It’s close to 2 a.m. and I’m standing alone in the reportedly haunted second-floor restroom of the Red Lion Pub.
One of Chicago’s premier British bars, for some, the Red Lion is known more for its apparitions than for its U.K. theme. For years, stories have circulated that this bar—and specifically this bathroom—is haunted by a ghost who is sometimes heard whispering; sometimes detected by the strong scent of her lavender perfume; sometimes caught playing her favorite poltergeistal practical joke—locking women in the bathroom and cutting off the lights.
Which I’m trying not to think about as I plunk my purse down on the floor and attempt to reapply lipstick—until the door of the left bathroom stall swings shut. Maybe it’s gravity. Maybe I tapped the door without realizing it. Or maybe the bottles of liquor stacked neatly behind the bar aren’t the only spirits available at the Red Lion.
For those who do not believe in ghosts, there is a fuse box in the bathroom’s janitorial closet that a person hiding inside could feasibly use to turn the lights out. If another person in on the prank was waiting outside the door, they could easily coordinate locking the door at the same time the bathroom blacks out.
That said, I was really freaking scared when that stall door moved.
And I didn’t feel a lot better when I asked the bartender about the bar’s hauntings and he led me into the bathroom to show me the spot where a prostitute had allegedly been killed years ago—a patch just left of the spooky stall.
The Red Lion’s haunting history is a complex one. The bartender (like two other servers, questioned on different instances) gave vague accounts of spiritual sightings, claiming not to know the full story.
Red Lion owner Colin Cordwell is even admittedly unclear about the details of some of the bar’s hauntings. However, he does believe in ghosts—mainly because his father, John D. Cordwell, is one of the bar’s resident guests. Colin Cordwell keeps a framed photo of his father (and one of his father’s ghost) behind the bar.
“Do you want to see a picture of the ghost?” Cordwell asks with little prompting, and produces the framed photo of two regulars and a very shadowy white figure. He believes the ghost is his late father.
“I looked at it at an angle and saw his face,” Cordwell says. The photo is creepy. A visiting psychic once told him a woman spirit also inhabits the bar.
But surprisingly, after 19 years of running the Red Lion, Cordwell hasn’t had many first-hand encounters with the spirits thought to dwell in the Lincoln Park building, which he says was built in the 1880s and has served as a gambling house and apartment building, among other things.
However, Cordwell has had his share of paranormal hints, such as hearing furniture move around on the second floor when no one is present. “I always know when [one of the ghosts] is here,” he says. “The hair goes up on the back of my neck.”
Although Cordwell says spiritual events at the bar only happen about every six months, you may be in luck if you’re hoping to see one of Red Lion’s regular specters soon. “The ladies’ room down here has been doing weird stuff lately,” he says. “When the women sit down, the [sink] water will turn on by itself and off and the door will rattle.”
The Red Lion Pub isn’t the only Chicago spiritual hotspot on Lincoln Avenue—Dillinger’s Alley, where gangster and former public enemy No. 1 John Dillinger was shot to death by the FBI after leaving a movie at the Biograph Theater in 1934, sits just a few feet away.
For years, residents have reported seeing a shadowy figure dash and fall in the alley, but standing at the light pole where Dillinger died, the only thing that made me jump was my cell phone ringing.
Cordwell, however, had a much spookier experience several years ago when visiting the spot with a local reporter and Chicago haunt historian/Chicago Supernatural Tours owner Richard Crowe.
“[We were saying] a prayer for John Dillinger,” Crowe recalls. “The street lamp went off and chills went down our spines. When three people experience something so similar, it’s not just your imagination.”
Dillinger’s Alley is one of the stops Crowe sometimes makes on his several-hour tour of Chicago spirit spots, first devised in 1973 when finishing his master’s in English at DePaul University. The university geography department suggested he create a tour.
“I was the guy who always told ghost stories,” he says. “They said, ‘You’re always talking about haunted places—do we have enough for a tour?”
Turns out they did. Crowe’s ghoulish gig became a full-time job in 1979. In recent years, he’s added an assistant to help, but Crowe still narrates most of the tours himself. He constantly adds new stops to keep it fresh (“a little bit of everything to razzle dazzle them,” Crowe is fond of saying). On Halloween night 1995, one recently-added stop provided Crowe and about 60 tourgoers with what he credits as one of his best-ever supernatural experiences.
Crowe had just finished his speech about Clarence Darrow, the famed Leopold and Loeb lawyer who allegedly promised to come back before dying in 1938. When leaving the area near the Museum of Science and Industry where Darrow’s ashes were scattered, one of the tour group members spotted something.
“We were on the way back to the tour bus when someone called out ‘There he is!’ And walking down the sidewalk, dressed in [outdated] clothing, [this man] looked into the water,” Crowe says. “We yelled at him, but he paid us no attention. Two guys ran toward him and both stopped simultaneously—just stood there. [They later said] it was just too scary. The old guy did a half turn, walked away [and disappeared behind a building.]”
“My bus driver quit after that,” Crowe says. “He quit the industry.”
Despite eerie experiences like seeing a deceased local lawyer, ghosts aren’t guaranteed on Crowe’s outings. “Let’s say you had something happen on a tour,” he says. “Would everyone see it? Not necessarily. I can only guarantee that the places are real.”
Chicago’s Most Haunted
We asked Richard T. Crowe to pick the top six places you’re likely to see a ghost. But beware—you may not see one at all.
“Some you can hear—the auditory—clanking chains, footsteps. Sometimes there’s a mist. [Ghost hunting] encompasses everything from poltergeists—ghosts you don’t see but affect the environment—to apparitions you do see. Some are just the scent of someone’s perfume.”
Sniff away at Crowe’s picks for Chicago spirit spots:
800 S. Halsted
“Jane Addams believed it was haunted,” Crowe says. “Wooden shutters open, then you turn around and they’re not open. One person saw a head of a child in a window.”
RED LION PUB
Patrons have reported hearing phantom footsteps, smelling a woman’s perfume, hearing screams and getting locked in the bathroom in the dark. “You have to grope your way to the switch,” Crowe says. “Who did it? You’re in there alone.”
SITE OF THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE
2122 N. Clark
Although the warehouse/garage where Al Capone’s henchmen allegedly gunned down seven gang members in 1929 is now a vacant lot (complete with a giant dumpster), locals have reported hearing sobbing around the tree in the center of the yard where the shootings took place. “Dogs walked through [the lot] will often panic and pull up on the leash,” Crowe says.
SITE OF THE EASTLAND BOATING DISASTER
On Wacker Drive, between the Clark and LaSalle Street Bridges
More than 800 people died when the Eastland capsized in 1915, and Chicagoans have reported hearing “banshee-like wails,” according to Crowe. “Others claim they can peer over the railing to see people flailing but when they go to call for help, the people disappear,” he says.
4001 N. Clark at Irving Park
The small statue on Inez Clarke’s grace was reportedly placed under glass years ago to prevent it from showing up in other places around the cemetery—but the container did little stop the movement, which was originally attributed to vandals and has ever since been the rumored work of Inez. But she never lets it go far. “At night the statue disappears,” Crowe says, “but it’s always back by morning.”
ARCHER AVENUE IN CHICAGO SUBURB JUSTICE
Perhaps the most famous Chicago ghost, car accident victim Resurrection Mary has for years been appearing on this Southwest Side street, allegedly still on her way home from a dance hall. “Mary is often active around a full moon,” Crowe says. “Keep moving—she could be anywhere out that way.”