LIBBY PRISON AND COLISEUM

South Loop

Charles Gunther imported an entire Civil War prison from Richmond, Virginia and rebuilt it in Chicago’s South Loop in 1889. There were more than 250,000 visitors during the first year. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

Libby Prison

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The Libby Prison War Museum, reconstructed inside a showy medieval wall in Chicago, offered visitors a dose of Civil War nostalgia inside an entertainment wrapper. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

Charles Gunther was an entrepreneur whose State Street confectionary was known for its caramels – and its Civil War memorabilia. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

When Charles Gunther was running a confectionary on State Street in the late 1800s, he displayed in his shop a collection of Civil War memorabilia. But he had something bigger in mind. Much, much bigger.

In 1889, Gunther purchased, shipped by rail to Chicago, and had rebuilt here an entire Civil War prison from Richmond, Virginia. He added a flamboyant medieval castle wall for showbiz effect. And he opened the doors of the Libby Prison War Museum, an attraction that was part history museum, part P. T. Barnum-style attraction.

The museum hired Civil War veterans as guides and displayed genuine Civil War artifacts alongside items of potentially dubious provenance – such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (said to be the home of the character that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe), or what was alleged to be a snakeskin from the Garden of Eden.

If Gunther had his way, he would also have shown a real Egyptian pyramid and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, but neither of those items on his shopping list were for sale.

Most popular, and perhaps also most troubling, was the Abraham Lincoln collection, which included not only artifacts from Lincoln’s life, but also blood-stained items allegedly from the night of his death.

There were more than 250,000 visitors during the first year.

Coliseum

When the flames of Civil War nostalgia grew cold at the turn of the 20th century, the ever-enterprising Gunther converted his building into a 15,000-seat auditorium that saw several more decades of spectacles: the city’s earliest auto shows, convenient to Chicago’s Motor Row, in which the Coliseum was ensconced; the First Ward Ball, an annual tradition in which politicians received honoraria from grateful citizens; six major national political conventions; expos of all kinds; roller derby competitions; and, in its later days, rock shows including the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream.

The last show played in 1971 and the building was demolished in 1982.

When Civil War nostalgia declined, Gunther converted the museum into an auditorium and named it the Coliseum. Among its early uses were some of the first auto shows, which helped foster the nearby Motor Row. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

Gunther employed Civil War veterans as guides at Libby Prison. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

Some of the most popular items on display were also of questionable provenance, such as the cloak that Mary Todd Lincoln allegedly wore on the night that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

The Libby Prison War Museum became an important gathering place for Civil War veterans. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

Over the coming decades, the Coliseum hosted six major national political conventions. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

The NHL Chicago Blackhawks played at the Coliseum from 1926 until 1929. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

In its later years, rock shows were more typical entertainment, and the Coliseum even rebranded itself as The Syndrome for those events Desperation was in the air; demolition was not far behind. Photo Credit: Getty Images