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Chicago’s Secret Society of Death-Obsessed Journalists—and the Belly Dancer Who Exposed Them

A look at the infamous Whitechapel Club, a group of turn-of-the-century newspapermen who loved the macabre

Above: A 1945 Tribune story tells the tale of the famously macabre Whitechapel Club.

At the end of the 19th century, America had still never seen a belly dancer. So when Omene, a natural self-promoter with a knack for entrancing journalists, came on the scene in 1889, she gained national notoriety.

But it was one particular encounter at a secretive Chicago newspapermen’s club, now known as the “Coffin Dance,” that made the belly dancer, as well as the members of Whitechapel, infamous.

“It was, in fact, a regular chamber of horrors–far worse indeed than anything I have witnessed before … there was nothing else but skulls and bones and coffins. Diablo!” Omene dramatically described the club’s quarters to the San Francisco Morning Call on June 10, 1893. Tossing aside the notion of secrecy or the expected discretion, she described furniture built from coffins, goblets created from severed human skulls, gas-light fixtures made from human bone—and the coup de grâce, a mysterious urn presented to her as a gift that held the cremains of a man.

Omene closed the lengthy, titillating interview with an aside to the reporter: “I forgot to tell you that the president of the Suicide Club made me promise to tell no one in Chicago about my being entertained by the club, and you are the only gentleman I have ever mentioned the circumstance to.”

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The Whitechapel Club was founded in 1889 by a group of young, bohemian, literary Chicago newspapermen, located in a Loop alley that is now West Calhoun Place, between Wells and Lasalle. Equally a secret society and a press club, the organization was named after the area of London where Jack the Ripper contemporaneously prowled for victims. Jack the Ripper himself was named (absentee) president.

Chicago reporters often lived in a dark and macabre world in order to report the news, and the Whitechapel Club reflected these preoccupations and mocked them. Also called the Suicide Club, the group’s motto commanded members to “laugh in the face of death.” Although over half of the all-male members were journalists, like-minded men of other professions were allowed to join: bank presidents, police chiefs, and preachers mingling with fringe members of society, including magicians, psychics, and even convicted murderers. Other than journalists, only two men of each profession could belong at the same time. Women were strictly forbidden—Omene was the only female guest in the short, eight-year history of the club.

Just as the belly dancer described, the club’s quarters—handily located in an alley behind the offices of the Herald, the Examiner, and the Times—were a testament to the grotesque. A heavy oak door led to the club, with a stained glass pane depicting a skull and crossed bones and the quote, “I, too, have lived in Arcady,” instantly setting the tone for all who entered.

Omene, a notorious turn-of-the-century belly dancer in the U.S. Image: The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The walls were decorated with pistols and knives that had been used for murder, all donated from local law officers. The bloody slipper of a Chinese merchant killed by a streetcar was nailed to a wall, donated by the San Francisco police force. Nearby hung a blood-stained shirt taken from the body of a Native American killed at the Battle of Wounded Knee. Pieces of fire engines destroyed in Chicago’s great fire of 1871 were on display, as well as a series of photographs depicting a group of Chinese pirates before and after beheading.  It was rumored that the boot of a soldier from Custer’s Battle was prominently displayed on a mantle, bones still inside.

Dr. John C. Spray, who acted as superintendent of a local asylum, donated his collection of patients’ skulls to the collection. The club’s decorator and chaplain, Chysostom “Tombstone” Thompson, sawed off the tops and added glass to the eye holes to create a succession of gas-lighting fixtures for the quarters. Goblets were fashioned from the skulls of local prostitutes—a special cup reserved for guests consisted of a skull lined entirely in silver, originally belonging to Waterford Jane, a well known figure of the local red-light district.

How secret was this secret society? As a club recognized by the state of Illinois, the organization was certainly known outside its gloomy walls. Many members were well-established public figures, and the public was enticed by the scandalous tidbits that did emerge, leading celebrities to seek entrance as honored guests. Future presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William McKinley both spent time at the Whitechapel Club. International boxing champions John L. Sullivan and James J. Corbett were welcomed, as well.

As one might expect from a men-only club at the turn of the century, there was always a keg on tap and plenty of spirits, along with frequent and raucous singing.  A favorite tradition was known as the “chestnut roast,” where members interrupted and heckled a chosen speaker.  An interesting caveat to this atmosphere of debauchery: no gambling for money; only drinks.

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The secrecy was partly successful because the club met its demise just eight short years after its inception—Omene was also the only guest to ever spill the proverbial beans after her visit, and it’s otherwise not easy to confirm other historical details. But at least, Omene’s story about the urn of human remains was no exaggeration. In fact, the cremation of Morris Allen Collins on a public pyre constituted one of the only other times that the organization’s activities were actively reported to the public. Before shooting himself in the head, Collins, who served as president of the Dallas Texas Suicide Club, offered his body to the Whitechapel Club for a ritualistic cremation.

Whitechapel members enthusiastically accepted the opportunity and constructed a 20-by-18-foot pyre of driftwood and cordwood on a dune in a desolate region outside Chicago city limits. The members draped Collins’s body in a white robe and set him on fire, lit their torches and marched three times around the burning pyre. Song and speeches lasted until morning light. In the years after Collins’ cremation, many Whitechapel ceremonies incorporated the tradition of members sifting their hands through his ashes. Omene was among several honored guests who were presented with urns containing some of Collins’s ashes.

“Every day the members of the club put their hands into the urn and filter the ashes through their fingers,” she told the Morning Call. “Their president presented me with some of the ashes as the choicest gift he could bestow as a reward for the pleasure I had given them.”

Rebekah Burgess Abramovich, PhD, works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She previously worked at the Life Magazine Photography Collection/Life Picture Collection and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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