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.

Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.

10 Fascinating Facts About Chinese New Year

Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning January 25 in 2020, China will welcome the Year of the Rat, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. Chinese New Year was originally meant to scare off a monster.

Nian at Chinese New Year

As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A lot of families use Chinese New Year as motivation to clean the house.

woman ready to clean a home

While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. Chinese New Year will prompt billions of trips.

Man waiting for a train.

Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. Chinese New Year involves a lot of superstitions.

Colorful pills and medications

While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. Some people rent boyfriends or girlfriends for Chinese New Year to soothe their parents.

Young Asian couple smiling

In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. Red envelopes are everywhere during Chinese New Year.

a person accepting a red envelope

An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. Chinese New Year can create record levels of smog.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City

Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. Black clothes are a bad omen during Chinese New Year.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year

So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. Chinese New Year leads to planes being stuffed full of cherries.

Bowl of cherries

Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand. In 2017, Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. Panda Express is hoping Chinese New Year will catch on in America.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
domandtrey, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.