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Tall tales

Before you start believing everything you hear, check out our guide to Chicago's most infamous urban legends.
Illustration: Emily Flake
By TOC Staff |

It never fails: Go to a party, and someone will begin a story, “I swear I heard that…” or “My friend’s cousin’s sister told me.…” Some of these tales are true, some are half-true and some are just blarney. For instance, did Steve Bartman, the Cubs fan who gained notoriety for interfering with a fly ball at a 2003 playoff game, get plastic surgery to escape the wrath of Cubs fans? (Read on to find out.)

Being new in town is no excuse for not knowing the city’s legendary lore. But there’s no credit course you can sign up for that will separate the real from the really made-up. So check out some of the city’s most popular tales, which have been thoroughly researched, cross-referenced and triple-checked. Then you can impress your friends at the next party by telling them the real story.

The myth: After his unfortunate star turn in the Cubs’ crucial 2003 playoff loss, Steve Bartman underwent dramatic reconstructive plastic surgery and hightailed it out of the country. This one even made it into Gene Wojciechowski’s best-seller Cubs Nation: “Rumor had it that immediately following the 2003 NLCS his employer, a suburban-Chicago-based consulting firm, transferred Bartman to the company’s London office.” The book also mentions the whispers that Bartman has “undergone cosmetic surgery.”

Our verdict: False. Bartman is still in town, and he looks the same (although we hope he’s ditched the turtleneck and circa-1983 headphones). “He hasn’t gone under the knife, he didn’t leave the country—he didn’t do anything to change or alter his appearance,” says sports lawyer Frank Murtha, Bartman’s de facto adviser.

The myth: There have been several great escapes from the Lincoln Park Zoo. Among the jailbreakers: a number of bears and gorillas, an elephant and a sea lion.

Our verdict: True. The last bear to escape, Mikey, climbed to freedom in 1989 over a six-foot wall using a nearby log as a boost. Duchess the elephant took off down Clark Street in 1891 while zookeepers were moving her to a summer shelter, says Mark Rosenthal, coauthor of The Ark in the Park, a history of the zoo. The pachyderm demolished a home and brewery gate and killed one horse before the posse lassoed her and tied her to a telegraph pole. In 1982, a 450-pound gorilla named Otto hopped an 11-foot partition and strolled around the zoo before being captured. In 1989, a whole family of gorillas broke out; one of the three bit a zookeeper before being returned to captivity. As for the sea lion, in 1904 the final bell tolled for Big Ben, whose body washed ashore in Bridgman, Michigan, months after he’d made it all the way to the lake.

The myth: Cannabis sativa (i.e., killer bud) grows in the bushes in the Wrigley Field bleachers. Before the park became a massive outdoor frat party, Cubs fans used to numb the pain of watching their mediocre team with a little smoky-smoke. When they were done, they threw their roaches in the bushes behind centerfield, where the seeds took root.

Our verdict: False. Okay, so a drug expert insists it’s entirely possible: “There’s no doubt the seed can stay viable, and even last through the Chicago winter,” says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Botanically speaking, marijuana could certainly grow under such circumstances.” But Wrigley’s head groundskeeper swears the only green growing out there is of the officially sanctioned variety. “We might get a few weeds out there, but no marijuana,” says party-pooper Roger Baird. “I’m not sure what it looks like, but from what I’ve seen on TV, no, there’s no marijuana there.” If you’re looking to augment your experience at Wrigley, you’ll have to bring your own (at your own risk, of course).

The myth: Legendary criminal John Dillinger is buried in Indiana, but his schlong rests at the Smithsonian Institute.

Our verdict: False. After he was gunned down in 1934 by G-men in front of the Biograph Theater, a morgue photo of Dillinger’s corpse featured an alarming bulge under the sheet that many took to be a posthumous stiffy (it was probably his arm, in rigor mortis). This may explain the speculation about the eventual whereabouts of Dillinger’s willy, but there was no mention of any penis removal in the autopsy report, and the Smithsonian denies owning any of Dillinger’s parts, private or otherwise.

Read more about John Dillinger in our “Do It Like Dillinger” feature package.

The myth: To entertain their jailbird boyfriends at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (71 W Van Buren St at Federal St), scantily clad women have danced provocatively on the rooftop of the parking garage next door.

Our verdict: True. For years, women have indeed shaken their moneymakers to lift the spirits of their incarcerated squeezes. (They’re not the only ones who’ve enjoyed the show: Corporate prisoners confined to cubicles in nearby office towers have also been treated to the guerrilla burlesque shows.) Sadly, the jig looks to be up: “We’ve taken steps to prevent that from happening in the future,” relates a legal counsel employed at the triangular, Harry Weese–designed prison, a holding facility for offenders awaiting appearances in federal court. “There used to be a wire-mesh fence around that area. It’s been covered with a canvas tarp, so you can’t see over that side of the garage anymore.” Our unnamed attorney surmises it was during visits with inmates that showtimes were scheduled, letting the boys know exactly when to sidle over to one of the narrow windows on the prison’s south side for some dancing to the jailhouse rock.

The myth: Lincoln Park used to be a cemetery, and thousands of the bodies that were buried beneath its surface remain there to this day.

Our verdict: True. It’s not all of Lincoln Park, but yes, the area bounded by Clark St, North Ave, Burton Place and Dearborn Pkwy, as well as a plot north of North, was a cemetery. When the land there was transformed into a public park in 1860, most of the bodies under the earth were moved to other nearby burial grounds. But many of the graves were unmarked, so they simply couldn’t be located. In 1986, when the ground was broken on the addition to the Chicago History Museum building (at Clark Street and North Avenue), the construction crew made a grisly discovery: human bones. Lots of them.

The myth: The basement of the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library became radioactive after U. of C. physicist Enrico Fermi created the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction in 1942. His notes, which are stored at the library, are still radioactive.

Our verdict: False. Jim Vaughn, the library’s assistant director for access and facilities, says, in an assuring tone, “I, along with all my colleagues who work here every day, are very free from this concern. We have a safety office on campus, and if this were the least bit true, they wouldn’t allow the building to be occupied.” He does note that some of Fermi’s notes from his tenure at the school have been digitized, so if you look at them on a computer, you will be exposed to trace elements of radioactivity.

The myth: You can die by electrocution if you pee off the El platform onto the third rail, which carries a whopping 600 volts.

Our verdict: True. “It’s not a myth. It could happen,” says CTA spokeswoman Anne McCarthy. “CTA strongly discourages urinating on the third rail—it can cost people their lives.” For a little science backup, we talked to Alan Sahakian, professor in Northwestern University’s department of electrical and computer engineering. He speculates that if there were a perfect storm of a wet platform, perhaps a piece of tinfoil nearby and a steady stream of urine, you could get electrocuted and die. “The currents and the voltage that we’re dealing with are at the levels you should respect,” he says. Incidentally, there is a court case that tangentially deals with this issue: In Lee v. CTA (1977), the widow of a man who got electrocuted by standing directly on the third rail while urinating (he drunkenly wandered onto the ground-level tracks near the Brown Line Kedzie stop) sued the CTA for negligence. But this guy was standing right on the third rail. Don’t do that.

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