The 19th-Century 'Gang of Ghosts' That Terrorized Chicago's North Side
The spirits that haunted the Rowe household in the summer of 1889 were no ordinary ghosts: "They cannot be seen. They do not softly and silently glide all in white. On the contrary, they yell, and fight, and fire pistols, and fall down stairs, and do all sorts of mysterious, not to say diabolical, things." So reported the Chicago Tribune on July 18, 1889, announcing that an other-worldly presence—indeed, a whole gang of them—had taken up residence on the city's North Side. Over the course of just a few days, the tale would spawn thousands of local rubberneckers, a lawsuit, and a reproach from a paper four states away.
The ghost story in question originated at the home of a Dr. W. C. Rowe, a physician and local church deacon who had recently moved his family into a two-story house at 394 Belden Avenue, a few blocks away from Chicago's lakefront Lincoln Park.
On their first night living in the house, the Rowe family—Dr. Rowe, his wife, their five children, and their housekeeper—were startled awake at midnight by a crescendo of noise in their front hall. They heard noises that sounded like a horde of men was stamping up their stairs, and suddenly, the sound of a gun rang out.
But when Dr. Rowe and his housekeeper ventured through the house with lamps, they found nothing amiss. All the doors and windows were locked. Rowe—who, considering his role as a deacon, was "presumably a man of truth," the Tribune argued—kept quiet about the mysterious banging for almost a month, worried that people would believe he was crazy. But each night, the banging continued. The family—and the guests they invited over to witness the phenomenon—heard the sounds of heavy-footed men roaming the halls, moving parlor chairs, lighting matches, shaking doors.
One night, the adults in the household, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, hid themselves throughout the house hoping to catch the intruders. "Shortly after midnight there was a great rushing and banging in the upper hallway, as if two men were grappling in a death struggle," the Tribune described. "There was the loud report of a pistol and the sound of a heavy body falling down the stairs. Simultaneously Dr. Rowe, his wife, and the housekeeper lighted lamps and hurried from their hiding places. They went upstairs, and, as before, found everything undisturbed in all the rooms."
"The truth of the matter is that the Rowe household is the abiding place of a gang of ghosts," the paper announced.
The haunted house was big news in the neighborhood. The next day, a competing paper, the Chicago Inter Ocean, reported that up to a thousand people had congregated in front of the house to try to catch a glimpse of the ghosts, with the crowd growing larger as the evening went on, despite the threat of an impending thunderstorm. The day after that, the Tribune reported that 5000 people showed up to gawk.
At that point, the tale had traveled far beyond Chicago's city limits, across the Midwest to Rochester, New York, where a local newspaper found the whole thing a little fishy. But it wasn't because the editors at the Democrat and Chronicle didn't believe in ghosts.
"Chicago is not old enough to have ghosts," the Rochester newspaper scoffed in a column that ran on July 21, 1889. Chicago was incorporated as a city in 1837, meaning it had been around for a little more than 50 years by the time reports of the Belden Avenue ghosts came out. According to the author of the unsigned column, that simply wasn't enough time for ghosts to settle in. Period, end of story. "What more is needed to discredit the yarn about the Belden Avenue spooks?" the writer asked.
To understand this line of thinking, let's back up a bit. Chicago in the late 1880s was a boomtown. The Great Chicago Fire had destroyed much of the city in 1871, and the metropolis rebuilt in its place was a rapidly expanding, tumultuous place. Between 1880 and 1890, the city—already the nation's biggest railroad hub—grew from a little more than 503,000 people to more than 1 million. By the mid-1880s, it was well-established on the world stage. In 1885, the city became home to the world's first steel-frame skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, rising a record 10 stories above downtown. In 1886, the Haymarket affair put the city on the map as the epicenter of the international workers' rights movement. And a few years later, in 1893, Chicago would host the World's Fair. It may have been a relatively young city, but it wasn't a dinky backwater, either.
The summer of 1889 was a particularly big one for the city's exponential growth. In late June, less than a month before the Rowe family's ghost problem became national news, the city annexed 125 square miles of what had previously been suburban towns, adding 225,000 people to its population and making it the second-biggest city in the U.S. by population.
This annexation, in fact, is what brought Dr. Rowe and his family to 394 Belden in the first place. The family had been living in what was then the town of Lake View, about a mile away from their future haunted abode. Lake View was about to be annexed to the city, but the issue was proving contentious, and Dr. Rowe was afraid the town would elect to stay independent, the Tribune reported, so he arranged to move into 394 Belden, ensuring he would live in Chicago no matter what the town decided. (It's not clear why he wouldn't want to live in an independent Lake View, but he surely regretted the move. In the end, the town was, in fact, annexed to Chicago, meaning he moved into a haunted house for no reason.)
According to Rochester's Democrat and Chronicle, the vast number of Chicago's live inhabitants had little bearing on its ethereal population. The story—sandwiched on the same page as reports of crop failures along the Canadian border, murders by Jack the Ripper in London, a hurricane in the Samoan Islands, and a tidbit about the world's largest watermelon patch—declared that "there are distinctions which [Chicago] must await with due patience, no matter how painfully the spirit of enterprise may be chafed by the fetters of circumstances." Hauntings, apparently, were among those distinctions. "There is a freshness, an odor of damp mortar and a glistening of new paint about Chicago that the ghostly character cannot abide," the paper argued.
A city cannot be "sufficiently matured to have ghosts" until significantly more than a century after its founding, according to the Democrat and Chronicle. "Seventy-five or a hundred years hence is the nearest period at which Chicago will be justified in seeking renown as the abode of ghosts," the paper reported.
Perhaps the ghosts of 394 Belden Avenue got the message, because they soon disappeared from the public eye—perhaps thanks to a particularly litigious landlady. Chicago's newspaper reporters could find few leads as to the source of the haunting, but they did find one real estate agent who blamed it on a very earthly property dispute.
The Rowes were renting the house from a widow who lived on the other side of the city. She had only recently bought the property, and was embroiled in a battle with the former owner over the legality of the sale. Though Dr. Rowe and his family swore no corporeal human could have made the noises, this real estate agent, Frank Turner, claimed it had to be the former owner, Nellie Wilson, trying to drive the new tenants away as part of her efforts to render the sale void and reclaim the property. "I don't know anything about how she did it, but depend upon it, she did do it," Turner supposedly told the Tribune. In response, Wilson quickly filed a libel suit against Turner, the Inter Ocean, and the Tribune for $10,000 in damages.
Wilson dropped her suit on August 1, 1889, and in the end, Turner denied that he knew anything about the situation at all, blaming it all on an overzealous reporter's fabrications. The newspapers stopped covering the story, and presumably, the crowds of onlookers eventually stopped gathering outside 394 Belden hoping to catch a glimpse of the ghost gang. And with that, Dr. Rowe's haunted summer fell out of the news.