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The Time a Mystery Submarine Was Found at the Bottom of the Chicago River

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On July 24, 1915, the city of Chicago experienced a tragic disaster. A passenger ship called the SS Eastland rolled over while trying to dock on the Chicago River, resulting in the deaths of 844 passengers and crew, resulting in the largest loss of life from a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes. In the aftermath of this catastrophe, a diver by the name of William “Frenchy” Deneau became a sort of hero for the city when he personally recovered around 250 bodies from the murky depths of the river, putting him in high demand as a rescue and salvage diver. It was for this reason he was chosen to help with laying electrical cables underneath Chicago’s Rush Street Bridge, although other sources say it was the Madison Street Bridge, and in November of 1915 he was in the water once again to complete his mission. However, he would find something very strange down there in the mud, and so would begin a very odd historical mystery that has never been solved.

As Deneau went about his work down in the cold murky water, he came across something large and metallic buried in the silt at the bottom. At the time he began digging away at it with a shovel, but it soon proved to be so massive that he was forced to return with more excavation equipment. Whatever Deneau might have first suspected it to be, it was far from what he was to actually dig up down there, as the object turned out to be a 40-foot-long, iron submersible of some sort, which he called an “ancient, primitive submarine” and suspected had been down there for nearly two decades, but at the time there were not enough resources to actually bring it to the surface. When it hit the news, people were both fascinated and nervous. After all, half a world away World War I was going on, and submarines were being used on a large scale for the first time. Until then, submarines had been little more than an oddity or curiosity, but the battles over in Europe were making widespread use of submarines as weapons, and as with any new technology people feared it. There was a lot of paranoia at the time that the discovery of this submersible meant that enemy submarines were cruising about the Chicago River and Great Lakes, despite the fact that America wasn’t yet a part of the war, while others thought it was more likely a rudimentary submarine used during the Civil War. How had this thing come to be there? Who had built it and why? No one knew, and as all of this speculation swirled, that mysterious metal behemoth lay down there in the gloom with its secrets.

The mysterious submarine

It would not be until on December 20, one month after its discovery, that any real effort was made to raise the hulking wreck to the surface. After clearing the river of boat traffic, it was hauled out onto shore where it lay like a beached whale. When salvage workers were able to cut open the hull and get inside, the mystery was only furthered when they found ensconced within the remains of a man and those of a dog, obviously having been there a long time and little more than skulls and a few bones. Oddly, most of the remains were missing, with only the skulls and no indication of where the rest could have possibly gone. Police would try everything they could to identify the skull of the man to no avail, leaving his identity just as much a mystery as the presence of a submarine at the bottom of the Chicago River. Dredging it up had only managed to create more questions than answers.

The papers were now calling the mystery sub The Fool Killer, and speculation was fueled more than ever. Authorities denied that it could have been a German sub, and it was similarly unlikely that it was from the Civil War. One idea that made the rounds was that it was a creation of the inventor and daredevil Peter Nissen, who was most famous for a stunt in which he had gone over Niagara Falls in one of his designs. However, although he came up with some wild ideas, he was not known to have ever created a submarine like the one found, and furthermore he had died in 1904 while trying to drift across Lake Michigan in a rolling balloon he had invented, so it couldn’t have been him. Yet another idea was that it had been invented by a shoemaker and submarine pioneer by the name of Lodner Darvantis Phillips, who had actually made working submarines to test in the Great Lakes, yet none of his known designs exactly matched the one found, indeed the submarine found had no known designs, and it still didn’t explain who the skull belonged to. There was also the idea that these could have been military secret test submarines that had sunk, but if that were the case, why the dog? Yet another possibility is that this was some mad scientist independent inventor who had built this thing, but the submarine was so advanced that it seems unlikely that someone could have just put this together in their garage without anyone knowing about it.

One of Phillips’ submarine designs

In the meantime, Deneau was wasting no time in trying to make a buck off of his find. He teamed up with the SkeeBall company to put the submarine on display in 1916, where he charged people to see it, often right alongside SkeeBall’s new “amusement device.” It was all very commercialized, and in fact, Deneau hyped it so much and was such a showman about it all, that people even began to suspect that the skulls had been planted by him to add to the mystique of the wreck. Also weird was that no one could really figure out where it had actually been found, with it variously being claimed that it had been found at the Rush Street Bridge, the Madison Bridge, or the Wells Street Bridge, raising rumors that perhaps Deneau had actually built the submarine himself and planted it there only to forget where exactly he had put it. So, was Deneau behind it all? Well, no one knows, and making it all even more mysterious is that the submarine itself would vanish.

The last known location of the Fool Killer mystery sub was at a traveling carnival run by Charles W. Parker in Oelwein, Iowa in 1916. The sub was displayed among various other exhibitions and freak shows, but by 1917 the Fool Killer was no longer on display, and no one is quite sure what happened to it. How do you lose a 40-foot long iron sub? Well, one idea is that it was sold for scrap, while another is that it was put into storage somewhere or even abandoned, after which it was forgotten, making it possible that it is still out there somewhere rusting away. It is also unclear what happened to the skulls, which had traditionally been displayed along with it, and so we are left with many questions. Who built this sub and why? How did it end up at the bottom of the Chicago River and how long had it been there? Who were the man and the dog, and why were only their skulls in the sub? Not that we’re asking, why was there a dog in a submarine to begin with? What happened to the sub after 1916? Where did it go? No one knows the answers to any of these questions, and it remains a compelling historical oddity.

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