Archive for the 'CHICAGO PEOPLE' Category

Bowler of the Half-Century

When bowling was big and when Chicago was the bowling capital of the world, the greatest bowler in Chicago was Paul Krumske.  And there’s one story about Paul Krumske they always tell.

During one close match, Krumske suddenly keels over on the lane, grabbing his chest and gasping for breath.  The match stops.  Medical help is summoned, and Krumske is revived.  He gamely declares that he will go on.

By now the opposition is totally unnerved—especially when Krumske rolls the next half-dozen strikes.


This incident happened during the famous match Krumske bowled against Ned Day . . . or in a team match in the Chicago Classic League . . . or in a tournament in Detroit . . . or was it in a late-night pot game at Marigold?  Maybe he faked heart attacks on all those occasions.

After the first few times, though, you’d think the other bowlers would get wise, and just step over Paul as they bowled.

Born on the South Side in 1912, Krumske dropped out of high school to go to work as a clerk at a meat-packing plant.  One evening, when he was 17, the boss needed a sub on his bowling team.  Krumske volunteered.

He learned fast.  Within five years Krumske had rolled his first 300 game and was carrying one of the highest averages in the city.  The papers started running stories about the new boy wonder of bowling.

There wasn’t any pro bowling then.  The better bowlers all had day jobs.  They made money by getting on a top-flight team, then competing in leagues and tournaments, or by rolling matches against other hotshots.

Krumske Ball Cleaner (1946).jpg

Krumske followed this route.  He bowled in the city’s best league, the Chicago Classic, for nearly forty years.  For twenty years he was league secretary.  Recognized as one of the country’s top players, he was named to the annual All-American team seven times.

His finest moment came in 1944.  Ned Day was bowling’s match-game champion—the equivalent of boxing’s heavyweight champ.  He’d never been beaten in a head-to-head match.  But Krumske challenged him, and won the title in an 80-game showdown.

In 1951 a newspaper poll named Krumske Chicago’s “Bowler of the Half-Century.”  Bowling was starting to enjoy boom times.  By now Krumske was endorsing bowling products and giving exhibitions for an equipment manufacturer.  He also had a full-time job at the Peter Hand Brewery.

His title was Sports Director.  That meant Krumske was captain of the brewery’s famed Meister Brau Beer bowling team.  By staying in the news, the team helped sell beer.  And as secretary of the Chicago Classic, Krumske could convince bowling proprietors to stock Meister Brau in their bars.


Krumske appeared on the many bowling shows that were popular in the early days of TV.  For awhile he had his own local program called “Bowl the Professor.”  In 1957 comedian Jerry Lewis made a surprise visit, bowling a hilarious one-game match against Krumske.  The tape of that show was later used for charity fund-raising.

Like most athletes, Krumske’s skills declined as he grew older.  His bowling winnings shrank.  His exhibition contract was not renewed.  Then, in 1972, the brewery closed.

Krumske did some instructing and ran a few tournaments.  Early in 1979 he decided to make a fresh start and moved to Florida.  That same summer, Paul Krumske died in his new Boca Raton home.

The cause of death was a heart attack.


Chicago’s April Fools

What do Rod Blagojevich, Paul Harvey, and Jack Dempsey have in common?  They’re all on my list of Chicago’s April Fools—people who made foolish decisions, and should have known better.  Last night I was on Justin Kaufmann’s “The Download” on WGN-Radio, and talked about all of my April Fools.  Here’s the link—

Judy’s Jolly Jaunt

QUESTION—How does an elephant travel?

ANSWER—Any way he wants to.

In this case, the elephant was a she. In 1943 Lincoln Park Zoo bought a 35-year-old Asian female named Judy from Brookfield Zoo for $2,500. The purchase price did not include shipping. So on the afternoon of July 2, two Lincoln Park elephant handlers went out to Brookfield to collect their new elephant.

The plan was to transport Judy by truck. But Judy didn’t want to leave Brookfield. Twenty zoo workers tried to load her. In the process, the 7200-pound elephant wrecked the truck.

"Any way he wants to"

“Any way he wants to”

A phone call to Lincoln Park advised the director of “the little difficulty” the crew was having with Judy. The director decided the reluctant elephant would have to be moved the old-fashioned way. “Let her walk,” he ordered.

In 1943 the most direct way to get from Brookfield to Lincoln Park was straight up Ogden Avenue. That idea was discarded because of the heavy traffic on Ogden. A more circuitous—but more sedate—route was chosen instead.

At 7 p.m. Judy left Brookfield Zoo and began walking north on First Avenue. Her party included the four handlers from the two zoos, a motorcycle police escort, three support trucks, and twenty armed attendants. Ahead of them was eighteen miles of suburb and city.

The caravan traveled up First Avenue to Maywood. At Washington Boulevard they turned right and moved east into River Forest. At Des Plaines Avenue in Forest Park they stopped at a gas station so Judy could get some water. Then they were moving again, through Oak Park and into Chicago.

There had been no public announcement of Judy’s trek. Seven decades ago, there was no social media. Yet somehow, the news got out. Think of a guy in Maywood phoning a friend on the West Side of Chicago, saying “Hey, there’s an elephant walking down the middle of Washington Boulevard!” In any event, thousands of people turned up to watch the unplanned parade. The Tribune reported that the fans gathered along Judy’s route made it “a veritable victory march.”

Judy at home and at peace

Judy at home and at peace

By 10 p.m. Judy and her party had reached Garfield Park. They rested there for two hours while Judy snacked on some hay. Now at midnight, as they set off again, they were into the home stretch. Traffic was thinning when they swung onto Ogden for the final few miles. At 2:15 a.m. on July 3, Judy arrived at her new home. Once settled into her quarters, she promptly went to sleep.

Judy’s road trip had taken a little over seven hours. In the course of her 18-mile journey she’d lost 250 pounds. One of the attendants who’d walked along with her had his feet swell so badly he couldn’t get back into his shoes for two days.

Chicago’s Great Elephant Walk took place in the middle of World War II, and gave people a few chuckles in the middle of a grim time. Judy herself remained one of the star attractions at Lincoln Park Zoo until her death in 1971.


Chicago’s Favorite Ghost

I first heard the story at one of The Duke’s Halloween parties.  That would make it when I was in college, in the late ’60s.

The way The Duke told it, this guy he knew had been driving north on Milwaukee Avenue near the Holiday Ballroom.  Suddenly a young blonde woman in a white dress jumped in front of the car.  The guy screeched to a halt, the woman got in the car, and asked for a ride.

Now the driver figured he was getting lucky, so he agreed.  The woman told him to head up Milwaukee toward Niles.  Other than that, she didn’t say much.10-31-holiday

Getting into Niles, they passed the main entrance to St. Adalbert’s Cemetery.  “Stop the car!” the woman yelled.  The driver stopped the car.  When he turned to look at her, she had vanished.

Sound familiar?  Substitute Archer Avenue, the Willow Brook Ballroom, and Resurrection Cemetery.  Now you have Chicago’s most famous ghost story, the tale of Resurrection Mary.

At the time, I hadn’t heard anything about Resurrection Mary.  Neither had any of my friends.  We only knew that this was a great story.

As the years went by, I became better acquainted with Chicago folklore.  Then I realized The Duke had picked up the Resurrection Mary story somewhere, and simply adapted it to his own purposes.  That was a habit of his.  Last I heard of him, he was a long-term guest of the federal government.  Something about counterfeiting.

The first sighting of Resurrection Mary occurred in 1939.  Since then there have been dozens.  The story has been related in newspapers and magazine articles, in books, in songs, and in a movie.  Today Mary is all over the internet.

Who was the real Resurrection Mary?  Researchers have nominated a number of candidates.  My vote goes to Anna Norkus.


Anna was born in Cicero in 1914, and later lived near Archer and Harlem.  On her 13th birthday—July 20, 1927—she rode along with her father and some friends to the Oh Henry Ballroom (today’s Willow Brook).  After an evening of partying, they drove home.

Along the way they passed Resurrection Cemetery.  On Harlem near 67th Street, the driver lost control of the car and plunged into a deep ditch at the side of the road.  Anna was killed in the crash.

The dead girl was supposed to be buried at St. Casimir’s Cemetery.  But because of a grave-digger’s strike there, Anna was temporarily interred at Resurrection Cemetery.  Later, when the strike ended, her remains could not be identified.

That account fits the main elements of the Resurrection Mary story.  As noted, there’s plenty of information available, and you’re welcome to come up with your own theory.

As for me, I’ve driven past St. Adalbert’s Cemetery hundred of times, and never had anything unusual happen.  But I’ve never driven by Resurrection Cemetery at night.  And I don’t intend to.



Chicago’s Forgotten Movie Star

When you mention Milton Sills today, even many film historians draw a blank.  Yet he was one of the biggest movie stars of his time.  And he was a Chicagoan—through and through.

He was born in the city in 1882.  His family had money—Dad was a mineral dealer, Mom was a banker’s daughter.  Milton grew up on the South Side, attended Hyde Park High School, then entered the University of Chicago in 1899.0-Milton Sills

Sills studied philosophy and psychology, played sports, joined a frat–the whole Joe College bit.  He also did some acting in a few campus productions.

After graduating in 1903 he was hired by the university to teach mathematics.  Sills had talked about studying for a Ph.D, and it’s not clear what happened to that plan.  What is known is that by 1905 he was a professional actor, part of a company that put on plays in Chicago and in the college towns of the Midwest.

Sills got his big break when he went to New York in 1908.  Legendary producer David Belasco saw the young actor perform, recognized his talent, and helped promote his career.  Over the next few years, Sills appeared in several Broadway plays.

It was the early days of motion pictures, and the movies were silent.  Sills made his screen debut in a 1914 production called The Pit.  The movie was a success, and earned him more work.

Sills was a versatile actor.  He was a tall, brawny, muscular man who could play physical roles with ease.  At the same time he was an intellectual who wrote poetry, and penned magazine articles without the aid of a ghost writer.  Because of this background, he also looked comfortable in the more cerebral roles.

By the 1920s he was an established leading man.  Sills scored notable triumphs on Miss Lulu Bett, Single Wives, and The Sea Hawk.  The last film—don’t confuse it with the Errol Flynn version–often turns up on Turner Classic Movies.

Though busy in Hollywood, he kept in touch with his Chicago roots.  Sills contributed to the University of Chicago’s alumni magazine, and made regular trips home to see his widowed mother.  On one such visit, hundreds of female fans mobbed him and caused a near riot.

Sea Hawk

Sound came to the movies in 1927.  Many silent-film actors couldn’t make the adjustment, and their careers were over.

Sills was at his peak.  As a veteran stage actor he knew how to deliver dialogue, and the transition appeared easy.  Yet nothing is ever certain in the entertainment business.  Sills hesitated about taking the plunge into talkies.

In 1928 he took a partial plunge.  The Barker is a drama about carnival life.  Like many films of the time, it’s part talkie, part silent.  Sills plays the title role.  He has an excellent speaking voice, and he really can act.

Now Sills began to have health problems.  He took a long vacation from work and rested in the Adirondacks.  Early in 1930 he returned to Hollywood, filming Man Trouble and The Sea Wolf.

On September 15, Sills was playing tennis with friends at his Santa Monica home when he suddenly collapsed.  Effort to revive him were futile.  He was dead of a heart attack at 48.

Today Milton Sills in memorialized with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.  But he is buried back in his hometown, at Rosehill Cemetery.



Billy Caldwell the Man

If you’ve lived on the far Northwest Side of the city, around Cicero and Peterson, you know the name Billy Caldwell.  There’s Billy Caldwell Woods, Billy Caldwell’s Reserve, Billy Caldwell Golf Course, Billy Caldwell Post of the American Legion.  And of course, Caldwell Avenue.

The neighborhood is called Sauganash.  That was Billy Caldwell’s other name.

Billy Caldwell is a figure of legend, but was a real person.  Untangling his story has kept historians busy for nearly two hundred years.
Billy Caldwell cigar band

Billy Caldwell cigar band

William Caldwell Jr. was born near Fort Niagara, in upper New York, in 1782.  He was the natural son of a British army officer and a Mohawk princess.  There’s some evidence that Billy’s first name was actually Thomas.

The boy didn’t have much standing in the society of his time—he was both a bastard and a “half breed.”  Billy was raised by the Mohawks, then spent some time in his father’s household.  At 17 he moved out on his own.

Caldwell apprenticed himself into the fur trade.  By 1803 he was chief clerk in the Forsythe-Kinzie firm’s new post at the mouth of the Chicago River.  About this time he married into the Potawatomi tribe.  His in-laws called him “Sauganash,” which translates as “Englishmen.”

In 1812 the Potawatomi attacked the American garrison at Fort Dearborn.  The story goes that Caldwell arrived on the scene just after the battle and saved the lives of the Kinzie family.  That’s the traditional account of what had happened.  Historians have been unable to verify it.

Caldwell fought on the British side in the War of 1812.  Afterward he lived in Canada.  When several business ventures failed, he moved back to Chicago.

Billy Caldwell was here!

Historical marker at Caldwell and Kilbourn—Billy Caldwell was here!

In Chicago Caldwell worked in the Indian trade, as a merchant, and as an appraiser.  He made friends among the settlement’s leaders.  Because of his tribal connections and his fluency in several languages, he smoothed relations between the Americans and the native peoples.

In 1828 the U.S. government recognized Caldwell’s work by building for him Chicago’s first frame house, near what is now Chicago and State.  The next year he was appointed chief of the Potawatomi.  And that needs some explaining.

The Potawatomi knew that the Americans were going to force them out of the area.  They wanted to get the best deal possible.  Even though Caldwell was Mohawk—and only on his mother’s side—they thought he could help them in treaty negotiations.  So they accepted him as chief.

In 1830 the Potawatomi started signing off their land.  Caldwell became a hero among the American settlers.  Chicago’s first hotel was named The Sauganash in his honor.  The U.S. government awarded him a 1600-acre tract of land northwest of the city, Billy Caldwell’s Reserve.  He lived there with his Potawatomi band for three years.

By the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, the Potawatomi gave up the last of their land.  At 51, Caldwell was an old man for the time.  Now that the native peoples were leaving, there was no need for his unique services, and no reason for him to stay in Chicago.  He sold his reserve and left with his adopted tribe.

He’d lived a life on the margins, bouncing around among at least three different worlds, never fully part of any of them.  Billy Caldwell spent his final years with the Potawatomi near Council Bluffs, Iowa.  He died there in 1841.


The Story of a News Photo

During the 1920s, a daily newspaper would go to outlandish lengths to top its rivals. If you were the first one with the big story, you sold more papers.  Ditto if you had an exclusive story—a “scoop.”  Ditto again if you had an exclusive photo.

Tom Howard being fitted with his ankle camera

Tom Howard being fitted with his camera

Tom Howard was part of this milieu. In 1928 the young Chicago Tribune photographer took one of the most famous photos in newspaper history.  And it all began with a scruffy little murder in Queens, New York.

Ruth Snyder was an unhappily-married housewife in her early thirties who was having an affair with a corset salesman named Henry Judd Gray. On March 19, 1927 they killed Ruth’s husband Albert for the insurance money.  They tried to make it look like part of a robbery gone wrong.

But the lovers proved to be inept criminals. The police quickly demolished their story, and they wound up accusing each other of dreaming up the scheme.  Ruth and Henry were tried for first-degree murder.  Both of them were found guilty, and sentenced to die in the electric chair at the state prison in Sing Sing.

The New York Daily News was a tabloid that had built its reputation on sensational news photos.  Ruth Snyder was going to be the first woman executed in several years, and publisher Joseph Medill Patterson wanted a picture of the execution.  Trouble was, photographing an execution was not allowed, and prison authorities knew all of the Daily News photographers.  So Patterson phoned his cousin, Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick.

McCormick agreed to lend Tom Howard to the Daily News. In New York, Howard obtained press credentials to attend the executions as a writer.  On January 12, 1928 he arrived at the prison with a miniature single-shot camera strapped to his ankle.  A wire attached to the shutter ran up his trouser leg to a trigger-release concealed in his coat.

Howard waited while Henry Judd Gray was executed. Then came Ruth Snyder’s turn.  Howard edged forward.  As the current surged through her body, Howard squeezed the trigger release.  Then it was over, and he rushed back to the Daily News offices in Manhattan.

The famous photo

The famous photo

Howard had no way of knowing if the plan had worked, until the photographic plate was actually developed. But it had worked.  Four hours after Ruth Snyder’s execution, Daily News extras were on the street, the entire front page filled with Howard’s photo of her death throes.  The headline simply read “DEAD!”

Prison officials were outraged by the picture. They talked about bringing charges against Howard and the Daily News.  But since no laws had actually been broken, the matter was dropped.  Still, in the decades since, anyone admitted to an execution site undergoes a thorough search for concealed cameras.

Tom Howard returned to his career in Chicago. When he died in 1961, he was the chief photographer at the Sun-Times.