The series has completed a look at the development of the major intersections along Lake Park Avenue, and turned to stories of interest within the Hyde Park and Kenwood communities. The articles are all of varying topics, but relate to the residences that currently or in the past have defined the urban fabric.
By Susan O’Connor Davis
Death is not what it used to be.
In 1575 French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote “to die of old age is a death rare, extraordinary, and singular…” Then the average life expectancy was 25-30 years of age. Until modern times the practice of medicine could do little to prevent illness or extend life, according to the National Academy of Science. While life expectancies slowly increased, living to an old age required a significant amount good fortune. And dying was generally a family and religious event – not a medical one as in modern times. Quite simply most people died not in a hospital, but in the familiarity of home.
One Hong Kong based company has a modern twist to the evolution of the end of life. The New York Times noted the creation of a smartphone app that superimposes real estate property listings on street views. Similar to apps that are available to potential buyers locally, one can point a phone at a building and details for the property pop up.
But every now and then, a cartoon-looking ghost will appear next to an apartment building – representing an unnatural or unexplained death that took place there.
This is a big deal in Hong Kong, according to the Times. Many believe that living in a place where someone committed suicide or was murdered brings nothing but bad fortune. Thinking about ghostly house hunting in Hong Kong led me to wonder what such an app would find on the streets of Hyde Park and Kenwood.
For well over a century, the pages of the Herald have recounted stories of those who did have the good fortune to live to see their great grandchildren. Yet, human nature being what it is, there are plenty of places where that ghostly image could appear on your screen. So in the spirit of the season we will take a look at just a few. To protect the superstitious, we won’t divulge the addresses – just the events as they occurred.
A flurry of unfortunate ghosts would appear near the intersection of Lake Park and 53rd Street where a three-story brick building once stood. Built in 1874, it was one of the first of the larger structures in Hyde Park and was repurposed for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The seventy-five-room Hotel Helene offered clients European and American plan accommodations at a cost of $1.50 to $3.00 per day. But the building was by then an aging one, and tragedy struck when a devastating fire broke out in the early morning hours on May 16, 1900.
Flames could be seen throughout the neighborhood as the hotel was quickly engulfed by the ravaging blaze; terrified guests leapt from the second and third stories to escape. The fire department concluded that they could do nothing to save the structure and were ill equipped to help those who jumped, many to their deaths.
The national newspapers carried the story, often with lurid descriptions and predictions of death for the injured: “The dead: Charlotte Peterson, dining room girl, found in her room burned to a crisp…. Seriously injured: Mrs. T.D. Allen, back broken and internally injured, jumped from three story window, will die…”
In spite of lessons learned from the Chicago fire thirty years earlier, there was but a single exit from the hotel. The verdict read at court stated, “had the laws and ordinances governing exits and fire escapes been enforced” lives would not have been lost.
A solitary ghost would appear on Woodlawn Avenue south of 57th Street. When a sad and gruesome discovery was made in the basement of the house built for Neurology professor Henry Herbert Donaldson, the university flag was flown at half-mast.
Early on an autumn morning in 1904, the maid found the body of Donaldson’s wife hanging from the basement rafters. Helen Donaldson was the daughter of Calvert Vaux, the landscape designer who planned New York’s Central Park and prepared the plans for the South Park system with Frederick Olmsted.
While Mrs. Donaldson was prominent in the city’s social circles, she also her husband’s research assistant. She was no doubt a zealous worker – his laboratory and library were said to have always been in perfect order, a space where he worked without rest. When coroner determined Mrs. Donaldson to have been temporarily insane as a result of overwork, her husband attempted to conceal the tragic circumstances. The widower left Chicago two years later, widely regarded one of the leading authorities on the brain and nervous system.
A heartbroken ghost would appear several blocks north on Woodlawn, where another wife lost her life. Her obituary offers a tantalizing hint as to how; the cause of death was noted as heart disease and shock resulting from an accidental fall at home.
Urban legend has it a Prairie School architect was having an affair with the Mrs. while planning an elevator addition the house. When he attempted to break it off in 1909, his amoureuse supposedly leapt into the not-yet-completed shaft.
Just around the corner, Franklin Voorhees opened his front door of his Kenwood home and looked into the eyes of a killer. On a crisp fall evening in 1915, the prominent broker and Hyde Park Boulevard resident was shot by one of two men standing at his doorstep. Although is diamond stickpin was taken, robbery was not indicated as the motive. Rather it was thought Voorhees was an agent for the French and British governments dealing in munitions during the First World War. Technology also placed a role in this murder – the well-outfitted perpetrator used a silencer on the gun. Eventually one John Burke confessed to the murder, and said he was to have been paid $1,000 for his work.
The Senate Hotel on 55th Street was one tough place to be in the 1927. First there was the mysterious murder of 18-year old Mabel Tremper Woods, a waitress at the Lemon Fluff Waffle Shoppe. She was found naked in the bathtub of her modest walk-up apartment. Another ghost would appear at this location a few weeks later, when the wife of taxi driver Glenn Robinson was shot while her husband was away. The perpetrator then turned the gun toward himself, for reason’s unknown. As did Mrs. Alice Prevo, a suspect in the murder of the young waffle waitress. She took any clues regarding a motive with her to the grave.
A chilled ghost would appear in an East Hyde Park parking lot. Six decades after the Voorhees murder, a prostitute told jurors of another unusual murder for hire. Dr. Hans Wachtel, chairman of gynecology and obstetrics at Woodlawn Hospital, walked to his car on a cold February morning in 1978. Although Wachtel had escaped from Nazi Germany, he never made it out of the parking lot.
Wachtel was one of the first white doctors in the Chicago area to treat African-American patients after the war. In the course of his work, the physician came to suspect that one of the doctors in his practice was performing unnecessary Cesarean sections on low-income women, in order to get more money from Medicaid. When confronted by this allegation, that doctor responded not with the truth, but by hiring two people to do away with his accuser.
Although long forgotten by most Hyde Parkers, we will end this Halloween tale with a complex story of murder, suspicion and racism that was detailed in a book entitled The Doctor, The Murder, The Mystery and the subject of an episode of Unsolved Mysteries with actor Dennis Farina.
A smart phone ghost would appear on Woodlawn just north of Hyde Park Boulevard, as a reminder of a heavily publicized murder involving another OB-GYN. Chicago Police Cmdr. Francis Flanagan summarized the event in his official report, dated December 22, 1967. “A call was received . . . for detectives to investigate the death of one Branion, Donna, (Female/Negro) 41 yrs., the socially prominent wife of the equally prominent Branion, John M., M.D., an eminent gynecologist, who had found his wife dead of multiple gunshot wounds, in the utility room of their spacious apartment….”
At 11:30 that Friday morning, Dr. Branion left Ida Mae Scott Hospital on 47th Street to pick up his 4-year-old son from the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club on 55th Street. After they made a quick stop to see a family friend, Branion drove to his apartment to find his unresponsive wife lying on the floor of the utility room. Donna had been shot four times by a. 38-caliber automatic pistol.
Branion was indeed a successful black doctor on the city’s South Side, and had been Dr. Martin Luther King’s personal physician. However it was said he had three weaknesses: easy money, fast horses and beautiful women. He was once indicted as a member of an illegal abortion ring, but not convicted because the woman who was about to testify against him died before trial.
And he was frequently seen in the company of other women. As you can imagine, all this did not go over well at home. There was talk of a divorce, but the socially prominent Donna Branion demurred.
Despite Branion’s insistence that he went directly from the hospital to the Neighborhood Club that December morning, the police considered the doctor a suspect. Although it was unclear that Branion had enough time to stop at home and murder his wife prior to picking up their son, the factor that gave police the greatest pause was his strange detachment. Just two days after his wife’s murder, Branion and his children flew to Colorado for Christmas.
One month later, police recovered two boxes of ammunition from a closet in the Branion apartment. One box was full, containing 25 bullets. The other box had 4 shells missing, the same number that had killed Donna. A gun enthusiast, Branion was arrested for murder. He promptly hired his dead wife’s younger brother for his defense.
Although the gun was never found and the evidence was mostly circumstantial, he was found guilty of murder. Branion was sentenced to serve no less than 20, but no more than 30, years in prison.
That, however, was not the end of Dr. John M. Branion Jr.’s story.
There were allegations of prejudice and possible jury corruption swirling around the trial. After sentencing Branion’s attorney, Nelson Brown, argued that the jury had been prejudiced by Chicago’s recent racial disturbances and vowed to appeal.
The well-connected doctor arranged to remain free on a $5,000 bond while appealing his case. It was later suggested Brown bribed the judge with $10,000, and a promise of a similar sum to follow, to obtain the incredibly low bond. Branion then obtained permission from the judge to move to Wyoming where he married his nurse. He then divorced her to marry another girlfriend from Chicago, divorced her to remarry the nurse, whom he divorced again to remarry the second girlfriend and off to Los Angeles the repeat newlyweds went. Confusing, I know.
When the Illinois Supreme Court upheld his conviction in 1971, Branion was ordered to surrender in Chicago. But in a twist worthy of a John Grisham novel, the doctor vanished.
A year later the globe trotting fugitive surfaced in Khartoum, Sudan, where he was detained for carrying forged identity papers. Slipping away again, Branion was traced by Interpol to Uganda where he turned up as the personal physician to Idi Amin. He fled Uganda in 1979 when the ruthless dictator was overthrown, and was then sighted in far-flung exotic locales of South Africa and Malaysia.
Sixteen years after Donna was found murdered, Branion was finally located by US authorities and ordered to begin serving his original sentence. Although a new appeal for his release was denied in federal court, in 1990 Gov. James Thompson commuted his sentence on grounds of failing health. One month after his release, Dr. John Marshall Branion Jr. died not in the familiarity of home, but in the University of Illinois Hospital.
Thus the end of life will make its inevitable appearance, as it had for Branion’s attorney. Nelson Brown was found shot dead in the stairwell of a nearby Illinois Federal Savings & Loan in 1983.
In the end, a ghost-hunting app may be better suited to recall how a life was lived. Consider another passage penned by Montaigne: “The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you.”