The 19th-Century 'Gang of Ghosts' That Terrorized Chicago's North Side

Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress // Public Domain
Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress // Public Domain

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.

Chicago's Lake Street, circa 1875.
Chicago's Lake Street, circa 1875.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

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.

16 Soothing Facts About Muzak

Keith Brofsky/iStock via Getty Images
Keith Brofsky/iStock via Getty Images

Whether you know it as background music, elevator music, or, as Ted Nugent once called it, an “evil force causing people to collapse into uncontrollable fits of blandness,” Muzak has ruled speakers for the better part of a century. Press play on your favorite easy-listening album and scroll on for some unforgettable facts about the most forgettable genre of music.

1. Muzak is a brand name.

Much like Chapstick, Popsicle, and a certain type of vacuum-sealing plastic food container, Muzak is a registered trademark. It began as the name of the company that first produced the easy-listening instrumental tunes that played in factories, elevators, and department stores. As its popularity grew, people started to use Muzak as a generic term for all background music.

2. Muzak was invented by a U.S. army general.

Major General George Owen Squier
Library of Congress // Public Domain

During World War I, Major General George Owen Squier used electrical power lines to transmit phonograph music over long distances without interference. He patented this invention in 1922 and founded Wired Radio, Inc. to profit from the technology. The company first devised a subscription service that included three channels of music and news and marketed it to Cleveland residents for $1.50 per month. When Squier and his associates realized their product was a little too close to regular (free) radio, they started pitching it to hotel and restaurant owners, who were more willing to pay for a steady broadcast of background music without interruptions from radio hosts or advertisements.

3. The name is a portmanteau of music and Kodak.

In 1934, Squier changed the name of his business from Wired Radio to Muzak, combining the first syllable of music with the last syllable of Kodak, which had already proven to be an extremely catchy, successful name for a company.

4. Muzak has been releasing instrumental covers of pop songs since its inception.

The first-ever original Muzak recording was an instrumental medley of three songs performed by the Sam Lanin Orchestra: “Whispering,” by John and Malvin Shonberger, “Do You Ever Think of Me?” which was covered by Bing Crosby, and “Here in My Arms,” by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers from the 1925 Broadway musical Dearest Enemy.

5. Muzak was briefly owned by Warner Bros.

The sound of Muzak was wafting across the country by the end of the 1930s, which caught the ears of Warner Bros. The company bought Muzak in 1938, fostered it for about a year, and then sold it to three businessmen: Waddill Catchings, Allen Miller, and William Benton (Benton would later publish the Encyclopaedia Britannica and serve as a U.S. senator for Connecticut).

6. Muzak was designed to make factory workers more productive.

Muzak manufactured soundtracks, based on a theory called “stimulus progression,” that consisted of 15-minute segments of background music that gradually ascended in peppiness. The method was meant to tacitly encourage workers to increase their pace, especially during the productivity lulls that often occurred during the late morning and mid-afternoon.

7. Muzak helped calm anxious elevator passengers.

Since more advanced electric elevators diminished the need for elevator operators in the mid-20th century, passengers were often left alone with an unsettling silence that made them all too aware that they were hurtling upward or downward in a steel box. Soft, calming Muzak played through speakers offered the perfect distraction.

8. There’s a reason Muzak's tempo is slower in supermarkets.

Just like factory workers might move faster while listening to fast-paced tracks, you might slow down while shopping to slower-tempo Muzak—which is exactly what supermarket owners want you to do. The more time you spend in a store, the more likely you are to toss a few extra snacks in your cart. (It's unclear whether the slower music might inhibit the productivity of supermarket workers.)

9. More than one U.S. president endorsed Muzak.

Muzak was installed in the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, but he was arguably only the second biggest presidential fan of the genre. Lyndon B. Johnson actually owned Muzak franchises in Austin while serving as a U.S. Senator from Texas.

10. Andy Warhol was also a fan of Muzak.

Andy Warhol
Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pop culture aficionado Andy Warhol supposedly said, “I like anything on Muzak—it’s so listenable. They should have it on MTV.”

11. Ted Nugent offered to buy Muzak for $10 million to “shelve it for good.”

In 1986, the Whackmaster put in a bid to purchase Muzak from parent company Westinghouse just to shut it down. According to the Ottawa Citizen, he called it an “evil force” that was “responsible for ruining some of the best minds of our generation.” Westinghouse rejected the bid.

12. Muzak didn’t formally introduce vocals until 1987.

As part of a rebranding campaign to modernize Muzak, the company started adding voice-accompanied tunes in 1987. Before that, Muzak broadcasts had only featured voices twice. The first was an announcement that Iran had freed American hostages in 1981, and the second was as part of a worldwide radio broadcast of “We Are the World” in 1985.

13. 7-Elevens blared Muzak in parking lots to chase off loiterers.

7-Eleven storefront at night
Mike841125, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1991, 7-Eleven parking lots in Southern California became well-trafficked watering holes for youth who evidently had no place else to go. To deter them from loitering with skateboards, beer, and lots of teen angst, the stores blared Muzak—and it worked. “It will keep us away,” one young loafer told the Los Angeles Times. “But they’re torturing themselves more than us because they have to sit inside and listen to it.”

14. Seattle is the capital of Muzak.

Though it's well known as the birthplace of grunge, Seattle also had a thriving elevator music scene. Muzak based its corporate headquarters there in the 1980s, and three other leading background (and foreground) music corporations opened in the city over the years: Yesco Foreground Music, Audio Environments Inc., and Environmental Music Service Inc.

15. Kurt Cobain wanted Muzak to cover Nirvana songs.

When an interviewer told the Seattle-based rock star that Muzak didn’t recreate Nirvana tracks because it found them too aggressive for its purposes, an amused Cobain said, “Oh, well, we have some pretty songs, too. God, that’s really a bummer. That upsets me.”

16. It’s no longer called Muzak.

In 2013, an Ontario-based sensory marketing company called Mood Media acquired Muzak. The company, which provides music, smells, signs, lights, and interactive displays to businesses to achieve a certain mood, consolidated all of its services under the Mood brand, effectively killing the Muzak name (at least officially).

The History Behind 7 New York City Street Names

deberarr/istock via getty images
deberarr/istock via getty images

Modern life means constantly rushing to get places, especially in New York. Whether it’s the daily grind to get to work or the rush to hit happy hour, residents are probably concentrating more on getting somewhere than carefully considering the details of their surroundings.

But next time you're in New York—or if you're a resident already—try looking up from your phone to take a peek at the street names above you. Along with your more common numbered designations and things like "Park Avenue," you’ll notice the city has some pretty strange denominations. Here are seven of the more eye-catching, and the brief history behind their names.

1. Asser Levy Place

Tucked between the generically named 23rd and 25th streets, Asser Levy Place stands out like a sore thumb. Located not far from Stuyvesant Town, this unassuming street bears the name for a pretty prominent historical figure.

Said to have been born in what is now Poland and Lithuania, Asser Levy was one of the first Jewish settlers to land in the predominantly Dutch New Amsterdam. The governor at the time, Peter Stuyvesant, was “violently opposed” to the freshly emigrated Jewish community, unhappy at the fact that they were now allowed to trade and reside within the area [PDF]. Levy was not only the first kosher butcher in the land but also the first Jew to gain rights of citizenship in the country. Additionally, Levy donated funds to help New York fight the British Crown, and eventually took up arms against the British himself.

2. Maiden Lane

The history behind Maiden Lane’s designation is just as picturesque as it sounds. Known to Dutch settlers as Maagde Paatje (or “maiden path”), this portion of land once ran alongside a brook where women and girls would wash clothing. There are darker associations with the area too, though: Maiden Lane also saw a brutal slave revolt in 1712.

Today the street is one of many centers of commerce for the city, although the concrete still holds remnants of the city’s more ornate past. Passersby can take a look at the Barthman Clock, a 19th-century timepiece embedded into the intersection of Maiden Lane and Broadway.

3. Mott Street

Located primarily in the heart of Chinatown, Mott Street’s modern associations aren’t the most flattering. Once the site of multiple crime scenes and illegal activities, the street has garnered a somewhat seedy reputation over time.

But before it became affiliated with the seedy underbelly, Mott Street had patriotic associations. Joseph Mott, the street’s namesake, owned a tavern used as headquarters for General George Washington in 1775. His descendants proved dedicated to equally worthy causes, with Dr. Valentine Mott rising to prominence as one of America’s most influential surgeons.

4. Pearl Street

Before the concrete jungle fully took over, the streets of New York were dominated by oysters. Due to their bountiful number, the shells of shucked clams would pile up into what archaeologists call middens—large piles of domestic waste that have survived the centuries. One particularly large heap was located on the modern-day Pearl Street, giving rise to the mollusk-related moniker. Oddly, however, these oysters were not the pearl-producing kind—although they dominated a good portion of the New York market for quite some time.

5. Minetta Lane

Speaking of water-related items, did you know a once-babbling creek was paved over by one of the city’s more famous streets? That’s right: Known to the Dutch as Mintje Kill or “small stream,” Minetta Brook was “[a] brisk little brook full of trout,” according to one 19th century source, that was covered by the city’s expansion around the 1820s. It was also where a community of “half free” African Americans resided in the 17th century—former enslaved people that were allowed to live on the land by paying annual fees.

6. MacDougal Street

MacDougal Street is known for its vibrant nightlife and for hosting the early days of Bob Dylan’s career. But it also holds claim to a not-so-well-known spelling error.

The street was named for one Alexander Mcdougall, a Scotsman who emigrated to what would become the United States as a child in 1740 and settled in New York. Mcdougall made a name for himself in the mercantile trade and shipping business and was an early defender of American independence. He openly voiced his opinions against British rule, and was even imprisoned for passing out revolutionary pamphlets. His colorful life saw him commissioned as a colonel in the First New York Infantry during the Revolutionary War, become a member of the Continental Congress, and rise as the first president of the Bank of New York. However, how or why the second L in his name was dropped in the naming of the street remains a mystery.

7. Margaret Corbin Drive

Located at the city’s far northern tip, Margaret Corbin Drive is named for a young Pennsylvanian woman whose tough life molded her into a tougher lady. Her childhood saw the death of her father by Native Americans and her mother’s capture soon after; years later, the British killed her husband during the Battle of Fort Washington. Margaret, who was standing by his side at the time, quickly took his place in the conflict by handling his cannon—receiving several bullets as a result.

The U.S. government recognized her bravery by providing her disability compensation (as well as rum and whiskey rations) for many years. Although sometimes remembered as a “haughty and disagreeable eccentric,” the affectionately called “Captain Molly” is forever memorialized by the street running along the site where her brave acts took place.

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