In less than a week, music lovers from across the country will descend upon Chicago’s Grant Park by the thousands for the annual Lollapalooza music festival. Luckily for attendees, there is no shortage of hotels in Chicago, a city made for grand events and mass tourism. In fact, there is a fourteen story hotel directly across the street from Grant Park with affordable rooms and a rich history. I would say it’s a charming, unassuming building hiding among the skyscrapers, but…well…look at it. It’s about as inconspicuous as Buckingham Fountain, which is conveniently within walking distance of the hotel.
The Congress Plaza Hotel was built on the corner of Congress Parkway and South Michigan Avenue in 1893 in anticipation of another big festival- the World’s Fair. Over the years, there have been countless additions, renovations, closings, and re-openings. Oh, and did I mention the deaths? Hold on, though, I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to that rich history.
The Congress has hosted an impressive number of American presidents, politicians, world leaders, celebrities, mobsters, and even the devil himself- America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes. With a history like that, how could it NOT be haunted, right? It is said to be the most haunted building in all of Chicago, and one of the most haunted hotels in America. Among the endless winding halls that look like something out of a Stephen King novel, there is one room in particular that is said to be more haunted than any other. Room 441. It is so haunted, apparently, that it is only booked when specifically requested by a thrill-seeking guest. Otherwise it sits dormant, aside from whoever (or whatever) lurks within its ancient walls. Cue Demented Mitten Tours, who recently spent the night in Room 441 and lived to tell the tale. So here it is. The tale, obviously.
Let’s get the big questions out of the way first. Is The Congress Hotel haunted? I’m gonna go with a HELL YES on that. What about Room 441? Is it really the most haunted hotel room in America? I have to say meh. Just…meh. Here’s the thing, though. Ghosts aren’t circus monkeys. I mean, I suppose circus monkeys could become ghosts, couldn’t they? Cute little guys with striped hats and symbols and the like. What I’m trying to say is, ghosts don’t typically perform on cue. In my experience (and I have quite a bit of it, living in a haunted house and all), they do whatever the hell they want, whenever the hell they want to do it. In our house, we can go months with no activity at all, living a perfectly calm, quiet existence just like everyone else on the block. And then without warning, we’ve got lightbulbs exploding, kids snarling like rabid dogs in their sleep, toddlers talking to little ghost boys, and sticky ectoplasm footprints on our bedroom floor. (All true stories, by the way.) So is one night at The Congress really enough to decide that all the hype around Room 441 is just that, hype? Probably not. But I have no desire to stay there for days/weeks/months to figure it out. That’s not to say that our night at The Congress was without incident, though. We definitely experienced some creepy shit. Before we get to that, I’d like to share with you the ghost stories I had floating around in my head as we made the long drive to Chicago for our night of terror.
There is an abundance of urban legends and tall tales about The Congress, so I’m going to just pick a few that I a.) found super interesting, or 2.) was able to verify as fact.
As I mentioned earlier, some pretty famous (and infamous) characters have stepped foot inside The Congress. President Theodore Roosevelt was in the hotel’s Florentine Room when he announced that he was leaving the Republican Party. Is it possible that his spirit still haunts the very room where his political career died? If you believe the internet, then yes. I personally didn’t run into a translucent version of The Bull Moose, but maybe he had more important things to do.
A question- is any name more synonymous with Chicago than Al Capone? (Spoiler alert- the answer is no.) In all honesty, you’d be hard pressed to find a building in Chicago that was around in the 1920’s that Capone didn’t set foot in. While some rumors would have you believe that he once owned The Congress (he didn’t), or had a suite on the eighth floor (also untrue), he was a frequent visitor. Several of his employees lived in the hotel, and were said to sometimes hold rival gang members hostage there. Let me tell you, of all the ghost stories I took into that hotel with me, this is the one that stuck. I could absolutely see how mobsters could keep prisoners in rooms much like the one we stayed in (441, in case you forgot.) While not necessarily haunted, that room was the place where time stood still. Inescapable, well concealed, and just spooky as heck. So Capone’s guys keeping prisoners locked up there? I can totally see it, and I dig it. The strongest, most verifiable link between Al Capone and The Congress has to do with the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The FBI has confirmed that right before and right after the massacre, one of Capone’s associates called him from a house phone in the hotel’s lobby. Not proof of Capone’s eternal connection to the haunted hotel by any means, but a cool fact nonetheless.
As folks are known to do, I’ve saved the best for last. None other than my favorite murderer and yours, Mr. H.H. Holmes (a.k.a. Herman Mudgett.) Who? Only America’s very first serial killer, who is said to be responsible for the deaths of anywhere from 27 to 500 people in the late 1800s. If you’ve never heard of him, write that name down. You’ve got some googling to do later. Now, despite my fascination with it, I’m fundamentally against the idea of murder. Murder is bad. But H.H. Holmes did it so good. Remember when I said that The Congress was built for the World Fair? Coincidentally, Holmes built a hotel for the World Fair also. His was a lot smaller and a lot less flashy though, so he was said to have trouble finding guests. Good news was, The Congress regularly had an overabundance of would-be guests in its lobby, many of whom traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles, only to find the hotel completely sold out. Ever the gentleman, the famously handsome Holmes would invite tourists looking for rooms, usually women traveling alone, to come stay at his hotel instead. The rates were better, after all. The rates were amazing, actually, considering that once a guest checked into Holmes’ hotel, they were there for life. Because it wasn’t really a hotel at all. It was a MURDER CASTLE, y’all. This man built an entire building for the sole purpose of torturing and murdering people. The absolute mess of body parts found in the basement of said murder castle after Holmes’ capture and his amazing ability to dispose of corpses entirely can be blamed for the lack of a solid number of victims. Did I mention that there is a heavily supported theory out there that H.H. Holmes was also Jack the Ripper? Yessssssss. I’m telling you guys, serial killer of all serial killers right there. I don’t know why anyone else even tries, honestly. Is it possible that the ghost of H.H. Holmes still roams The Congress at night, looking for pretty young girls to torture and murder? I mean, hopefully.
Between Al Capone and H.H. Holmes, we’ve got a pretty good number of deaths connected to The Congress just by association. But what about deaths that have actually occurred inside the hotel? If you believe the world wide web, there have been oodles. (Yes, oodles.) I’m only going to mention the couple that I was able to verify.
One of the earliest verified deaths at The Congress was that of war hero Captain Lou Ostheim. Captain Lou was staying at The Congress in preparation for his wedding, an event he was said to be very much looking forward to. On a Saturday afternoon, he procured his marriage license and purchased a revolver, then retired to his room. He was to be wed the following day. That night, however, he was found dead in his room from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Authorities initially believed that Captain Lou had committed suicide, but his friends, family, and fiancée rejected that as a possibility. While he had been suffering from night terrors and bouts of insomnia for some time, he was neither depressed nor suicidal. After an investigation, it was determined that Captain Lou shot himself accidentally, immediately upon waking from a nightmare. How detectives reached this conclusion is anyone’s guess, but if it helped Captain Lou’s family sleep at night, more power to them. Know who doesn’t sleep at night though? Guests at The Congress who see Captain Lou’s ghost wandering the halls of the hotel, looking for his long lost love.
In August of 1939, 43 year old Adele Langer checked herself and her two young sons into The Congress following a day at the zoo. The Langers were a wealthy family from Prague, who had come to the US seeking asylum during the war. Mrs. Langer and her sons were here on a six month travel visa that was about to expire. Mr. Langer was still trapped in Prague, but was supposed to be joining his family in America. As months passed with no word from her husband, Mrs. Langer became increasingly despondent. Between Mr. Langer’s absence and the threat of being sent back to Prague when their visas expired, Adele went mad with fear. At some point during their night at The Congress, she took her boys in her arms, climbed out the window in their room, and jumped- sending all three of them to their deaths. Unbeknownst to Adele, a letter had arrived at their Chicago apartment that very day granting the family permanent asylum in Canada. She never saw the letter though, because she’d left the house with the children early in the morning on what would be their last day. And Mr. Langer, still in Prague, was very much alive, although it is said that he became suicidal upon learning of the deaths of his family. Here’s where I have a bit of trouble with this story. All of the ghost stories about Adele Langer and her children talk about their spirits lingering on the 12th floor. They say you can hear the boys laughing and running up and down the halls. Women are said to be overcome with feelings of panic and despondency, much like what Adele was feeling the day she died. But the Chicago Tribune articles about the incident state that the room from which Adele Langer jumped was on the thirteenth floor. Is this an inconsistency that’s been quietly ignored over years of retelling different variations of the story? Or were the floors renumbered at some point over the years? I’m not sure, to be honest with you. So if you’re looking for little ghost boys and their murderous mother, you might want to check out both the twelfth and thirteenth floors.
Now that we’ve gotten some haunted history out of the way, let me tell you about our experience at The Congress. First of all, can we please talk about how gorgeous the lobby is? Seriously. Like something out of a movie. According to her nametag, I was checked in by the hotel’s manager. The lobby was fairly busy, and it was clear that I was one of a long line of guests she’d checked in that day. She was polite, but definitely on autopilot. Her plane crashed, however, when she saw what room I was staying in. As she handed me my room key, she offered me a sympathetic smile.
“Room 441, huh?” she asked. I nodded, feeling a bit embarrassed by my weirdness. “Don’t be calling me in the middle of the night,” she said. “I’m too scared. I can’t help ya.”
“Is the room really that bad?” I asked, sure she was just messing with me. But I could see the uneasiness settle in her eyes.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But we get calls about it all the time. People leaving in the middle of the night, or asking for a different room. That room more than any other.” She told me that when she first started working at the hotel, she had no idea about the room’s reputation, or even that the hotel was rumored to be haunted. She explained how very early on in her career, she had a woman from Room 441 come down in the middle of the night crying, claiming that her bed was shaking and there was somebody in the room with her. It was only upon telling her coworkers about the incident the following day that the manager began to learn about the hotel’s sordid history.
So. That happened. With my heart racing, I promised her that we would be fine, and headed for the elevators.
Ahhh, the elevators. Seriously gorgeous. But the creepy horror movie-esque music playing inside them? Not a fan. Not a fan at all.
And the hallways? Are you mother-effing kidding me? Like something out of The Shining.
So here it is. Room 441. Can someone please tell me why the room number looks like this? Every other room in this hotel has a normal room marker. My guess is that someone stole the original one, but they couldn’t spring for one of those cheap plastic engraved doohickeys? Really?
The room was…unremarkable. White walls, white bedding, standard cheap hotel furniture. Lots of room for activities, but weird lighting and the most inconvenient bathroom I’ve ever seen. There were twenty foot ceilings, which was weird, and we had a large window that went from the floor to the ceiling. Cool, right? Up on the fourth floor, overlooking Grant Park and Michigan Avenue? Uh, no. We were somehow underground with a big cement barrier outside our window. Weirdest thing ever. This was when I really started to think about those “Al Capone kept prisoners here” stories. Did he use Room 441? Was I picking up on something that actually happened? Probably not. But the room had an undeniably heavy feeling to it. I started to feel nauseous.
Now, I’m going to tell you something, and hopefully you won’t think I’m a complete kook. My hope is that throughout the first few thousand words of this article, you’ve picked up on the fact that I’m pretty cynical and sarcastic, and it takes a lot to impress me. Like murder castles. Murder castles impress me. I’ve been told many times over the years that I absorb paranormal energy. Anytime we have a paranormal investigation at our house, I get violently ill the next day. Like Cancun for Spring Break ill. I will be the only person in the room who didn’t hear the ghost voice or see the shadow person, but then the next day, I’m the only person who can barely open their eyes for fear of vomiting up the soul of Satan. I’ve come to recognize the feeling over the years, and while it’s not evidence, per say, I do believe that spirits are present when I start to feel that way.
Ooh, fun little tidbit that I forgot to mention. It’s rumored that Stephen King wrote the short story 1408 (which later became a movie starring John Cusack) after staying in Room 441 at The Congress. After we got home, we watched the movie. While the movie is set in New York, the haunted hotel featured in the movie definitely resembles The Congress. The lobby especially.
So anyway, I’m nauseous, my head hurts, and my body feels weighted down as if I’m under water. And the kids want to go exploring. So do I, but I also don’t want to puke. Screw it, the hotel staff has cleaned up worse messes, right? Exploring we go. Here’s the famed fourth floor. It’s pretty creepy, but would be a lot creepier if it had that fancy carpet like on the third floor.
The staircases are creepy AF. We don’t use them, because I’m clumsy enough without some asshole ghost trying to kill me. Also- the stairwells line up perfectly so that from the top floor, you can see alllllll the way down to the ground floor. Panic inducing. I instantly had visions of mobsters tossing people over the railings to their deaths. Maybe because it happened, maybe because I’ve seen too many movies. Hard to tell.
On to the twelfth floor, where Adele Langer and her children are said to still reside. (Even though The Chicago Tribune says they died on the thirteenth floor.) My headache started to go away here, but that’s probably because THE ENTIRE FLOOR reeked of weed. Seriously, the whole thing.
We briefly checked out the thirteenth floor, which looked exactly like every floor before it (except the third floor with the fancy carpet, the second floor with the ballroom, and the main floor which is super fancy.) Here’s the thing- on every single floor there are doors without handles, doors nailed shut, half doors painted shut up near the ceiling. The hallways wind and wind like you’re in a maze. We eventually went back to our room in a bit of a panic because I seriously felt like we were going to get lost. The longer we were out there, the more disoriented and confused we became. That was probably the most unsettling thing about our entire visit. Either that or the fifteenth floor.
The elevator only goes up to floor 14, but there is another staircase, behind a door, that goes up to another floor. Because we’re nosy, we opened the door. These stairs were dirty and falling apart, not well maintained like the rest of the staircases. There was a sign at the top, which read:
Alright then. There were lots of noises coming from the fifteenth floor. It sounded like people pushing carts and doing laundry and all of the things you would expect a hotel staff to do. But without an elevator, they would have to use the stairs that looked like they hadn’t been walked on in years. It really wasn’t a convenient place for anything to be kept. But something, or someone, was definitely up there. We all heard it, clear as day.
So this brings us back to Room 441 at about 1 am. We’re all freaked out, exhausted, and I’m feeling like I might pass out or puke. Or pass out while puking. I’m honestly kind of regretting the whole trip at this point because I’m not a ghost hunter, I’m just a curious weirdo, and my nerves are too shot for some angry shadow woman to be shaking my bed and flipping the paintings upside down and whispering in my ear. But I’m a trooper, so I turn out (most of) the lights and make like I’m going to sleep, not expecting it to happen.
Cut to 8:30am, which of course feels like 4am because we’re in the place where time stands still, and the sun is blocked by a concrete wall, room darkening curtains, and possibly the ghost of Al Capone. WE MADE IT! We all slept through the night peacefully and uneventfully, which is both a relief and a bummer. We shower, pack up our things, and go on one last mini exploration to get some pics before checking out.
As I hand the room key to the front desk clerk, I smile when our eyes meet.
“How was it?” she asked.
“Awesome,” I say. “We did awesome.” Because really, we did.
In conclusion, while I don’t believe about 75% of the ghost stories connected to The Congress Hotel, I do believe that the hotel is haunted. Definitely worth the trip if you’re into that sort of thing. As for Room 441- we didn’t experience anything paranormal. In fact, it was the calmest part of the entire hotel for us. Maybe the shadow woman decided to take pity on a tired family from Michigan and leave us alone. Or maybe it was just her night off.
Now on the other side of our adventure, I’m glad we went. It was an experience, that’s for sure. I can’t help but think about the unwitting Lollapalooza attendees that will be checking into The Congress over the next couple of days, with no idea that they’re immersing themselves in some of Chicago’s most haunted history. Especially those staying in Room 441. I picture someone getting out of the weird, sunken in shower, stepping out on the slippery tile floor, gazing into the giant, steamy bathroom mirror, and seeing the word “MURDER” written backwards across the glass, as if from the inside. Imagine the horror. (Fiiiiiiine. I wrote “MURDER” backwards on the glass after my shower. What do you want from me? I’m an asshole.)