So today I got to thinking about secret passages, hidden room, secret compartments in drawers and bookshelves and wardrobes. I think every child has a fascination with them. Probably because they appear in so many children’s books. Did you go through your house searching and hoping to find a secret chamber?
I guess we should have prayed to St. Nicholas Owen. He is the patron St. of Illusionists. Ha! You think I made that up.
St. Nicholas Owen floated across my computer screen this morning in an article from my fave website to change up my algorithm, Atlas Obscura. The article was about rooms that were built to hide priests when priests and anything Catholic was illegal back in the 16th century.
Turned out that Nicholas Owen was a master at building elaborately disguised rooms. That was his God-given talent and he used it to protect clergy all over the country. He was eventually caught, tortured and murdered for his crime of hiding priests. According to his legend however, he never disclosed anything about any rooms, houses or priests so his torturers killed him in vain. They would still have to go out and find the rooms themselves.
I guess I am confused about what makes a saint in the Catholic church. We were told that in order to be a saint, it had to be proven the person performed a miracle. Also there was something about digging up corpses years later to see if they had decomposed and if not, it was taken as a sign that they were a saint. Posthumous miracle, I guess?
But there was no mention of miracles for St. Nicholas Owen. Dedication to the cause, loyalty, bravery and all that but miracles? And why patron saint of illusionists? Why not of builders, cabinet-makers or secret room enthusiasts?
Well anyway, he was not canonized until 1970 so I guess I would have been past praying for help in finding hidden rooms in my own house but it got me to thinking about hidden rooms. I don’t think we ever outgrow the fascination!
I live in an older, ‘historic’ area of Chicago. There are a couple dozen building surviving here from around the Civil War. They are endangered as the developers come in and tear everything down. There were more of them when I moved here but still a few stand. As a kid in this area, people just moved in and lived in the houses as they were. They weren’t respected for being old. They were just old.
Then in the 70’s and 80’s, all things antique came into fashion and these old houses were purchased by people who loved old stuff and would spend year meticulously restoring them. They would redo woodwork and look for antiques to decorate. But adoring an old house and living happily in it it modern times needed to jive. So along with restoring, they would adding modern insulation and weather proofing etc. That’s when we started hearing stories about hidden rooms.
One guy was putting insulation in a wall when he realized that he had stuffed a ton of it into a wall and it just kept disappearing! On closer inspection, it was disappearing into a secret room under the floor! Several of these rooms were discovered in other houses. Redoing floors, they found hatch doors. Redoing electric, they found false walls hiding rooms or passages to the basement. Presumably, there were doors or tunnel exits from the basement, but those are long gone.
The theories were that these were stops along the Underground Railroad. The “Underground Railroad can be considered the largest movement of civil disobedience since the American Revolution. And because it involved whites, blacks and American Indians, it was also the first racially-integrated civil rights movement in U.S. history.”
Chicago takes great pride in its participation in helping people to freedom so it makes sense that people would take pride in finding these hiding places in their homes. I wasn’t able to find maps of safe-houses in Chicago so who knows?
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally published on 5/8/16. Since then renewed interest in our neighborhood has resulted in an archaeological dig to prove/disprove rumors. Check out the report on WTTW!]
My family comes from Ireland. I always thought it was funny when I would hear other Irish-Americans doing genealogy and looking for their roots in Ireland and how they would all be descended from some castle! I can’t tell you how many time I’ve heard people tell me proudly of their ancestors in some castle or another. I always maintained that some of us come from outside the castle walls!
Some of our ancestors were peasants who worked hard in tiny fields. Some of our ancestors were slaves. Some of our ancestors were servants (maybe that is the relationship to the castles?!) Some were thieves and drunks and murderers! Still others find heroes in their past. We come from all sorts! Not all from “royalty” and castles.
But don’t we all have that childish dream as well? The orphan who is made fun of and eventually finds out that she is really a princess?
I wondered if something like this might be going on with the secret chambers and tunnels? I mean, I could think of a few other reasons for having a secret room or tunnel in your house, and not all good!
Prohibition in the US made alcohol illegal from 1920 through 1933. Could some of these rooms have been hiding places for illegal stashes of booze? Or speak-easys where people were drinking under cover?
Every generation has seen different illegal activities. Secret rooms might change their uses over time.
When priests, were illegal, some people would hide them. When divorce was illegal, why not hide your wife? When mentally ill people were abused in institutions, why not hide your mother, sister, daughter who has gone off their rockers? Or your daughter who has gotten pregnant which would ruin any chance she had at life?
Secret passages and tunnels were used to move people fleeing — from enemies during wars, from political rivals, from coppers (if you were in a speakeasy or brothel, gambling or some or den of iniquity!) or people moving across borders. Secret panic rooms are used for security for the rich and paranoid!
Pirates were good at building secret caves and tunnels in islands and along the seashores. They would hide their booty in these paces and then booby trap them so only they would be able to get the loot. If they never got back, some of those hidden caves are still out there. Treasure hunters have been finding some of these in recent years.
Take a look at the t.v. how Oak Island (another one of my fascinations!) and watch how people have been treasure hunting for 60 years on the island, looking for tunnels and secret rooms and of course treasure.
Maybe some of the secret rooms in our houses weren’t all so Pollyana?! I say rewrite history and the legends of your secret rooms however makes you feel good!
But that brings up another question. Do you ever have a recurring dream? It is always a little unnerving isn’t it when you find yourself having some deja vu in the middle of a dream? You are dreaming and you know you are dreaming and you know that you’ve had this dream before but you can’t remember how that dream ended or if you are supposed to do something to end this one differently?
I have one. It’s creepy. It creeps me out every time I have it. It’s related to the big old Victorian houses and secret rooms. I dream that I am in one of those big old houses. I seem to recognize the rooms as I go room to room, floor to floor. I am walking slowly, checking each out as it has been a long time since I’ve been there. I get to an upper level and I find another door. One that I am not sure that I saw before but I am sure one something else. I know there is something bad or scary or creepy – something I don’t want to know for sure about — in some room that is hidden and when I see that door, I realize that is what behind it.
I open the door and go in. It is dark and dusty and creepy. I am amazed that all this was here and I didn’t realize it. I am creeped out, something spooks me and I leave. As many times as I have this dream, I never get much farther than that.
My dark side that I have stashed in some corner of my mind? Some memory better left unremembered?
Again, who knows? But I’m sure we all have these dusty chambers in our minds. They are probably hoarded with all sorts of crap and junk but we hope that there is some treasure there and not some dead rat or skeleton!
The old universal story about the orphan who discovers royalty in their blood and along with it, new found riches and a happy life is a much better story than the one where the one who opens a closet to find a skeleton!
May all your secret compartments, rooms, or passengers be full of light and joy and a pot of gold that the leprechaun stashed there from the end of the rainbow!
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally published 5/8/2016 and has been revamped and updated as part of moving my blogs!]
Patt Timlin – Marketer, Blogger, Entrepreneur at Patt Timlin Online.
Patt Timlin is a marketing expert set on sharing her expertise with other online marketers to help them achieve the dream of working online. She is secretly pleased with the surge in content marketing as revenge of the English majors! Entrepreneur, blogger, guide, helper – Patt loves the online world and loves to share it!
Patt is the author of:
BloggerPatt! [just for the fun of it!]