CHICAGO (CBS) — Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded the Hull House in 1889 as Chicago’s first settlement house.
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The Hull House also became the nation’s most influential settlement house, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. It began with a converted mansion on Halsted Street, and later expanded to a 13-building complex that covered nearly a whole city block.
“The new structures included a gymnasium, theater, art gallery, music school, boys’ club, auditorium, cafeteria, cooperative residence for working women, kindergarten, nursery, libraries, post office, meeting and club rooms, art studios, kitchen, and a dining room and apartments for the residential staff,” the Encyclopedia of Chicago reports. “Attracting thousands of people each week from the surrounding neighborhood, the expanded Hull House complex provided space for the settlement’s extensive social, educational, and artistic programs. Under Addams’s skillful leadership, Hull House achieved recognition as the best-known settlement house in the United States and became the flagship of a movement that included nearly five hundred settlements nationally by 1920.”
The original Italianate Victorian mansion is still there – standing at 800 S. Halsted St. on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus as the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. It was also there well before the settlement house was founded, and is actually one of the oldest buildings in the central area of the city.
The Hull House mansion was built in 1856 for a wealthy Chicago real estate developer named Charles J. Hull (1820-1889), and served as his home. But Hull only lived in the house for four years – until 1860.
Tony Szabelski of Chicago Hauntings Ghost Tours points out that during those four years, Hull’s wife and two sons died in the house. For Hull and his remaining daughter, the house no longer felt like home – so even though Hull still owned the property until his death, he did not live there again. He and his daughter moved to another mansion elsewhere in the city.
There were stories going back about the mansion being haunted long before Addams moved in and founded her settlement house. But in several of the books that Addams wrote – even though she said she didn’t really believe in ghosts – she did nickname one of the bedrooms the “haunted bedroom.”
The bedroom in question was initially used by Addams, but she couldn’t stay in it very long. She claimed that in the middle of the night, she was awoken to see a woman hovering over the bed. She would also hear conversations in the room.
After Addams moved out of the bedroom herself, she initially tried using it as a guestroom. But the guests who stayed in the room reported the same things – especially the woman standing over their bed at night.
Eventually, Addams closed the room off and just used it for storage. She would hear stories that the previous tenants of the building would put buckets of water outside the door of that room – not really knowing initially why they did that – but later finding out that it was done out of a belief that spirits cannot cross water.
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Next to the Hull-House Museum just to the south on Halsted Street is a courtyard – believed by many to be a portal area for spirits to come in and out of the world. At one time, there was a fountain the courtyard. Now, there is a stone bench and a circular path in the courtyard – which sits between the Hull-House Museum and the historic Hull-House Dining Hall building, and in front of the UIC Student Center East.
People claimed to take pictures of the fountain, and said it would show up in some people’ s pictures and not in others. No explanation was given when UIC removed the fountain, Szabelski reports.
The other story to which the Hull House building is connected is comparable to the classic 1968 film “Rosemary’s Baby” about a devil baby. The film is set in New York, but the Hull House mansion played host to a Chicago version of the story.
It started very simply in 1913, with stories that a baby – possibly a severely deformed baby – would have been left outside the doorstep of the building one day. Addams purportedly took the baby in, and over the next month or so was a mass hysteria that went around not only the building itself, but the whole neighborhood.
People were coming at all hours of the day and night, willing to pay to see the “devil baby” no matter the cost. Addams claimed she was turning people away left and right. Busloads of people came all the way from Milwaukee to see the baby.
Addams chalked up the mass hysteria about the devil baby to the fact that the Near West Side was a very heavily immigrant community, and a lot of the women – especially the older women who were coming from the old country – would come with old-time superstitions and wives’ tales. One of those wives’ tales was purportedly that a baby so severely deformed must have been the spawn of the devil, Szabelski said.
Another of Szabelski’s favorite stories involves a devoutly Catholic woman on the Near West Side who married an atheist man. She put a picture of the Virgin Mary up on her wall one day, and the man saw it upon returning from work and he ripped it off the wall, tore it up, and threw it into the air, saying, “I’d rather have the devil’s baby,” than have such a picture on the wall.
Can you guess what happened nine months later?
The legend claims that the baby who was born to the couple had red, oily, scaly skin, hoof feet, and horns on its head. Some stories claimed it came out with a full head of hair and smoking a cigar – and that it could speak three different languages and curse in all three of them.
That’s just mythology, of course. But the point is, tales of hauntings are far from new to the Near West Side.
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Video produced by Blake Tyson. Written story by Adam Harrington.