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What's up with the odd submarines found sunk in Chicago waters?
May 20, 2010 – part 2 of 2 parts

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.   

— Cecil Adams

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:

The boat is said to have belonged to Peter Nissen, spectacular mariner, who was lost in his revolving vessel while attempting to drift across Lake Michigan … The "Foolkiller" was so called because it first made its appearance shortly after the Chicago fire, in the days when submarines were unheard of, and drowned its original owner, a New York man, when it made a trial trip. Nissen then bought it.

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:

An unwritten tragedy of the Chicago River was brought to light after twenty-five years yesterday when the bones of a man and the skull of a dog were taken from the mud-coated "Foolkiller," the ancient submarine that occupied a berth in the river bed since 1870 … The craft was built in the early '70s by an eastern man and floated. Its first submersion was its last but one. It remained down for twenty years and then was purchased and raised by William Nissen. He made some experiments with it, but one day about twenty-five years ago it disappeared and was not seen again.

Deneau, while making some investigations in the muddy bed of the river at Wells Street, came upon the steel vessel deep in the mud … [I]t was finally brought up and towed to the Fullerton Avenue bridge, where Deneau and his helpers set about cleaning it. Yesterday in the mud that crusted the inside of the queer craft were found the skull of a dog and some human bones.

Let's review:

  • Peter Nissen had now become William Nissen.

  • The location where the sub was discovered had shifted from the Rush Street bridge to the Wells Street bridge. The next year, Deneau would be quoted as saying the sub had been found near the Madison Street bridge.

  • Some bones were found — but not until seven weeks after the initial discovery, and three weeks after the sub had been pulled from the water. What's more, the bones weren't complete skeletons, as you'd expect if they were the remains of the sub's drowned occupants. Just fragments.

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:

"Capt." William M. Deneau, diver, who aided in recovering the bodies of 250 Eastland victims, and who discovered the submarine Fool Killer in the river, faced commitment to the county jail for failure to pay alimony to his wife, Frances Deneau, yesterday … Owing to the nearness of Christmas and Deneau's plea of hard luck, Judge Thomson gave him two weeks' more time.

(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:

[T]he captain, flecking an imaginary bit of seaweed from his chin, entered the Tribune office, towed a seagoing chair alongside a waiting reporter's desk, parked himself, and said: …

"Don't you know they've called me — that I've got to serve on dry land with a lot of doughboys — me, with my aquatic experience!"

It's true. Capt. William M. Deneau, the human submersible, leaves today for Rockford [to join a WW1 Army unit].

"Can you beat it?" resumed the captain. "Me! Why, I'm a hound in the water. Look at what I've done. All the lives I've saved, the diving I've done. Remember that submarine — the Foolkiller — I found it near the Madison Street bridge …

"It was just a few weeks ago I was down east showing a lot of government officials my newest inventions — the water jacket, with which a soldier can walk on the water and fire a rifle. With one of those jackets you could carry a bomb and sink a submarine … "

As he was leaving the office the captain hinted he might bring back a couple of U-boats if he could sneak away from terra firma long enough.

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:

In 1958, on the anniversary of the Eastland disaster, Deneau told reporters that he had just been onboard the repaired Eastland — which, he said, was still sailing under another name — for a cruise from California to Catalina. In fact, the ship had been scrapped years before. Like most great showmen, Deneau may have been willing to fudge the facts a bit in the name of a good story.

(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:

  • A submarine built by Chicago inventor George C. Baker and given a successful trial in Lake Michigan off the Calumet River in November 1892. Most accounts say the Baker vessel was about 40 feet long, roughly the size of the Deneau sub. On the other hand, they also say it was built of wood and had side propellers and a conning tower, which the Deneau sub didn't. Drawings of the Baker sub in the Tribune archive show a football-shaped craft, not cylindrical like Deneau's. Then again, an 1893 Trib story described the Baker sub as a 30-foot-long iron cylinder pointed at both ends like the Foolkiller. Probably that was a mistake, but we can't rule out the possibility the reporter had conflated Baker's craft with some other experimental vessel, about which nothing else is known. 

  • An experimental sub built by Richard Raddatz of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Operated in Lake Winnebago when first built, Raddatz's vessel was later moved to Milwaukee, where it was reportedly given a successful trial in Lake Michigan in 1900. The sub was cylindrical and pointed at both ends, but also 65 feet long, which would seem to rule out its being the Deneau boat.

  • A model submarine. Louis Gathman of Chicago was said to have built a model sub in 1892, and C.T. Dunlop of Cleveland reportedly tested a model in Lake Calumet in 1898. A drawing of the Gathman design looks nothing like the Deneau sub, though, and Dunlop's craft was just 15 feet long, too small to be Deneau's.

  • A submarine built by Indiana inventor Lodner D. Phillips, supposedly lost in the Chicago River in the late 1840s.

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:

Sometime between the launching and the loss of his first submarine in 1845 and the birth of his first son and namesake [in 1850], Phillips launched a second submarine in the Chicago River. It had no better apparatus for propulsion and it found a watery grave in the river. There it laid until wreckers dug it up while raising the Eastland which capsized in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915, with a loss of 812 lives, according to Addison Gustave Phillips [Lodner's nephew].

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:

Relatives [of Lodner Phillips] regarded him as a ne'er-do-well. Indolent but proud. He was big-hearted, but not big-hearted enough, his family thought, to keep at work.

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:

  • Deneau's purported salvage of a 19th-century submarine was a hoax. Nothing the Tribune wrote about its origin holds up under scrutiny.

  • Who made the alleged sub and how Deneau got his hands on it is unknown. The thing certainly wasn't built by Lodner Phillips in the 1840s. Barring the emergence of a hidden stash of letters, that's probably all we'll ever know.

  • Yes, I spent way too much time researching this silly story. Ain't that the Straight Dope way? Sure, I'd love to unlock deep secrets, but I can't help myself. When presented with a puzzle, I just want to know.

For an update, click here. Thanks to SamClem for research assistance.

— Cecil Adams
Photo from Chicago Daily News

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