Most are now buried in Chicago area cemeteries, among our own families, and everyday Chicagoans. They are unusual and memorable people who once walked the midway, riverwalk and bowery of Riverview Amusement Park on Chicago’s North side. Sadly they now exist only in our memories.
Just like real ghosts, they came in and out of our lives almost at will. Even when they were alive, they could only appear to us after the second Friday of May, only to disappear in October. Some, but not all, would then would reappear the following May to amuse and entertain us once again. Others not so lucky. So while they walked among us, their only job between July 2, 1904 until the fall of 1967 was to help millions of us Chicagoans enjoy summer days and nights.
I am speaking of the hundreds of those talented people who worked or performed at Riverview for 67 years, the last full-scale amusement park in Chicago. 174 acres, bounded by the north branch of the Chicago river, Western and Belmont Avenues and Lane Tech High School on the north. The park began as Sharpshooter’s Park, run by the William Schmidt family in the 1880s, for the benefit of a private German shooting club. It evolved to into place of amusement when wives and children would accompany the club members, picnicking and seeking more to do. A childrens playground set the future in motion.
The “Ghosts of Riverview” who are no longer among the living, might well have ridden with you on the Western Avenue streetcar or the Belmont line, possibly even sitting beside you. Each day they too had to travel to the park. But like ghosts, they breezed through the main gate without paying.
They worked in or owned concessions nestled between the seven roller coasters, 70-horse Carousel; the Strat-o-Stat the Shoot-the-Chutes; the Tilt-a-Whirl; the Rotor, the Flying Turns; or the Aladdin’s Castle. They took your dime for a chance to toss a ring onto a wooden block and win a chalk kewpie doll. You probably never knew their names but they served you a beer in the Casino , made change in the arcade, or sold cotton candy on the Bowery. Ralph Blake guessed your weight, others strapped you down on the wooden seat of Pair-O-Chutes. With the notable exception of Walt Disney who actually worked there, you probably never heard or knew their names.
There was Willam and George Schmidt who ran the place. There was James Elliot who owned the Skee Ball concession. Harold Dever who ran the Magic Typewriter concession on the riverwalk, across from the Carousel. Dr. Marin Counery created the live Baby Incubator concession. All have passed on as almost everyone from those days.
There was William J Coultry 1870-1947, who with his wife Hattie and his extended family, owned and operated the wildly successful Coultry photo studios within Riverview. There were five studios at one time. William is now at Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie.
The most unusual people were those in the Palace of Wonders, later known as the Freak Show, owned by Ray Marsh Brydon. There people would stare at the tattooed lady, a contortionist, a sword swallowe, a fire eater, or the “Human Blockhead who would pound nails into his nose. There was the “Two-Faced man who was promoted on the outside banner with two separate and distinct faces. The real two-faced man had only one face, one side normal, the other side greatly deformed.
Marshall Brodien 1934-2019 worked the Freak show stage as a talker and a professional magician and laterwho played Wizzo the Wizard, a wizard clown character which appeared on WGN-TV’s Bozo’s Circus and The Bozo Show from 1968-1994.
There was “Popeye” Perry, who could make his eyes pop from their sockets easily giving you a few nights of nightmares even after Halloween. There was the the Armless Wonder, a man who could with his feet operate a typewriter, shuffle a deck of cards and thread a needle;
. For a few coins you stared at some of the strangest, almost bizarre sights. known to man. Giant hand-painted banners, , would advertise the acts inside. As a tease, one of the acts would come out front. Once inside, each person would tell their life story and explain their condition. There was the “mule faced woman”, and Sylvia Jackson, born 1928, the Girl with the Elephant Feet. And dozens more over the years.
And most notable was Lillian B. “Betty Lou” Williams the worlds only “4 legged girl” Born on January 10, 1932, in Albany, Georgia, Betty was the fourth of thirteen children. She was a normal girl except for the miniature twin growing out of the left side of her body. The twin’s body was formed from the waist down and had two legs and an arm. According to a Ripley’s pamphlet, X-ray revealed a perfectly developed head inside her chest. Williams’s twin helped her earn a handsome living, nearly $1,000 a week during her heyday. She was said to be the highest paid human oddity ever. Williams put her eleven siblings through college and purchased a 260- acre farm for her parents. She died in 1955 at her Trenton, New Jersey, home from an asthma attack. She was only twenty-two.
One man, entertained us not with a deformity, but with nothing more than black construction paper and a pair of sharp scissors. His name was Paul Kruger a silhouette artist. He had a small non descript booth along the riverwalk, just beyond the Paratrooper ride and the monkey races. He would charge $2 for a excellent likeness of you or your family. You might have his work in your scrapbook. Mr. Kruger an immigrant from Poland came to the U.S. in 1932 to travel the country and cut silhouettes at various events including the Chicago World’s Fair, the Dallas World’s Fair, and both New York World’s Fairs. He settled in Riverview Park about 1940. Once Riverview became a ghost, he then moved to California to work his craft at Disneyland.
The Riverview “ghosts” were not always workers or performers. At least sixteen patrons died in Riverview Park between 1910 and 1967, most on roller coasters and most due to their own negligence. Conrad Hengist age 20, drowned in a Riverview pond on June 19 1910. . He is buried in Concordia Cemetery, Forest Park. Herman Knoffel, of 3452 Irving Park died on the Jackrabbit coaster September 1 1916. Chester Aryacewski of 2129 N Western died on the Big dipper July 7 1932 at age 14. Jean Ruby, age 23, of 818 Wellington died on the Big Dipper on July 2 1935. She was buried in Irving Park Cemetery. Other coaster deaths were on the Skyrocket, Bobs, Riverview had a stellar safety record but Chicago playwright David Mamet wrote, “The great thing about Riverview is that you could die there.” The last death occurred on September 4, 1967, just weeks before the end of Riverview.
Although many are buried in Showmen’s Rest within Woodlawn Cemetery, I will not reveal where most others are buried, but rather urge you to fondly remember them and how they came in and out of your lives for a brief time each year.
And just maybe a real ghost was with you as you rode Chutes boat in that dark tunnel on the way to the elevators . There was a urban legend that a black widow spider lived in there and could bite a rider. Or just maybe , unbeknownst to you there was a ghost riding behind you and your date in the tunnel of love.
We last saw any of those workers, performers, or patrons on October 3, 1967 when Riverview itself became a ghost, along with the tacky Spooktown and the Ghost Train dark ride.
All the Riverview “ghosts”, real and imagined, helped us to “Laugh our Troubles Away”.
Feel free to leave your memories. Happy Halloween.