Excerpts: Preface, Gold Star and Washington Boulevard Haunts
Unlike the first volume of Chicago Haunts, which tripped lightly over the city's history in search of folktales, legends, and even mere rumors of the unknown, the pages ahead are filled with personal experiences of the phantoms in question, often in the observer's own words. Where the witnesses were willing, I've included their true names. Most agreed to full disclosure, though a few opted for anonymity, with little or no harm done to the tales.
Those in search of chapters will find none. These accounts were collected by a listener bombarded with eager storytellers, not by a writer with an outline to flesh out. In presenting them in a random sequence, I hoped to effect in the reader some of the same wonderment—at both their unity and diversity—as I felt when I first heard them, one upon the other, in a rush of words.
Though these stories are, in one way, intended to entertain, the reader would do well to remember that the written testimonies included are not the work of the author, interpreting the experiences of others, but verbatim accounts authored—and signed—by the witnesses themselves.
I think you'll agree that, especially in light of this fact, they are haunting tales indeed.
Gold Star Haunts:
By the time the Division Street institution called the Gold Star Bar was purchased in 1990 by three Chicagoans aiming to make a go at saloon-keeping, the place had seen a varied past. Vintage photos depicting the West Town neighborhood in the early part of the twentieth century capture the sumptuous interior of an ornately-wallpapered and lavishly-furnished pub. And while the post-war years saw a relative decline of the establishment into just another of the legion of gin mills along "Polish Broadway"—so nicknamed for the intense concentration of Poles living here and the bars they opened on literally every corner—the tavern would see its worst times in the 1960s, when female dancers decorated the bar and offered themselves for hire in the rooms upstairs, the ramshackle apartments split between hookers and addicts. In those days, arguments between hard-living local types made bar fights along Division de rigueur, and the sparring that ensued here, some of it deadly, made a night on Polish Broadway quite interesting.
Today, the Gold Star occupies that precious space, both cultural and physical, between Bucktown/Wicker Park yuppie life and the old neighborhood world memorialized by local boy Nelson Algren. The go-go dancers and their bedrooms are gone, the three stories of apartments are occupied by regular folks, though the occasional derelict still inquires about a flop now and then. Yet, with a past of such ill repute, it should not surprise that this rather trendy North Side tavern should serve up a few of its own choice spirits.
In addition to the less-than-desirables who frequented the Gold Star in its poorer years, a number of hot-blooded killings are reported to have taken place here over the generations, including the one that occurred in the 1950s, when a previous bartender shot a would-be holdup man in the tavern’s front doorway. Susan Stursberg, an employee of the Gold Star for nearly ten years, has long felt a degree of discomfort in this area of the bar, whether opening or closing up for the night or socializing in the vicinity. She has also wondered from time to time about strange movements in her peripheral vision.
Fellow employees back up Stursberg's unease. One bartender, while getting supplies out of a back room, was startled when the room's light went out on its own. Suspecting a problem with the bulb or a fuse, he went to turn off the wall switch—and found that the switch itself had been flipped off by unseen fingers. Similarly, previous tenants of the building's top floor frequently talked about their ghost who turned the TV and stereo on and off periodically.
As for the seeing of ghosts in this place, several have had differing encounters with invisible patrons and residents of the building. An artist living upstairs has drawn sketches of two gender-ambiguous faces he claims to sense in the building. A visiting psychic reported the presence of two female spirits, one old and one younger, claimed to clairvoyantly hear the sound of high heels clicking across the upstairs floors, and pointed to a presence in the bar's front doorway—the site of the murder of a half-century ago.
Ian Tuggle, another longtime Gold Star employee, has even better evidence of otherworldlies here: Tuggle has actually seen one of them—and in living color:
Now, this person had been standing practically right next to me and, though I hadn't been looking right at her, it was something I definitely saw. And though she couldn't have gone anywhere that fast, I still scanned the entire bar, and there was no one in there with that color dress on. And at that point, I turned to Susan, another bartender, and said, Well, I just saw a ghost.
While no one has tried to specifically identify the seemingly numerous spirits here at the Gold Star, an air of sadness does seem to flavor the accounts of those who've encountered them. The artist who has drawn them illustrates a genuine melancholia on at least one face, and the psychic who made the rounds of the building declared an overpowering despair. After touring the basement of the storied structure, the sensitive felt an almost audible despondence.
Said she: It was as if the very walls were crying.
Susan Stursberg and Ian Tuggle shared their accounts of the Gold Star Bar with the author in telephone interviews conducted in the summer of 2000.
Washington Boulevard Haunts:
One of Chicago's most secret hauntings is, ironically, also one of its most famous: the reported paranormality of Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Studios. A number of years ago, Oprah herself is reported to have admitted to experiencing bizarre goings-on at Harpo, which is housed in the old Armory on Washington Boulevard. Though the details of the Harpo ghosts are, like all of Winfrey's business, off-limits to the public, interest in the tales remains high.
The haunting of Harpo is popularly supposed to stem from the use of the building as a temporary morgue in the summer of 1915, when the Eastland steamer capsized in the Chicago River, a mammoth tragedy that ended with the burial of more than 800 bodies, including nearly two dozen families, who had been on board for a weekend picnic cruise to Michigan City, Indiana. The cheerful chaos of the departure preparations quickly gave way to pure horror when the docked steamer suddenly tipped over, drowning dozens of passengers and trapping hundreds below deck, where they had sought early shelter from a morning drizzle. Rescue workers and regular citizens spent the long afternoon at grisly tasks: pulling body after body from the waterlogged vessel and dragging the river for stray corpses. By early evening, the floor of the Armory was lined with nearly 500 of Eastland's victims.
A few days passed before strollers on the Clark Street bridge began reporting phantom screams and pleas coming from the dark water where the tragedy had played out and, in the ensuing years, whispers arose, too, about the lingering of souls at the old Washington Boulevard Armory.
A former copywriter at an advertising agency located at Washington Boulevard and Aberdeen Street reports that the Eastland victims may not only linger, but wander. Coworkers who remain at the agency confirm that something seems to share their workspace, a building that snuggles right up to the former Armory. Though the worker had heard reports of strange activity from the time she joined the agency, she was hardly convinced that something truly paranormal was to blame
My desk happened to be next to the copiers, and after a couple of hours of working, I heard what sounded like a stack of copy paper being thrown to the floor. But when I went to investigate, there was nothing out of place. I returned to find that the volume on my radio, which I had been listening to all morning, was turned way down. About ten minutes later, one of the other women left the building. The other woman came into my office a little later, asking if I had been walking past her office door. Apparently, someone had been passing by the open door to her office, but she had been unable to catch a good look. In addition to this, the phone system had been acting up all morning. Our intercom system runs through our phones and, for most of the morning, the small tone that precedes a page had been sounding throughout the building. A display on the phone, which tells the origin of the page, indicated that the pages were being made from the security office, which was locked up tight and empty for the weekend. Then the elevator, which only runs when called, began to travel randomly between floors. At this point, we decided to call it a day.
As I was waiting for the elevator, one more strange event happened. We were working on the top (sixth) floor at the time, and there is a locked stairway to the roof next to the elevator. Through the window on the door, I noticed that the lights in the roof stairwell were off. But when I turned back a moment later, they were on. The only switch for those lights is behind the locked stairwell door. By the time the elevator came, the lights were off again.
After that time, I personally experienced odd happenings here on several occasions. And I am not the only one to report these events. The most common occurrence that people report is the hearing of footsteps either directly behind them or just ahead. People have reported hearing what sounds like someone walking down the hallway, where there is clearly no one to be seen or when they know that the building is deserted. Others will have the feeling that someone is standing directly behind them, looking over their shoulder. But when they turn to look, there is no one there. Still others, especially those on the night staff, hear papers being shuffled, or the click of someone typing on a keyboard.
At first these events happened at off-hours, or at times when there were very few people in the building. But recently, in the months before I left the firm, things had begun happening during the normal workday. For example, a friend of mine was washing his hands in the restroom when he felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder.
He was notably startled, considering the wall-to-wall mirror he was standing in front of revealed that he was the only one in the bathroom.
An anonymous former employee included the account of her haunted ad agency in a letter to the author in the fall of 1999.