Compared to Chicagoland’s more notorious haunts, Evanston’s Calvary Cemetery is barely a footnote, yet it is not so obscure as to escape the pages of most books on Chicago and Illinois ghost lore. This picturesque resting ground along the shore of Lake Michigan is home to a tale too strange to resist even brief mention. It is the tale of “the Aviator,” or as he is sometimes affectionately known, “Seaweed Charlie.”
The Aviator’s ghost story appears in Ursula Bielski’s Chicago Haunts (1998), Jo-Anne Christensen’s Ghost Stories of Illinois (2000), Richard T. Crowe’s Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural (2000, 2001), and Troy Taylor’s Haunted Illinois (2004).
Richard T. Crowe, as always, has done impeccable research on the tale and found its likely origin in a real event. Unlike most hauntings, that would make the story of Evanston’s “Aviator” grounded in historical fact as well as geography and folklore.
The story begins along Sheridan Road between Lake Michigan and the eastern gate of Calvary Cemetery. During the day, there is hardly ever a break in traffic and bicyclists and joggers navigate the winding path along the boulders overlooking the lake. It is a charming scene.
Between the late 1950s and 1960s, however, some passersby were treated to the alarming sight of a man drowning far out of reach in the icy waters. Even more startling was what came next.
Instead of disappearing under the waves to a watery grave, the man, usually disheveled but sometimes covered in seaweed, emerged from the lake and crawled over the rocks toward the gate of Calvary Cemetery before ultimately vanishing. This scene was replayed many times before finally, one night after cemetery caretakers accidentally left the gate open, the ghost disappeared forever. Despite this apparent end, sporadic sightings continued into the late ‘90s.
Richard T. Crowe speculated that the story could have an origin in a real plane crash that occurred 200 yards offshore, just east of Northwestern University, in 1951 during the height of the Korean War. Indeed, the Daily Tribune reported the crash on its front page in an article entitled “Hundreds See Jet Hit Lake; Pilot Missing.”
According to the Tribune, Lt. Laverne F. Nabours, a WW2 veteran and an instructor at Glenview Naval Airbase, suffered engine failure on his FH-1 Phantom and careened into Lake Michigan. The plane did not sink right away, rather, Laverne climbed on top of the wing and began waving for help. He then tried to swim ashore, but succumbed to the powerful waves. Several attempts were made to rescue him, but the lake’s current prevented help from arriving in time.
Could this tragic event explain the origins of the tale of Seaweed Charlie? The timing seems right. The ghost did not appear until after the plane crash. If true, that would give this story an eerie authenticity.
- Bielski, Ursula. Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1998.
- Crowe, Richard T. Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural. Oak Park: Carolando Press, 2000, 2001.