Checking out Historical Chicago: Cynthia Pelayo’s “Forgotten Sisters”

“Checking out Historical Chicago” is a feature series devoted to the work of historical worldbuilding. The world each featured writer builds is Chicago. And yet, each writer brings Chicago to life differently, with different hammers and bricks, brushes and hands. This series approaches Chicago as a city constantly under construction: a story that is, and always has been, many.

Long ago, in a city of many horrors and wonders, a woman walked to the river. She was a writer and a seeker, and what she sought was a glimpse of the world beyond. She had traveled far within and beyond her city, trying to find the border between this reality and the next. “Is anyone there?” she had asked in creaking houses and cemetery vaults, echoing churches and towers. She heard faint rustling, saw jagged movement in darkest night. But each time she searched, she found nothing.

The woman walked to the river. It was night. Husband and friend stood by her side as she peered down, down into black water. “Here,” the group’s guide told her, the city glittering in the river below, “you may find an answer to your question.” 

Deep in the water lay a graveyard she hadn’t known existed. A hundred years ago, the guide whispered, families boarded a ship at this very place. They crowded upper decks and lower decks, squeezed into rooms with other families and waved at friends on firm ground. A band played. Couples danced. Baskets of pie and lemonade hung off women’s arms. It was a festive day, maybe even—sisters giggled to each other in their best white dresses—a day to meet suitors. 

The ship listed to one side, then the other. The band played on and the passengers laughed, babies bouncing in mothers’ arms as the ship rocked. To one side, then the other. 

Then, the ship tipped over. 

Within minutes, thousands of bodies were trapped below deck or thrown into the water. Thousands searching for air. Kicking. Scratching. Many unable to swim.

Peering into her city’s black water, the woman felt something she hadn’t felt in all the places she had searched for the world beyond her own. She saw something, too. A woman in a white dress, serene in death, rose to the surface.

Chicago-born writer Cynthia Pelayo’s voice catches as she tells me about the S. S. Eastland, a passenger ship that capsized on July 24, 1915, killing men, women, and children on their way to Western Electric Company’s annual company picnic. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in America’s history, and certainly the worst disaster in Chicago’s history. With a death toll totalling 22 whole families and 844 lives, the city shut down for several days to accommodate the scope of the relief efforts, and the number of funerals. Recovered bodies lay in nearby buildings serving as temporary morgues. The main temporary morgue was the Second Regiment Armory on Washington Boulevard, which later became Harpo Studios, where Oprah Winfrey taped her talk show. At night, a “gray lady” supposedly walked the hallways of Harpo Studios and a woman’s sobs echoed in one restroom. Another of these temporary morgues, the Reid Murdoch Building, is also reportedly haunted. Some say that if you sit on the opposite steps facing the building at night, you can see lights flickering on and off.

The Reid Murdoch Building watches over the capsized S. S. Eastland. The old Clark Street Bridge can be seen in the background. Eastland Disaster Historical Society.

Although horror is her base, Pelayo didn’t initially become invested in the S. S. Eastland disaster due to its potential as a chilling Chicago ghost story—which it has since become in Pelayo’s skillful hands. Many of those killed were Chicago’s working-class immigrants, and Pelayo, herself a daughter of Chicago’s immigrants, became invested in them. “We lost so much that day,” Pelayo reflects on the lives cut short, the children and grandchildren never born.

But who among even the longtime Chicagoans has heard of the S. S. Eastland? How many know of (and romanticize) the Titanic, but can’t name America’s Titanic? Pelayo only learned about the event by tagging along on a Chicago ghost tour with her husband and friend. Not, as one would expect, through her years of listening to the city’s stories as a community journalist, which she then spun into terrifying Chicago fairytales that sharpen their knives on the border of the supernatural and the everyday. And not even through her father, who led her along the city’s streets and passed down his memories, like the stockyards’ animal carcasses polluting the river. For her, the S. S. Eastland encapsulates what we chose to remember and what we chose to forget, and why that matters. “We remember the gory details, like the Valentine’s Day Massacre,” notes Pelayo. “These beautiful people died going to a picnic. Why don’t we think about them?”

Western Electric employees posing for a photo at the annual company picnic. The event was an opportunity for young people to take a break from their six-day workweeks, socialize, and potentially meet a spouse. Eastland Disaster Historical Society.

Pelayo continued thinking about them in the years since she first visited the site of the S. S. Eastland disaster and saw, through a picture she took of the water, a woman in white glistening back at her. As other tour-goers crowded around to see the picture on her handheld camera, Pelayo felt something that she had searched for at haunted sites in Chicago and around the world. Raised as Catholic, she had always been drawn to the supernatural. She wanted to believe in ghosts and nowhere else—not Bachelor’s Grove, not the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre site, not Rosehill Cemetery, not the Edinburgh Vaults, not Castillo San Felipe del Morro, not the Sedlec Ossuary—made her believe, if not in ghosts, then in a presence beyond the unexplainable. This woman in white, rising gracefully from the black Chicago River, stuck with her and eventually formed the central image of her latest novel, Forgotten Sisters.

Forgotten Sisters is, in a way, the spiritual coming to me: No, we’re here. There was something there that I can’t explain.”

As Pelayo began researching for the book, she was struck that no one had written about those who died in the Chicago River on that rainy day in July 1915. A memorial had recently been placed on the south end of the LaSalle Street Bridge, but she wanted to commemorate them in a way that could be more widely read. She returned to the site and told them she would do it: she would write the book: “I’m a daughter of immigrants, too, so I’m going to do this for you and I’m going to make sure nobody forgets you.” 

With the book written and ready for submission, she returned once again, this time with a letter. She threw the letter into the river. It was for them.

A Bram Stoker-nominated writer of genre-blending short stories, true crime poetry, novels, novellas, and essays, Pelayo first became widely celebrated for her fast-paced, disorienting style with Children of Chicago, published in 2021. The novel follows homicide detective Lauren Medina as she investigates a teenager’s brutal murder in Humboldt Park, which she believes is related to “Pied Piper” tags popping up around the city. The murder is eerily similar to her own sister’s murder decades before, but Lauren’s repressed memories jumble the narrative timeline and keep us in the dark. What rises to the surface in that darkness are the images that haunt Lauren, calling for her to remember and pleading for her to forget. Her sister’s decaying, bloated body, drowned in the Chicago River, appears again and again: “Her lips, once red, twisted up in rage, and when her mouth opened from it erupted black and brackish water.” In Children of Chicago, the river is a beautiful killer that won’t forget, even when you do.

“Chicago was a graveyard,” the omniscient narrator relays as Lauren walks through the Lincoln Park Zoo, having just considered the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Thanks to her knowledge of Chicago’s history, Lauren carries the city’s brutal memories with her as she passes from one neighborhood to the next. While recalling that the Chicago City Cemetery was moved out of Lincoln Park, taking with it headstones but not bodies, Lauren’s thoughts turn to mourning: “It saddened Lauren to think that beneath her footsteps lay the bones of a forgotten someone. Like the horrors of Chicago’s past, some things remained the same in this city; crime and how quickly the dead were forgotten.”

If Children of Chicago is any indication, Pelayo has been thinking for years about how quickly Chicago can forget its dead. And horror, for her, compels readers to face what most would rather forget. We will die, just as others before us have died. Lauren—one of many fictional detectives in Pelayo’s oeuvre—lives with that tension between remembering and forgetting death, and she is continually surprised by Chicago as she uncovers its history through her homicide detective work: “She served as the eyes and the voice of the dead, walking with her victims and Father Death, to find their killers.” 

Pelayo conducting research for her latest novel, Forgotten Sisters. She conducted archival research in Newberry Library and relied on Dominic A. Pacyga’s CHICAGO: A Biography for background on the city’s, and river’s, foundation. Photo courtesy of Pelayo.

While talking with Pelayo about Forgotten Sisters, I was reminded of Lauren’s sense of duty to walk with those wronged in life, so they can find peace in death. Isn’t this what especially compassionate historical storytellers do, too: listen to the dead so they can tell a more complete, more just story? Isn’t an archive, or a library also a graveyard: a place where the dead’s secrets may rest until a seeker comes along and asks, “Is anyone there?”

Although Pelayo rejects the label “historical fiction” for what she does, she acknowledges that historical research is an essential part of her process. Her true crime poetry, for instance, reflects such a keen understanding of each case’s details that the collection seems to emit ghostly human shapes, as if each murdered girl and woman from Pelayo’s poems were hovering beside the reader. With Pelayo’s desire to find the human within the victim, her shape-shifting writing functions like a séance, whether the dead in question are historical, fictional, or somewhere in between. “Is anyone there?” she asks through her writing. If we listen closely enough, we, too, begin to hear answers.

Unsurprisingly, Pelayo is drawn to unresolved, brutal moments in Chicago’s history that are therefore all the more mysterious and confronting. In a 2022 interview with Nightmare Magazine, she noted how unprocessed collective traumas have a way of returning from the darkness and covering our present in shadows: “But I do believe that the events of the past, particularly those unresolved events of the past, are why we find ourselves where we are. And my fiction tends to have multiple running themes throughout. Everything is a mirror back to ourselves. So, I do find it to be important to incorporate research and historical elements into my writing.” 

Forgotten Sisters is Pelayo’s most explicit engagement with historical material in grappling with questions about memory and forgetting. What can be done about the past? What does remembering do, for the living and the dead? And how does storytelling—whether as passed-down folk and fairytales or plaques besides rivers—connect us with our dead, maybe even easing their suffering?

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True to Pelayo’s signature genre-blending, Forgotten Sisters is a ghost story and a fairy tale, a detective novel and a love story, a thriller and a haunted house story, a murder mystery and a living memorial. It’s heartbreakingly sad yet suspensefully disorienting. A fervent annotator, I read the last 50 pages in one sitting and without picking up my pencil, I was so entranced.

The novel centers around two sisters, Anna and Jennie, who live in a Craftsman bungalow on the North Branch of the Chicago River. Their life is quiet and secluded, their daily rhythms almost exclusively confined to the house and the river. To bandage an unspoken shared tragedy, Jennie fixes broken phonographs and watches the local news on full blast while Anna cares for Jennie and the house. Through Anna, one of the novel’s two first-person narrators, we learn that Jennie has a delicate grasp on reality. Even as Anna doubts the near-oracular pronouncements Jennie makes, both sisters accept what they can’t understand or explain. The house “is itself an entity, a being… Our own custom haunting.” They are the house and the Chicago River, and the river remembers everything. And time, for that matter, is nonlinear: “All of the possibilities tangled, perhaps we’re all existing together.”

In a separate narrative thread, homicide Detective John Rodriguez and his new partner, Detective Adam Kowalski, investigate a series of murders along the Chicago River. Young men, coming out alone from night clubs and bars, go missing and are found later, as bloated bodies fished out of black water.

Old Chicago and new Chicago collide throughout Forgotten Sisters. In a clever breaking of the fourth wall, Anna runs a podcast about Chicago ghost stories, and this podcast allows Pelayo to urge her reader to better remember Chicago’s forgotten history. In fact, what Anna says in a podcast about Emma and Clara Pontius, two girls who drowned in the Chicago River, could easily operate as Pelayo’s thesis about Chicago’s history as a kind of ghost story:

“And, like a game of telephone across the years, something was told to one person and then another and another. The story bent and stretched and became reshaped until noises heard in the darkness were believed to be those of a long-dead girl. It’s a ghost story, yes, but like all good ghost stories, this is based on fact. This is based on historical truth. And the reality that this story is based on something real adds weight to it, because otherwise it would just be purely fiction, and how frightening can fiction really be?”

The graves of Jennie (26) and Anna (23) Evenhuis in Forest Home Cemetery. Both women were employees of Western Electric and died during the S. S. Eastland disaster.

So, how frightening can history be? I won’t spoil Pelayo’s answer. 

Instead, I’ll leave you with Pelayo’s answer to another question. When I asked what a book can do compared to a memorial marker or a ghost tour, she pointed to the power of books as being in conversation with someone and then sharing that conversation with someone else. When a book acts like a psychological puzzle, really pushing you to figure out what’s going on, it can bring you into the conversation in a completely different way. 

In Forgotten Sisters, as in Pelayo’s previous works, the stakes of creating an immersive experience for her reader extend beyond mere engagement. She wants us to confront the tragedies our own neighbors, even if a century removed, endured. She wants us to sit with them in that sadness. She wants us to remember them. And remembering, she reminds us, is an active process:

“There’s just those of us researching, reading, or listening to their stories with a hint of curiosity and sometimes sadness that washes over us as we hear the accounts of their tragic ends.”

Forgotten Sisters’ podcaster models this kind of responsible remembering for us. Even as Anna wonders whether there’s anything we can do about the past and Jennie tells her not to disturb the dead, Anna spends sleepless nights researching and sharing Chicago’s most tragic stories. In doing so, she learns that sharing stories does more, for the living and the dead, than we may think. She learns that what matters most is connection.

Cynthia Pelayo standing next to the memorial for those who perished in the S. S. Eastland Disaster. Photo courtesy of Pelayo.

Forgotten Sisters
By Cynthia Pelayo
Thomas & Mercer
Published March 19, 2024

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