The Haunted Scaffold at Cook County Jail

The scaffold at the old Cook County jail.

Chicago's Cook County Jail, once home to notorious gangsters like Al Capone and Frank Nitti has been rumored to be haunted for decades. Considering that sixty-seven executions were carried out by electric chair at the California Avenue facility between 1928 and 1962, it should be no surprise that the jail is a spooky place.

However, it's Cook County's old jail, known to the locals as Bridewell ("Bridewell" is British slang for jail), where the most well-documented cases of paranormal activity took place. Many of these disturbances, it is believed, are the doings of a young prisoner named Peter Neidermeier, who was hanged at the jail in 1904. Neidermeier, along with his pals Gustave Marx and Harvey Vandine, were leaders of a gang known as the "Car Barn Bandits". Credited with eight murders and numerous robberies, the Car Barn Bandits made headlines in papers all over the country for their audacious and ruthless exploits.

In April of 1904, just days before he was to be hanged, Neidermeier attempted to cheat the hangman by swallowing the heads of one hundred sulphur matches. While the chemicals were burning his stomach he sawed at the radial artery of his wrist with a sharpened pencil. He gave up on the artery after he struck bone, and then turned his attention to one of the veins in his forearm. Unfortunately for Neidermeier, he passed out from loss of blood and when he came to, was chagrined to discover that a prison doctor had dressed his wounds while he was unconscious. Angered, he slipped the bandage off his left arm and used his fingernails to tear out the stitches. He inserted his finger into the gaping hole and feverishly sought out an artery. His groans attracted the prison physician. The criminal, with a leering smile, said: "Let me die, Doc. Go away and let me die. You were almost too late the first time. Why do you keep trying to save my life?"

Yet, in spite of Neidermeier's protests, the medical staff did their best to keep the gangster alive for the gallows. Because the match heads caused agonizing chemical burns to his stomach, the jail's doctors fed Neidermeier liquid through a tube. By the day of his hanging, on April 22, 1904, Neidermeier was so weak that he had to be carried to the gallows on a chair. While his partners in crime, Marx and Vandine, kissed an image of Christ on their way to the gallows and died with silent dignity with a preacher at hand, Neidermeier-- an avowed atheist-- eschewed final rites. According to newspaper reports, he wore a dark red rose in the lapel of his black coat, and when he was placed upon the trap he declared: "You can't kill me, you scoundrels. I will come back, and when I do come you will be sorry for what you have done."

And it appears that Peter Neidermeier made good his threat.

In the months following the bandit's execution, guards at the jail refused to enter the scaffold room at night, claiming that weird noises emanated from the execution chamber. Shortly before the hanging of a wife murderer named Francis was to take place, inmates were kept awake by the incessant pounding of a hammer throughout the night. Assuming it was the carpenters constructing the scaffold for the hanging of Francis, the prisoners were astonished the next morning when the carpenters arrived and informed the men that none of them had been working the previous night. From that evening forward the ghostly pounding of hammers have been heard on a nightly basis. Even after the scaffold was moved to the basement a few weeks later the pounding continued to emanate from the room where it was formerly housed.

By 1906, forty-five men had been hanged at the jail, the forty-fifth being a murderer named Richard Ivens. Ivens brutally raped and murdered a young woman, Bessie Hollister, by tying a piece of wire around her neck and twisting the ends with a pair or pliers until her larynx was crushed. The night before Ivens was to be hanged, the entire jail was startled by a jarring noise at midnight. The guards ran to the execution room to discover that the trap door of the scaffold had fallen. When Jailer Whitman examined the scaffold he discovered that the executioner's rope had been cleanly cut. Whitman could not account for the incident; no one had been in the scaffold room when the noise was heard.