William “Frenchy” Deneau was a minor celebrity in Chicago. He was a diver who recovered 250 bodies from the Chicago River in the Eastland disaster in 1915. His expertise in the water put him in demand, and the next November Deneau was back in the water to lay electrical cables underneath the Rush Street Bridge. While there, his shovel brushed against something metal. Further excavation found a metal submarine, forty-foot long and made of iron. Some reports say it was found under the Rush Street Bridge, others say it was found Wells Street Bridge and still other say it was under Madison Street bridge.
Submarines had been the news since the battle of the Merrimac and the Monitor in the Civil War. During this time, submarines were being used in battles in World War I. Some people feared this was a primitive U boat from a German invasion was failed. Others wondered if this was something left over from the Civil War. No one knew, but they tried to find out. The newspapers took up the story and watched it with interest. The vessel was named the Fool Killer by the papers.
Deneau was given permission to salvage the submarine and it was hauled from the Chicago River on December 20,1915. Once inside, the discovery was made of a man’s skull and a dog’s skull, just the skulls. Police combed their missing persons records to see who the skull could belong to. Deneau partnered with the SkeeBall company and put the Fool Killer on display. With the slogan “Come for the the Fool Killer, Stay for the Skee Ball!”, the submarine went on tour in February 1916. For the low price of a dime, people could tour the interior of the Fool Killer and have a question and answer session with Deneau. Attendees had to tour at their own risk.
Still, there was no indication of how the submarine got there. The thought that it was a German U boat was dismissed as wartime propaganda. The US wasn’t in the Great War at this time. There was also speculation that it was built in 1890 by Peter Nissen. The Chicago Tribune initially reported, “The boat is said to have belonged to Peter Nissen, spectacular mariner, who was lost in his revolving vessel while attempting to drift across Lake Michigan … The “Foolkiller” was so called because it first made its appearance shortly after the Chicago fire, in the days when submarines were unheard of, and drowned its original owner, a New York man, when it made a trial trip. Nissen then bought it.” Peter Nissen was originally an accountant turned daredevil, but his boat designs were very different than the submarine found. Also Peter Nissen died on a different boat, so he could not be the skull found.
Other speculation has said it was a creation of Lodner Darvantis Phillips, a shoemaker from Michigan City, Indiana, who also happened to be a submarine pioneer. He had built successful submarines in the Great Lakes and one of his designs from the 1840s resembled the submarine found. According to his family legend, a prototype he built sank in the Chicago River and claimed the Fool Killer as one of their ancestor’s creations. This is the only evidence, however, his designs resembled the submarine found more closely than Nissen’s. Then who was the man found on the submarine?
Some people believe that Deneau added the skulls as a bit of showmanship to generate interest in his find. Deneau was in a spot of financial trouble and the tour of the submarine generated some needed cash. However, we will never know the truth of the submarine as its last known location was Oelwein, Iowa in May 1915. It is lost the the mists of time, but it could be still out there waiting for its mystery to be unraveled.
Sources available on request