Local ghost tour explores city’s haunted sites

It’s been almost 20 years since the first Chicago Hauntings “ghost bus” took to the streets, but the signs of paranormal activity haven’t slowed down in the slightest. Ursula Bielski and her team of paranormal investigators run these weekly tours, with Anthony Szabelski taking the lead on the Oct. 12 event. Even if you don’t believe in the paranormal, this tour was the perfect way to spend a fall night. 

Before the tour began, I did my own “investigation” of The Congress Plaza Hotel, since I got there nearly an hour early. An uneasy feeling overcame me as soon as I stepped inside, but the feeling on the 12th floor, which is reportedly the most haunted, was almost suffocating. 

On the way to the first stop, the Biograph Theatre, Szabelski talked about his experiences inside The Congress Plaza, including the time he saw a fellow investigator’s doppelgänger walking around on—you guessed it—the 12th floor.  

Once at the Biograph, Szabelski led guests into the alley where notorious gangster John Dillinger was killed in 1934. Photos of Dillinger were propped up on the window of the restaurant next door, only adding to the chilling tale of his death. Continuing down a mobster-rabbit hole of paranormal activity, the next stop on the tour was the site of the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. 

“The city refuses to allow anything to be built here,” Szabelski said. “It’s like they wiped the location off the map as if it never existed.” 

Even though the area where the garage once stood is now an empty lot, an uneasy feeling remained in the air, especially when Szabelski said the men were killed almost directly next to where some guests were standing. 

Continuing to Lincoln Park, guests were taken to the Couch Tomb, a lone mausoleum standing in what used to be one of the city cemeteries. At this site, EMF detectors—devices that measure electromagnetic fields—were passed out so guests could see if they got any abnormal readings around the tomb. Unfortunately, my device did not capture anything, but some others reported spikes in readings around the back of the tomb. 

The Nederlander Theatre was next up. Szabelski explained the tragedy in which 602 people lost their lives in a fire at the “fireproof theatre,” and  as the bus cruised down Michigan Avenue, the juxtaposition of the city’s haunted history to its modern look was more apparent than ever. 

Once in the alley behind the theatre, more equipment was passed out, this time dousing rods, which are used to contact spirits by asking yes-or-no questions and seeing if the rods will cross. My rods crossed several times and I felt somewhat of a presence around me, but the feeling went as quickly as it came. 

More tragedy was explored on the way to the last stop, as the bus passed the spot on the river where the Eastland Disaster — the SS Eastland rolled over and killed 844 people — took place. Szabelski said some reports of seeing apparitions drowning in the river have been so vivid that the police have been called, only to find no one in the water. 

The Hull House was the last stop, and by far the most unsettling. You could just feel someone—or something—looking back at you as you looked in the windows. It didn’t help that Szabelski mentioned previous guests have reported spirits following them home from this location. Thankfully, I left unscathed and with a newfound sense of appreciation for the city’s history, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget how unnerving it felt inside The Congress Plaza Hotel.