Last week brought news that The Castle, in the building still best known as the Excalibur club at 632 N Dearborn, is closing down on Jan. 3. In the realm of “haunted Chicago” tales, the Excalibur building is a strange case. Employees at the club certainly seem to think the place is haunted (in contrast to the countless places that are said to be haunted without anyone ever seeming to have a first-hand account), but the backstories, the reasons why it would be haunted, never quite seem to check out.
A gothic stone mansion in the shadow of the Hard Rock Cafe and the Rock and Roll McDonald’s, The Castle/Excalibur building sure looks like it ought to be haunted from the outside. Built in the 1890s, using several pieces of material salvaged from pre-fire buildings, it was originally opened as the site of the Chicago Historical Society, which opened its doors in 1896. Over the year’s it’s also been the site of decidedly un-spooky businesses such as a school of design, the WPA, and the Loyal Order of the Moose.
Here are some of the myths surrounding the buildings supposed curse:
1. The building acted as a morgue after the SS Eastland capsized in the Chicago River: Though the 844 bodies from the disaster were taken to several places, the building in question was definitely not one of them. Most likely, the story spread due to confusion: photos of the bodies being identified at the second regiment armory building are sometimes labelled “courtesy of Chicago Historical Society.” Somewhere along the line, someone probably thought that referred to the location, not the organization that supplied the photo. The second regimental armory is actually now part of Harpo Studios (which employees also tell ghost stories about).
2. The bones of Jean LaLime were once housed in The Castle: This story is partially true — bones thought to be that of LaLime, an early settler killed by John Kinzie in what appears to have been a drunken brawl — were accidentally unearthed during construction near the Rush Street bridge and presented as a gift to the historical society (who I’m sure were just thrilled). But there’s one problem: the bones weren’t unearthed until a good 20 years after the Great Chicago Fire, and certainly weren’t destroyed in it - in fact, the historical society still has them. The bones were actually on display in the current building once upon a time; an 1896 article in the Tribune about the opening of the new building describes them as being on view in the south room on the second floor, near a chair George Washington gave his children and a collection of bombs and knives the police rounded up after the Haymarket affair. So that's one possible explanation, though by that logic Old LaLime would probably be just as likely to be haunting the off-site storage facility where his bones are currently stored.
3. A lot of people have died tragically in the building over the years: Beyond the tales of bodies in the building, there are stories about people hanging themselves from the ceiling, children dying elevator shafts and other tales that come up a lot in ghost stories all over, but that in this case (and most others) don’t seem to have any basis in fact. Even deaths on the grounds during the great fire have never quite been confirmed.
With so many backstories failing to pass the fact-checking stage of research, it’s always been hard for me not to think that the ghost stories were just part of the marketing plan of the night club, even when I cast my general skepticism aside. Still, I’ve seldom spoken to an employee who wasn’t convinced that the place was haunted. Could there be some unknown story about the place, just waiting to be discovered?