Windy City Spooks: The Neighborhood of Terror

Dunning State Asylum

Children who grew up in the far northwest neighborhoods of Chicago would often be heard singing, “Dunning, Dunning open your gates, here comes Johnny on roller skates.” This peculiar rhyme illustrated a much-feared area of Chicago along Irving Park Road. This area of the city has terrified citizens of the Windy City for well over a century. To many, the neighborhood now known as Dunning, was a nightmare just waiting to happen.

Dunning in the 21st century is a pleasant middle-class neighborhood known for quaint houses, well-manicured lawns, and friendly people. Although Dunning is part of Chicago, it has a suburban feel to it that the other neighborhoods lack. 

This has not always been the case. 

In the mid 19th century, this remote area of Cook County appeared to be the perfect place to set up a poor farm. At the farm, the poor residents of the quickly expanding city could put in an honest day’s work. The county purchased 160 acres from Peter Ludby, the man who had farmed the land since 1839, and opened the poor farm.

As time went on, the poor farm began attracting people who clearly suffered from significant mental health problems. The farm was then closed, and the Cook County Insane Asylum was opened on the property. To help manage the growing population, two additional buildings were added, and the hospital could now accommodate over a thousand patients.

The latter two decades of the 19th century, the Dunning area remained sparsely populated. Few people thought that moving their families near an insane asylum was a great idea. All that changed in 1916 when Schorsch Brothers real estate bought several acres of land west of Irving Park Road. They named the neighborhood West Portage Park and claimed the area was safe despite the asylum. Their efforts resulted in a huge housing boom.

People may have moved to the area, but the fear of patients escaping the asylum haunted the residents of the newly established community. The anxiety was very real, and people worried the insane patients would escape and murder their family. Two dramatic incidents didn’t help assuage those fears and made matters worse.

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In 1912 and 1923, fires broke out causing extensive damage to two of the buildings. In the resulting chaos, several patients did escape and caused a few minor problems with the local residents. Citizens of the neighborhood and the rest of Chicago began to see the asylum as more trouble than it was worth.

By the 1970s, the old state hospital was falling into shambles and half the buildings were torn down. In its place the Chicago-Read Mental Health Facility was built. With a safer, more secure facility in place, Dunning experienced another housing boom and that’s when things started to get weird.

While breaking ground for a new shopping mall and condominium complex in 1989, construction crews made a grisly discovery. The mortal remains of hundreds of people were inadvertently dug up. The crew and developers had no idea where they were building was once the graveyard of the poor farm residents as well as the patients of the old asylum. It wasn’t uncommon for bones to be seen flying through the air as the crews worked. One body that was discovered was so well preserved, you could make out the handlebar mustache and sideburns that were fashionable among men of the 1880s.

Several concerned community members and a local pastor came together to hold a memorial service for these poor, forgotten people. Ultimately, a memorial was placed and the Read-Dunning Memorial Park was established to remember those who died. The community hoped the service would give peace to these long-departed people. 

Unfortunately, they were wrong because Dunning is very haunted.

Wright Community College appears to get a disproportionate amount of the paranormal activity that allegedly happens in the neighborhood. Following its move into a new facility shaped like a pyramid, the overnight cleaning staff were the first to report the ghostly activity. 

Mostly seen by the night custodial staff, tales of encounters with ghosts are heard in hushed conversations. Some of the activity includes lights mysteriously turning on and off and slamming doors are heard when the college is quiet. A few employees have further reported witnessing full-bodied apparitions in 19th century attire walking down darkened corridors. When staff goes to question them, they vanish from sight as soon they turn the corner.

There have been a handful of unexplained experiences at the Jewel food store in Dunning Square Mall. Shopping carts are known to take on a life of their own as they roll down aisles as if guided by an unseen person. Automatic doors that typically open when someone goes to enter, have opened of their own accord as if someone just passed through.

Lastly, the Dunning ward office is a third site known to have unexplained activity. The apparition of an elderly woman in a hospital gown has been witnessed by employees and visitors. She is said to give off the unpleasant feeling of sadness.

By all accounts, Dunning on Chicago’s northwest side is a nice place to live. That is if you don’t mind sharing it with the long dead souls of its original inhabitants.

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About Rick Hale 106 Articles
Rick Hale became interested in anomalous phenomenon at an early age after encountering an apparition in his grandparent's home. Rick is the author of "The Geek's Guide To The Strange and Unusual: Poltergeists, Ghost and Demons," and "Behold! Shocking True Tales Off Terror...And Some Other Spooky Stuff." Rick has been published in Haunted Times Magazine, Paranormal Underground Magazine, The Supernatural Magazine, and Legends Magazine. Rick appeared in Ghost Tapes 2 and Ghost Tapes: The Series found at

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