In order to understand the circumstances under which the Fool Killer was discovered, we have to briefly discuss the Eastland Disaster involving the SS Eastland. This ship was finished in 1903 but early on had issues with listing–tilting one way or another–because it was too heavy. That should have clued people in, but people were trying to make money so they just kept using it.
Of course, you’ll notice this all happened a few years after the Titanic sank, which led to the passing of the Seamen’s Act in March of 1915. This is the act that mandated that all ships going forward be fitted with as many life rafts as were necessary for the passengers on the ship and crew as well as retro-fitting any boats not previously equipped with enough rafts for the passengers. The act did some other good stuff for sailors, but that’s the part that’s most relevant to this tale. So, the Eastland was already top heavy and then they added a bunch of lifeboats on to the ship plus the passengers. The ship’s capacity was 2,572 and on the morning of July 24, 1915, the ship was filled to capacity, including 220 Czech immigrants on their way to a company picnic. So, the ship was very top heavy and when it was filled like that a lot of passengers had to stand on the upper deck. Then, the upper deck started to list (tilt) to the port side, away from the dock. Within a few minutes, the ship lurched to the side and then completely rolled all the way to one side. A total of 844 passengers and 4 crewmen died. You can go here to watch video of the rescue efforts in two different clips.
Now, this is where the Fool Killer submarine comes into play. A diver named William “Frenchy” Deneau, who I can’t seem to find much information on anywhere other than in articles that refer specifically to the Fool Killer, was helping out with dragging the Chicago River to look for bodies from the Eastland disaster. Despite the murkiness of the water, Deneau was able to help recover around 250 bodies. In November, Deneau went back to this same area, to lay cables under the Rush Street bridge. While down there, using his shovel, he supposedly discovered a forty-foot long submarine. Now, this was interesting because WWI was underway at this point (though, the United States was a few years away from officially joining the fight) and the Germans were known to use “U-boats” in their attacks, so people of this time knew all about submarines. It is also of note that the United States did attempt to use submarines during the Revolutionary War as well as the Civil War, with not much success. So, that Fool Killer submarine was interesting specifically because it seemed old, possibly dating to the 1890s, but also because Deneau supposedly found a human and dog skull inside the sub. Around this time, a man named Peter Nissen was pretty famous as a “daredevil” and inventor, as he did, in fact, construct several attempts at submarines, all with the name the Fool Killer. So, the thought at the time of the 1915 discovery was that the sub and the bones inside belonged to Nissen, but it was complicated by Chicago Tribune articles that claimed the sub belonged to William Nissen, though a William Nissen was noted to still be alive during the 1920 census. So, who did the bones belong to? This is still unanswered.
Additionally, the exact location of the discovery of the sub is contested, with the most common being beneath the Madison Street bridge while other reports say Rush Street bridge, Wells Street bridge, and even Fullerton bridge (Chicago has a lot of bridges!!). We do know one thing, though. Deneau used the sub to get money, shipping it around the country as a way of promoting the Skee Ball machines (since the company was a financial backer). Though, it did also enjoy a stay in Chicago at 208 South State Street, with admission costing 10¢. Due to the complete murkiness of this case, some speculate the whole thing could be a hoax, that the bones were planted. This could be the case, but we may never know. Reportedly, after a bit of travel, the sub found its way back to Chicago in 1916, but that was the last known siting. Who knows what happened to it or the bones?
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