9 real Chicago horror stories more terrifying than any movie

If you think haunted houses or killer clown videos are as scary as it gets, you'll be pretty embarrassed when you find out that there are real American horror stories that're totally worse. With Chicago's history of vice, gangster violence, and poorly executed construction (wait, what?), it should come as no surprise that there are stories of bizarre Chicago deaths that are as horrific as they are true.

Here are nine stories you might not wanna read while eating lunch. Or maybe you do, we don't really know you like that.

Union Stockyards
Wikimedia Commons

1. Explosion at the Union Stock Yards

As if sawing up animals in the world's meatpacking district doesn't already make you uneasy, in 1908 a garbage plant exploded in the Back of the Yards, where workers from the Union Stock Yards lived. A tank of highly flammable naphtha was somehow lit and blew the roof off of the structure, raining flaming liquid death down upon the surrounding neighborhood.

People nearby were also blown sky high and landed in Bubbly Creek -- known for being the nauseating river runoff full of animal carcasses that still bubbles up gas today -- and had to be rescued. An 80-year-old man who was seen crawling out of the plant, while on fire, was pulled out by a lasso and thrown into the creek to extinguish the flames, but later died from his injuries. Firefighters and panicked families could do little but watch as the building burned, the steel tubes in the middle glowing red in the wreckage through the night.

Murderers Ship Corpse to Pittsburgh
Flickr/David Costa

2. Don't open that trunk

In 1885, Augustino Jelardi and two of his friends invited Filippo Caruso into their home with plans to give him a hot shave and A MURDER. Caruso sat down for a traditional Sicilian shave, the men lathered him up and then Jelardi took him out -- not Sweeney Todd-style, but by choking him to death with a rope.

Jelardi's crew searched the body for money and, unsure what to do with the corpse, bought a steamer trunk, shoved Caruso inside, and shipped it off to Pittsburgh. When the ghastly package arrived, employees noticed the stench and quickly found the rotting corpse inside. The police were able to trace the trunk back to Jelardi and his men who confessed to the crime.

Steam Train
Flickr/David Lofink

3. Scalded to death by a steam train

In 1874, a newsboy named David Brown missed the normal train running to Hyde Park and opted to ride in the dummy train -- a steam engine built to look like a regular train car -- with the conductor and the engineer.

As the train neared Hyde Park, it jumped the tracks, crushing and killing the engineer instantly. Brown survived the crash, but was trapped in the wreck that was filling with steam. He cried for help and nearby residents came and pulled him from the wreckage. However, his burns were so bad that as they stripped his clothes off, his skin ripped off as well. Brown had been boiled alive.

Iroquois Theatre
Wikimedia Commons

4. In case of fire, don't do what this theater did

Safety measures in theaters not being what they are now, there are countless stories of people falling from catwalks or having their brains bashed out on the stage due to poorly timed jumps. The worst of these stories comes from the Iroquois Theatre.

In 1903, in a theater overfilled with patrons and children, a fire broke out onstage and the cheaply built theater soon became a deathtrap. The fire curtain did not descend, exits were locked, doors opened inward and couldn't budge against crowds pushing towards them, and there was no fire alarm. Within 15 minutes, 571 people were dead. The dead were piled over six feet deep -- the bottom layer had been trampled and the top burned beyond recognition. On the site of the Iroquois Theatre is now the Oriental in the Loop and rumors abound that it's haunted.

Chicago Stock Exchange building
Wikimedia Commons/Jeremy Atherton 

5. Death by architecture

A prominent Chicago historian and preservationist, Richard Nickel would photograph, salvage, and publicize historical buildings in an attempt to save them from demolition and fight the bulldozing trend that became popular in the '60s and '70s.

In 1972, he had been working for months, taking photos and collecting artifacts at the Chicago Stock Exchange Building -- designed by Louis Sullivan -- only to disappear one day in April. The next month, his body was found under a pile of rubble. Sweet irony, Nickel was crushed by the very architecture he was trying to save.

The Everleigh club
Wikimedia Commons

6. Chicago once had a deadly red-light district

Now where Columbia College and pricey condos stand in South Loop, there was once the Levee, one of the most notoriously dangerous red-light districts in the world. In the 1880s it was where men could go to drink, gamble, fight, and find prostitutes, maybe even (probably even) in the same night. Custom House Place -- now Federal St -- was lined with brothels and panel houses where, while a man was in a room with a prostitute, another woman would reach through a panel in the wall and rob him of his clothes.

Madams and pimps would beat, often to death, men they did not care for or that they wanted to rob. Judges in Chicago ruled that men who ventured into the district should know better, and would not uphold their cases against prostitutes who robbed them. Marshall Field Jr., the eldest son of Marshall Field, was rumored to have received a fatal gunshot while at the infamous Everleigh Club, the world’s most high-end brothel, with his body then dragged home out of respect.

Fourth of July Fireworks
Flickr/MIKI Yoshihito

7. Death by Fourth of July fireworks

On July 4th, 1897, several boys were playing with fireworks they'd bought from a South Side store.  The owner, C.H. Frank, asked them to stop, but they continued and even threw lit fireworks inside the building that they knew was filled with fireworks.

On cue, the building exploded -- a lit firework sparking a gas tank in the back of the building -- glass and store stock were blown across the street and Frank was left pinned, unconscious, in the wreckage. Every firework in the store was lit and began to explode as well, nearby buildings caught fire, and street cars were almost blown over from the force of it all. Frank was rescued by two passersby who pulled him out, but left severely burned and not expected to survive. This, it turns out, is why corner stores won't even sell snakes and snap'n pops anymore.

Robbin’s Pier
Wikimedia Commons

8. Fishermen in a lightning storm come up with the worst idea imaginable

In July of 1901, a group of 11 men and one 12-year-old boy went fishing off of Robbins Pier near Montrose Beach. Around noon, a bad storm started to pick up, but they decided to ride it out. When lightning started cracking, all 12 ran to huddle for cover, with the boy in the middle, underneath a makeshift zinc roof that had been erected on some of the pier pylons, all the while not knowing zinc conducts electricity.

A bolt of lightning hit the roof and instantly electrocuted the men hiding underneath.  Eleven of the twelve died instantly, but the survivor, 12-year-old Willie Anderson, was partially paralyzed but otherwise alive. As rescuers came, they realized that the bodies of the 11 dead were so tightly packed under the pier they had fused together in the lightning blast. Willie Anderson had to wait a half hour, screaming in panic, until the bodies around him could be moved and he was pulled out to safety.


9. Hell hath no fury like a looney Stepmother

Annie Grabant didn't enjoy her life with her husband, to say the least; she was his second wife and together they had six children -- two from his previous marriage and four of their own. Grabant lost trust in her husband when she became convinced he wanted a divorce, in part because he favored his children over theirs.

She decided to take revenge on him, leaving a letter in the mail telling him that it was all his fault before trying to burn down the house and kill herself and the six children inside. Neighbors saw the flames and foiled the plans, but not before her stepchildren had burned to death. Grabant was found with severe burns over her head, chest, and torso. When accused by the police, she sobbed and said that it was all just a terrible accident.

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Leyla I. Royale is a Chicago musician & historian. Read her horror history blog Dead In Chicago and follow her on Twitter.