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Update on the Fool Killer, Chicago's mystery submarine
November 4, 2010

Dear Cecil:

Adam Selzer has posted info from newly found Chicago Examiner articles about the Fool Killer submarine on his Weird Chicago blog. An excerpt:

Another Examiner find adds another new tidbit: in addition to touring with Parker's Greatest Shows and its famous engagement on south State street, the submarine was also, at least briefly, on display at the Riverview amusement park! The date here was June, which is a month AFTER it was on display in Iowa. Apparently, it ended up BACK in Chicago after a short run with Parker's Greatest Shows so we now have a new "last known location" on it!

Rowrrbazzle, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

Interesting new information has indeed come to light. But first a word.

When I initially wrote about the Fool Killer, the alleged submarine salvaged from the Chicago River in 1915, I suggested the thing was a hoax. Some people took this the wrong way. In particular, Adam Selzer, the Weird Chicago co-author I consulted before writing my column, subsequently blogged that I'd "all but called [him] an idiot," or words to that effect. (Adam has since amended his post.)

It's time to set the record straight. I acknowledge there's a sizable group of individuals I'm inclined to describe as idiots. (This group has expanded considerably in light of the recent elections.) Adam Selzer isn't on the list. On the contrary, I glimpse in the lad something of my younger self fascinated by arcane lore, but determined to get to the bottom of it come what may. Whether we'll be able to conclusively establish what was up with the Fool Killer I can't say. But by digging up additional information about the sub in the newspaper archives, Adam has materially advanced the cause.

To reprise the story so far: in November 1915 a diver named William Deneau discovered what he claimed was a lost submarine on the bottom of the Chicago River. Hauled out of the water in December, the vessel was put on display on State Street in January 1916, then appeared with a carnival in Iowa that spring. Adam has now found an advertisement in the Chicago Examiner indicating the sub was back in Chicago on exhibit at Riverview in June.

But that's not the most interesting thing, in my opinion. Rather, it's the news story about the Fool Killer that appeared in the Examiner when the sub was discovered. Here's the beginning of the story, which appeared on November 24, 1915:

Why, There's Been a Submarine in the River for These Fifteen Years

"The con man," as Persuadem Lorgan used to say, "can't lie all the time no matter how hard he tries."

For a long time it has been one of the favorite devices of the confidence fraternity in Chicago to lure their victims by the bright promise, "Just let me show you our submarine down by the river." But a confidence man is not always to be blamed for telling the truth. How could he know that the Chicago River actually does contain a submarine?

It was found yesterday, half buried in the mud at the river bottom near the Wells street bridge.

A diver, William M. Deneau, laying cables for the Commonwealth Edison Company, was the discoverer. As he groped along the slimy bottom he stubbed his toe.

To curse is impracticable when one is at the bottom of a river. So Deneau did the next best thing he investigated. He felt all around the thing, learning that it was made of steel, that it was shaped something like a Zeppelin, and that its engine was not working. He came up then, to ask questions.

"Why didn't somebody tell me I was working in the war zone?" he demanded. "A man ought to get extra pay when he has to run the risk of submarines every time he dives, oughtn't he? It's dangerous. And are there any mines in the river?"

There's a bit more in this vein. A few comments:

  • We now have accounts of the sub's discovery from two different newspapers, obliging me to discard the idea that Deneau and the Tribune were in cahoots.

  • Nonetheless, the jokey tone of the Examiner article makes it clear the reporter didn't take the story too seriously. The submarine hadn't been recovered at that point; only Deneau had seen it. Presumably the diver had gone around to the newspapers peddling his yarn after returning to dry land. A genial raconteur, Deneau was good copy; reporters were willing to publish his tales but felt obliged to signal that they entertained some doubts.

  • The stories in the Tribune and Examiner differ on important points. The Tribune said the submarine was found near the Rush street bridge, the Examiner near the Wells street bridge. The Trib said the vessel had been uncovered by a dredging shovel; the Examiner said Deneau had stubbed his toe on it. The Trib said the sub had made its first appearance soon after the Chicago fire of 1871; the Examiner quoted an official as saying that the sub had been built by an unnamed naval architect and sunk in the river 15 years previously, presumably circa 1900.

Why all the discrepancies? One possibility is that Deneau so enjoyed feeding reporters a line of baloney that he lost track of the details. The Examiner account strengthens my belief that the episode was a put-on. 

We do, of course, have the fact that Deneau hauled something out of the river and put it on display, although no newspaper bothered to describe it in detail which to me is suspicious in itself. What was it? No idea. None of the stories about the origin of the craft checks out. The fact that the thing's last known location was in Chicago makes it remotely possible that some trace may yet show up. Adam Selzer, meanwhile, mentions the possibility of getting in touch with Deneau's descendants, to see if he told them anything. Pending further word, I'm still betting hoax.

Cecil Adams
Photo from the Chicago Daily News

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