Chicago and its surrounding suburbs have a rich history—-a history that’s full of remarkable progress, unique politics and fascinating people. But this history also has a dark side that’s full of corruption, crime and ghosts. On October 21, residents of The Birches Assisted Living in Clarendon Hills explored the darker side of Chicagoland’s history when they participated in a haunted bus tour led by entertainer Tim Wilsey.
Wilsey took a bus full of Birches residents to some of the spookiest spots in suburban Chicagoland, including Mount Carmel Cemetery and the haunted Willowbrook Ballroom, which unfortunately burned down a week after the tour.
“These places have always been popular around Halloween time because they’re very synonymous with Chicago folklore,” said Wilsey. “And they’re some of the scariest spots around.”
Mount Carmel Cemetery has two spooky claims to fame; it’s the final resting place of both the Chicago mobster Al Capone and the Italian Bride Julia Buccola-Petta. And while most Birches residents were all too familiar with Al Capone’s story, according to Wilsey, not many residents had ever heard the Italian Bride’s story.
The Italian Bride, Julia Buccola-Petta, was a 29-year-old Chicago housewife who died during childbirth in 1921 and was buried in her wedding dress. After her death, her mother had disturbing dreams in which Julia told her she was still alive. Her mother’s dreams continued for six years until finally she was granted permission to dig up her daughter’s grave. When she did, her daughter’s body was still completely intact. It hadn’t decomposed at all since the day she was buried six years earlier. Many in Chicago’s Italian community believed it was a miracle and that Julia was a saint. In the years since, Julia’s ghost has been spotted in the cemetery on more than one occasion wandering around in her wedding dress.
But as eerie as the Italian Bride’s story is, according to Wilsey, the spookiest spot on the tour is Archer Avenue, a notoriously haunted roadway in Chicago’s southern suburbs. The first stop on Archer Avenue was the Willowbrook Ballroom, a haunted 95 year-old dance hall that burned down on October 28. The Willowbrook Ballroom was the starting point for one of Chicago’s most notorious and, according to Wilsey, spookiest ghost stories—Resurrection Mary.
According to the story, Mary, a young Polish woman, was dancing at the Willowbrook Ballroom (then called Oh Henry Ballroom) with her boyfriend when they got into a huge fight. Mary fled the dance hall distraught and began walking down Archer Avenue. She didn’t make it far before she was struck by a car and killed. Since then, her ghost has haunted Archer Avenue, hitching rides with unsuspecting drivers on the road before vanishing mysteriously into thin air.
But Mary isn’t the only ghost that haunts Archer Avenue. The road is home to two haunted cemeteries— Archer Woods Cemetery (today known as Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens West) and St. James of the Sag Church cemetery. And there’s another Al Capone connection on Archer Avenue too. The Irish bar across the street from the Willowbrook Ballroom, Irish Times, was one of Capone’s speakeasies in the 1920s.
Wilsey says Birches residents enjoyed learning the history behind these spooky spots right in their own backyard. But they also enjoyed sharing some stories and history of their own.
“We all liked reminiscing, talking and storytelling,” said Wilsey. “They share stories and experiences, so I get to learn from them too. And many of them are lifelong Chicago residents and know the stories I tell, so they have interesting tidbits to add.”