Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Unbelievable Story of the Chicago Congress Plaza Hotel, and its Haunted History.

Originally constructed in 1893, the "Auditorium Annexopened in 1893, featuring public areas using Chicago Street Paver Bricks, gaslights, and horse-drawn carriages. The hotel was built to accommodate the throngs of visitors expected from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition
The first section is the north tower of the Auditorium Annex.

The original conception was an annex with a façade designed to complement Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Building across the street, which housed a remarkable hotel, theater, and office complex at that time.

The Auditorium Annex was built by famous hotel developer R.H. Southgate. The first section, or the north tower, was designed by Clinton Warren, with Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler serving as consultants.
Peacock Alley, Circa 1908.

“Peacock Alley,” a celebrated feature of the new hotel, was an underground marble passageway that connected the new hotel annex with the Auditorium Theatre.

The south tower, constructed between 1902 and 1907, was designed by the renowned architectural firm of Holabird and Roche. It included a magnificent banquet hall, now known as the Gold [Ball] Room, which would become the first hotel ballroom in America to use air-conditioning. 

Another ballroom, called the Florentine [Ball] Room, was added to the North Tower in 1909. These two famous public rooms, combined with the Elizabethan Room and the Pompeian Room hosted Chicago’s most elite social events.

Over the years, various owners have continuously updated the hotel to keep pace with the conveniences offered by modern accommodations properties. Even the name has been changed. By 1908, the hotel had created its own identity and boasted about its 1,000+ guest rooms.

To differentiate the Auditorium Annex Hotel from the "Auditorium Theatre" on the north side of Congress Street, it was renamed "The Congress Hotel." The new name was derived from its location on the southwest corner of Congress Street and Michigan Avenue and across Michigan Avenue from the Congress Plaza in Grant Park. 

The next fifty years brought a succession of owners and improvement programs to the Congress Hotel. A 1916-17 guestroom enhancement project altered the lighting scheme by substituting electrical outlets and desk lamps for hanging chandeliers

The original bathroom plumbing fixtures were replaced in a 1923-24 renovation. In the early 1930s, the former Elizabethan Room on the ground floor was transformed into a stylish nightclub featuring a revolving bandstand. Renamed the Joseph Urban Room, it would become the 1935-36 headquarters for an NBC Radio show featuring the legendary Benny Goodman.
Benny Goodman And His Orchestra, live from the Urban Room at the Congress Hotel In Chicago. Originally Aired January 6, 1936, 30 minute program.

Following the outbreak of World War II, the Government purchased the Congress Hotel and used it as a headquarters for U.S. Army officers. In 1945, a group of Chicagoans banded together to purchase the hotel and reopen it to the public. Five years later, Pick Hotel Corporation purchased the property and embarked on a multi-million dollar remodeling and modernization program. The 1950-52 renovation involved the creation of a mural-encircled lobby, a new front desk, new corridors, new third-floor public rooms, new Congressional and Presidential Suites, and a new supper club called the "Glass Hat."
The New Glass Hat — Congress Hotel, Chicago
Chicago's smartest Supper Club! A completely new room at the south end of the world-famous Peacock Alley offers the finest in luxurious dining, dancing, and entertainment. Michigan Avenue at Congress Street.

In the early 1960s, another modernization program included the construction of a new ballroom and the addition of escalators, a novelty for hotels during that era. Even though the hotel building boom during those years, the Congress Hotel retained its unique character by blending the old with the new. In contrast to many formulaic hotel chains and standardized property layouts, the Congress Hotel guest rooms and suites remain larger, with high ceilings, large bathrooms, and wider window expanses.

The abundant public spaces, large lobbies, and long corridors providing freedom of movement are rarely seen in the tighter confines of space-saving properties built as a place to sleep rather than a family destination, a business meeting, or a getaway spot.

Many famous people stayed at the Congress Plaza Hotel, including several U.S. Presidents. In fact, the hotel was once known as the “Home of Presidents” among Chicago hotels. Presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt all rallied their partisans to discuss campaign strategies in the heart of Chicago.
"The White House presented this chair to the owners of the Congress Hotel. It was a favorite of Presidents Polk, VanBuren, Harrison, and Harding... and it's a favorite of ours too!"

The Congress Plaza Hotel has played a prominent role in some of Chicago’s most important and famous political conventions. Many memorable interviews, caucuses, and deliberations were staged here. In 1912, former President Teddy Roosevelt’s comment to the local media coined the famous “Bull Moose” nickname for his newly created Progressive Party. In 1932, the hotel was back in the limelight serving as the command post for President-elect Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party.

During the summer of 1952, a national television audience was given a front-row seat with the Republican Credentials Committee as they gathered in the Gold [Ball] Room. In 1971, nearly 3,000 people packed the Great Hall when President Richard Nixon addressed the Midwest Chapters of the AARP and National Retired Teachers Association.

NOTE: There are a lot of versions of these stories all over the Internet. I did quite a bit of research on each one of the following folklore, myth, half-true, and fictional stories and presented the truth or the most plausible versions. This section is for entertainment purposes only.

The Myth: One of the most notable and notorious residents of the Congress Hotel was said to be Al Capone, supposedly residing in a suite on the 8th floor of the North Tower. Rumor has it that Capone and his cohorts ran their headquarters from the hotel, and at one time owned the hotel for a while. There have been whispers about Capone's Chicago Outfit committing gruesome crimes at the hotel. His spirit is said to haunt the halls. These claims have come under scrutiny.

The Truth: Al Capone never actually stayed at the Congress Hotel, at least not under his own name, but guests and employees claim to see Capone's ghost from time to time, walking the halls and hearing the clickety-clack of his two-tone wingtip shoes. Why would Capone haunt the Congress Hotel anyway?

Other less notorious but just as notable names haunt the hotel halls. Hotel staff and guests have reported and named a ghostly figure of "Peg-Leg Johnny," who appears to be a hobo. Little is known about this vagrant. Sightings of him have been reported lurking around the South Tower, in guest rooms on different floors, in the hotel lobby, and in dining areas. The incorrigible spirit turns lights and electronics on and off and generally scares and causes havoc for guests. It's thought that Johnny had been murdered in the hotel sometime in the early half of the 19th century. 
Facsimile of Peg Leg Johnny
Then there's the workman who supposedly got buried behind the balcony of the Gold [Ball] Room in the plaster wall when the hotel was being built. The hand is called the "Hand of Mystery," referring to his gloved hand. It’s deteriorated enough that it’s clearly not just a work glove that was plastered over. For the record, the wall it’s coming out of isn’t nearly thick enough for anyone to be buried in it.
The "Hand of Mystery" appears to have fingers and a thumb.

Staff at the Congress Hotel report electrical appliances turning on and off on their own, whispering women, humming men, phantom gunshots, and Teddy Roosevelt's ghost has been seen in the Florentine [Ball] Room in the wee hours of the morning. Several security guards have sold stories about hearing music coming from the Ballroom. The piano plays itself (it's not a player piano either). Not a whole sonata or anything, just a few random notes, but a note or two is enough to give anybody the willies. It's also rumored that some of the bridesmaids at wedding parties who gather around the piano for photographs do not show up in the pictures. This is another place at the Congress Hotel where some employees don’t like to go near.
The Original Florentine Room.

Spookier-looking than the Florentine [Ball] Room, there’s really not as much ghost activity here. One guard reported that he’d seen Peg Leg Johnny here once. There are stories about the adjacent kitchen area, though. Disconnected equipment is said to start by itself—while unplugged.
The Gold [Ball] Room.

The Shadow Guy gets reported by guests a lot—a shadowy figure who shows up and scares the bejeebers out of people. One security guard said he chased the shadow up to the roof one time, but then the apparition vanished. After searching the Chicago Tribune archives, I believe, with a high degree of surety, that I found out who the Shadow Guy was.

Chicago Tribune, April 1900
Captain Louis Ostheim, First United States Artillery, was found dead in his room at the Auditorium Annex at 9 o'clock last night, Sunday, April 8, 1900. There was a bullet wound in his right temple. Under his body was a new revolver. The body lay on the side. Life apparently had been extinct since Saturday night. 

According to announcements in the Chicago papers Captain Louis Ostheim and Mrs. Eva Bruce Wood were to be married today at the residence of the bride's uncle, Walter B. Phister, 479 Kenwood Avenue. Only members of family were to be present. After the ceremony, Captain Ostheim and his bride were to leave immediately for the East, visiting Philiadelphia, the Captain's former home, and other cities. After May 1 they were to be at home at Fort Screven, Savanah, Georgia, where the Captain's battery is stationed.

Among the articles found in the Captain's room were two wedding rings. One was of heavy gold and inscribed as follows: "EVA TO LOUIS - April 9, 1900".  The other, was smaller and more delicately made. Inside was engraved: "LOUIS TO EVA - April 9, 1900."

The Captain was last seen alive on Saturday night at 9 o'clock, when he asked Clerk Arthur O'Connell for the key to his room. The cause of the suicide was a mystery. Nothing was left in the room to throw any light on the matter. This is the first case of self-destruction reported at the Auditorium Annex since it began business six years ago.

The Myth: Guests that stayed in room number 666 in the North Tower (the room number kept changing until they, hotel staff and tour guides, finally settled on room 441 as the one being haunted) made more calls to security and the front desk than those staying in any other room in the hotel. People reported seeing the dark figure of a woman who kicks or shakes them awake while in bed. Reports of seeing objects moving and hearing terrifying noises have also been reported. The room inspired Stephen King to write his famous 1999 short story "1408," about a hotel room that is notorious for causing suicides (1408 was released as a full-length film in 2007). The room is so frightening that the door was sealed shut.
Room 666 Removed Door and Sealed Shut at the Congress Hotel, Chicago.

The Facts: The stories that one room is so haunted they had to lock it shut probably grew from old stories about room 666 being sealed off; a storage closet occupies the space where room 666 would be, as told to me on the phone April 15, 2021 by the hotel office. The stories about room 441 being the most haunted are fairly recent. For a long time, tour guides would just come up with a random room number when they talked about which room was the most haunted. It seems like they've settled on room 441 after it was written about a few times and ghost tour companies started repeating it on their tours. 

The story about Congress Hotel's most haunted guest room being the basis of Stephen King’s book and movie titled "1408" is outright fiction that author and parapsychology enthusiast Ursula Bielski [1] made up [2] for one of her books. Bielski claims in her book that “some researchers have come to the conclusion” that King used the Congress Hotel story as the basis for writing "1408," but didn’t say who the researchers were or how they arrived at that conclusion. Stephen King himself never mentions the Congress Hotel in his intro to “1408.” King says that it’s his attempt at the old “haunted room at the inn” story that every horror writer should eventually try writing.

Not to be outdone, the spirit of a young boy has been reported running around the 13th floor of the north tower of the Congress Hotel. He and his brother were thrown out the window by their mother, followed immediately by the mother jumping to her death. 

Like Peg-Leg Johnny, the boy has spent decades being mischievous, but his shenanigans are largely limited to chasing guests, moving furniture, and the like. No sightings of his mother have ever been reported.

Chicago Tribune, August 1939
Mrs. Adele Langer
An appeal to President Roosevelt to permit persecuted European refugees to remain in America beyond the time fixed in their temporary immigration permits, was dispatched yesterday by the Czech National Alliance of America.

The plea, contained in a letter signed by  R.A. Ginsburg, was prompted by the death plunge from the 13th floor of North Tower of the Congress Hotel in Chicago last Thursday, August 3, 1939, of Mrs. Adele Langer, 43, a Jewish refugee from Nazi occupied of Czechoslovakia, and her two small sons, Jan Misha, 4½, and Karel Tommy, 6. The Langers were in America with their husband and father, Karel Langer, Sr., 46 years old, on a six months' visitation visa. Karel Langer, who until Hitler's march on Czechoslovakia was owner of the $1.5 million ($28,408,000 today) Hynek Marprles textile mills in Prague. He sold the firm, the largest in the counrty, voluntarily, but for a nominal sum that they might escape, and escape quickly. "I practically gave it away to my oldest employes."
A coronor's jury decided that Mrs. langer plunged to her death with her sons while temporarily insane. The insanity arose from despondency at having been forced to leave her home and relatives in Prague to escape Nazi persecution of Jews.

A triple funeral for the Langers will be held this morning at the Bohemian National Cemetery [5255 N Pulaski Road Chicago] - (Pulaski Road was known as Crawford Avenue until 1935)

NOTE: The Nazi Germany occupation of Czechoslovakia began with the German annexation of Sudetenland in 1938, continued with the March 1939 invasion of the Czech lands and creation of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. WWII begins on September 1, 1939. Not a good time for Jews to be sent back to Czechoslovakia because their visitation visa is about to expire.

While the Congress Hotel was clearly teeming with apparitions, the hotel’s creepiest legacy is connected to one of its real-life patrons, America’s first serial killer, Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes (H.H. Holmes). Holmes is known to have loitered around the Auditorium Annex Hotel lobby in search of new victims. He was remembered most recently in the book "Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson, where a retelling of Holmes’ story reveals that the psychopath would lure young women back to his "Murder Castle" at 601-603 West 63rd Street and torture them to death.
H.H. Holmes Murder Castle on the corner of Wallace and 63rd streets in Chicago. The 63rd Street View. Circa 1890s

Legend has it that a lone man roams the eighth floor, where the elevator is said to frequently stop and doors open and close, even though no one is inside or pushed the button to call the elevator from the floor foyer.

The Congress Hotel uses the stories of these hauntings as a marketing tool. No guests that I know of have ever been injured by a ghost or spirit.

NOTE:  Originally named "Auditorium Annex," then changed to the "Congress Plaza Hotel," then renamed to the "Congress Hotel," then the "Pick Congress Hotel," and today, it's called the "The Congress Plaza Hotel & Convention Center." You can call the hotel at (312) 427-3800 and hear how they answer their phones.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] Ursula Bielski authored and co-authored these Chicago area historical FICTION books:
  • Chicago Haunts: Ghostly Lore of the Windy City - 10/1997; 10/1998
  • Graveyards of Chicago: The People, History, Art, and Lore of Cook County Cemeteries - 11/1999; 10/2013
  • More Chicago Haunts: Scenes from Myth and Memory - 10/2000
  • Creepy Chicago: A Ghosthunter's Tales of the City's Scariest Sites - 8/2003
  • Chicago Haunts 3: Locked up Stories from an October City - 8/2009
  • Haunts of the White City: Ghost Stories from the World's Fair, the Great Fire and Victorian Chicago - 9/2019
  • The Haunting of Joliet Prison: The Brutal Past & Paranormal Present of One of the World's Most Notorious Penitentiaries - 8/2020 
[2] On good authority from Author and Historian Adam Selzer, who worked for Ursula Bielski for a time. While he worked for her, Selzer called out Ursula about the fake Stephen King story, and Bielski said, “Well, it makes a good story.” 


  1. Amazing information of such details through the years of this magnificent structure and part of Chicago history.

  2. Great share. Very informative and interesting.


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