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Geoffrey Baer Investigates 'Chicago Mysteries'

Julia Maish
Geoffrey Baer looks up from a trap door in the ground with a magnifying glass
"Chicago is a limitless reservoir of stories, and I think it makes our lives richer to know the history behind the world around us," says Geoffrey Baer. Credit: Liz Farina Markel for WTTW

Chicago Mysteries premieres on WTTW, the PBS app, and at on Tuesday, April 16 at 7:00 pm. 

In his new special Chicago Mysteries, Geoffrey Baer embarks on an adventure to solve some of Chicago’s age-old mysteries involving a UFO sighting, a cemetery secret, a sunken vessel in the Chicago River, and more. He sat down to offer up some behind-the-scenes intelligence. 

How did you come up with the idea for Chicago Mysteries?

After some brainstorming, all we had was a title that sounded like it had lots of possibilities. We consulted sources and unearthed a plethora of paranormal stories, UFO sightings, true crime, unexplained objects and oddities, and more. It led us down a lot of very fun rabbit holes.

As someone who has traveled the length and breadth of this city telling its stories, did this program take you places in the Chicago area that you had never been before?

Several! We were the first television crew ever to be granted access to the creepy basement of a North side condo building that in the 1890s was a sausage factory where Chicago’s “Sausage King” Adolph Luetgert allegedly disposed of his wife’s body after murdering her. While we were there, we actually heard some extremely weird moaning sounds that could have originated from the furnace or the floorboards, but it definitely unnerved us!

We were also permitted to climb to the top of the Leaning Tower of north suburban Niles, Illinois, which is not currently open to the public. It’s a half-sized replica of the tower in Pisa, Italy erected by an industrialist in the 1930s as part of a park for his employees. At the top, we discovered to our surprise that the tower contains 17th century church bells imported from Europe.

I also got to meet meteorologist Tom Skilling and interview him in his weather center at WGN-TV before he retired. That was a thrill.

Were there burning questions you’ve always had that were answered in the course of writing and producing this special?

Yes. Why don’t we put ketchup on a Chicago hot dog? I had always heard that it was because ketchup is loaded with sugar, which would ruin the flavor of the dog. But that would be just as true in Cleveland or Boston or anywhere else. So why is the ketchup prohibition specifically a Chicago thing? Food writer Monica Eng gave the true answer. (No spoiler here: you’ll have to watch the show to find out.)

What’s your favorite mystery that you explore in the show?

Oh, that’s like asking me to choose my favorite child! Unfair. But if I had to pick, I’d say the story of the mysterious sunken submarine called “the Foolkiller,” found by a diver on the bottom of the Chicago River in 1915. It supposedly had human bones and a dog skull inside. We interviewed podcaster Mark Chrisler, who spent ten years figuring out the true story: it includes a self-promoting deep-sea diver, a daredevil who survived the Niagara rapids only to die trying to cross Lake Michigan in an ill-conceived inflatable craft, and side trips to a circus in Indiana and Chicago’s legendary Riverview Park.

Will there be more mysteries on the companion website?

The website will include more mysteries, including one story on the 1982 Chicago area Tylenol murders, and another that reveals the origins of Chicago’s name. The website will also have original videos that ask the questions: Why is there no Terminal 4 at O’Hare? Where does a peculiar Salvador Dalí painting really come from? Does a 20-pound hunk of concrete at University of Chicago contain a hidden manuscript? And finally, what is the “Chicago Handshake,” and what are its stomach-churning components? I will personally answer that last question! 

What do you hope curious viewers take from this program, beyond the fun of delving into these mysteries with you?

The show is fun and entertaining, and there is the “I never knew that” phenomenon that is at the core of all my work. After watching my shows, so many people tell me, “Gee, I’ve lived here all my life and I never knew that!” Or, “I’ve passed that spot a million times and never noticed that!” Chicago is a limitless reservoir of stories, and I think it makes our lives richer to know the history behind the world around us. It gives us a sense of how we got here, and what we might hope to leave for folks in the future to discover.