Fighting ignorance since 1973 Its taking longer than we thought
What's up with the odd submarines found
sunk in Chicago waters?
To the Teeming Millions:
This week we conclude our two-part series on the weird "submarines" found sunk in Chicago waters, as described in Jerome Pohlen's Oddball Illinois: A Guide To Some Really Strange Places. In Part 1, we talked about the oak zeppelin discovered in the turning basin at the mouth of the Chicago River, later determined to be an experimental WWII-era fuel barge. This week we discuss the the Foolkiller, salvaged with the skeletons of a man and a dog inside it circa 1915. Another warning: much of what's been written about the Foolkiller's origin up till now and there's been quite a bit is almost certainly wrong. Not to worry. Maybe I'm 95 years too late, but I think I've got the truth nailed at last.
We'll start at the beginning, which in some ways is the end.
The vessel dubbed the Foolkiller was raised from the Chicago River on December 20, 1915. As you can see in this photo taken by the Chicago Daily News additional views can be seen here it looked like something out of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Unlike the TymBarge, pulled from the river bottom in 1999, the Foolkiller was thought to be a genuine submarine, intended to carry humans underwater, evidently without much success. Also in contrast with the TymBarge, the vessel's origin was never definitely established, although there's been plenty of speculation. Here's what we know.
Nineteen-fifteen was a bad year for passenger travel on the Chicago River. In July the top-heavy, overloaded cruise ship Eastland had rolled over at its berth near the Clark Street bridge, drowning more than 800 people, all Western Electric employees and their families on their way to a company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. Later accounts claim divers found the Foolkiller while attempting to salvage the Eastland. Not so; the submarine wasn't discovered until November. But at least one of the same divers was involved William Deneau, credited with retrieving more than 200 drowning victims from the Eastland. According to the Tribune, Deneau had been laying underwater cable near the Rush Street bridge on November 23 when a sweep of the dredging shovel uncovered the Foolkiller beneath three feet of mud.
Today if you found a wrecked submarine in the Chicago River particularly one allegedly found to contain the bones of a man and a dog, as was the case here I venture to say you'd have experts from the National Transportation Safety Board and for all I know the Smithsonian Institution and the FBI crawling over the thing looking for clues. That's not how they did things in 1915. Deneau got permission from federal authorities to salvage the vessel, and the following February he put it on exhibit at 208 S. State for 10 cents a look.
Did Deneau at least take measurements and photos, and make drawings, and otherwise document what he'd recovered? Evidently not. According to Adam Selzer, who wrote a long article about the Foolkiller in Weird Chicago: Forgotten History, Strange Legends & Mysterious Hauntings of the Windy City (2008), he seems to have sold the thing to a traveling carnival after the State Street exhibit closed old newspaper stories say the Foolkiller was on display in Oelwein, Iowa in May, 1916. What became of it after that we don't know.
That's about it for facts on the Foolkiller. Newspaper accounts at the time were brief and contradictory. The day after the odd craft was discovered the Tribune wrote:
At first glance, this story is plausible. There actually was a "spectacular mariner" named Peter Nissen. A Chicago accountant who dreamed of glory, Nissen had shot the Niagara River rapids in 1900 and again in 1901 in boats of his own devising called Foolkiller #1 and Foolkiller #2. Later he came up with an even nuttier notion: rolling across Lake Michigan in a hammock suspended inside a giant canvas balloon called Foolkiller #3. In late November of 1904, hardly the ideal time weatherwise, he set out across the lake from Chicago and almost made it. On December 1 the Foolkiller was found collapsed on the beach at Stevensville, Michigan. Nissen's body lay a few hundred yards away. He had died of exposure.
But here's the thing. Unorthodox though Nissen's Foolkillers were, none was a submarine, and none bore any resemblance to the vessel Deneau pulled from the Chicago River in 1915. In the voluminous press coverage of Nissen's stunts over the years, there's no mention of his ever having owned a submarine.
On January 16, 1916, the Tribune ran another story about Deneau's find with the headline Skulls Found on Foolkiller, Old Submarine. The tale told this time was slightly different:
Seems a little fishy, wouldn't you say? What's fishier still is that no reports of submarines in the Chicago River between 1870 and 1915 have ever come to light and bear in mind that the archives of the Tribune and other major newspapers are online now and easily searched. I spent the better part of a day and found scores of stories about "submarine boats" in the Tribune, New York Times, and other papers public interest in such craft was high in the late 19th century. Raising a sunken sub in downtown Chicago and relaunching it circa 1890 would have been a huge undertaking, impossible to conceal. Surely it would have drawn big crowds and national press Peter Nissen's escapades did.
But I found nothing. Adam Selzer tells me he made a similar search, also fruitless. (I did find stories about other submarines in the Chicago area and elsewhere in the midwest; more about those in a moment.) I began to wonder: was the thing Deneau claimed to have found in 1915 an elaborate hoax? Consider:
(1) Deneau had money troubles. On December 20, 1916, the Tribune reported:
(2) Deneau had more than a little of the Barnum in him. Initially referred to in the Tribune as "Frenchy," he adopted the title "Captain" when the Foolkiller was put on exhibit, and kept it afterward. He seems to have enjoyed cultivating reporters. In 1917 the Tribune ran a story headlined Army Makes Landlubber of 'Human Fish' Capt. Deneau, Hound in Water, Now a Doughboy. The tongue-in-cheek account said:
You get the idea. The "captain" was a teller of tall tales. Reporters Tribune reporters, anyway indulged him because he was good copy. Adam Selzer in Weird Chicago writes:
(3) Nothing about the raising of the Foolkiller appeared in any Chicago newspaper other than the Tribune. Adam Selzer tells me he checked the microfilm for other local papers published at the time (their archives aren't online). Results: zip. The Daily News took those striking photographs but didn't publish them. Why? The answer's obvious if you ask me: it didn't believe Deneau.
Conclusion: the Foolkiller was a moneymaking scheme devised by a cash-strapped BS artist who fed a cockamamie story about its origin to the Trib. No doubt he threw in references to Peter Nissen and the Foolkiller to lend his yarn credibility, then changed Peter to William when skeptics pointed out Peter hadn't owned a sub. The bones were likely scrounged up as a ghoulish touch to lure the yokels. In short, the whole thing was a scam.
But wait, you say. What about those photos? Divers pulled something out of the river in 1915, and judging from the photos look how that barge tips it was pretty hefty, not some papier-mache fake. As a professional diver Deneau was in a position to know of other sub-like wrecks in the Chicago area. Could this have been one? Some candidates:
The last one is interesting. Many popular accounts today, and at least a couple historians, strongly suggest Deneau's Foolkiller had been built by Lodner Phillips, who lived in Chicago off and on in the 185os and possibly earlier. Virtually everything known about Phillips was collected in a 1982 book, Great Lakes' First Submarine, by Patricia A. Gruse Harris. According to Phillips family tradition, Lodner as a young man had built a crude submarine designed to be pushed along the bottom by a pole stuck through a gasketed opening. Launched at Michigan City in 1845, the small copper-clad vessel immediately sank, but Phillips tried again a few years later. Gruse Harris writes:
Quite a few people have bought this story. Historian David Solzman, author of The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and Its Waterways (2oo6), writes, "It is believed that the [Deneau] submarine was the handiwork of Lodner Darvontis Phillips." Likewise, Adam Selzer says in Weird Chicago, "that the Fool Killer was one of Phillips subs is still the best explanation that has yet been offered for the origin of the mysterious submarine."
Not in my book it isn't. In 1850 Lodner Phillips was only 25, with minimal education and no money. Gruse Harris writes:
An 1851 drawing of a Phillips submarine shows a small, fo0tball-shaped vessel operated by one man using a hand-cranked propeller and that was an improvement over the 1840s model, remember, which was pushed along the bottom with a pole. Phillips's early subs were made mostly of wood, as were virtually all water craft at the time; Deneau's sub was reportedly built of steel. Did a Phillips craft of some kind sink in the Chicago River? Anything's possible. But the idea that an improvident young dreamer in the 1840s could have constructed a vessel as elaborate as the one Deneau produced is too ridiculous to believe.
All that having been said, a Phillips connection to the Deneau sub isn't out of the question. In 1864, Gruse Harris writes, the young inventor succeeded in getting one of his submarine designs accepted by the U.S. Navy. There's no sign it was built, but the drawings must have floated around the Navy Department for a while in an 1875 lecture, a Navy lieutenant described a Phillips sub design as "the most complete invention of its kind with which I am acquainted." The accompanying drawings depict a cylindrical craft, pointed at both ends. A later popular history of outlandish 19th-century ships showed an artist's impression of the Phillips sub in action. Adam Selzer has published the drawing on his website no question, it looks like Deneau's sub.
That proves nothing, of course. Lots of nineteenth century designs looked like Deneau's sub. Here's all I'm prepared to say with confidence:
For an update, click here. Thanks to SamClem for research assistance.
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