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Chicago Hauntings: The Congress Hotel, The Home Of Presidents... And Ghosts

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Congress Hotel – officially called the Congress Plaza Hotel & Convention Center – is a striking sight along the Michigan Avenue streetwall downtown. Its red neon sign is particularly resplendent at night – especially when seen as a backdrop to Buckingham Fountain during the summer.

But have you ever actually been inside? Tony Szabelski of Chicago Hauntings Ghost Tours has, and he says he always tells people on tours that if there's any place in Chicago that's haunted, it's the Congress Hotel. He describes it as being "very creepy" inside.

The hotel at 520 S. Michigan Ave. opened in 1893, in anticipation of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was originally called the Auditorium Annex as an adjunct to the Auditorium Building across what is now Ida B. Wells Drive.

"The original conception was an annex with a façade designed to complement Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Building across the street, at the time housing a remarkable hotel, theater and office complex," the hotel says on its website.

The Auditorium Annex was built by hotel developer R.H. Southgate, and the first section – or the north tower – was designed by architect Clinton Warren, with the renowned Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan serving as consultants, the hotel website reports. It included a marble underground tunnel to the Auditorium Building called "Peacock Alley," the hotel website notes.

The South Tower was designed by the famed architectural firm of Holabird & Roche, which also designed Chicago's City Hall, the southern half of the Monadnock Building, and numerous other historic buildings downtown. The South Tower was built between 1902 and 1907, and included an opulent banquet hall called the Gold Room.

Congress Hotel
(Credit: CBS 2)

Another ballroom, the Florentine Room, was added in the North Tower. Chicago's elite held their soirées in those rooms, along with two others rooms named the Elizabethan and the Pompeian, the hotel says.

The hotel was renamed the Congress Hotel in 1911. The Elizabethan Room became the Joseph Urban Room – which featured a revolving bandstand and became home to an NBC Radio show fearing Benny Goodman in the 1930s, the hotel says.

The hotel notes it was also once known as the "Home of Presidents," with visits from presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as they discussed campaign strategies. It was at the Congress Hotel in 1912 where former President Teddy Roosevelt announced he was leaving the Republican Party and founding his own new political party, and made a comment to the news media that coined the "Bull Moose" nickname for the party. It was at the same hotel in 1971 where 3,000 people packed the Great Hall for an address by President Richard Nixon to the Midwest Chapter of the AARP and the National Retired Teachers Association, the hotel says on its website.

But the Congress Hotel also has a longstanding reputation as the home of ghosts.

Szabelski notes there have been many documented suicides at the hotel – too many to try to start a comprehensive list.

One of the most infamous suicides was that of Spanish-American War veteran Capt. Louis Ostheim of the First United States Artillery. It happened on April 8, 1900, when the hotel had only been in business about seven years.

It was the eve of Ostheim's wedding, and he was staying at the hotel by himself. He took a gun to his head, pulled the trigger, and ended his life – with no suicide note and no apparent reason given for the suicide. As noted in a Chicago Tribune report reproduced online by Dr. Neil Gale, two wedding rings were found in the room with Ostheim's body.

Szabelski notes that some say Ostheim was suffering from a late-night terrors brought on by war trauma that could have been to blame for his suicide.

Sightings of Ostheim's ghost have been reported throughout the building. He is known as the Shadow Man of the Congress, Szabelski noted.

Congress Hotel
(Credit: CBS 2)

Meanwhile, on the 12th floor of the North Tower, Szabelski notes that some of the doors don't match. The carpets are very old and worn, the woodwork is chipped away, and some of the paint also doesn't match as one walks down the hallway. Parts of the hallway are wider, and then they become narrow.

So you might not literally find two little girls at the end of that hallway saying, "Come and play with us Danny. Forever, and ever, and ever." But Szabelski says people have experienced something disturbingly close to that scene from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, "The Shining."

Szabelski says the 12th floor is supposed to be haunted by a little boy named Karel Langer, who died a horrific death at the hotel in 1939.

In August of that year, Adele Langer, 43, came to the hotel with her two sons – Karel Tommy, 6, and Jan Misha, 4 1/2. They had come to the United States about a month earlier from what was then Czechoslovakia, from which they had fled as the Nazis took over.

The Langers were trying to establish residency in the U.S. Adele Langer first came with her two boys on a six-month visitors' visa while her husband, also named Karel Langer, stayed behind worked to try to sell their home and his textile mill in Prague, according to a contemporary Chicago Tribune account.

In the newspaper account, the senior Karel Langer is quoted as saying his wife had been depressed since she'd left Czechoslovakia and had talked of committing suicide "and taking the babies with her." The boys had recently been attending a camp to learn English, but they didn't like it and they returned home, the Tribune account says.

So on a beautiful, sunny August afternoon, Ms. Langer first took the kids to the Lincoln Park Zoo, and they all had a wonderful day, Szabelski recounts. When they returned to the hotel – in a room that was reported in the contemporary Tribune article to have been on the 13th floor, but which Szabelski and other sources say was on the 12th – Ms. Langer hurled her two young sons out the window to their deaths. She then leapt out the window herself.

The three bodies landed below on Michigan Avenue.

The ghost of 6-year-old Karel is now said to haunt the 12th floor. It is said that news reports did not cover his death in a great deal of depth at the time – focusing more on his younger brother Jan Misha.

Szabelski reports there is a security guard named John who has worked at the Congress Hotel for 30 years and still does. John did not believe in ghosts until he started working at the Congress Hotel, Szabelski says.

John claimed to have encountered that little boy's spirit on the 12th floor one day. He said he got a call that a little boy was running around and making a lot of noise on the 12th floor, so he went up to investigate.

John said he didn't initially see anything, but then, while standing at the far end of the hallway, he saw a little boy – who didn't look much different from a typical little boy except that his clothes were older and worn. John reported that he pointed at the little boy and said, "Hey, you're not supposed to be up here running around!" So what did the boy do? John says the boy just looked at him, grinned, and slowly faded away right before his eyes.

After that, John believed in ghosts.

John reported running into the little boy a couple other times after that at the Congress Hotel – and also encountered the boy once very briefly in his own home. Szabelski says John was at home one night settling down for a quiet evening – sitting down in his easy chair, putting on some soft music, and preparing to open a book to start reading. When he looked up for just a split second, the little boy was standing in front of him. And then just as quickly, the boy was gone.

Meanwhile, Szabelski reports Room 441 on the fourth floor of the South Tower is considered by many to be the most haunted room in the hotel. Many people report calling security because they see a woman standing or hovering over the bed, pushing or tugging on the bed, or pushing or tugging on the covers.

Nobody knows exactly who this woman is, but a lot of people have reported her, Szabelski says. Some say they even see her coming in and out of the bathroom.

Congress Hotel
(Credit: CBS 2)

A ghost of a male vagrant with a peg leg has also been throughout the building. He has acquired the nickname "Peg Leg Johnny."

There was also a judge who lived full time in the Congress Hotel after he retired. Szabelski reported in life, the retired judge was a bit of a prankster, going up and down hallways with TV remotes and standing in front of people's doors – flipping their channels when they were least expecting it. Szabelski said people thought it was a ghost flipping their channels, but it was just that rapscallion of a retired judge.

But the story now, Szabelski reports, is that people still think it's a ghost flipping their TV channels – and it is. It's still the retired judge, except he's dead now. Security reports getting many calls from people saying their TV channels changing on their own.

Szabelski says celebrities who have stayed at the Congress have also reported experiencing weird things. One celebrity said he saw what appeared to be a shadow figure moving back and forth in his closet, and he was so freaked out that he checked out of the hotel, went down the block, and decided to stay at the Blackstone Hotel instead.

There are also rumors about the ballrooms. Some say the Gold Room is haunted by the ghost of a woman in old Victorian clothing. Some have reportedly even photographed her.

And in addition to being the home of presidents and the home of ghosts, it seems the Congress Hotel might even be the home of ghosts of presidents.

As noted earlier, former President Theodore Roosevelt made the announcement at the hotel that he was leaving the Republican Party and forming a new party – but the context was that he had just lost the presidential nomination for the GOP that year. Teddy Roosevelt reportedly made that announcement in the Florentine Room at the hotel. Some say it's now haunted by his ghost.

Congress Hotel
(Credit: CBS 2)

The Congress Hotel was voted in some online polls as one of the most haunted in the country. Szabelski says he most definitely considers it to be the most haunted in Chicago.

Video produced by Blake Tyson. Written story by Adam Harrington.

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