Due to the graphic nature of this haunted place, listener discretion is advised this episode includes descriptions of suicide and suicidal ideation. We advise extreme caution for children under 13. If you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts or the impulse to self-harm, please seek help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is one 800 273 855. Nell's hands trembled as she tried to light her cigarette, her lighters flame wavered in the cold air. There was always a wind tunnel by the Chicago Water Tower.
She tried again and again until finally her cigarette ignited. She took a deep inhale, left side, releasing the stream of smoke. She'd royally screwed up her presentation. She'd been preparing for months. And then she stood in front of the board. Her PowerPoint ready and froze, literally froze. She was such an incompetent idiot. And promotions aren't given to idiots. Everything she'd worked for in her career, she lost. In an instant, she took another drag of her cigarette, staring at the bright embers flaring at its tip.
Then her attention turned to the water tower. She worked in the building next to it for over a year, but it never stopped to really look at it. It was a cool building. It looked more like a castle than a traditional water tower. It was surrounded by modern skyscrapers. In that way, Nell mused that it seemed stubborn in its boldness.
The thought comforted her.
She might feel like she was in freefall now, but she was resilient, just like that water tower. Nell Houser, who wasn't going anywhere. In one of its upper windows now spotted a man staring out at her, he was pale with a red shirt and black hat. He looked sad with a lost expression on his face. Suddenly now felt a gust of cold wind hit her stupid Chicago wind tunnel, she thought, but when she looked down, her legs were shaking and she screamed.
She was no longer on the street looking up at the tower. She'd somehow been transported to the water towers roof and it was balancing on a narrow turret, her arms flailing wildly to prevent a freefall she'd never come back from. She slipped. Welcome to Haunted Places, a Spotify original fun podcast. I'm Greg Polson. Every Thursday, I take you to the scariest, eeriest, most haunted real places on Earth. You can find all episodes of haunted places and all are there.
Spotify originals from podcast for free on Spotify and every Tuesday, make sure to check out urban legends. These special episodes of Haunted Places are available exclusively on Spotify this week. Joining me on a supernatural journey to Chicago's haunted watertower, one of the few structures to withstand the great Chicago Fire of 1871 and discover why to this day it's haunted. Coming up, the city of Chicago goes up in flames. This episode is brought to you by home, chef.
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Chicago has seen a lot of death, the serial killer homes murdered dozens of victims in the 80s and 90s. Al Capone reigned with terror in the 1920s and a deadly heat wave saw a massive loss of lives in 1995. With a history like that, there's more than one place in this municipality that is defined by its traumatic past. But the tallest and perhaps the most haunted of all is the Chicago Water Tower. Today, the tower stands out amid the modern buildings around it, drawing the eye like a queen among commoners.
It's a 182 foot tall Gothic revival building made of yellow limestone and adorned with plenty of gables arches and turrets.
The tower, along with its neighboring pumping station, were originally built in 1869. The pump was designed to draw water from Lake Michigan to meet the growing city's water needs.
But only two years after the water tower was completed, the new water source was put to the test.
Because in 1871, the great Chicago Fire came tearing through the dry wood structured city with the water towers pumps to protect it. Walter heaved a canvas sail onto a pile of wool blankets and stepped back the entire bottom of the pumping station building had stacks of material surrounding its base. Now, all he had to do was soak them in water and the pumps just might stand a chance against the fire that was ravaging Chicago. The flames had been tearing through the city for two days now, and the firefighters were stretched thin.
Emergency after emergency had pulled Walter's co-workers to other parts of the city to fight the flames, leaving Walter to save the city's only water supply by himself. The water works on Pine Street had been cleaned by the fire yesterday, and if they lost this pumping station, he knew the entire city would be reduced to Ash. Walter didn't consider himself brave, but he was great at doing what he was told. His family had emigrated to Chicago from Germany, and like many immigrants, he was always encouraged to blend in.
Don't make waves. His father would say it was why being a firefighter was the perfect job for him. The captain didn't want his men to have minds of their own. He wanted a well oiled machine that followed orders. So every time Walter felt fear churning in his belly, he closed his eyes and followed directions. You don't have to be scared when you'd been told what to do. Only a few steps away, the pumping station sister structure, the water tower stood defiantly against the advancing flames, but its yellowish exterior was orange in the players glow.
It was only a matter of time before the flames reached it, too. Walter coughed. The smoke was heavy in the air. The crackle of approaching flames was deafening. He took a deep breath. He was scared. There was no denying it. But he was holding on to the last instructions his captain had given him. Protect the pumps and don't let the flames get you. He didn't need to be brave. He just had to follow instructions.
Walter picked up a hose from the pumping station and opened it, stumbling back from the water sports. His muscles strained. He guided the stream as well as he could to soak the blankets and canvas at the base, hoping that would be enough against the encroaching flames. A building beside the water tower collapsed in a fiery heap, Alter flinched. The fire was expanding quickly. Now Walters eyes traveled up the water towers tall column that extended up into the night sky.
If it fell, it had toppled directly onto the pumping station. Protect the pumps, Walter muttered to himself. But he couldn't protect. The pumps at the water tower crumbled. He might know how to fight fire, but he would be no match for a cascade of heavy limestone. Walter stepped over to the tower and struggled up its metal scaffolding like stairs, hauling a massive sack of wool and canvas behind him. He'd spent the last half hour stacking sodden canvas sails and wall around its base, but he needed to protect the higher levels, too.
He would hang more wet material from its windows. He'd slung the hose over his shoulder, but it was heavy. Sweat poured off his skin.
He coughed violently. The smoke was burning in his lungs now, and he felt like his own chest was on fire.
To protect the pumps. He thought again, protect the pumps. Walter reached the third floor, but when he looked out the window, his stomach flipped. The city of Chicago was an escape. Fires danced in the night sky from each rooftop. As far as the eye could see, the heat from it all burned his cheeks, ash coated his nostrils. Walter got to work. He drank the long yards of wall off the window, attaching them to the inside of the sill with rope.
He slung the remaining rope around his shoulders and turned on the hose.
Its dreams soaked the wall, staving off oncoming lanes.
But suddenly the water tower shook.
Walter's heart dropped. Another building had fallen close by. Walter braced himself, then wiped the sweat out of his eyes and kept working. He went from window to window, tying the soaking fabric to the sills until the entire third floor was armored. With wet canvas, his task complete. He ran down the tower stairs, hauling the hose after him, anxious to get back to the pumps. But the smoke grew thicker as he neared the ground floor. His coughing grew worse.
By the time he reached the towers exit, he could barely see in front of him. And when he shouldered open the double doors, a great swell of heat hit him in the face. He wasn't getting any further in the time it had taken for him to hang his wet cloth. The inferno had completely taken over the street. Outside, flames seemed to cover everything in sight, and now the trees around the tower were ignited. Walter tried to hose them down and form a path for himself to get to the pumps.
But the fire was barely affected by a tree.
Branch fell with a roar, just missing him as it crashed to the ground. Walter stared hopelessly at the pumping station, knowing he couldn't get there. He'd stop the building from falling, but at any moment the flames would dry out the fabric that protected the pumping station. Then they'd consumed the city's entire supply of water. He'd failed. Another branch then fell, sending a wave of embers into Walter's face. He stumbled back into the tower, slamming the door shut against the flames.
But the smoke was relentless. He retreated back up the stairs, trying to get away from the suffocation. He didn't know where he was going. All he knew was that he hadn't protected the pumps. And now he only had one more instruction left to follow. Don't let the flames get you. The fire banged at the towers doors as he ran up the stairs, up and up away from the smoke. Finally, he reached the top level, but still he fell into a bit of violent coughing.
He looked out the window for some sign of hope, but all he could see was his city being eaten by fire.
The top level was a small circular metal landing with a railing that looked over the interior of the tower mulcher, peered over the rail where the fire glowed orange through the smoke billowing. The flames had reached the ground floor before long. They'd crawl up the tower and get to him to. Tears Don Walters eyes, he wasn't brave. Not anymore. He had only two instructions and he failed them both. Now he had nothing. He had nowhere to go.
Walter closed his eyes and touched the rope that still hung around his shoulders. Don't let the flames get you. Walter did have instructions. He tied one end of the rope around the rail and the other around his neck, the rope sat heavy on his shoulders. It's a rough fiber's prickling against his skin. He climbed over the railing, wincing as the rope chafed at his neck. Walter stared down into the thick smoke. Don't let the flames get you, he repeated.
He hadn't failed after all. Then he stepped off the rail with only the rope around his neck to stop him. The water tower was one of the few structures in the city that remained after the great fire of 1871 and many credited survival to a German immigrant named Frank Trautmann. He was a firefighter who soaked blankets and ship sails and water and did his best to cover the tower and protect the city's water supply. It's clear that Frank was a hero when the tragedy of the great Chicago Fire, but it's less clear what happened to him.
Another firefighter, however, is tied to the second piece of lore surrounding the towers, haunting. According to legend, a city worker committed suicide the night of the Chicago fire. The worker was asked to man the pumps, but hung himself from an upper level of the tower. When the flames grew too close, a body was never recovered, and the identity of the man couldn't be proven. Though this legend is popular and may be connected to real deaths at the water tower.
There's no evidence that a suicide occurred there during the fire. As history marched on, however, the legend stuck and it seemed that the water tower would only draw in more depth. Coming up, a fire isn't the only thing that can trap you in a tower.
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Now back to the story. There are many rumors surrounding Chicago's water tower, and one of the most popular is that the 1871 Chicago fire started from a cow kicking over a lantern. The rumor sparked the creation of the schoolyard song Mrs. O'Leary's Cow, which has been chanted by children all over the country for generations. It goes one dark night. When we were all in bed, Mrs. O'Leary left the lantern in the shed, and when the cow kicked it over, she winked her eye and said, They'll be a hot time at the old town tonight.
Fire, fire, fire. However, the cow lantern theory has now been mostly debunked, and we still don't know exactly what sparked the flames, just that they originated in the O'Learys barn and a Copan Street regardless. The flames raged for two days, fueled by the primarily wooden structures of Chicago and the dry October weather.
It destroyed over 17000 buildings and killed approximately 300 people. And yet the water tower remained.
According to author John Hogan, the towers tall peak served as a visual guide for the city's evacuees to find their way home after the tragedy. It was scorched from flames and its foundation severely damaged, but it had survived, making it a beacon of resilience. And when the city was rebuilt after the fire, it was with the water tower at its center. In the years that followed, the tower became known for its dirtiness in the face of death. Or maybe the tower is what called to death in the first place.
Hugo stared down at the scrap of parchment in his hands. It's fresh ink, still glistening.
Then he shoved it into his pocket and wove through the crowded street, sweating under his bowler cap. It was hot and the surrounding buildings only made the summer wind stronger like it was shooting through a heated tunnel. Hugo's nerves grew as he passed the water tower.
He was about to do two things he never thought he'd have to do admit to stealing and ask his father for money. He sighed, this never would have happened in Germany, in Germany, Hugo had been raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. He'd been coddled. His parents had taken care of any problems that arose in his life. Grades were paid for, repeated friendships were bought off, and skills were crafted through expensive tutors. His easy life had tricked him into thinking he'd be successful in whatever he did.
It was why he'd had the gumption to go to America.
But as soon as he arrived, he realized that he was incapable of doing anything himself. He gambled away the funds his family had given him and had to get a job as a clerk, a clerk, and he couldn't even do that menial job right. His gambling had grown worse and he started stealing from his employer. Now, his desperate, massive and there was no way out. He had to come clean before he was caught and the authorities were called.
So he'd written a confession to his boss, Mr. Weber, explaining that his father would pay. He was on his way to deliver the note now.
It was mortifying. A sharp whistle pulled Hugo from his thoughts, he looked up to see an acquaintance, Victor, gangling, leaning against the water towers, limestone walls, smoking. Victor was a fellow German countryman who kissed the ground. Hugo walked upon. Hugo loved that about Victor. Victor eagerly asked Hugo for advice. He told Hugo he hadn't been able to find a job in weeks and his debts were growing. Hugo bit his tongue. Victor idolized him, and Hugo wanted to enjoy the last few moments of appearances.
He hadn't left until he came clean to Mr Weber. He was still Hugo von Melkert with his nice clothes and gentlemanly swagger. So he kept his voice flippant as he told Victor that he'd ask around. But he was thinking about going back to Germany so he wouldn't have much time to help. Victor nodded, looking disappointed. But he covered with a smile and a shrug, assuring Hugo that he never expected an important man like Hugo to do such a thing.
Anyway, Hugo guiltily thought about the note in his pocket. There'd certainly be a vacancy with his clerk position after he gave it to Mr Weber. But Victor didn't have to know the reason for the vacancy. Not yet. Hugo told Victor about Mr. Weber shop and suggested he check in tomorrow, a clerking position might be opening up. Victor's eyes lit up. He thanked Hugo profusely and said he couldn't pay Hugo back, but he could show him something that might make you think twice about leaving Chicago.
Victor pointed to the water tower high column up there, he said, was the best view of the entire city, and he had the key. Victor fished out a key from his pocket and smiled ear to ear. Hugo looked at it. He needed to get to Mr. Weber, but it wasn't exactly a conversation he was eager to have. So he'd welcomed a few more moments as the elite Hugo von Mallott perch while he still could. Hugo stood at the open window of the water tower's top floor, staring at the expansive view of the city, the tower rose far above any other building.
It was a majestic display of American advancement, a beacon for a city that had been destroyed by fire only 10 years before a wave of shame coursed through Hugo. He wasn't so resilient here. He was about to return home after failing at his new life. He was the kind of thing that burned when Victor finally suggested they get going. Hugo couldn't move. He couldn't tear himself away from the quiet hum of peace. He felt far above a city that he'd failed to conquer just a few more minutes.
He promised himself and then he'd face the music that Mr. Webers, he told Victor to go on ahead of him. Victor placed a hand on Hugo's shoulder. Just go, Hugo said. But it wasn't Victor behind him. It was a middle aged man in a firefighter's cap and a red wool shirt. His face was streaked with soot and his expression was anxious. Hugo was alarmed. He hadn't heard Victor leave. And he certainly hadn't heard this man arrive.
But then again, he'd been deep in his self-loathing, Hugo asked the man if there was a fire in the building, but the man didn't speak. Instead, he took Hugo's hand, it was ice cold, a sharp difference through the warm summer wind, Hugo yanked his hand away and demanded to know why the man was here. The man stared at him sadly and quietly asked if Hugo felt trapped. Hugo shook his head, uncomfortable but the man's intensity.
And then he noticed an angry red burned around his neck as if a rope had cut into it. Hugo tensed. Something was wrong. But this man. Suddenly, he felt the wind grow at his back, Hugo slowly looked down and screamed, he had been inside the tower by the window, but now he found himself standing on one of the turrets that sat just outside of it. His adrenaline spiked. How had he gotten there? He hadn't stepped out himself.
He was sure of it. The turret was wide enough for him to balance, but there was no railing, nothing to grab onto. He was just one wrong move away from a massive plunge to the street below, the firefighter stood at the window less than a foot away. He looked kindly at Hugo and said that he understood how he was feeling. It's always frightening when there's only one way out, but it's easier when someone tells you what to do, the man said softly.
And then he shoved Hugo as hard as he could. Hugo felt himself calling the war mayor, rushed by him just like the wind tunnel on the street, his last thought was that at least he'd been right. There would be a vacancy at Mr. Webers and then his body slammed into the ground below. On June 17th, 1881, when Victor Gangland stepped out onto the city street, he found a mangled Hugo von Malapa hurt, lying, broken on the cracked pavement in the months leading up to his fatal fall.
Hugo had allegedly been depressed due to financial and legal problems, according to newspaper accounts, from the time he took his own life by jumping from the roof of the water tower. While Victor Gangling is the name of the last person to have seen Hugo von Mallet hurt. Victor was really a new acquaintance of Hugo's. He had met him that day when both went up into the water tower to admire the view Hugo von Malapa hurt did come from an illustrious German family.
But as for the other details of his life and work, we can only speculate. In 1875, only a few years before another German immigrant named Frederic Kaiser also leapt from the top of the tower, Kaiser was said to have suffered from depression and spent some time at Belgian State Hospital for his illness. Both these tragic stories follow German immigrants. In the second half of the 19th century, Chicago saw a huge influx of Germans moving to the city. In 1860, 20 percent of Chicago's population was German.
Unlike the Irish who were fleeing famine, Germans were often less destitute, while many were working class, some came from more privileged backgrounds. So therefore, the pressure to succeed financially was significant. Perhaps this need to excel rather than simply survive, made failure feel all the more intense. Or perhaps it was the ghost of the water tower that nudged these men from its large. Coming up, sometimes it's better not to look down. This is a PSA, black storytelling is getting its own platform on Facebook, and they're calling it We the culture, expect to see black excellence, vibrant, dynamic, taking up space, unapologetically black from entertainment, lifestyle, outdoors, comedy, you name it.
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Now back to the story. The water tower is not only a landmark of history, but it now houses history as well. It currently serves as the headquarters of the Chicago Office of Tourism and contains an art gallery that focuses on local creators. If you wish to know more about the culture and history of Chicago, stop by the water tower. But art isn't the only thing you might catch. A glimpse of passers by report seeing a man swinging by a noose inside the upper windows of the tower.
On occasion, tourists who have spotted the mysterious swinging man. We'll call the police, but the authorities have never found anyone inside. Other eerie anecdotes mention a feeling of dread. When visiting the tower. A few witnesses felt something touching them when no one is there. Some say they've taken photos that reveal mysterious orbs of light. One especially spooky incident occurred in the 1980s. The details are vague, but it concerns a flurry of calls to the police.
The calls were allegedly coming from the water tower. Despite the building being closed for renovations and each time the officers picked up, no one was there. Rita pushed her cleaning cart through the cold, dark hallway, so the water towers art gallery after 10, she'd always had the place to herself, so she set her boom box on the top of the cart between the open bag of trash and the mop bucket and turned it up loud.
Its tunes echoed through the empty building, and Rita wiggled her hips. Loud tunes and grooving was how she got through her nightly shift.
If she didn't have music, she'd remember that at just 30 years old, she was widowed and a janitor.
Rita and Henrick had married young, their parents hadn't really been fans of the teens tying the knot. But Rita had told her mom to leave her alone and that was that it had driven her parents away, but she hadn't cared. She had Henrik. Ten years after they married, Henrick had gotten sick of flu. They thought only it got worse until they heard the word that made tears come cancer. The medical bills had been pricey, so now he or she was working off the most tragic years of her life by cleaning the tiled hallways of Chicago's prized water tower.
Rita swept the mop across the tile. Maybe it was the oppressive, gaudy architecture of this place.
Maybe it was the dark halls. But she often grieved for Henrick while she worked against the peppy music. It was usually louder than her thoughts. But just then the current track ended and all was silent.
Rita tensed, she was sure she just heard someone whispering, but the next track came on and drowned out whatever it was. So she turned back to mopping and dancing accidentally hip, checking her cleaning cart in the process. Rita whipped the boom box right into the pocket. She yelped, rushing over to the bucket. She tried to save it, but by the time she finished the boom box out of the water, its battery was totally flooded. She angrily hooked it into the trash and kicked her cart.
She swallowed, trying to drive away the tears that sprang in her eyes. She knew she was being silly. It wasn't about the boom box. It was about her life. A life without Henrich. She fought back tears as she dutifully worked her way through the building. In silence, she tried to move quickly. The sooner she finished, the sooner she could go home and really cry. When she was done reading, unlocked the heavy double doors for the night and started toward the bus stop, suddenly Rita heard that same whispering that she'd heard between her music tracks.
It was soft, like her ears were being tickled and somehow she knew to look up. She gasped. There was a figure standing in one of the windows of the water tower's highest floor. She squinted, trying to see. He stood stoically while his hands moved at work on something even from far below. Read you could tell he was shaking that she realized what the man was holding. It was a rope and he was looping it around his neck.
Reno looked around frantically for someone to help, but it was midnight and there were no pedestrians out. She had to call the cops. There was a payphone about a block away or her fingers closed around something metal in her hand.
She had the key to the building.
There was a phone in there. She ran inside the office and grabbed the plastic receiver. Her finger frantically pressed, nine one one.
It rang and rang and rang. It was unhide. Why was no one picking up?
She bit her lip and looked up.
She couldn't just leave that guy up there. Maybe if she could just talk to him. She hung up the phone.
The phone rang sharply, startled her. Rita grabbed the receiver and said hello. Hoping it was the police. But instead she just heard the same muffled ringing on the other end like she was calling them. Rita set the phone down on Easley. It rang again. She picked it up. Same thing. Spooked. She set it down and hurried from the office. It rang again, had her back, but she couldn't waste more time. There was a man who needed her.
Rita ran up the towers metal steps, stopping just before the last set of stairs. She didn't want to run up behind him. He might be startled and she didn't want to think about that. So she took the remaining steps slowly. Rita stepped onto the landing. It was a wide metal platform leading around the circular shape of the tower, a metal railing lined its interior, giving anyone who looked over it a clear view all the way down to the ground floor.
The man stood very still staring out the window. He wore an old looking red wool shirt and a black cap, a rope hung around his neck. Its other end was tied to the metal railing behind him. Rita called out a tentative hello. He looked at her, but made no move to respond. She tried again telling him that it's all right. She was just there to help. Maybe he wanted to chat much to read relief. The man turned toward her.
He was stocky, middle aged. His eyes look so sad that she felt her own grief while up inside of her. But she shoved it down, managed to smile and asked him what his name was, Walter. He told her she needed a great name. She said he asked her softly if she knew what to do next. Rita felt the hair in her arms rise. Something was off and the way he looked at her, it was like she was the delicate one.
She took a step back and put something heavy around her neck. She touched her throat, feeling the rough surface of rope beneath her fingertips.
The noose was somehow now around her neck, she yelped, pulled it from her head and threw it to the ground, Walter frowned and whispered that he understood it was hard to decide things on your own, so he'd help her.
He grabbed her hand and tugged her toward the rail, Rita shrieked as this icy palm yanked on her arm. She cried out for him to stop, but they were quickly moving toward the edge of the street. Below came into view. Rita screamed, her hands flailing for something to grab onto. She yelled out that she didn't need help, but the man wasn't listening, he muttered as he pushed her to the rail. He whispered that he knew Rita wasn't alone.
That tragedy had frozen her. He could feel it. But she shouldn't worry he was here to tell her what to do. Yes, tragedy had frozen her. It had trapped or in grief, found a job she hated.
But that didn't mean she wanted some maniac to choose her fate. She screamed wildly that he didn't get to decide.
She instructed him firmly to go away. With a sudden surge of strength, she wrenched her arm out of his grip and swung a punch, but her fist flew harmlessly through empty air.
Rita gasped, looking wildly around the platform, but there was no one there.
The man had heeded her order. He'd left Rita alone. The water tower is known as a symbol of resilience, a beacon leading a city through tragedy. But not everyone has been a fan of the landmark. During a lecture in Chicago in 1882, Oscar Wilde labeled the building a monstrosity for its appearance. But Wilde had a deeper understanding of the tower beyond its aesthetics. At least two suicides have occurred there, and even a neighbouring mall, which shares its namesake, the water tower place, has seen its fair share of tragedy, including two deaths, both ruled suicides as recently as 2019 and 2020.
To some, this is no coincidence. It can only mean a supernatural lurker haunts the tower just as stubbornly resilient as the building itself. And yet, if this is true, then the Water Towers original message still stands, though in a different light. We can't have hope and resilience if we don't know tragedy. Perhaps by showing us the grim proximity of mortality. The Water Tower also reminds us of all we have to live for, and that even at our worst moments, there's still a chance to survive.
Thanks again for tuning into haunted places. We'll be back on Thursday with a new episode. And don't forget to come back on Tuesday for our Urban Legends series available only on Spotify. You can find more episodes of Haunted Places and all of the Spotify originals from podcast for free on Spotify.
I'll see you next time. Haunted Places is a Spotify original theme podcast, executive producers include Max and Ron Cutler, Sound Design by Kenny Hobbs with production assistance by Ron Shapiro, Carly Batton and Eric Morrison. This episode of Haunted Places was written by Kate Murdoch with writing assistants by Alex Garland, fact checking by Claire Cronin and research by Adriana Gomez. I'm Greg Polson. Hi, it's Vanessa again. Before you go, don't forget to check out the new Parkhurst Limited series.
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