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The Spirit of The Chicago City Courthouse and Jail

The “Spirit of the Jail” was a well known ghost story in the city before the Great Conflagration of 1871.

The building, before it was destroyed by the fire, was a combined City Hall and Courthouse and also included the City Jail.  It was built in 1853 and designed by famed Chicago architect John M. Van Osdel.  It stood in the same location as the current combined City Hall and County Building at 118 N. Clark Street.

One of the best documented accounts of the ghost was in a December 11, 1867 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Deputy Sheriff Edward Langley was on his watch at the county jail around the end of October when he had overheard a great moaning unlike any he had ever heard from a human being resonate through the prison at about 11:00PM long after the prisoners had been locked down and had almost settled to sleep.  It was all still after the sound but he had without a doubt heard it although the only sound he could hear now was the occasional scampering of a rat. In fact, he had heard several prisoners conversing before the unearthly noise but it was obvious that they were intently listening as well. He made rounds through the several wards asking prisoners if they had heard a noise and they all confirmed the reality of the noise while many were still visibly shaken from the experience.  After a short time the wail or moaning returned and this time was much louder than before! Every time he looked for the location of the origin of the moaning it seemed to change location.  This noise that he described as, “most unearthly and awful” continued at irregular intervals for the next hour before it disappeared. He did not report this initially to other authorities for fear of being thought a lunatic.

Two days later he was with Deputy Sheriff Merrill in the same office when the noise started up again!  It sounded as though it could be the sound of a person in horrible agony and seemed to be coming from a vault at the end of the hallway that was being used as a water closet (bathroom). Upon closer inspection of the water closet they opened the bolt on the door and could hear the sound coming from beneath their feet!  It then seemed to change direction again and come from the eastern limits of the jail. They quickly returned to their office and were forced to listen to the noises for the first half of the night!

About a week later Deputy Sheriff Tuttle and Simpson were on watch when at 10:00PM they heard a repetition of the same sound. This time Tuttle seized a light and traced the screaming to cell 18. As he waited outside the door with his light waiting to catch one of the prisoners who were probably making the noise he was extremely startled by the noise coming directly below his feet! The shock stayed with him for many days to come.

The stories of the phantom of the jail started spreading rapidly among the prisoners and one night an African American prisoner by the name of William Jones saw the apparition of a man who was hanging by his neck from a strap which was attached to the grating leading to the ventilator from the ceiling.  Jones stated that he was so terrified that he fainted from the experience and for the next several weeks various Deputy Sheriffs had taken similar reports of a hanging apparition. 

December 14, 1867 The Bloomington, IL Pantagraph



Talk amongst the prisoners and jailers seemed to point to the likely culprits of William Corbett and Patrick Fleming who were executed by hanging on December 15, 1865 in the eastern most section of the jail for the murder of Patrick Maloney on November 20, 1864.

The beginning of the end of Patrick Maloney seemed to start some months before his murder.  Maloney lived in the area of Sand Ridge (Now the Austin Neighborhood of Chicago) near where John Pierson had built the Six Mile House, a two story tavern, in 1842. The Six Mile House would now be at the northwest corner of about N. Pine Avenue and Lake Street.

Maloney belonged to an Irish family that was in a virtual war with another Irish family of which John Williams was a member. Nobody can remember what the feud was about but everyone seemed to have been of the opinion that it was somewhat trivial. Neighbors had to intervene quite often to keep one from killing the other and each family was known to have taken shots at the other family’s dogs at a time when the owner was conveniently closest to the dog!

The 19th Mayor of Chicago, John Blake Rice (1809-1874) lived in the same area and was heard predicting that one would probably eventually kill the other if both didn’t die in the process.

It seemed that neither family had any money although John Williams had saved some money from selling prairie grass. (I’m not sure how much money could be made from selling prairie grass or how much the going rate was but O.K.) Unfortunately the most important use Williams could come up with for the extra change in his pocket was to hire some poor saps to assassinate Maloney.

According to reports, sometime in November of 1864, Fleming, Corbett and another Irishman by the name of John Kennedy were at a drinking establishment when approached by a stranger (presumably Williams) who had contracted with them to assassinate Maloney.  They were supposed to have gotten about 16 dollars each but according to their testimony had received no money at all. 

On November 20, 1864, the trio met with an acquaintance, James Finan, who supposedly had no idea of their intentions to kill Maloney. They met at Phillip Brennan’s Saloon at 117 Canal Street for drinks and told Finan that they needed to know where Patrick Maloney lived because they had to visit a sick aunt of his.  They hired a “hack” (1860’s horse and buggy version of a taxi) and Brennan supplied a driver by the name of William Gubbins. The instructed Gubbins to take them to the vicinity of the Six Mile House and stopped at a number of drinking establishments on the way as well as bringing a full bottle of whiskey with them for good measure.

When the whiskey ran out they decided that it was time to get down to business. Finan, Kennedy, Corbett and Fleming exited the hack and told the driver to extinguish his lights. The driver did not want to get in trouble with the authorities for having extinguished lights so Gubbins simply turned the vehicle around so that anyone in the direction of where they were heading would not see the lights. Finan accompanied Kennedy, Corbett and Fleming to show them where Maloney lived because of the “sick aunt” story that he was told. The hack was stopped about three blocks from the house of Maloney and Finan got close enough to the house to point it out to Kennedy, Fleming and Corbett.  He then returned to the hack. 

They went to the front door and Kennedy positioned Corbett at the side of the door and Kennedy had a navy revolver in case Corbett couldn’t do the job. Kennedy instructed Corbett to shoot Maloney as soon as he could get a good shot. Maloney was woken from his sound sleep by Fleming’s loud knocking on the door.  Maloney asked who was at the door and one of the men answered, “A friend!” Maloney refused to answer the door and they attempted to force it open.  As the door started to give way, Corbett fired his revolver once at Maloney and supposedly had missed. This inflamed Fleming and Kennedy who cursed Corbett for his lousy marksmanship.

Maloney, now realizing that he was fighting for his life, struggled that much harder but he was outnumbered. Honora heard the commotion and joined her husband at the door. Corbett fired once more through the door and this time the resistance was eased as Maloney fell down screaming his wife’s name, “Honora! Honora!” Honora saw the shadows of the three assassins fleeing from the house and her husband lying in a pool of blood.  Her five young children were crying and as she cradled her youngest close to her her husband, Patrick, died in her lap within ten minutes. She spent the entire night holding her children and her dead husband. All three returned to the hack and spent the rest of the night celebrating their short lived victory.

Months went by and while John Williams, James Maloney and Michael McDermott, neighbors and enemies of the murdered man, were brought in for questioning nothing solid came of it.  The break came when officers learned that a hack owned by Phillip Brennan had been hired to take a group of men to the area of Sand Ridge on the night that the murder took place. Police found out that the regular driver of the hack was sick that night and that a man named William Gubbins was hired for the job.

It took five months to locate Gubbins and question him about that night but he talked very freely and gave accurate descriptions of the men who he believed perpetrated the crime. He mentioned to police that he would have come forward sooner and on his own but he was afraid for his life in case one of the murderers would somehow escape and come after his family. The second break in the case came when on April 23rd Fleming and Corbett were arrested for an unrelated assault (actually attempted murder) of policeman Peter Kendelin of the Second Precinct. Corbett had managed to stab Officer Kendelin multiple times but Kendelin still managed to arrest Corbett. Fleming fired multiple gunshots at Kendelin but none of the shots hit their mark! (Some nerve after complaining about Corbett’s marksmanship during the Maloney murder.) Fleming was arrest the next morning and the two were sentenced to 14 years in the State Penitentiary in Joliet. Unfortunately for them, police officers don’t take kindly to those who try to kill one of their own and because of this pay special attention to those who do.  Captain Kennedy of the Second Precinct and Sergeant Hickey of the First Precinct recognized them from the descriptions given them by hack driver Gubbins and arrested them for the murder of Patrick Maloney as they were being led to their cells to await transfer to Joliet. Gubbins positively identified them as two of the persons involved in the murder of Patrick Maloney.

Once Corbett and Fleming were secured it was only a matter of a week’s time before an informant mentioned to Captain Kennedy that James Finan had told a mutual friend at a saloon on Polk Street about his involvement with the Maloney incident. Finan was arrested and immediately turned State’s Evidence and provided the final name of John Kennedy who was apprehended the same day.

The evidence against Corbett and Fleming was overwhelming. Damning testimony of Mrs. Honora Maloney, James Finan, and William Gubbins soon sealed their fate. The jury returned a guilty verdict in a little over two hours of deliberations.  On Saturday, November 26, 1865 in the Superior Court Room of the County Courthouse, Judge Gary was prepared to pass sentence on Corbett and Fleming. Kennedy had somehow managed to get a separate trial in Waukegan.

The judge ordered Corbett and Fleming to stand up and approach the railing beside the clerk’s desk. Corbett was physically shaking and placed a trembling hand upon the railing. Fleming fixed a combative stare upon Judge Gary.  Gary continued, “Have you anything to say, either of you why the sentence of the law should not now be passed on you? Fleming defiantly answered, “Yes I have!” and looked straight at Judge Gary. Judge Gary simply responded with a pause and then, “Well?!”  Fleming started right in, “You are to pass sentence of death on me, for the murder of a man I never see and never knew. I never laid a hand on him. I never conspired against him. I might have rode out in a carriage, but I never knew him before or afterwards; and it is just on the night he was killed. I never knew the man was going to be killed. Thank God, I never raised my hand against him. I am not afraid to meet death in any form. I have one remark to make in reference to Mr. Reed. [prosecuting attorney] He made the remark that I would kill a man for money. All the money you ever seen, or ever will see, I would not take a life for it. Yourself are in the habit of taking more bribes than me, and it is well known in this city you have, and I am right!”

Judge Gary then asked Corbett if he had any remarks and Corbett responded, “I have nothing to say.” Judge Gary continued, “Patrick Fleming and William Corbett: You have been indicted for murder, tried and found guilty in accordance with all the forms of law. No one, who listened to your trial, can doubt of the justness of the verdict. It now, only, remains for the Court to pronounce the sentence of the law. In doing this, I shall not comment upon the circumstances of your offence, or reproach or upbraid you as to its enormity. By what inherited disposition, defect or wickedness of early education, real or fancied injustice or injury, moral warp or political bias, you may have been led to the commission of this horrible crime, has not appeared. If the history of your lies were divulged, perhaps the feelings of men toward you might be softened. But society cannot endure that you should live. It must, by ever means in its power, protect itself against your kind. Nor shall I address to you any exhortations. I will only remind you that there is no earthly hope for you. It will be utterly in vain for you to expect Executive clemency. Few in this community would even sign a petition to the Governor in your behalf. The law requires that the day of your execution shall be fixed not less than fifteen, nor more than twenty five days from this time. Usage has settled that capital punishment shall be inflicted upon a Friday. The sentence of the Court, therefore, is, that you, Patrick Fleming and William Corbett, be taken from the bar of this Court to the prison of Cook County, there to remain until the fifteenth day of December, in the year of our Lord 1865, and on that day, between the hours of ten o’clock in the forenoon and four o’clock in the afternoon, within the walls of said prison, or within a yard, or enclosure, adjoining such prison, that you be hung by the neck until you are dead.”

Both men turned around immediately and quickly took their seats again. Fleming made eye contact with most in the room in a somewhat disdainful manner almost searching for some look of sympathy or doubt and it was quickly apparent that everyone in the courtroom was satisfied that a just sentence was handed down. Corbett on the the other hand looked as though he was actually remorseful about his involvement and could look at no one.  He merely looked straight down at the floor. Deputy Sheriffs Merrill and Langley (who were witnesses to the moaning ghost of the jail in 1867) along with Deputy Sheriff Stone shackled the prisoners and escorted them to where they would spend the final two weeks of their life, cells 1 and 2 on the very east side of the jail in the basement of the courthouse.

For the next roughly two weeks, Corbett and Fleming were in almost constant care of their spiritual advisors.  Both men were Catholic and were almost daily attended to by The Rev. Dr. McMullen of St Mary’s University, Father Burke of the Church of St. Columbkille and Father Murphy of St. James.  They were also attended to by the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Charity who actually handcrafted the burial shrouds of the two condemned men. They received Holy Communion every other day and spent most of their time reading the Bible and other books on religion.

The night before the executions, preparations of the gallows were made.  Corbett and and Fleming were moved from the eastern most cells 1 and 2 to the western most area into cells 14 and 15 so as to minimize their knowledge of the preparations at hand.  However, the hammering noises involved could be heard resonating throughout the the entire courthouse. The same gallows had been used for four previous executions although only the last one was held in the same location as Corbett’s and Fleming’s.

The Scaffold had been the same used since 1840 and in the courthouse they positioned the large wooden beam at the landing at the top of the staircase on the eastern most part of the courthouse.  At the top of the stairs were the debtor’s room on one side and the women’s room on the other the beam would be rested on the casements of the door leading to these two rooms at a height of about 7 feet with two wooden supports nailed to it and resting on the ground.  Directly beneath this were trap doors that opened downward from the middle and created an opening 3’7” wide by 5’3” long which was ample room for two men to be hung at the same time. Two holes were cut in the beam above in which the two nooses would be fed through and knotted at the top of the beam. The drop would occur when a spliced cord attached to a pair of iron levers was pulled with about a half pound of force (a typical pistol trigger pull is about 2-3 lbs of force). Once the trap was opened, the doomed men were to fall until their heads were about 18 inches below where they were standing on the trap. The object was to administer enough drop force with a properly tied hangman’s noose that would generate enough force to dislocate the prisoner’s spinal cord from his brain which was intended to cause instantaneous death. Unfortunately this drop method was the older way of executing people by hanging and prone to mishaps. An improperly dropped person or improperly tied knot could cause the condemned person to die a slower death by strangulation rather than a clean separation of their spinal column. The newer method which hadn’t been implemented yet in Cook County consisted of a 300 pound iron weight attached to the hangman’s noose which was dropped from a considerable height resulting in the victim being yanked upward rather than being dropped which was much more efficient. 

On the day of their execution both Fleming and Corbett seemed to have an air of confidence about them. Fleming’s more from disdain for the justice system and Corbett’s more from a spiritual peace that he had made with his maker with assistance from the many priests and sisters who visited with the pair over the last couple weeks.  Corbett had made a full confession to State’s Attorney Reed regarding the shooting of Maloney and blamed his demise on “bad whiskey and bad company”. Corbett also said that while Fleming did not fire the fatal shot he had admitted to Corbett that prior to this he had murdered three other men but had gotten away with it. They were given the opportunity to inspect the burial shrouds that were handmade for them and while Corbett seemed disinterested, Fleming seemed to pay close attention to the white muslin shroud that had a large black cross on the front covering a larger white cross. There were two smaller black crosses above the arms of the larger cross and then two white crosses below the arms.

As the courthouse bell tolled noon, further immediate preparations were being made as the scheduled time of execution was about two hours away.  Corbett was given a cigar to smoke which Fleming a clay pipe. Both men seemed extremely calm given the circumstances so much so that one of the guards had made a comment that one of the priests must have slipped the men some marijuana in place of tobacco.  Both men were wearing crucifixes and rosaries around their necks and intently listening to the prayers being recited by the clergy in their rooms.  Dr. Murphy was formerly a chaplain in the 58th Illinois Regiment and had met Corbett on an earlier occasion when Corbett was a deck hand on a Mississippi riverboat which seemed to give Corbett some comfort. The men had already been lead through the prison by deputies saying their last goodbyes to other inmates they had met and also made peace with Finan who had turned them in as well as the third in the deadly trio, Kennedy, who was locked up pending his separate trial in Lake County. 

As the two o’clock hour struck, deputies started escorting those out who were not given special permission by the sheriff to attend. Fleming and Corbett spent their last 30 minutes in constant prayer.

At 2:30PM, Sheriff Nelson entered the cell and shook hands with them. Corbett had nothing to say but Fleming while shaking hands with Nelson said, “Good bye, good bye, Mr. Sheriff.” They were led down the hallway toward the east end of the corridor by Sheriff Nelson with Father Roles next to him. Fleming followed close behind between Father McMullan and McGowan. Corbett was between Father Sullivan and Murphy. Off to the sides and behind were Deputy Sheriffs C. Folz, Gustave Fisher, T.M. Bradley, William Wayman, Harry Pease and Charles Henney.

About thirty persons including members of the press were present as they approached the stairway to the floor above where the gallows had been prepared. They passed under the large wooden beam and took their seats on two armchairs on which hung the white shrouds and caps that they were to be executed in.  Corbett was dressed in a grey suit and Fleming had on a black and white velvet vest, black pants and boots. Both Fleming and Corbett carried a crucifix in their hands at times would be fixated on it as well as kissing it multiple times. Both men were quite pale and Fleming seemed to be the less nervous of the two.  Father Roles, in a loud tone, uttered the latin phrase, “Attentis!” A silence fell over the group as Sheriff Nelson stepped forward to read the death warrant. With the formalities completed, the sheriff asked the two men if they had any words to share. Corbett replied, “I have nothing to say but I give you all my blessing and I hope we will meet in a better world.” Fleming spoke up, “I am very thankful for your kindness and I hope you will be rewarded, and I hope God will bless you; I forgive every one that ever injured me, and I hope if I have injured any one they will forgive me.” Both men bade a final farewell to the deputies and clergy and Corbett had actually kissed a couple of them.

The time had come and at 2:43PM they were helped to their feet over the wooden trap through which they would exit this world. Their hands and feet were bound and they could no longer hold the crucifixes to their mouths so Father McMullen held them to their lips.  The Deputies covered them in their white shrouds and tied the drawstrings along their collar.  Deputy Fisher adjusted the noose on Corbett’s neck while Bradley adjusted Fleming’s noose at 2:46PM. They both kissed the crucifix for the last time and the white caps were placed over their heads. While you could no longer see the men under the shrouds and caps you could hear their loud prayers mingling with those of the clergy. At 2:49PM the trap was opened and the bodies of both men fell through in an instant.  The ropes grew taught with a “thud” and the elasticity of the rope actually caused the bodies to bounce slightly. For about 3 minutes there were involuntary muscle spasms and at 2:53PM all motion save for a slow swinging to and fro had ceased.

A step ladder was brought over and Drs. R.L. Rea and J.W. Freer examined the bodies and pronounced them dead.  White pine or poplar coffins which had been painted black were brought over to just below the feet of the executed.  At 3:08PM, Deputy Bradley cut Fleming’s rope and his body lowered into the casket, Corbett’s was treated similarly. The rosaries and crucifixes were removed from their necks although the scapulary that Corbett was wearing was allowed to remain according to his last wishes. The white caps were removed and their faces were revealed to be slightly discolored with bulging eyes and swollen protruding tongues indicative of the physical signs of death by hanging. The bodies stayed overnight at the jail and in the morning were turned over to the County Undertaker who temporarily placed them in the old cemetery vault. Father McMullen arranged to have the bodies permanently buried at Calvary Cemetery at the Church’s expense to keep the bodies from falling prey to the “Resurrectionists” (Body Snatchers).

The courthouse eventually fell victim to the great fire in 1871.

Chicago Courthouse after the Great Fire of 1871

To this day people claim to hear strange noises at night in the building at 118 N. Clark even though the structure is new and the hangings have stopped.