William “Frenchy” Deneau was a minor celebrity in Chicago. He was a diver who recovered 250 bodies from the Chicago River in the Eastland disaster in 1915. His expertise in the water put him in demand, and the next November, Deneau was back in the water to lay electrical cables underneath the Rush Street Bridge. While there, his shovel brushed against something metal. Further excavation found a metal submarine, forty-foot long and made of iron. Some reports say it was found under the Rush Street Bridge, others say it was found under the Wells Street Bridge, and others say it was under the Madison Street bridge.
Submarines had been the news since the battle of the Merrimac and the Monitor in the Civil War. During this time, submarines were used in World War I battles. Some people feared this was a primitive U-boat from a failed German invasion. Others wondered if this was something left over from the Civil War. No one knew, but they tried to find out. The newspapers took up the story and watched it with interest. The vessel was nicknamed the "Foolkiller" by the newspapers.
Deneau was given permission to salvage the submarine, and it was hauled from the Chicago River on December 20,1915. Once inside, the discovery was made of a man’s skull and a dog’s skull, just the skulls. Police combed their missing persons' records to see who the skull could belong to. Deneau partnered with the SkeeBall company and put the Foolkiller on display. With the slogan “Come for the Foolkiller, Stay for the Skee Ball!” the submarine went on tour in February 1916. For the low price of a dime, people could tour the interior of the Foolkiller and have a question-and-answer session with Deneau. Attendees had to tour at their own risk.
Still, there was no indication of how the submarine got there. The thought that it was a German U-boat was dismissed as wartime propaganda. The U.S. wasn’t in the Great War at this time. There was also speculation that it was built in 1890 by Peter Nissen.
The Chicago Tribune initially reported, “The boat is said to have belonged to Peter Nissen, spectacular mariner, who was lost in his revolving vessel while attempting to drift across Lake Michigan … The “Foolkiller” was so called because it first appeared shortly after the Chicago fire, in the days when submarines were unheard of, and drowned its original owner, a New York man when it made a trial trip. Nissen then bought it.” Peter Nissen was originally an accountant turned daredevil, but his boat designs were very different than the submarine found. Also, Peter Nissen died on a different boat, so he could not be the human skull found.
Another speculation has said it was a creation of Lodner Darvantis Phillips, a shoemaker from Michigan City, Indiana, who also happened to be a submarine pioneer. He had built successful submarines in the Great Lakes, and one of his designs from the 1840s resembled the submarine found. According to his family legend, a prototype he built sank in the Chicago River and claimed the Foolkiller as one of their ancestor’s creations.
This is the only evidence. However, his designs resembled the submarine found more closely than Nissen’s. Then who was the man found on the submarine?
Some people believe that Deneau added the skulls as a bit of showmanship to generate interest in his find. Deneau was in a spot of financial trouble, and the submarine tour generated some needed cash. However, we will never know the truth about the submarine as its last known location was Oelwein, Iowa, in May 1915. It is lost in the mists of time, but it could still be out there waiting for its mystery to be unraveled.
Shortly thereafter, the submarine was displayed at 208 South State Street, Chicago. For 10¢, you could see the submarine and the skulls.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.