbed it “Champs and Chumps.” A year later he revisited the idea, but wisely ditched the “Champs and Chumps” title and coined the snappier “Believe It or Not!”. The strip caught on and was syndicated by William Randolph Hearst’s King Features Syndicate. Eventually, Ripley was flush enough to buy a mansion—on his own island no less—and travel the globe, collecting weird stories and knickknacks like a freakier Charles Foster Kane (appropriately, his perambulations were also sponsored by Mr. Hearst).

With the help of his multilingual and wonderfully named research assistant Norbert Pearlroth, a staff of fact-checkers, and the many stories and photos sent to him by fans, Ripley presented bizarro trivia in illustrated form weekly, showing how commonplace oddness could be. How much of it was true? All of it according to the talented Mr. Ripley. But therein lay the brilliance of his catchphrase. You had the choice to believe it…or not.

Ripley lived weirdly and well before dying of a heart attack May 27, 1949, at age 58. He’d amassed and illustrated oddities for years  (though other artists took over the drawing duties), and by his reckoning, he’d traveled to more than 200 countries, playing the role of the eccentric explorer to the hilt by favoring pith helmets and bat-shaped ties. He was Indiana Jones without the doctorate or sex appeal (though his buck teeth and dumpy frame didn’t prevent him from maintaining a string of exotic girlfriends, with several living at the Ripley manse at a time).

The comic was different from most sequential art in the funny pages, with neither a narrative nor a punchline. Just historical, scientific, and anthropological trivia accompanied by an extremely basic illustration. I’d also note that the strip addressed subjects usually off-limits on the comics page—death, war, disaster, murder, the occult, mental illness, extreme body modification, and more. Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson once joked about the absence of human skulls from the comics, but Ripley’s Believe It or Not! had posed corpses between Peanuts an Doonesbury for decades.

The strip was educational in that it taught you things you didn’t know, but its knowledge was mostly applicable to barroom and playground conversations. Perhaps Robert Leroy Ripley never grew up, retaining a view of the world colored by pulp fiction, adventure yarns, and fairy tales. Small wonder then that the museums reflected this aesthetic.



The Museum

The Chicago Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum—indeed most Ripley’s museums—was the sort of place a kid might curate: a weird kid fascinated by the extremes of humanity, nature, and existence. Before he died, Ripley started to move out of newsprint and publishing (with a few Vitaphone forays into film) and into the new medium of television. The new show, hosted by Ripley, didn’t last, because neither did Robert L. Ripley. He collapsed on the set while filming his 13th show (one imagines he’d have appreciated the numerology) and died of a heart attack not long after. I don’t know if he planned to open a chain of museums, but it’s a fact that he didn’t open any himself.

Chicago’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum wasn’t the first. A year after Robert L. died, the first museum opened in St. Augustine, FL. By the time the Chicago museum opened its doors at 1500 N. Wells in 1968, Ripley Entertainment Inc. had already set up two others in Niagara Falls, Ont. and San Francisco, CA.

Chicago does have the distinction of hosting Ripley’s first “Odditorium” exhibit at the 1934 Century of Progress Fair on Northerly Island. If postcards and other ephemera from the exhibit are any indication, the Odditorium was a literal freak show, featuring pieces from Ripley’s collections, as well as living exhibits like Betty Lou Williams and her parasitical twin sister and Freda Pushnik, “The Little Half Girl Born without Arms or Legs.” Other human odds and ends included Hadji Ali, a professional regurgitator; Andrew A. Gawley—who showed how easily he could feed himself with his artificial limbs; and “Ossified Harry,” a “stone man” and likely sufferer of Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (all can be viewed here). Indeed, it was a different time.


1967 postcard of Old Town. Ripley's would have been on the right side several doors down.

1967 postcard of Old Town. Ripley’s would have been on the right side several doors down.

Another view, farther north, near North Ave.

Another view, farther north, near North Ave.

Jumping ahead 30 years, the Chicago Ripley’s museum—to use real estate lingo—perfectly fit Old Town’s “funky” “vibe,””man.” I wasn’t there in the 60s, of course, but most accounts concede that the neighborhood was Chicago’s answer to both Haight and Ashbury and Castro Street. The neighborhood was a folkie and jazz hangout, artists’ haven, and proto-Boystown. Long before Portland and Austin kept it weird, Old Town already was. Eventually, the area became a strange amalgam of adult entertainment businesses, hippie hangouts, tourist traps, and the like. When the Ripley’s Museum opened, Second City had been in business up the street at 1616 N Wells St. for nine years. Everyone from Steve Goodman to Janis Joplin to Miles Davis played the clubs up and down Wells. Down the street one found quirky shops, boites, and entertainment spots like the Royal London Wax Museum, Crate and Barrel’s first store, the Bijou Theater, and the Old Town School of Folk Music back when it was an Old Town folk music school.

Old Town by night. Note the picture of the wax museum.

Old Town by night. Note the picture of the wax museum.


The museum fit right in, standing out amidst a sea of roadside glitz. Modern Ripley’s museums like to look weird. They feature “collapsing” facades, “crashed” airplanes, sharks sticking out of the walls, and whatnot. The Chicago Ripley’s went for a cooler, darker look. The facade was extremely basic, yet striking as hell, fronted by a large illuminated sign of smoked glass and backlit images of the treasures to be found within: Weng the human unicorn; glowering Loo Min, the double-eyed man; an Ecuadoran shrunken head; the White House “made” of dimes; Grimaldi, the saddest of sad clowns; and more glowed luridly onto Wells Street. Slight changes were made to the signage over the years, as testified by the postcard up top and the screen capture below from, of all things, a Wilford Brimley movie: The End of the Line (now appearing on YouTube and, if you can find it, VHS).

The museum opened with a party on the evening of November 21, 1968. Reportedly, more than 500 people showed up. The Trib article covering the gala opened with the memorable optical illusion that greeted thousands of visitors in the lobby for the next 19 years: a giant floating faucet (see photo, snapped by Mr. Bill Rebel in 1976, and graciously donated to this piece). Seemingly suspended in mid-air, the faucet spilled out a thick and endless flow of water into a pebbly pond. It was a simple illusion. A tall, transparent pipe held the faucet in place by the nozzle, blasting water upwards that immediately gushed back down the sides, covering the pipe. As a special effect, it was pretty neat. My classmates and I gaped, trying to find the source of the flow. We knew it was a trick, but we suspended our disbelief even higher than that faucet.


The Trib’s party report provided a familiar litany of attractions mentioned in future articles. The 5.5 inch violin (that plays!); the grain of rice—inscribed with the alphabet!; a miniature gun!; a life-size mahogany statue of a headhunter!; the largest pair of women’s shoes in the whole wide world!; and (gasp!) a two-leaded pencil!. Tenth century Chinese politico Lie Ch’ung (aka Loo Min) the man with two sets of eyes stood by, doubly glaring and rendered in creepy wax form. Slight mention is made of the Ripley Catacombs, the lower area where Ripley’s spookier paraphernalia—the execution and torture devices, the graveyard of wacky epitaphs, and shrunken heads—were kept.

Thanks to Ted Okuda for contributing the Earl of Old Town business card and Loo Min ad.

Opening night was a hit, and the museum did presumably well enough with the locals and tourists over the next year to draw the attention of the local hoodlums. Things got exciting on July 14, 1969, when two men forced assistant manager Pat Tiemann to open the museum safe and stole a thousand bucks. After that, news items about the museum over the next few years are surprisingly unremarkable. On October 11, 1969, the Youth Guidance Council held a party in the Catacombs… to discuss plans for another party. Amidst the styrofoam gravestones for John Yeast (“Pardon Me for Not Rising”) and an Atheist (“All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go”), the council decided to invite Al Hirt to play their “Mardis Gras Carnival” at another famed Chicago weird spot, the Medinah Temple. The social column provided no specifics about the nature of the event, other than that Hirt’s poster was tacked to the wall near the grave of Lester Moore (“Here lies Lester Moore, Four Slugs from a .44, No Les, No Moore”).

A few years passed before the museum popped up in the news again. By the mid-70s, it’d become an off-the-beaten-track place—a weird, kitschy alternative to the usual family excursions and a spot for thrill-seekers. At the same time, management took pains to avoid looking cheesy and/or sleazy. For instance, the November 1, 1973 Trib ran an unusually promotional, not to mention defensive, piece titled “Ripley’s Business Is Booming.” We are informed that:

“Ripley’s officials are sensitive to any implication that they adversely affect an area, or contribute to a ‘honky-tonk’ atmosphere.”


“They note that Ripley’s left…Times Square because of a changed nature there.” (they’ve since returned, ever since the area experienced another nature change by transforming from a tawdry hellhole to a Disneyfied heckhole. It’s a telling article, marking a shift in the nature of the neighborhood and the surrounding area. It certainly wasn’t fair to criticize Ripley’s for turning Old Town into a somewhat musty/seedy gathering of porn shops and triple-X theaters. Old Town did that all by its lonesome.

Following that, my most distinct memory of my first visit was of a giant showgirl painted alongside, I assume, the building at 1447 N. Wells St.—tassels, g-string, top hat, and not much else. As we arrived and parked outside the museum, the boys of St. Damian caught sight of the two-story sexpot and went wild. Myself—less sexually mature than my fellows—I was more startled by the museum itself.

It seemed large to me, but I was smaller then. A skinny Irish-Catholic-American lad from the southwest burbs. The angel-food of my childish innocence was marbled by a chocolate streak of sadistic curiosity. I didn’t blast toads with firecrackers like the nasty kids down the block, but I still stood amazed at that which was gross, scary, and evil. I think Catholicism primes you for it.

I recall a hurried experience. Probably because there were 50 or more of us. I don’t remember which teachers took us or, certainly, why they took us there. Maybe the teachers and principal were as sick of the MSI and Field museums as we were. The trips I best remember were the out-of-the-ordinary ones. Ripley’s; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park home and studio; a tour of Hyde Park culminating in a stop by Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time and Muhammad Ali’s mansion, the bus driver joking that the Champ said he could stop by any time, but, unfortunately, no one was home that day. Darn. We didn’t see or hear-tell of such things in our post-war, organization-man suburb.

I don’t remember the exact dates I first visited the museum. I’m pretty sure both visits happened in 1979 or 1980. The first time was a school trip; the second time my dad drove us up to Old Town after I begged him to take me again. Here’s how I remember my visit.

(Note: I still have a museum guidebook in my possession. Foxing and falling apart everytime I open it, it’s a cheap little print job—filled with black and white photos. A photocopied 90s zine would have better quality pix, but unless a family album filled with Instamatic prints or Polaroids turns up, it’s the best visual record of the Chicago Ripley’s museum we have left. I’ve shared a few here.)

I recall the museum wasn’t made for meandering. You ascended a set of stairs, turned, and then headed left at the first entrance. The path past the exhibits (most stationed behind glass, set in the walls trophy case style) zigged and zagged and turned, but mostly you walked in one direction from entrance to exit.

The first display was a wax statue of Mr. Ripley, sitting at his desk, poring over stacks of letters and photographs. As I recall, it looked nothing like the man. I still found it fascinating—this balding, anachronistically dressed fellow—taxidermied and propped up like the extinct beasts at the Field Museum. The statue was accompanied by a more sanitized version of the Ripley bio I provided above.

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After Mr. Ripley you came to the Crooked Lane section (I think; something tells me the Circus Sideshow section came first…but that’s just conjecture). The Crooked Lane confused me. The guidebook claimed “our street is…crooked, but straight” (meaning true). My schoolmates and I wondered if, through trickery, the jagged path before us was some kind of optical illusion. Neither irony nor subtleties of language had come to Oak Forest yet. In memory, I think I’ve conflated the Crooked Lane with the Museum of Science and Industry’s Yesterday’s Main Street exhibit. I suspect the resurrection of yesteryear through Ye Olde shop fronts was a museum trend at the time—they pop up in museums more often than you might imagine. The Crooked Lane’s exhibits were presented through similar old-timey shop windows, on a cobbled street shrouded in simulated gaslight.

Most of the museum’s non-creepy exhibits were on display here, though the occasional horror crept in. The Boot ‘n’ Shoe shop displayed “Scandinavian peasant’s slippers made out of tree bark”; Henry VIII’s nausea-inducing “gout shoes”; the aforementioned size 28 ladies shoes; and a “sabot,” a wooden shoe supposedly useful for destroying machinery (hence, “sabotage”; someone contact Mythbusters). One memorable exhibit was the $50,000 shoe. Made from the shredded remains of old US bank notes, it was a testimony to Ripley’s status as a weirdness/useless crap magnet. Employees at the US Treasury Department took the shredded remans of old bills, presumably glued them into shoe form, and sent it to him—for some damn reason. I remember it sitting under a single light, presented like the Hope Diamond. Truthfully, it looked like a baby shoe that ended up in a dog’s mouth. More than anything else in the museum, this exhibit made me ask “Why?” Did the Treasury frequently make greenback shoes? Have they made more since? To quote Robert Ripley, “I have found no greater oddity than man!” In the case of the frivolousness and vapidity of the $50,000 show you have to sit back and wonder what the hell its creators was thinking.

Yup, a skull bowl.

The music shop featured the world’s smallest violin, not sarcastically playing its sorrows for you. It seems Ripley’s Entertainment Inc. has an even smaller one now, measuring at a centimeter in length. Moving on, Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe brought the thunder. Displays included the katar, a knife resembling a psychotic set of triple-bladed garden shears that one would fold up, stick in the victim, and let spring open to release a geyser of human giblets. Then there was the Tibetan human skull bowl (“made from the skull of a saint”!), and a human skin mask from the Ekoi tribe of Nigeria. Yikes. Ripley collected such things back in the days when importation and customs laws were more relaxed. According to Wikipedia, shrunken head importation has been illegal since 1940. Sorry, I don’t feel like calling US Customs to confirm that, but their site indicates they’ve been asked before.


Not every exhibit was yucky. In fact, Ripley had an eye for banal wonders. The museum held “A Shoemaker’s Hammer, used continuously for 37 years.” Want more cow bell? The museum held Ripley’s prized humongous Indian oxen bell, which he used as a dinner gong. Out of the ordinary but hardly earth-shattering was the aforementioned “Pencil with Two Leads.” Truly messed-up was his collection of miscellaneous metallic crap found in cows’ stomachs by two earnest Nebraskan abattoir employees. For an extra touch of strange, the collection of “Bullet shells, pins, keys, bottles, screws, nails, buttons, wires, chains, coins…” were arranged in cow-shape on a piece of metal sheeting, and held up by the industrial magnets used to clear cow guts of such scrap metal. Finally, the easily nauseated may have wished they’d avoided the alleged world’s largest hairball: weighing five pounds and change and measuring 30 1/4 inches around. Educational!

As you turned the corner you found the Weird Arts Gallery, repository of common and now (perhaps justifiably) lost and/or unsettling arts and crafts once in the skill set of every homemaker. For example, the 19th and 20th Century human hair wreaths, woven by ladies of the day in commemoration of weddings and funerals. I was drawn to the miniature guillotine, a hideous, primitive, foot-high tiny instrument of death. Built by Devil’s Island prisoner Eugene Roby out of scraps from the prison workshop, it was supposedly sharp enough to amputate a finger. You first.

Folk art got a fair showing at the museum, with apple-headed dolls, beef bone carvings, paintings made of cancelled stamps, a violin and ukulele constructed of spent matchsticks (yet playable!), and chains carved from blocks of wood. Along one wall were displayed several typewriter paintings—pictures made from typing with different color ribbons. Richard Guetl, a Chicagoan, contributed a truly amazing replica of the Columbian Exposition ferris wheel, made of liquid cement, ball bearings, and 14,000 toothpicks. Our ancestors enjoyed copious free time and fewer distractions.


The deeper you went the more sinister things became. The World of Mother Goose and Circus Sideshow exhibits were inhabited by memorably freaky wax statues. Double-eyed Loo Min (aka Lie Ch’ung), “Governor of Shansi and Minister of State in 995 AD” hung out here. Loo Min’s statue was a captivating if horrifying wonder in itself. Modern versions of the Chinese minister in other museums have a more benign and goofy countenance. The Chicago Loo Min was the personification of the Yellow Peril. Moreover, he became a kind of ambassador for the museum, turning up on their trifold brochure, business cards, and at least one comic book cover.


Loo Min occupied space with another Ripley’s notable, the presumably non-wax two-headed calf. I’m convinced I saw the two-headed calf in a Lincoln Avenue antique store in the 90s, and my wife tells me she saw it during a house-walk in Logan Square, but I have no corroboration on that. Loo and the double-headed calf were joined by Grimaldi, the funniest, most depressed clown alive; Simon Pure (real name Simon P. Crone), a sorry bastard who’d never (in 1935) “seen an airplane, ship, wedding, ballgame, or a building more than four stories high…smoked, drank, gambled, danced, played cards, been married, engaged, had a sweetheart or been kissed in his life”; Demetrio Ortiz, who could spin 360° at the waist; Charles Charlesworth, the boy who died of old age at seven years old (likely progeria, except the statue and story presented the young/old Mr. Charlesworth as bearded); and Mother Biddy Cassels, who sat on a hundred chicken eggs until they hatched. A tape-recorded carnival barker yelped overhead, cracking wise about Loo Min “keeping an eye on the competition.” Yeah, that level of humor.

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As you moved on to the Catacombs, I recall the path taking a slight dip, or perhaps a trip down the stairs. Either way a descent was suitable. The Ripley catacombs reminded me of my sneak peeks at the works of Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson, S. Gross, and other “sick” cartoonists in the off-limits section of my dad’s comic strip collection. Gahan Wilson wrote and illustrated an account of a visit to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum’s Chamber of Horrors for Playboy, describing the gore and grue there with horror and delight.


I wanted me some of that, and the Ripley’s Catacombs provided a smattering of waxy terror. The area was creepy as hell. Dark and populated by weirdoes and murderers even more disturbing than the sideshow freaks upstairs. Catacomb inhabitants consisted of grim, murderous, or body-punishing dungeon-dwellers. Like the “Sun Worshipper,” a dude Ripley saw and drew in the Magar Pir leper colony at Karachi. The Sun Worshipper knelt and stared at the sun for a hour every day. I still recall his mustachioed statue, a square of projected light beamed across its face from his slitted cell window. Then there was Chang T’ung the mummified monk/human sconce whose corpse served as a candle holder in his temple for 300 years after his death. I remember being particularly unnerved by Mr. T’ung’s positioning at the end of a short hallway, off to the side. Elsewhere, Ripley loved the hell out of Indian fakirs: the museum had a fellow named Bhumi astride a bed of nails. A year shy of learning about the horrors of John Wayne Gacy’s crawlspace, I recall being numbed at the story and image of Buhram (Behram), member of the Thuggee sect and purported strangler of 931 men. Another eye-opener was Ripley’s personal replica of the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg. Recent scholarship suggests that the Iron Maiden is just the product of active 19th century imaginations, but the quintuple-penetrated victim seen through the slightly opened door of the device was repulsively convincing to my young mind.

One odd prisoner was Alypius, the 17 1/2″ dwarf who was imprisoned in a bird cage, and looking as happy about it as you can imagine. Nearby was the horrifyingly cramped Cell of Little Ease in the Tower of London, just “four foot high, two feet wide, and 16 inches deep,” leaving no room to sit, stand, or lie down. Per the Ripley literature, this was where Gunpowder Plot conspirator and future V for Vendetta/Anonymous/Occupy Wall Street icon was stashed for a time. Fawkes’ wax simulacrum looked like he was performing a very literal mime routine.


And then there were the shrunken heads—set in their own case like Tiffany jewels, I believe. Ah, the shrunken heads. Ripley loved ’em, and managed to gather up a few before the US forbade further importation. Despite this, the man still got laid. We boys gathered around the tsantsa. I don’t know what the girls did. Probably waited their turns. Mummies and grandparents excluded, I hadn’t seen many cadavers on display before then, never you mind preserved parts. As I recall they seemed entirely fake, though maybe that was a psychological shield thrown up by my brain. What I really remember is that they looked dusty, desiccated, and monstrous. Relics of a pulpier time.

In the April 29, 1979 issue of the Trib, we find a rare mention of a more poorly recorded areas of the museum—the utterly nuts Witchcraft Gallery. As it turns out, Ripley’s bought British Wiccan Gerald Gardner’s collection of witchcraft paraphernalia from his high priestess, Monique Wilson, back in 1973, and displayed it at their San Francisco and Gatlinburg, TN, museums. When local religious groups complained about the Gatlinburg “Museum of Witchcraft and Magic,” it was quickly renamed “World of the Unexplained.” I don’t think Chicago got the wax statue of a “skyclad” witch Gatlinburg had, but it was still memorable.

My guidebook makes no mention of the Witchcraft Gallery, which leads me to believe it was a much later addition. Nevertheless, the gallery sticks out in my mind more than any other section. I especially remember its electronic music soundtrack by electronic music composer Richard Kitaeff (no further information available, though a Google search leads me to believe he’s running an oriental medicine clinic now) composed of chants, clings, clangs, crashes, beeps, buzzes, whirrs, and chirps. As my fellow Catholic kids and I entered the room—catercorner to the aforementioned indoor graveyard of quippy gravestones—I remember seeing two long display cases and dozens of objects that resembled props from a 70s Italian horror flick or Night Stalker episode. Here, to my goggling chump’s eyes were “real” voodoo dolls, “real” curse-flinging devices, “real” lucky charms, and the like. It was like sitting in Lucifer’s armory, where he slips into his flak jacket and ass-kicking boots while attaching guns, grenades, and crossbow bolts to his belts with a loud, satisfying “chi-chink” sound. Man, did the nuns rush us out of there. Dad, bless him, let me linger.

Note: The gallery trapped a certain indelible image in my head forever, but that’s another story.

Passing through the graveyard, it seemed like my visit to the museum was over before it began. Unless my memory is faulty, it ended ala Barnum with a sign advertising “This Way to the Egress.” A fitting and appropriately humbuggy way to end a trip to Ripley’s.




“We do deliver a legitimate museum,” former Chicago Ripley’s Museum manager Joseph Long told the Trib. Well, it wasn’t the Smithsonian, but they tried. Aside from the tourists and daytrippers, the clientele reportedly was half school groups like my own, on “educational trips.” That, however, was a mushy description. What the hell kind of educational value did the two-headed calf deliver? What lesson did we learn from Behram? Stay in school? Don’t do drugs? Avoid Kali? Perhaps it wasn’t disingenuous for the museum to claim it had educational value so much as an attempt to distance itself from its increasingly sketchy surroundings.

By 1979, Old Town had become less “quirky” and “funky” and more “skid-rowey.” In an August 3, 1979 column, Aaron Gold of the Trib’s Tower Ticker gossip column reported on the Old Town I remember, its fringes descending into a skeezy strip of sex stores, junkies, and closed businesses. But Chicago always finds a way… to make money. The 80s saw a resurgence, Yuppie dough turned Old Town into the genteel, gentrified area it is today. At the time, the museum still had seven years left to it, though, per Gold, 11 “x-rated bars and bookstores” had recently closed.

By this point, museum mentions had diminished to short blurbs in the Trib’s summer fun and spoooooooooky things to do on Halloween lists. In 1979, one such section promised both “thrills” and “chills” for a pretty reasonable $1.50 for adults/75 cents for kids 12 and under admission. Later on, current arts and jazz critic for the Tribune, Howard Reich wrote a survey piece, the headline of which asked “What’s so Eerie about Chicago?” It covered the usual flapdoodle about Windy City specters like Resurrection Mary and bellowing phantom circus elephants from hell or whatever, at Forest Park’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Aside from the tragic and unsolved murders of the Grimes sisters, the only true horrors were Ripley’s “shrunken heads, mummies, and instruments of torture” which caused “spines to tingle on a daily basis.”

Reich returned February 6, 1981, with a piece on wacky outings with a focus on unusual local museums. For fans of freaky forgotten Chicago, it’s heart-breaking. Once again, Reich recalls Ripley fan favorites like the two-headed calf, the world’s smallest violin, the White House made of 6,057 dimes, the “circus room,” the Catacombs, and the toothpick ferris wheel. Prices had jumped, but you still got your fair share of eccentricity at Ripley’s at $3 for adults, and $1.75 for kids. Reich mentioned other, long-gone Chicago roadside wonders as well. Svoboda’s Nickelodeon Tavern was a south side pub stocked with coin-operated pianos, calliopes, orchestrions, and the like (more info at the links, if you’re a depression-seeking antiquarian). To my black heart’s grief I missed out on the Royal London Wax Museum down the street from Ripley’s at 1419 N. Wells. This tourist trap featured waxen idols of historical figures, 60s–70s celebrities (Burt Reynolds in his Cosmopolitan centerfold pose is mentioned), royalty, and a slew of goons for their own Chamber of Horrors. If the Chicago Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum is poorly commemorated, the wax museum is even more so. One Trib magazine article provides tantalizing and grainy images of Frankenstein’s monster, Al Capone, and others. Alas.

In 1985, Ripley’s Entertainment Inc. was bought by James Pattison (the current owners of Ripley Entertainment Inc.). At the time,  Ripley’s had more than 6,000 employees, sales totaled at $1 billion, and the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! TV show (hosted by Jack Palance and his daughter Holly) had been on the air for three years. By the mid-eighties, the museum was reportedly still doing okay, but the tourists had tapered off. Old Town was gentrifying into a neat and clean yuppie haven, with the head shops, folk bars, porn palaces, and weirdo attractions vanishing fast. Crate and Barrel, Piper’s Alley, Barbara’s Bookstore, Up Down Tobacco Shop, The Fudge Pot, That Steak Joynt, and other local businesses that had grown up with the area, were still in business, but probably not with the aid of mummified monks or voodoo exhibits. It seems the Bijou theater is the only remnant of the old weird Old Town, but having a specialized clientele has probably helped.

Suddenly, after just 19 years in business, the museum owners—the Canadian firm of (then-called) Ripley’s International in Toronto—wanted see if anyone was in the market for an odditorium, putting the place up for sale for $649,000. A Trib piece explained that their reasons were twofold, citing “the increasing demand for commercial property in the area, and quoting vice president of operations Norman Deska: “It gets harder and harder to find strange things that amaze people… There are only so many shrunken heads in the world.” By July 29, Ripley’s found a buyer—The Chicago Clock Company (now The Chicago Clock Company & Gifts). Formerly located on Michigan Ave., they planned to turn the building into a clock store/upstairs nightclub. I’m not sure how that worked out for them, but they no longer occupy the property.

Unlike most stories of lost Chicago, the museum’s tale isn’t punctuated by a wrecking ball. Instead its contents were scattered to the four corners of the earth its progenitor knew so well. The final show was the Ripley’s auction, which took place Thursday, August 20, 1987. Imagine a yard sale of the Id. The shrunken heads weren’t on the block—so to speak—nor were the other one-of-a-kind curios, like Cleopatra’s pastry barge, the toothpick ferris wheel, and the biggest educational hairball in the world. These were packed up and shipped off for storage at the Ripley’s Museum in St. Augustine, FL, before (assumedly) being sent to other Ripley’s museums. What remained up for bid were mostly props, decorations, and some shopworn exhibits.

Trib interviews with auction participants reveal a happy, lively bunch of aficionados of the bizarre. Edward Allard dropped $220 on John Yeast’s gravestone, and the mannequin victim of the museum’s authentically fake iron maiden. A photograph accompanying the article shows a chipper Mr. Allard toting his new roommate—whom he referred to as “the gory chick”—down Wells. He picked up a few of the glass panels from the outside sign as well. I was unsuccessful in my attempts to contact Mr. Allard; hopefully, he’ll stumble across this article and share his stories. However, one auction participant did turn up online and agreed to an interview.

In 1987, Chicago musician Mark J. Panick (@markpanick) was assistant art director at the Limelight nightclub (formerly known as Excalibur; recently relaunched as The Castle; but once known as the Chicago Historical Society’s original location). The auction article describes Mr. Panick and his former boss, Limelight art director Tim Chapman purchasing several statues, including (in his words) “the fat man, the Chinese midget, and the 7-year-old who died of old age,” intending to use them for ambience at the two-year-old Limelight. I asked him to fill me in on his experience.


Had you been to the Ripley’s Museum on Wells Street before? Any memories of the place or Old Town at the time?

I remember going there as a kid. It was a cool creepy place. I recall thinking the figures were actual bodies covered in wax…which made it more appealing somehow.

What brought you to the auction? What do you remember about that day?

Wild Bill, the manager for Limelight (mine and Tim’s boss at the time), read about the auction and he and Peter Gatien decided that we should go and buy up as much cool and freaky (stuff) as we could get out mitts on.

According to the Trib article, you and Tim Chapman purchased 10 wax figures, including “the fat man, the Chinese midget, and the 7-year-old who died of old age.” Did you go there with the intent of purchasing those specific pieces?

No, in those days we were always competing with the set dressers for films that were being shot in town and we were often outspent. So we went with the notion that we’d take what we could get. I personally purchased the smallest pick pocket who was some Middle Eastern person who was supposedly imprisoned in a bird cage. I really wanted the bird cage as well but was outbid.

All those wax figures were constructed by an old Italian artisan—they had glass eyes, were very detailed, and the costumes were outstanding. The oddest thing I remember is how every time we placed one of these figures in the glass cases in the club, some drunken frat boy would either smash the glass to get at the figure or attempt to destroy them. We stopped displaying them because of this. There was a theory put forth that somehow they were cursed.

I have to tell you strange things went on in that Limelight, especially at night when everyone was gone. A lot of dead bodies were stored there temporarily after the Eastland disaster and a few people also died in the club. When I took my little figure (which I affectionately called Achmed) home he sat on a shelf. One day I came home to find him clear on the other side of the room with his head smashed open, just like what happened to most of the figures we had in the club. Only this seemed self-inflicted somehow. It creeped the hell out of me and most of my visiting friends as well. I glued him back together and built a little coffin for him and displayed him that way for years. I no longer have him, he was lost in the great Panick diaspora.

Do you remember the others you bought? Of special interest to me, did you get Lie Ch’ung the double-pupiled man?

We also purchased the fattest man and the Chinese cat with the horn, and a few others I cannot remember now.

What did you do with them? How were they displayed?

Limelight had big glass display cases we would decorate in some theme like Childhood (a kid’s bedroom, a dentist office, etc.) And the club would hire the unemployable artist collectives like “The Family Plan,” to populate the cases and “act”—usually stream of consciousness hilarity ensued. We just injected these items/creatures into the life stream of the installations. Not always with continuity but always weirdness.

Did you pick up any other pieces at the auction?

Just the wax figures. A lot of the set type pieces we were outbid on.

Do you remember who you dealt with at Ripley’s? What was the clientele like? Did you know/do you still know, any of the patrons who bought stuff that day?

No, we really didn’t know the other bidders/buyers and I no longer recall who we dealt with regarding the purchases.

Do you think Excalibur still has those wax figures somewhere? If not, do you know what happened to them?

I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of the bodies still exist somewhere up in that attic that we used as art direction offices. Most, if not all, of the heads sadly were systematically smashed by drunken clientele. The only one that survived intact was the Chinese horned man, as I recall.


I knew it was a false hope, but I prayed to the ghost of Robert LeRoy Ripley that I’d be confronted with one of the former Ripley’s Museum waxworks in Excalibur’s basement or attic. How wonderful a bookend it would be for this piece, standing eye to eye to eye to eye to eye to eye with Loo Min in some cobwebby corner. But an e-mail to Castle management told me there were no statues to be found there. A shame.



The museum’s building still stands. They’ve retained the name of the “Believe It or Not Building”, but that’s as interesting as it gets. Stripped of its exhibits, it’s a bland and unremarkable space. Its 7,259 square feet were adjusted to house small businesses like the hair and nail salons and insurance agents currently conducting business there. While I’ve taken shots of the exterior, I’ve yet to go inside. I imagine it would be disappointingly unrecognizable absent the faucet, graves, and wax works.


I Wanted to Believe

Perhaps the Chicago Ripley’s museum’s closing was a mercy killing.

If there weren’t enough shrunken heads in the world to bring in the marks and rubes in the late 80s, how would the museum have fared in the Internet age? Most of the museum’s shocks and wonders in 1987 would be positively anticlimactic today. Seeing a potato chip shaped like a treble clef was quite something in 1968. Now Jesus, Mary, and Elvis are turning up in foodstuffs everywhere. The longest chain of gum wrappers (90 feet, 2,500 wrappers, started by Bruce Kidd age 12 in 1967, and finished by his good friend John Collen when Kidd died of cystic fibrosis in 1968) was something else. But while Collen’s 300 hours of work are touching, they’re pathetically brief beside the current record-holder, Gary Duschl’s 71,000 feet (and extending) gum wrapper serpent. Cleopatra’s pastry barge seems old hat to any any viewer of Ace of Cakes. Berhram and other human monsters of the Catacombs may have had the (unverified) kill counts, but pale beside boogeymen of recent memory like Jeffrey Dahmer or Anders Breivik. Moreover, Ripley hired fact-checkers, but one suspects a good story usually won out over veracity. Captain Savain, the supercentarian who allegedly died in a Russian jail at the age of 144 was undoubtedly a fraud. What’s more, he was put to shame by the verifiably venerable Jeanne Louise Calment, 122 years and 164 days.

And a 90-year-old orange and double-leaded pencil? What, and furthermore, why?

Was the museum so very remarkable? Perhaps only to my suburban kid’s eyes. At age 11 or 12, my life had already achieved a sameness and commonality of occurrence, and the weirdness of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum was a revelation. I knew what each day would bring, and while life had its wonders, let us admit to ourselves that we can’t feel awe at the mundane and familiar without trying too hard. Perhaps we can see God’s face in a child’s smile, a rainbow’s colors, or a flower’s bloom—but when you think about it, that’s a whole lot of God faces. Sometimes we don’t want to see God’s face. Sometimes we want to see the Devil’s. Strengthen my belief (or not), oh ghost of Robert L. Ripley. Bring me shrunken heads and mummified oranges, however indistinguishable they may be from one another. Fetch hither the poly-occular Chinese ambassador and iron maidens. Send in the suicidal clowns.

Note: Comments and memories of the museum are encouraged, but I’ve shut off the comments feature due to spam. please contact me at

by Dan Kelly

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Chicago and Maps25 Mar 2013 02:04 am

More from the Chicago Daily News Almanac and Year-Book for 1908. Cook County Senatorial Districts, Cook County Congressional Districts “In force July 1, 1901.” and Map Showing the Territorial Growth of Chicago. Click to enlarge.




Chicago and Crime and History22 Mar 2013 06:32 pm

Another offering from the Chicago Daily News Almanac and Yearbook for 1908, the impressively corrupt Mayor Fred Busse and fellow city officials. Looks like facial hair was on the way out.


Chicago and History and Loop20 Mar 2013 05:07 am


I love this ad, it’s so mysterious. I believe the controls were intended for printers, but perhaps they manufactured remote control devices for Bond villains on the side. Haven’t found much online about the Kohler Brothers, except a few more ads they placed with the Chicago Daily News Almanac and Yearbook. I’ll dig a little more in the Trib archives. I like that they had offices in the lovely Fisher Building.

Architecture and Chicago and Lincoln Park and Louis Sullivan and Preservation10 Mar 2013 05:28 pm

I drove over to Wells Street to take pictures of the former location of the Ripley’s Believe It…or Not! Museum for an upcoming post. On the way back I stopped by several Adler and Sullivan buildings I’d yet to visit. If you didn’t know already, the best time to visit buildings and snap pictures is early Sunday morning. Even the busiest streets have plenty of parking and no sidewalk traffic.

Here are several still standing structures erected by A&S in the early days of their partnership. Most are located in Lincoln Park. Wish the weather had cooperated a bit. I’ll return another, brighter day.

1826–34 N. Lincoln Park West, Row Houses for Ann Halsted


440 W. Belden, Ann Halsted House



2147 N. Cleveland Ave., Leon Mannheimer House



2310-12 N. Lincoln Ave., Ferdinand Kaufmann Store & Building



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