Editor’s note: This article is from the award-winning Echo magazine in the Communications department.
Whether bloody, transparent, or floating in a whirlwind of white, ghosts hover over folklore, literature, and film. For real-life ghost hunter and Chicago Hauntings Ghost Tour guide Tony Szabelski, ghosts creep through the shadows, enter and exit elevators, and manipulate radio frequencies. The epicenter of Szabelski’s paranormal investigation is a skyline landmark in glowing neon red letters: the Congress Plaza Hotel.
“If there’s one haunted place in Chicago, it’s the Congress Hotel,” says Szabelski. But why, if the hotel is considered a graveyard of tortured souls patiently awaiting their next victim, are the most haunted rooms always booked?
Built to accommodate visitors to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the hotel has a colorful history that includes serial killers, homicides, suicides, presidents, and mafia activity. In the late 19th century, the tourist destination was home to horse-drawn carriages, cobblestone roads and flickering gas lamps.
Celebrities and presidents have spent time in Congress, including Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Szabelski says Al Capone visited the hotel around 1928, and there is a tradition of him wandering the halls as a felt-clad apparition.
Chicago’s first serial killer, named Henry H. Holmes, lingered in the lobby of Congress, stalking young women and visitors to the World’s Fair, according to Szabelski. Holmes, who confessed to 27 murders and was sentenced to death in 1896, is said to appear as a sheathed apparition, wandering the halls of the hotel.
Among the plethora of spirits believed to inhabit the hotel, Szabelski believes one is the ghost of 6-year-old Karl Langer, who died horribly in 1939. After spending a beautiful August day at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Karl’s mother, Adele, threw him and his younger brother out of a 12th-story window, killing them both, before jumping out the window herself.
Another alleged apparition, known as Peg Leg Johnny, is believed to be playing tricks on guests by turning electronics on and off. Although the ghost’s identity remains unknown to this day, Szabelski says that Peg Leg Johnny may have been a drifter who was murdered in the alley.
Alternatively, there is a lore that he is the ghost of a killer clown named Charles Conway. Conway, a circus performer with a wooden leg, made national headlines in 1912 when he was convicted of murdering an heiress with a clown’s handkerchief. After making a big prison break in 1925, Conway was never seen again, Szabelski says. Whether the ghost was once a murder victim or a killer clown, reported sightings of Peg Leg Johnny have covered the dining room, lobby and hallways.
Szabelski notes that there have been far too many suicides in Congress to keep track of — though some stories persist — including that of Spanish-American War veteran Captain Louis Osteim, who took his own life on April 8. 1900, the day before his wedding. . Leaving no suicide note behind, Osteim put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Szabelski believes the cause of Osteim’s death was post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the war, which was then called “night terrors”.
“Lots of people have reported a ghost figure, especially coming out of their closet,” Szabelski said, adding that sightings of what many believe to be Osteim’s ghost are recurring and have prompted patrons to get up and walk. leave the hotel in the middle of the night. .
Security also received frantic phone calls in the middle of the night from guests who saw a woman in room 411 standing next to their bed, coming out of the bathroom or tugging at their sheets, Szabelski says. Conner Gossel, a historian who studies paranormal phenomena, believes that room 411 in the South Tower is the most haunted in the hotel.
“It’s one of those weird things that nobody ever thinks about, like cruise ships, how a lot of people just go there to die and pass away and have someone there to take care of them and s rid of it, as morbid and as grotesque as that sounds,” Gossel says. “So there are a lot of unfortunate deaths. There are a lot of deliberate murders. There are a lot of planned deaths that have taken place in so many rooms [that lead to the hotel’s] the energy being as charged as it is.
Belief in the occult predates reading, writing and farming, says Tok Thompson, associate professor of anthropology and communication at the University of Southern California. Thompson teaches the university’s Ghost Stories course, which examines the depiction of ghosts in literature, folklore, and popular culture.
“To believe in ghosts, you [have to] believe in life after death, that there is something like a soul or a spirit,” says Thompson. “This is very often taken as a kind of confirmation of the idea of a spiritual reality, of a spiritual essence for the individual. I think for a lot of people that’s a very comforting idea.
Ghost stories tell elaborate tales of cursed Native American burial sites, possessed former slaves in the South, and the demonic spirits of those who suffered gruesome murders. Ethical failures, says Thompson, are the root of what haunts us.
“Ethics transcends the pragmatic and transcends the world of the living,” says Thompson. “There’s an idea built here, an ethical idea in the belief in ghosts, in haunting ghosts, that you can’t really get away with evil. If you kill someone and cover it up, you’ll still be haunted by it, and it can be on a personal level, and it can be on a societal level as well.
Thompson divides apparitions into two categories: wanted or unwanted, friendly or hostile ghosts.
“We tend to really notice other people, they’re problematic ghosts that haunt us,” Thompson says. “Why is a ghost haunting? And one thing we can say about that is, if you look at a society, it’s a very interesting question to ask, “What’s haunting that society?” »
Those who have failed society and, simultaneously, those who have been abandoned by society, are presumed by ghost hunters and paranormal enthusiasts to return from the dead, seeking revenge on the living. The collective guilt that manifests from our subconscious to our physical reality serves a purpose. Ghosts keep part of our history alive.
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