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Interview with Ursula Bielski, of Chicago Hauntings

Ursula Bielski is Chicago’s resident paranormal expert, an historian, an author, and an entrepreneur. She owns the tour company Chicago Hauntings, Inc., produces the annual Chicago Ghost Conference, and hosts the WYCC TV show The Hauntings of Chicago. She is the author of Chicago Haunts, Creepy Chicago, More Chicago Haunts, and There’s Something Under the Bed.

Take us back to the beginning. What inspired your first book, Chicago Haunts, and did you ever think you would make a career out of legends and lore? Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

This is the first question people have always asked, and when I respond that I grew up in a haunted house, people still audibly gasp, as if it’s some unheard-of thing, despite how common we are now finding ghost and haunting phenomena to be.  And I did.  My mom still lives in the house, and it’s been very interesting to see how the activity in the house has ebbed and flowed with changes in our family over these many years. The house and our family’s relationship to it have almost been like a long-term experiment in parapsychology for us!

Chicago Haunts by Ursula Bielski, cover of the 1st edition

Chicago Haunts by Ursula Bielski, cover of the 1st edition

Growing up in the house, I naturally searched for information about the events we were experiencing, but I don’t think that as a girl it was a conscious connection. I think I was afraid, and that I filled up my life with what I was afraid of, presumably to cope.  I didn’t remember until literally a few months ago that I was absolutely terrified of cemeteries when I was a girl, and of dying.   I suppose that my becoming an historian of the dead all grew out of grasping with these fears.

In those days, the early 1970s, there was a small shelf of books in the library on parapsychological themes–not the walls of “ghost books” we have today–and I read and re-read all of them:  Jule Eisenbud’s The World of Ted Serios, a biography of Uri Gellar, J.B. Rhine’s Extrasensory Perception, The Other Side by Bishop James Pike and of course titles by the late Hanz Holzer.  But I was really only properly introduced to parapsychology as an undergraduate, when I was studying history at Benedictine University in the late ’80s and met James Houran, a psychology student pursuing parapsychology as his specialty.  He took me under his wing and trained me in rudimentary psi testing and field research, and it was during this time that I first experimented and investigated at field sites, including Bachelors Grove.

There, we had done a series of photography experiments over many years which were eventually published (demonstrating an inordinate number of overexposed images at the site, by the way!).  When we parted ways at graduation, I continued to pursue parapsychology academically, focusing on the history of parapsychology, religion and science in America.  And during this time I first read Stephen Braude’s The Limits of Influence.   Dr. Braude was a philosophy professor at the University of Maryland and also a prominent parapsychological thinker, and we wrote letters back and forth–this was long before email–and he was very influential in my thinking, and I had the benefit of the mentoring of many other great parapsychologists as well, who very kindly responded to the questions I wrote them about many topics, including Nancy Zingrone, who is one of the most well known and accessible American parapsychologists today.

I never set out to be a writer or even a professional paranormal researcher.  It was something that happened as the result of my interest in people’s experiences, and in what these experiences meant for history–their own histories, family histories, and the larger history of communities and cultures.  And so it was really a desire to record the experiences of Chicagoans with the paranormal that led me to write Chicago Haunts.  I had discovered the local personality the late Richard Crowe–Chicago’s “original ghost hunter” as he called himself–when I was in graduate school and went on a tour of his with the school.  He was such a wonderful storyteller, as everyone remembers, but he never wrote anything down.  I wrote him a letter when I was about 24 asking him to write a book to record some of the famous stories he would share, and he responded that he wasn’t interested in writing anything, that he was a storyteller.

And so it was as an historian wanting to record the supernatural folklore of Chicago that I wrote the first book. And the response to it was so overwhelming. It was the only book of its kind, really. Brad Steiger had previously written a tremendous book about parapsychology in Chicago called Psychic City, which included an interview with Crowe about a few of the haunted sites in Chicago, but it was about many other things as well: Anton LaVey (founder of the Church of Satan), Uri Gellar, psychic Joseph DeLuise, Ted Serios, and many other Chicago-based personalities with a paranormal focus. So this first book of Chicago true ghost stories was completely new. We even ended up coining the term “ghostlore” as we tried to figure out what exactly genre was: because it was and still is a very careful combination of deep research and deliberate sketchiness, so as not to spoil the magic.

And wow, the work that went into that first book.  A lot of legwork, millions of miles in driving, so many interviews, rummaging through clippings files and microfilm back when the idea of a digital archive was not even a thing.  And I guess it showed in the writing, because everyone loved the book and wanted another. And I had gotten so many letters and phone calls from scores of people wanting to share their own experiences, many of whom thanked me for making them seem “not crazy” for having them.  And it was then that I realized there was something of real value in what I was doing. And believe me, I have never stopped thinking, “One of these days I have to figure out what to do with my life!”  but it never happens because I just keep being driven along by the momentum of who I’ve become for people through telling these stories.

Of all the allegedly haunted places you’ve studied, which are two of your favorites and why?

It’s hard to really talk about sites in terms of “favorites” as the places which to me are most powerful as far as “paranormal punch” or what have you are naturally the saddest places, but I suppose that this is how we have to measure them.  And in that way, I will say which sites to me are the most convincing in terms of what’s going on being interpreted as paranormal.  One is the site of the Eastland Disaster of 1915, which the city is commemorating this year, being the 100th anniversary. This was the deadliest disaster in Great Lakes History and Chicago History, in which 844 people died in 19 feet of water on the Chicago River, when their picnic boat overturned.  To this day, there are many reports of people feeling panicked at the site, even compelled to jump into the river, many of them tourists not knowing anything about the disaster.

It’s this seeming residue of emotion over so many years that is very, very interesting to me, and I think the mechanism of it is one of the first things we now call “paranormal” that is going to be proven to be a part of natural functioning between an environment and the human mind.  I think is also very prevalent at the site of the Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903, just a few blocks away, where 602 people perished.  I have taken probably a thousand or more tour groups to this site over the past 15 years and still get choked up and get tears in my eyes when I enter the alley behind the theater site, where 125 of the victims died. Only this site.  I can’t help but be convinced that the actual environment was permanently altered in some way by the event, and that sometimes people “plug into” that and experience the emotion in a very real way.

Why do you believe Chicagoans have such an affinity for the paranormal? What makes Chicago such a haunted city?

I think a lot of it has to do with the natural environment in Chicago, being built not only between the  two “wide open” spaces of the prairie and the lake, but also the tremendous presence of water itself.  I think that having expanses nearby keeps the mind searching or open, which helps against blocking our culture’s natural repression of paranormal experience. And I’ve always felt, with many researchers, that water–as a great conduit for electricity–has a lot to do with manifestations of the kinds of energies that we encounter in this work.  I also always talk about the great denial of Chicago’s tragic history, which has been a real and deliberate force throughout our entire history.

You’ll find it in the aftermath of the Eastland Disaster and the Iroqouis Fire in the reluctance to build memorials at the sites or talk about the events in history books, feeling that the events were somehow shameful and needed to be erased from the record.  Obviously anytime you deny tragedy, the ghosts are going to start talking to remind us of what happened. And whether this is entities rising up or our own guilty consciences creating these experiences–I don’t think it really matters in some ways.  It still counts as “haunted” in a very real way.

In 2013, you and Matt Hucke released a new, updated edition of your book Graveyards of Chicago. What does the new edition bring to the table? What new information or stories are there to add about Chicago-area cemeteries?

The Graveyards  new edition is the second stage in the evolution of a truly endless project, the first phase of which was really just an introduction to the subject.  Amazingly, when Matt approached me in 1997 about writing that book with him there had been very little written about Chicago cemeteries. His site, however, Graveyards.com, was and is the largest clearinghouse for information and images of Chicago burial grounds.  I truly credit him for a lot of the popularity of cemeteries nowadays.  The new book is a huge labor of love, the result of I guess fifteen years of our explorations and research since the publication of the first edition.  You’ll find a lot more of Matt’s writing in this edition, and that he is a superb writer as well as photographer.

My part of the book was really to kind of report on the “breaking” stories that had happened in Chicago cemeteries since then, and so you’ll find information on the Burr Oak reselling scandal, the creation of the Read-Dunning Memorial Park on the grounds of the old Illinois State Hospital, the removal of St. Johannes Cemetery to make room for the expansion of O’Hare Airport, and the wealth of information discovered by Pamela Bannos, who uncovered the “Hidden Truths” about the original burials at Lincoln Park. She shocked the city when she announced that there are about thirteen thousand unmarked graves in Lincoln Park today–far more than the original several hundred we always believed.  Her website has thousands of documents and photographs about the realities there, and we shared just a tiny bit of that information in our book.

After years of research, has there been an instance where you uncovered information or sources that altered your perception of a legend or location?

The obvious location is, of course, Bachelors Grove, which has become one of my main focuses in the past ten years, and where I began.  You’ll see in Chicago Haunts some very old perceptions of the site–including the old story that there were never any houses built there, that no one ever died there, etc.  It’s kind of funny to read now, almost quaint in some ways as I’ve found out so much information about the location since then.  One of the things that has happened there is that local historians have deliberately misled people about the site’s history to discourage visitors.  This is of course somewhat understandable because of the vandalism that has gone on, but also in many ways untenable for historians, and so that has been a point of a lot of anger for me.  And so when people read that first book and say, “Some historian!  She wrote all this bad information about Bachelors Grove!” Well, it must be well noted that I was given this bad information by local historians who I naturally respected as the best source at the time.

In fact, Bachelors Grove has a truly bizarre history, full of strange incidents and a lot of darkness–both in the ghost stories, the actual human history but also in the ways the place seems to affect people, creating great harmony at times as well as tearing people apart.  Again, it is this “unseen influence” of some places that is the most fascinating thing for me, and so a place like Bachelors Grove, which seems to have been inspiring people to dark deeds for many, many years, is of great interest.

Do you have any upcoming events or projects you are working on? How can our readers get in touch with you if they would like to know more about your books and tours?

My newest book, Haunted Gary, Indiana (History Press, September) has just gone to press, and this is very exciting for me, as it is the first book of ghostlore I’ve written this isn’t about Chicago (per se, though there are so many connections between the two cities). I’ve been thrilled to spend the past two years exploring Gary with my colleagues from the region, J.C. Rositas and Len Miller ( a Gary police officer). Gary is such a truly enigmatic place and astoundingly rich in history and legends.  I’ve really enjoyed the research and writing and hope it inspires people to learn more about the city.  I’m also compiling a book just on Bachelors Grove, which will include a lot of the personal experiences I’ve had with the place.  A lot of people liked the personal stories I included in Chicago Haunts 3,  and I thought this would be the perfect vehicle for sharing not only the rich history of the Grove but also to talk more candidly about what this sort of work is like, in the way of relationships, conflicts, ideas, and how all of these things may interact with energies or entities at a location.  Somewhere in the next couple of years I’d like to write a compendium of Chicago ghostlore–a “complete collection” or something like that, including all of the new experiences and information I’ve found over the past years.

And I’ve also gone down the publishing road myself, completing the final touches on a first musical release, which is an experimental piece of music incorporating audio (including EVP)  collected around locations important to the late Ted Serios, one of my favorite subjects. And of course the tours continue!  Chicago Hauntings is in its 13th year of operations right now, showing no signs of slowing down, so that definitely keeps me busy. Though we have some wonderful guides who do most of the evening tours now–including Adam Selzer, a tremendous Chicago historian in his own right–the business end of the business is very time consuming, so that’s where a lot of my time will continue to go.  It’s been wonderful to introduce so many thousands of people over the years to our own particular view of Chicago history.  It never gets old.  I’d like to invite everyone to join us at our annual Chicago Ghost Conference this October (2-4) at Gaelic Park, which is actually right across the road from the woods that shelter Bachelors Grove cemetery.  This is always a great opportunity to meet some of the most creative minds in paranormal research, share ideas and just have fun.  Readers can find information about all of my events at www.chicagohauntings.com and can reach me through Facebook or at ursulabielski@sbcglobal.net

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  1. […] The Chicago Ghost Conference is held semi-annually and organized by longtime Chicago ghost author Ursula Bielski. The third Chicago Ghost Conference was held at the Portage Theater on October 1, 2011. It was […]

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