Thursday, March 18, 2021

HGB Ep. 377 - The Eastland Disaster

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Moment in Oddity - Pink Lemonade Origins (Suggested by: Scott Booker)

Summer has made lemonade a very popular beverage. It's quite simple, a little sugar, some water and fresh squeezed lemon juice. Lemonade was enjoyed as far back as the 17th century and grew in more popularity in the 19th century. At this same time, pink lemonade came onto the scene. An article in an 1879 issue of West Virginia’s Wheeling Register was one of the earliest mentions of pink lemonade and it was something created by traveling circuses. There are a couple of narratives about how pink lemonade was invented. Henry E. Allott had run away with the circus when he was a teenager. He was working the lemonade stand and enjoying some cinnamon candies died red and he accidentally dropped a bunch into the vat of lemonade. There was no time to make a new batch, so he served the lemonade that was now pink. That sounds pretty good, but the other story is just gross. Supposedly, a circus performer had washed her pink tights in some water and a man named Pete Conklin grabbed that water because he needed to make a batch of lemonade. The lemonade had a pink hue because of the tights. Today, pink lemonade is sometimes made with strawberries or red raspberry or grenadine or watermelon or cranberry juice. But generally, pink lemonade is just like regular lemonade, only with a pink hue. We love that pink lemonade is connected to the circus, but its origin, certainly is odd!

This Month in History - Michelangelo Born

In the month of March, on the 6th, in 1475, artist Michelangelo was born. Born Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni in Caprese, Italy, he was often referred to as the divine one. Michelangelo got his first apprenticeship at the age of thirteen. By the following year, he was being paid as an artist. He would paint and sculpt, but also wrote poetry and became an architect. He was the quintessential Renaissance man and many of his works are the most famous in the world. The Pieta and David are two of them and both were completed before he was thirty-years-old. I didn't realize until I saw the original David in Italy that the statue features David right before he kills the giant Goliath. You can see the rock in one of his hands and the sling over his shoulder and if you look closely, there is a vein sticking out in his neck as though he is stressed and his eyes are intense. One of the greatest frescos is his work that appears on the Sistine Chapel, all of which he painted while laying down on his back. Major parts of St. Peter's Bascilica were designed by Michelangelo in his seventies. He lived to be eighty-eight, dying in 1564 in Rome. He was buried in Florence at the Basilica of Santa Croce.

The Eastland Disaster (Suggested by: Kimmie Page)

The Eastland Disaster was the most deadly shipwreck in Great Lakes history. More passengers would die in this disaster than in the sinking of the Titanic. This was supposed to be a fun excursion to the grounds of a company picnic. The annual employee appreciation event had become a much anticipated break from the six-day work weeks that the lower middle class employees endured. On this fateful day in 1915, hundreds would die including whole families and leave a mark forever on Chicago. Locations that housed the dead until they could be identified are still haunted by the tragic event, both figuratively and literally. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of the Eastland Disaster!

The S.S. Eastland was nicknamed the Speed Queen of the Great Lakes. The ship had been commissioned by the Michigan Steamship Company in 1902 and was built by the Jenks Ship Building Company of Port Huron, Michigan. That speed that her nickname indicated was not an original part of her make-up. The steamer was actually top-heavy with no keel and the ballast tanks were poorly designed. The steamer would later be outfitted to run faster, but these additions would cause issues with her stability. Metacentric height is the distance between fully upright and the point at which a ship will capsize. It was said of the Eastland that fully loaded, it would need a metacentric height of two to four feet. With the changes made, its metacentric height had been reduced to four inches. In 1904, the Eastland had her first issue with nearly capsizing. The steamship company lowered the capacity limits and did away with some cabins in response. The ship would continue to list through the years when cargo was being loaded. The steamer was sold four times before 1914 and ended up on Lake Michigan.

The weather was cool and damp on the morning of July 24, 1915 when the excursion steamer Eastland was loading up for a trip across Lake Michigan. Captain Harry Pedersen was at the helm. Within minutes she would have 2,573 passengers and crew on the steamer. The atmosphere aboard the steamer was festive. A band played in the main cabin while passengers leaned against the railings to wave goodbye to friends. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best with the women sporting wide-brimmed hats, long dresses, corsets, stockings and fancy boots. Employees of the Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works were being shuttled from downtown Chicago to Washington Park in Michigan City, Indiana that was 38 miles across the lake for a grand picnic. There were five vessels in total that had been chartered by the company to carry some 7,000 people. This was not a cheap treat for the employees who paid $1 per ticket when the best paid people in the plant made $17 a week.

A light drizzle chased many of the women and children below deck. Surely they had to have noticed that the ship was beginning to list from side to side after boarding was complete. Some may have thought it was a little bit of an issue, but most ignored the danger, including the Captain. The ship was only carrying 53 more passengers then it was built for, but there may have been another issue no one had considered and ironically, it was a safety measure. After the Titanic sank, it became important to make sure that there was room for all passengers on lifeboats. This made sense on transcontinental ships, but for a ship sailing on the Great Lakes, it was overkill. The added weight of the lifeboats became problematic. The Eastland listed to one side and then the other. The sway grew deeper. The open gangways soon had water pouring in and the engine room was flooded. The crew from the engine room ran for the main deck realizing that the steamer was taking on too much water. Within five minutes, the Eastland listed to a 45-degree angle.

The angle was enough that objects inside the boat started shifting drastically. A refrigerator slid across the steamer and pinned a woman. The piano on the promenade deck rolled and crushed two women. Two minutes after the 45-degree list, the Eastland capsized. The time was 7:30am and the steamer was still tied to the dock, but now lying on its side in 20 feet of water. No lifesaving equipment could be launched. Some of the passengers were able to climb over the starboard railing and walk across the hull to safety, but many more were in trouble of drowning. And imagine being on a dance floor and being rocked violently to one side and then rolled over. Many people would be severely injured just from that action, much less the fact that water was rushing into the steamer. The Eastland's captain, Harry Pedersen, was one of the lucky people who just walked across the hull.


Harlan Babcock wrote in the Chicago Herald, "In an instant, the surface of the river was black with struggling, crying, frightened, drowning humanity. Wee infants floated about like corks." The good people of Chicago went into action. Some onlookers jumped into the water to try to save the drowning. Helen Repa was a Western Electric nurse who had her ticket for the picnic and was riding the trolley to the dock when she heard the screams. She ran off the trolley when it stopped and hopped into the back of an ambulance to get to the scene quicker. She said, "I shall never be able to forget what I saw. People were struggling in the water, clustered so thickly that they literally covered the surface of the river. A few were swimming; the rest were floundering about, some clinging to a little raft that had floated free, others clutching at anything they could reach – at bits of wood, at each other, grabbing each other, pulling each other down, and screaming! The screaming was the most horrible of all." A warehouse worker made the same observation, claiming that he finally had to cover his ears because he couldn't take the trauma of the sound. The nurse asked a department store to send over 500 blankets and then asked several restaurants to send soup and coffee. She loaded the less injured into cars, asking the drivers to take the people home and not one driver refused. 

Other people on the dock started throwing anything that would float into the water to give victims something to hold on to until they were rescued. Within thirty minutes, all the survivors had been rescued and now the rescue effort turned to recovery. Priests stood by to give last rites, but that would be in vein because people were either alive or dead. Trucks were brought to the dock to help transport the dead because there was clearly not enough ambulances to handle the numbers. The Second Regiment Armory was converted to a morgue. Bodies were in rows of 85 and family members were invited inside in small groups, so they could identify their loved ones. Some jerks made their way in as well to gawk or steal jewelry. People who walked through reported horrifying scenes of couples locked into death grips with one another, mothers clutching their babies, little children lying in rows together and everyone dressed in their white Sunday best that was now muddied and stinking of the foul water of the river.

Many of these families were Hungarian, Polish or Czech and soon those communities would be awash in black crepe as they mourned their dead. Fifty-two grave diggers working twelve-hour shifts could not keep up with the demand. The same trucks that hauled victims from the tragedy, now hauled bodies to their funerals and to cemeteries. A Model T Ford hauled all the caskets of the Sindelar family, seven of them. The Red Cross was in town for days bringing relief to victims. The Coroner's Office formed an inquiry immediately after securing all the bodies and awarded those who helped in rescue efforts with a star that read "Valued Services Rendered." These heroes also received a letter that read, "I trust that you will accept this little token not for its intrinsic value or worth, but in memory of this terrible of all disasters which should teach us the lesson of 'Safety First' and of extending to our fellowman kindness, courtesy and consideration."

How was it that the Eastland was repeatedly certified as safe by inspectors? Apparently, since the listing of the Eastland would only occur during loading and unloading and everything was fine once she was underway, they figured she was a safe ship. Who would think that a steamer would capsize when still at the wharf? Maybe nobody thought that would happen, but Chicagoans nicknamed the Eastland a "hoodoo boat." They knew the boat was dangerous, but we imagine that the Western Electric employees were so excited for a day off and a picnic paid for by their company that they thought nothing of the fact that they were boarding a ship that many knew was not up to par. In the end, 844 died. More people than had died in the Chicago Fire of 1871, making this one of Chicago's deadliest catastrophes. 

Some of the victims: Twenty-one year old William Holtz had lived at home with his parents and siblings. He had been planning on quitting his job so he could stay home and help care for his blind mother. Jethro Richard Beel, Jr and his wife Marguerite were dancing aboard the steamer when it capsized and they both survived that initial issue. They made their way to a porthole window and Jethro pushed Marguerite through, but he could not follow because he was too big to get through. Marguerite managed to get to the surface of the water and was pulled to safety. The couple had a two-year old son who was not with them. Charles Bender was aboard the Eastland because he was going to visit his girlfriend Pauline Olach in Shallowboy, Michigan. He died on the steamer and his parents wouldn't speak to his girlfriend because they blamed her for his death. Raymond and Ione Ehrhardt would survive the tragedy when their uncle saved them, but their parents passed away. They were ten and six at the time. Bessie Dvorak was an ace swimmer, but she was no match for people drowning around her who clawed her and took her below the surface. Her parents saw that Bessie's skin was shredded by fingernails when they found her at the morgue.

Edward Gatens and his fiancee Anna Quinn, died together on the ship. Harry Foster and his wife Rachel had invited Rachel's sister and brother-in-law to join them at the picnic. Fate stepped in and forced the brother-in-law to have to work, so the couple skipped the picnic and were not with Harry and Rachel when they died in the tragedy. Willie Guenther didn't work for Western Electric, but a friend invited him to the picnic. Willie almost missed the train that day as he was running late, but the conductor saw him running and stopped the train. It is believed that Willie was crushed by something large inside the ship as he did not drown. Marenka Homola was three and half years old when she was left clinging to her father in the Chicago River. Her mother and younger sister had already perished. She and her father would be rescued, but she would never get on boat or swim in water for the rest of her life. She was one of the last known survivors of the tragedy when she died at 91 in February of 2003. All the members of 22 families perished in the tragedy.

Now that victims were buried, the people of Chicago wanted answers. And because many wanted blood, Captain Pedersen and much of his crew were taken into custody for their own protection. Chief Engineer Joseph Erickson was represented by Clarence Darrow when the trials finally got underway. He was the one that would take much of the blame because he was in charge of the ballast tanks. It was said that his mismanagement kept the ship from righting itself. But as we already pointed out, this ship was built and remodeled in a way that made it unsafe. And this was known. Erickson became a convenient scapegoat as he died during the trial. The Captain was not prosecuted. The owners of the steamer were not prosecuted either and no inspectors received any blame.

As would happen in our modern era, families filed civil lawsuits for wrongful death and injury. There were around 800 suits and very few ended up paying out anything and the amounts were miniscule. The Eastland was said to only be worth $46,000 and the salvage company had to be paid first. The Eastland was raised on August 14, 1915 and eventually sold to the Navy in 1917. The steamer became the USS Wilmette and served as a training vessel and gunboat from 1918 to 1945. She saw no combat and was scrapped out in 1946. This event was not as famous as other maritime tragedies probably because no one famous or rich was aboard, but the Eastland Disaster left a mark on Chicago's low and middle-class immigrant working families. And perhaps that is why many spirits of the victims have not been at rest. There are ghost stories connected to the Eastland Disaster, although many of the original sites have been altered.

The Second Regiment Armory, that served as the central morgue, no longer stands. In 1990, the building became home to the Oprah Winfrey Show and Oprah's production company, Harpo Studios. Oprah's show went off the air in 2011 and she shut down the studios in 2015. Demolition on the building began in July of 2016 and the site is home to the McDonald's Headquarters. It will be interesting to hear if hauntings continue at this site. When this was Oprah's empire, there were many paranormal experiences. Visitors, staff, maintenance workers and security have all had stories to share. Some claimed to hear disembodied whispering, perhaps echoing the voices of the grieving family members who had passed through to identify victims. There were also disembodied sobs and screams and moaning noises. A staircase in the lobby often gave off the sound of disembodied footsteps. Doors in the building would open and close on their own. Music from another era was also heard playing throughout the building. An apparition that was nicknamed "The Gray Lady" was seen often by people. She wore a long, gray dress and often walked the corridors in a sullen way and many times would disappear into a wall. If employees attempted to approach the woman, she would disappear as well. It is thought that she was a grieving family member and perhaps residual. Security cameras were said to have caught this apparition a couple of times.

The Excalibur Nightclub was also rumored to have been used as a temporary morgue. At that time, it had been home to the Chicago Historical Society. The television show Sightings filmed at Excalibur in 1997 and a psychic named Tim White reported on the episode that he had encountered the ghost of a little girl who said, "Stop and watch me." Employees claim to have seen the same little girl looking over the railing in the Dome Room. A blue-colored mist has been seen floating up the stairs as well.

The Eastland itself would have claims of being haunted. When it was docked near the Halsted Street Bridge before the Navy acquired it, a caretaker named Captain M.L. Edwards lived on the ship and he often complained of being awakened at night by the sounds of moaning and screaming.  He also heard loud banging noises. The area along the river that was the scene of the disaster also has stories. People dining at riverside cafes sometimes are shocked to watch a surge of water come out of the river and flood the river walk for no apparent reason. Almost as though an invisible ship has capsized, pushing water up over the walk. People walking along the river walk have claimed to see faces staring up at them under the water. The sounds of splashing and disembodied screaming have also been heard. This is not only from the walk, but also from the Clark Street Bridge. Flailing apparitions have been seen in the water and caused people to call for emergency services, only to have those figures disappear minutes later. One man reportedly jumped into the river to save someone he thought was drowning. When he surfaced and looked around to locate the drowning person, he found he was the only one in the river.

Our listener Kimmie Page, who suggested this topic, shared her own experience, "I am also Eastern European and from the Chicago area so the victims of that disaster would have been of similar backgrounds. I’m a spiritual person and I always say something kind or hello or I’m sorry that happened to you when I go to a cemetery or a site where something happened. I’ve read a lot about the disaster and gone to the memorial in bohemian national cemetery many times! My paranormal experience though was when I was kayaking in the river and my tour guide told us we were in the same spot and I did my usual 'I’m so sorry this happened' and a massive SMACK hit the bottom of my boat twice. There is wildlife in the river but the rapid succession of the smacks made me think otherwise. I felt very calm during it but it’s really meaningful to me."

Many families were looking forward to a fun day of relaxing and picnicking in July of 1915. How could they have known that many of them would never make it home that evening? Are the spirits of the victims of the Eastland Disaster still haunting parts of Chicago? That is for you to decide!

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