Suicide In The Windy City

Published August 02, 2021
Suicide In The Windy City

The weird and macabre history of Chicago is filled with grim stories. From murderous gangsters, horrific disasters and unsolved mysteries to gruesome serial killers, it’s a city that has seen more than its share of blood over the years. The archives of old newspapers also tell other stories of death – suicides by Chicagoans both famous and unknown, which often occurred in places that you might least expect. This is the story of two such locations, one vanished and one that still exists today.

On June 29, 1879, a tailor by the name of Martin Arndt shot himself in the head with a revolver at the monument that had been built in gaji of Stephen Douglas, the famous Illinois politician and friendly rival of Abraham Lincoln. He had committed suicide after losing his job earlier that day, leaving a wife and son behind. Arndt was an ordinary man, one of a million sad stories in the Windy City in 1879 but he was not the first man to commit suicide at the Douglas Monument – a place that had a troubled history of its own.

Stephen A. Douglas

The Douglas Monument was built in honor of Stephen A. Douglas, who died in Chicago in June 1861. Douglas was well-known for his recent Democratic presidential nomination, which he had lost to Lincoln the year before, as well as his previous 25 years in Illinois politics. During the last years of his life, Douglas and his wife had resided at Okenwald, their South Side estate. It was located just east of the present-day intersection of Cottage Grove Avenue and 35th Street. A cornerstone was laid for his monument and tomb on the property in 1866, but it would not be completed until 1881, largely thanks to the start of the Civil War and a long series of funding problems that continued for years.

The U.S. government took control of the property after Douglas’ death and constructed a military training camp on part of the property that had once been used as a fairgrounds. It was named in gaji of Douglas. The camp enclosed about 80 acres, which were further divided by interior partitions to create compounds of various sizes. Each of the compounds, or squares, was named according to the purpose that it was used for.

Garrison Square, which was about 20 acres in size, was lined on all four sides by the officers' quarters and the enlisted men's barracks and had a flat parade ground in the center. Hospital Square was about 10 acres in size and served as a medical facility. Whiteoak Square, which was another 10 acres, originally served as the post's prison. When orders were received to prepare the camp for Confederate prisoners, Whiteoak was merged with portions of other squares, creating Prison Square, a compound of 20 acres.

In the early months of the war, the outpost trained thousands of Union troops under the command of General Joseph H. Tucker. Soon, however, the camp became a place of misery for the Confederate prisoners. The camp received its first prisoners in February 1862, after the Battle of Fort Donelson, and soon overcrowding, starvation, scurvy and a lack of medical attention made the place a living hell. The death toll for the camp during the last three years of the war has been estimated at as many as 6,129 men, which is slightly less than one-third of the entire prison population at the camp. Most perished from scurvy and smallpox, despite the best intentions of relief workers, who organized a fund to care for the men in 1862. The camp was soon dubbed “Eighty Acres of Hell.”

Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas

The war ended in 1865 and it was closed down that summer. The remaining prisoners were asked to take a loyalty oath to the United States and were then set free. For a short time, the post was used as a rendezvous point for returning federal troops, but by fall, it was deserted.

After the war ended, a drive began to raise the funds to build a monument in Douglas’ honor on the former site of the camp. The corner stone was laid in 1866 with great fanfare, parades and appearances by practically every organized group in Chicago, from the police to Masonic organizations, aldermen and mayors from nearby cities, soldiers from various Illinois units, the Irish societies, the French society, temperance groups, trade unions, various religious groups, singing societies, butchers and just plain citizens. Speeches were given, flags were waved and pleas were made for donations. Money came in, but not enough. In the end, the planning committee lost over $1,300 planned for the monument.

Eighteen months passed with little public activity, but Douglas’ tomb was now ready to receive his remains. On June 3, 1868, the anniversary of Douglas’ death, the body was moved to the tomb. Tickets for the ceremony were sold at twenty-five cents each but the public was allowed two days to view well-preserved features of Douglas through the glass cover of the casket for free. After it was over, the newspapers reported that the monument committee planned to seek $50,000 from the state to complete the work on the structure. That amount was later reduced to $25,000 but delays kept the bill from being voted on.

More time passed. The newspapers waxed sarcastic that nothing more had been done. An article in the Post on May 9, 1870 indicated that the masonry on the unfinished monument had cracked because of freezing water. The fence around the site was falling down and the grounds had become shabby and overgrown. Plans began to be made to move the monument to Chicago University and Douglas’ widow sent letters pleading with the committee to do something or remove the monument.

But matters again dragged. On April 11, 1873 another attempt was made to get the legislature to pass the bill. It passed the House again, but was defeated by the Senate in the winter of 1874. Even bills to move the monument were defeated. Finally, in May 1877, the funding bill was passed and became effective on July 1. Robert T. Lincoln, Potter Palmer and Melville W. Fuller were appointed as a commission to complete the monument and in July, 1877 advertised for bids on the additional work on walls, sidewalks and limestone walls. It was finally completed in August 1881 – but not before becoming the scene of tragedy.

An old postcard of the Douglas Monument

On November 13, 1877, W.F. Coolbaugh, one of Chicago’s leading citizens and President of the Union National Bank, committed suicide at the entrance to the Douglas Monument by shooting himself in the head with a pistol. It seemed that when he left the bank that evening, Coolbaugh went directly to the spot where the tragedy occurred – “the tomb of a man whose political principles he revered,” the newspapers stated – and ended his life. There were no witnesses to the suicide, but his body was discovered early the next morning by a patrolman from the Cottage Grove Police Station. Coolbaugh was lying in a pool of blood and next to his body was a silver-plated pistol with his name engraved on it.

The policeman, knowing that attorney Melvin W. Fuller, whose home was nearby, was the son-in-law of Coolbaugh, hurried to the house and alerted Fuller as to what he had discovered. Fuller came immediately to the scene, found the body as described by the police officer and immediately had the corpse moved to Coolbaugh’s home at 120 Calumet Avenue.

As it turned out, a search had been carried out for Coolbaugh the night before. He had been in good spirits when he’d left home in the morning, had stayed away all day, dropping in just briefly later on, but had not returned for supper. When he did not come home that night, Fuller and the dead man’s son, James Coolbaugh, searching the city, calling at hotels and anywhere else that the older man might be found. There was no sign of him. They stayed out until 3:00 a.m. before going home. The discovery of the body was the first news that they had of his location.

Coolbaugh’s suicide was a bit of a mystery. He left no note behind and no clue as to why he had taken his own life. His health had been bad for several years, though, and his family knew that he had been prone to depression. He had recently returned from a short European tour and had been in better spirits but, as the newspapers noted, “he had undoubtedly become depressed and in a sudden mental aberration committed the deed which in his senses he would have recoiled in horror.”

His suicide was a shock to the entire city. Coolbaugh had established himself in Chicago 1862, but for many years had been a leading merchant and banker in Burlington, Iowa. He was a fiercely loyal Democrat and personal friend of Stephen A. Douglas. After moving to Chicago, he started the Coolbaugh & Co. bank, which later became the Union National Bank. He was happily married and had six children, but what drove him to his death remains unknown.

Less than two years later, on June 29, 1879, another man – of less social and financial stature – was driven to desperation and death on the same stone steps at the Douglas Monument. His name was Martin Arndt, a 53-year-old tailor, who also shot himself in the head. Unlike Coolbaugh, he had a clear reason for taking his own life, which he had expressed in a letter to his wife that arrived soon after he left the house.

Arndt had left for work on Thursday morning, as he did each day, carrying his lunch with him. But later on that evening, his wife received a letter in the mail, which had been written and posted that same day. In the letter, he explained that he had spoken to the bookkeeper at the company where he worked, Friddart and Sayers, and asked for a raise of a half-cent for each coat that he pressed. Not only was his request refused, but he was fired for asking. In desperation, he learned that his union provided not only provided death benefits for his family, but additional cash for suicides. He was, he learned, worth far more dead than alive. He begged his wife’s forgiveness and asked that, if she remarried, that she make sure that her new husband did not mistreat their son.

After leaving work, he went to the Douglas Monument and shot himself. Apparently, his first shot – fired just below his heart – was not fatal. He deliberately loaded the pistol again and fired this time into his head. His body was found the next morning and taken to his home at 1838 State Street, where he lived with his wife and son. It was a tragic end for a man who only wanted to provide for his family.

In time, the Douglas Monument apparently fell out of favor for those wishing to end their lives. A new location was discovered in 1892 when High Bridge was erected as a sight-seeing spot in Lincoln Park, on the city’s North Side. The bridge was built over a lagoon that was located next to Lake Shore Drive. The bridge became so infamous that by 1900, it was commonly referred to as “Suicide Bridge,” even on tourist postcards from Chicago.

High Bridge, a.k.a "Suicide Bridge" in Lincoln Park

The bridge became a favorite spot for suicides, almost from the time it was built. For instance, on December 8, 1897, a man named John Schwinen climbed onto the bridge and, in full view of about 100 children skating on the ice of the lagoon, jumped to his death. With a wild upward wave of his hands, he leapt far out into the air and fell head-first onto the ice. The newspapers stated that it was the fourth suicide from the bridge in three months. Several skaters were directly below Schwinen when he broke through the ice, but luckily all of them escaped plunging into the water with his body. When police officers reached the scene, nothing but the victim’s shoes were protruding above the water. Newspapers ironically noted that on the bottom of the shoes were the words “Warranted Waterproof.” Schwinen, 62, was a married man with 12 children, five of whom were married. He had recently lost his job as a house mover and it was believed that his worries about the future caused him to take his own life.

The bridge attracted not only suicides, but the strangest of Chicagoans as well. “Strange mortals used to frequent the place,” the newspapers stated in 1919, the year the bridge was finally taken down. One old woman used to come to the bridge every night with a bottle of whiskey and drink herself into a stupor. There was an old military man who lived at a soldier’s home in Milwaukee and he came to visit the bridge every time he got a furlough and would stand on the span and sing martial songs at the top of his voice. A young man used to come to the bridge almost every night and whistle at the moon in an eerie tone that sent shivers up the spines of police officers who patrolled the park. The bridge was almost like a magnet for the strange, weird and unusual.

The western side of Suicide Bridge in Winter

No one knows how many people ended their lives on the bridge before it was finally torn down. Some have estimated between 50 and 100. “The fall and spring were suicide seasons,” said Charles Shaw, the head of the park’s police force. He mused that the bridge had been a trysting place for those who had a rendezvous with death. Disappointed old men and girls who were crossed in love, despondent youths and all the lurid ladies from the street – all of them sought the mysteries of the beyond from its heights. One man hanged himself from the girders but all of the others chose to jump.

By the time the bridge was closed, it was in poor shape and there had not been a suicide attempt in more than a year. Lieutenant Charles Thoren told a reporter, “For several years it was a fad. There used to be as many as two suicides a week. About 20 years ago, it go so bad that the newspapers suggested covering the bridge with a screen, like a bird cage, and there was even some talk about closing to the public.”

“Suicide Bridge” is long gone now, but the stories remain of a place where only the most desperate people of Chicago went to seek solace from the despair of this world and a hope for a better life beyond. 


Copyright © 2021