South Prairie Avenue
Originally part of a path across the prairie from the Chicago River’s Fort Dearborn to Fort Wayne in Indiana Territory, Prairie Avenue became home to some of the wealthiest historical figures in Chicago, Illinois during the late 19th Century. Acclaimed novelist and Prairie Avenue resident Arthur Meeker called it “the sunny street that held the sifted few.”
Over the years, more than a few of those homes have become quite haunted, and the ghosts here run the gamut. You’ll find a famous architect, a music magnate’s wife, a prominent local hatter, carriage horses, and the son of a department store mogul still roaming around.
And in the nearby parks, there are still more.
Very much so! The remaining mansions on South Prairie get a relatively steady traffic flow, mainly via the old John J. Glessner House—now the Glessner House Museum—and its tour routes. Many have shared their experiences over the years, which the staff is happy to align with real history, even sharing their own stories.
There are presences here. The cold spots in the Glessner House and the Kimball House’s shaking shutters. The apparition in the windows of the Keith House and the strange noises from the Marshall Field Jr. House. Plus dozens more lights, shadows, and sounds on the street and in the parks.
In 1885, renowned architect Henry Hobson Richardson designed a house for John Glessner, which finished construction in 1887. Unfortunately, Richardson died of chronic nephritis of the kidney a year and a half before he could see his latest masterpiece completed.
As a tribute to the man, the Glessners hung his portrait on their wall, and not just any wall, but the north wall next to the main staircase. Now, Henry’s smiling face greets everyone as they enter the house.
Interestingly, the painting is not hung, but screwed directly into the oak paneling, representing the bond between the designer and his design.
If you’re lucky, you might catch the man’s spirit standing on that same staircase, or even near the master bedroom. It’s believed that he’s forever admiring his work, something that he never got to do in life.
Even when members of the Glessner family still lived in the house, they said they could often sense him there. And when they couldn’t glimpse his ghost moving about, they could feel the cold spots that were left in his wake.
In 1890, Solon Spencer Berman designed a house for William Kimball, which finished construction in 1892. Berman lived to see his work completed, though Kimball fell ill and died in his twelfth year there.
During those years, his wife, Evaline, had amassed an impressive collection of Old Masters paintings, including Rembrandt’s “Portrait of Artist’s Father,” Corot’s “Landscape With Bathing Women,” John Constable’s “Stoke by Nayland,” Joshua Reynold’s “Lady Sarah Bunbury,” John Francois Millet’s “Sheep With Peasant Girl,” and others by Gainsborough, Romney, and Thomas Lawrence.
Having paid $205,000—or a little over seven million dollars in today’s money—for all of them, she was well known for her collection and quite attached to it. When she died in 1921, they were donated to the Art Institute of Chicago, where they still hang today.
People have said that whenever the large windows on the north side of the house shake and rattle violently for no discernible reason, it must be the spirit of Evaline Kimball. She used to display all her paintings on the walls of the two-story entrance hall, and seeing them gone drives her absolutely mad.
Mad enough, it seems, to go pounding on the windows in despair.
In 1868, John W. Roberts designed a house for Elbridge Keith, which finished construction in 1870. Keith was the youngest of four brothers, including Osborn and Edson. Osborn had co-founded the wholesale hatmaking company, Keith & Faxon, along with Albert Faxon in 1858.
When Faxon retired seven years later, Osborn brought on Edson as well as Elbridge, renaming the business Keith Bros. It became one of, if not the, most successful hatting business in the country at the time.
In 1884, the company was rebranded as Edson Keith & Co. and Elbridge left. He became President of the Metropolitan National Bank as well as a partner in the hardware firm Keith, Benham & Dezendorf, and generally enjoyed his new South Prairie home.
Meanwhile, Edson wasn’t doing so well. He began suffering from insomnia and both his physical and mental health began to decline. It culminated early one Monday morning in September of 1896 when he put on his hat and coat, left the house, walked to the Weldon Slip pier on 16th Street, and threw himself into Lake Michigan.
Apparently, his wife, who had been sleeping in the next room, heard him leave but didn’t think anything of it. It was only when he didn’t show up to breakfast about an hour later that she went to look for him and discovered him missing.
The police were called and a search was conducted, Elbridge quickly joining in. When one of the family members read a newspaper article about a J.B. Mitchell brand hat and coat being found on the shore, speculating that whoever owned them had committed suicide, the Keiths were convinced it had been Edson.
Later, it came to light that quite a lot of people had seen the second eldest Keith brother, but had either minded their own business or not realized what his intentions were until it was too late.
Edson’s spirit apparently returned to Prairie Avenue, and probably haunted his own house for a while. Since it was torn down, however, his ghost has been seen at his brother’s house, where he sometimes appears in the windows, or his presence is felt by the owners or their guests.
Poor Edson is probably no longer an insomniac, but perhaps deeply regrets his actions and seeks to reunite with his family. Especially his brother, whom he’d worked with so closely for so long.
There are two parks nearby South Prairie. One is the Chicago Women’s Park and Garden that sits between it and South Indiana Avenue, and the other is Battle of Fort Dearborn Park, which sits along the curve where East 18th turns into South Calumet.
In the first, by the old Clarke House, you can sometimes hear the faintly echoing clip-clops of old carriage horses, and, on rare occasions, even glimpse them trotting by. Strangely, they always seem to have their bits, but never their harnesses.
Perhaps they’re the ghosts of horses that broke free, or worse, got into an accident that resulted in their deaths. Either way, they stroll unburdened throughout the park.
There’s also a woman in a settler’s dress who mostly shows up at night, flitting through the bushes and occasionally stopping to smell the flowers, or even pick them. This might be the ghost of young Caroline Clarke. After all, Chicago was still very much a frontier town when she and her husband moved here.
In Battle of Fort Dearborn Park, ghosts of the slain are still known to wander about. The spirits of the garrison and several of the Potawatomi, the original inhabitants of the land, have both been seen walking, many times on clear, cold nights. The Americans go searching for their families and friends while the Natives continue to patrol their land.
The official story of the tragic death of Marshall Field Jr. is that he was in the library cleaning a hunting rifle when it went off accidentally. After rushing in at the sound of the gunshot, his butler and his nurse found him lying on the couch with his hands pressed to his bleeding side and the still-smoking gun lying on the floor.
He was rushed to Mercy Hospital where he was operated on, but he still passed away four days later.
There are two different stories explaining this event, the most popular being that he’d actually gone out to a high-class brothel called the Everleigh Club about ten minutes away, and had been shot there by one of the bouncers. He was then quickly rushed home where the scene was staged before he was brought to the hospital.
The other, which was more newsworthy, but discredited by the courts, was that of a woman named Vera Scott, who claimed she was having an affair with Field Jr., went to the Everleigh Club with him not realizing it was a brothel.
While there in the company of a woman by the name of Emma Everleigh and a prostitute called Alice, Field Jr. got into an argument that ended with him slapping Vera. “Inflamed with drink and crazy mad,” Vera reached for the gun that Field Jr. was known to carry with him and pulled it out, warning that she’d teach him never to lay a hand on her again.
She hadn’t meant to pull the trigger, she claims, but accidentally did, putting a bullet in Field Jr.. He fell to the floor, but was still coherent enough to insist she call him a cab and not say a word about it to anyone. Vera then claimed that she fainted, and couldn't recall the rest of the night.
Her story beyond that involved being paid off by Field Sr. and going to “the Orient,” where she met a rich count and eventually returning to the US, where she picked clovers and had more affairs. It’s understandable why her account seemed less than trustworthy.
Still, only Field Jr. knows the truth. Perhaps that’s why people say you can still hear his footsteps echoing in the house, and even strange cries in the dead of night. Maybe he’s agonizing over his death, or still lamenting the deadly mistake.
Once again, the Prairie Avenue of today was once part of a longer passageway between U.S. forts during the War of 1812. After receiving news of the British capture of Fort Mackinac, General William Hull ordered Captain Nathan Heald to evacuate the soldiers and civilians of Fort Dearborn to Fort Wayne.
Before Heald and company officially left, the Captain spoke with the local Potawatomi tribe about their intent to leave. This meant leaving their surplus provisions, firearms, and ammunition with the tribe, which the Potawatomis gladly accepted.
However, Heald also promised them a large sum of money in return for their escort, despite already having the arranged protection of thirty Miami tribesmen.
He not only broke this promise, but rashly decided that he didn’t trust the Potawatomis and promptly had the firearms, ammunition, and provisions destroyed.
Two-and-a-half miles en route, the evacuees were ambushed by a group of young Potawatomi men angry about the betrayal. The American soldiers fired first, however, and a battle ensued.
The battle only lasted about fifteen minutes, but fifty-two of the ninety-three Americans lost their lives, including two women and twelve children.
A single cottonwood tree at the skirmish site became a symbol of the event, then known as the “Fort Dearborn Massacre.” The tree was called “The Massacre Tree” and remained standing until it was felled during a windstorm in May of 1894.
That area of South Prairie Avenue would go without incident for quite a long while after that. It even escaped the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 by quite a few miles.
With the Gilded Age still in full swing, the rich and powerful flocked with top-tier architects and designers to build lavish mansions from their burgeoning fortunes. In that time, over ninety houses were constructed between East 16th and East 22nd Street.
Among these builders were John J. Glessner, Marshall Field, William W. Kimball, Philip Armour, George Pullman, and many more. The industries they led varied from farm equipment manufacturing to railroad engineering, and the styles of their homes ranged from Richardsonian Romanesque to Second Empire.
Sadly, what was the “Millionaires’ Row” of Chicago began to fall into a sharp decline starting in 1893 with the rise of the lurid Levee District just a few streets to the west. Brothels, saloons, and gambling parlors in such proximity slowly tainted South Prairie’s genteel reputation.
Many migrated further south to Kenwood or north again to the Gold Coast and the North Shore. Their mansions languished, falling into disrepair. Some were eventually converted into rooming houses for those working in new nearby factories. Others were simply torn down.
Only seven of the original ninety houses remained by 1966. Of those was the Glessner House, which was purchased in 1966 by a plucky band of preservationists before it could be demolished.
This sparked interest in the street’s history and a movement to recognize and protect it. By 1979, the Prairie Avenue Historic District was designated, including the houses on the 1800 and 1900 blocks, as a sort of off-center centerpiece.
The city had also recognized the oldest surviving house in Chicago: the Clarke House. Originally built in 1836 for hardware businessman Henry B. Clarke and his wife Caroline, it was moved in 1977 to be a part of the new district.
It now sits in the park to the west of the historic street.
The Glessner House Museum at 1800 South Prairie is a hub of sorts, conducting tours leading to the other old mansions, restored to as much of their former glory as modern technology can muster.
House tours run every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 11:30 a.m., 1:00 p.m., and 2:30 p.m.. Prairie Avenue tours run on specific dates listed on their website, where you can also purchase tickets and learn even more about the Glessner House and all the others.
The Kimball House at 1801 South Prairie is the official headquarters of the US Soccer Federation.
The Keith House is available to rent for charities/fundraisers, corporate events, private parties, and weddings. You can find them at 1900 South Prairie.
The Clarke House is now the Clarke House Museum and its address is 1827 South Indiana Avenue. It’s open for visits with free admission. The Chicago Women’s Park and Garden and Battle of Fort Dearborn Park are open to the public from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.every day.
The Marshall Field Jr. House at 1919 South Prairie is a private residence. Please be respectful.