The Recovery of the Submarine “Foolkiller”

This is the second part of Phillips’s Submarines Phillips Submarine’s Part I. This blog post is going to focus on the later recovery of one of his submarines and the continuing search for the Marine Cigar at the wreck of the Atlantic. On 24 July 1915, the steamer Eastland rolled over in the Chicago River, taking with it 848 of its passengers in the worst maritime disaster on the Great Lakes.

S.S. Eastland overturned in the Chicago River.

“Captain” William “Frenchy” Deneau was one of the many divers assigned the grizzly task of recovering bodies from the overturned wreck. Months later on 23 November 1915, Deneau was back working in the Chicago River laying cables beneath the Rush Street bridge or perhaps the Wells Street Bridge or finally perhaps the Madison Street bridge for the Commonwealth Edison Company. The precise location he was working and the find he made changed with each retelling of the story. While working his shovel struck a metallic object or he had stubbed his toe on it (which would be difficult in weighted diving boots). Being that the Chicago River is very murky, he felt around the object learning that it was metallic and shaped “like a zeppelin”. The object turned out to be an intact forty foot submarine buried in the river bottom. When Deneau surfaced he immediately knew that the object was a submarine.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me I was working in a war zone?…A man oughta get extra pay when he has to run the risk of submarines every time he dives, oughtn’t he… It’s dangerous! And there are any mines in the river?” -William Deneau, Chicago Ready for War? Look! The Chicago Examiner. November 24, 1915

The discovery of this craft was reported in two local newspapers The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Examiner and each paper features immediately discrepancies in the reported story. Deneau was a character; a man with Barnum-esque tendencies and the discrepancies in the story may be a result of that. It’s because of this some historians believe that the entire episode was a hoax.

William Deneau diving in the Chicago River. Chicago History Museum

Deneau had apparently sought and received the permission of the federal government to recover the craft. Initially, it was thought that the recovery of the submarine was to be carried out by the Chicago Historical Society. Deneau had waited until December when the traffic on the Chicago River was lighter to commence salvage. On 20 December 1915, the submarine was recovered and towed through the river and finally brought up in the vicinity of the Fullerton Avenue Bridge. The strange craft was immediately dubbed the “Foolkiller” because the craft was immediately associated with Chicago daredevil Peter Nissen. 15 years earlier Nissen had shot the rapids of the Niagra River in vessels of his own design titled the Foolkiller #1 and the Foolkiller #2. His antics culminated in the construction of a balloon boat named the Foolkiller #3. The Foolkiller #3 was a canvas balloon with a hammock suspended in the middle, which would roll with the wind. He had set out in his peculiar craft in November 1904. November is not the best time to be traversing the Great Lakes and Nissen had apparently encountered a gale and disappeared. After an extensive search on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, the Foolkiller #3 was found on 1 December 1904, collapsed on the beach at Stevensville, Michigan. Nissen’s body was found a few yards away the daredevil having died of exposure.

“The hands and face were frozen and the lineaments of his face bore signs of infinite distress. The clothing was rather torn.” South Haven Tribune

With Peter Nissen’s daredevil tendencies and his penchant for building unique prototype boats, it made sense for the newspapers and public to surmise that the Foolkiller submarine belonged to him but there is nothing to substantiate that especially with Nissen’s demise inside of the Foolkiller #3. None of the craft had the complexity of a submarine boat. Some historians suggest that Lodner Phillips had sold his second submarine to Peter Nissen but Nissen was born in 1862 in Germany, there would be little possibility the two had crossed paths much less brokered a deal. Though the newspapers stated that Nissen had purchased the submarine and raised the submarine. Once again there was nothing to substantiate this claim especially if there was a submarine raised out of the Chicago River before the “Foolkiller”. Perhaps this was an attempt by the newspapers to concrete the association between Nissen and the submarine to have a possible explanation for where it came from. Many different years were ascribed to the sinking of the submarine such as 1870, 1890, 1897, or 1900. Some of these may have been people misremembering other Great Lakes submarines such as the Raddatz submarine (see Wisconsin’s First Submarine: The Raddatz Submarine) or the Baker Submarine Boat-more on this in a future blog. In any case, the name “Foolkiller”  stuck to the submarine.

Raising of the Foolkiller note the hole in the bow. Chicago History Museum

Deneau’s first choice with the submarine was to immediately put it on display for profit (less as a museum vessel and more of a novelty). Cleaning the craft and preparing it for display resulted in the following headline: Skulls found on Foolkiller, Old Submarine. On 15 January 1916 apparently the bones of a man and the skull were discovered within the submarine (It goes without saying that in 1915, no archaeological consideration or study was taken in regards to this sunken craft and the possible remains of its occupants unlike the modern day recovery of the CSS Hunley). The article itself only states that the bones of a man and a skull of a dog were recovered yet, the headlines read “skulls” were found and the subsequent republishing of the story states that the skull of a man was also recovered, the grizzly discovery changed with each retelling of the story. It’s highly possible that this report was fabricated in order to generate interest in the submarine though the police apparently did investigate. Even the remains themselves could have been fabricated simply by finding a dog skull and some miscellaneous bones. Later that January and into February the Foolkiller along with the apparent skeletal remains were put on display at 208 South State Street in Chicago. Deneau had teamed up with a Skeeball company to put the vessel on display. Deneau himself would give lectures. Although the Foolkiller received many visitors there are no surviving descriptions or photographs of the submarine on display or its interior aside from when it was raised. By May of 1916, the Foolkiller was apart of a traveling exhibition with the traveling show, Parker’s Greatest Shows where it continued to be shown alongside Skeeball. The Foolkiller traveled to Iowa and by June it had returned to Chicago where it was put on display at Riverview Amusement Park. By September the submarine was listed for sale.

Submarine For Sale Mysterious Chicago


After that, the Foolkiller disappears from the historical record. It is unknown if a sale actually took place or if the craft was scrapped for the war effort. Ultimately, it’s unknown what became of the strange craft but there is the possibility however unlikely the Foolkiller could still exist somewhere.

S.S. Atlantic

Mar Dive Inc. Versus Ontario and the Atlantic

After the attempted salvage by Western Wrecking Company, the wreck of the steamer Atlantic lay forgotten on the bottom of Lake Erie until 1984 when Canadian diver Michael Lynn Fletcher rediscovered it after a local fisherman reported his nets snagged on a possible wreck. The wreck became a popular destination for divers and they reported that the Phillips Marine Cigar was indeed laying on the deck of the Atlantic. Five years later California based salvage firm Mar Dive Inc. (Which doesn’t seem to exist anymore) also discovered the Atlantic and begun recovering artifacts from the wreck. They reported in a California newspaper they had discovered the wreck and an experimental submarine. Mar Dive Inc. attempted to claim salvage rights on the wreck and its associated artifacts including the Marine Cigar. Their goals were similar to Frank Hoffman and the Alvin Clark in the Museum Ships Series III: The Alvin Clark. They had apparently wanted to raise the Atlantic and put it on display in the process recovering whatever valuable cargo that lies within. Their efforts came to a head in a legal battle Ontario V. Mar Dive Corp. Mar Dive had used a California based district court and an alleged descendant of one the directors of the former Western Wrecking Company and resurrected the former company. Their assumption was if they brought back Western Wrecking Co. as a subsidiary of Mar Dive, the salvage rights to the Atlantic that Western Wrecking Co. previously had would revert to Mar Dive and then they could continue to salvage the wreck regardless of Canadian or American shipwreck laws. It was found that the wreck of the Atlantic was indeed in Canadian waters and therefore Canada had a royal prerogative (ownership) of the Atlantic. The California Court orders that Mar Dive had obtained were obtained fraudulently and California had no jurisdiction in the matter.

Size Comparison
Size Comparison between the Atlantic and the Marine Cigar Pittsburg Post-Gazette


Regardless of the fact that the collision between Atlantic and Ogdensburg occurred in US waters and the Atlantic had US owners as Mar Dive had argued doesn’t mean the wreck is still US property. The wreck is in Canadian waters and although is a grave isn’t a war grave, therefore, the Atlantic is the property of Canada as it is embedded in Canadian bottomlands. Although Mar Dive also claimed that they were working to preserve the shipwreck, it was found that they, in fact, had damaged the wreck in several places and were forced to turn over all the artifacts they recovered to the Canadian government. How this relates to the Marine Cigar is that their salvage claim included the submarine and they went on record as saying that the submarine was located on the wreck. It was found that:

“It is further submitted that no claim of salvage can be attached to alleged submarine since there is no subject of salvage. There is no reliable evidence to show that a submarine is located on or near the Atlantic.”  -Ontario V. Mar Dive Corp

Meaning that there was no evidence that there was a submarine to merit a salvage claim of the Marine Cigar. During the course of the trial, Canada made the Atlantic off-limits to divers, it is unknown at this juncture if this is still enforced, however.

The Sea Hunters and the Atlantic 

“Pontoon” object on the wreck of the Atlantic. The Sea Hunters 

In 2002 there was was a National Geographic documentary series titled The Sea Hunters. For the third episode of their first season, they explored the wreck of the Atlantic. This was most likely due to the fact that Michael Lynn Fletcher, the diver who rediscovered the Atlantic in 1984 was one of the Sea Hunters, the others were author Clive Cussler, James Delgado then director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum and diver John Davis.

“If the Philips Submarine could be raised…It could be almost equal to the Hunley in terms of historical significance.” -Clive Cussler The Sea Hunters

In the 50 minute episode, they scan the Atlantic with side scan sonar and then sent Michael Fletcher down to explore the wreck. Halfway through the episode, Michael takes them to a curious cylindrical object pictured above. This object is located on the deck of the Atlantic just about amidships. As Michael declares while he floated over it:

“We’ve proven no question that this is a simply a pontoon or a tank.” -Michael Fletcher The Sea Hunters

This object is apparently a pontoon that has settled on the wreck from the abortive raising attempt carried out by Western Wrecking in the late 1860’s. This object is what explains Mar Dive’s claims that the submarine was located on site and would have been part of the salvage of the Atlantic and the rebuttal that there was no reliable evidence of the submarine. At some point in time, it was proven that this was a pontoon and not the Phillips Submarine though there is no documentation of it. They conducted further sweeps around the Atlantic wreck site with side scan sonar and a magnetometer. They tried to corroborate side scan blips with concentrations of metal found with the magnetometer but found nothing. It was concluded that the submarine is probably buried in sediment somewhere nearby but as they said in the episode shipwrecks are rarely found where they are supposed to be.  Unfortunately, James Delgado and the Sea Hunter did not find the Phillips Submarine. It’s clear that the search for the Marine Cigar requires a more intensive search around the wreck of the Atlantic than what can be fit into a 50-minute long documentary.

Conclusions: The Confusing History & Plausible Scenarios

As we can see, Lodner Phillips and his submarines have had a long, confusing and convoluted history, as history usually goes.  Much like the later submarine inventor Richard Raddatz, Lodner Phillips was very secretive about his submarine. Lodner did not reveal much about his craft or its actual capabilities and his craft only received the most cursory of media attention. The few historical details there are of the craft has only served to blur the lines between historical fact and local legend.

I agree that the evidence linking the Foolkiller submarine to Lodner Phillips is equally loose and circumstantial at as the evidence connecting the craft to Peter Nissen. In lieu of any other possible explanations, what other possibilities are there? The only concrete fact is a submarine was discovered and raised out of the Chicago River. Although William Deneau was somewhat of a showman, the vessel had to come from somewhere and it certainly wasn’t planted. There was briefly conjecture that the submarine was somehow connected with the Eastland disaster. In a later interview with Lodner’s nephew, he states that the submarine recovered out of the Chicago River was Lodner’s. As discussed in Part I after the construction and test of his first submarine in 1845, Lodner had briefly moved to Chicago, where perhaps he had the time to construct another submarine and test in the Chicago River. His goal may have been to build a submarine in Chicago where there would be able to find investors or people interested in purchasing his submarine in a more metropolitan area than Michigan City, Indiana. The few photos that exist of the Foolkiller show it being similar but cruder to the depictions of the Marine Cigar especially with the portholes down the side of the craft.  The “gondola” or sail both the craft do appear similar square shaped with portholes. The Foolkiller’s is closer to the bow and the Marine Cigar is amidships.

Another Photograph of the raising of the Foolkiller note the portholes. Chicago History Museum
Phillips Submarine La Navigation Sous Marine
The Marine Cigar La Navigation Sous Marine

All that was said of the Foolkiller‘s propulsion was that it wasn’t working and in the interview with the surviving family, they stated that the second submarine lacked a decent propulsion system. Perhaps in working out the propulsion system is what led to Lodner’s 1852 patent for “Submarine Propeller”-a propeller on a universal joint.

A plausible scenario is that the inventor had launched and sunk the vessel in an accident on the Chicago River. The vessel didn’t handle well due to its inadequate hand-cranked propulsion and there was an accident, the Foolkiller could have collided with something (hence the dented bow section and possibly the hole in the bow though that may have been cut on purpose to make the raising easier) Lodner was somehow able to escape the craft or was unable to loose the Foolkiller from the muddy grip of the Chicago River. Lodner learned from the incident because the later Marine Cigar was equipped with four keels to steady the craft underwater. Perhaps this was done because the Foolkiller was not weighted or ballasted properly and coupled with the faulty propulsion the vessel was too difficult to maneuver leading to its loss. Deneau had described the Foolkiller as being made of steel. All the submarines Lodner had built were composite-built of wood and steel. This still does not explain the remains found within the craft but that could have been a ploy made my William Deneau to garner interest in his discovery.

As seen in part one, Lodner made some bold claims about the capabilities of his craft and tried to get the military’s attention with talk of a combat submarine. He believed enough in his craft that he could make claims about his craft to get the financial backing that he could to improve the craft to actually fit those claims. He wanted the opportunity to prove his invention and get the financial backing for it. Based on its capabilities especially in terms of being able to purify the air would make it more advanced than the later CSS Hunley and the USS Alligator he just never got that opportunity. There are only fragments regarding Lodner Phillips and his submarine and its up to us to fill in the blanks. I think the discovery of physical evidence like a submarine would illuminate this history.



Photograph of the Inventor Lodner Phillips Therebreathersite


Sources & Resources

Admiralty Ontario V. Mar-Dive Corp.

Bourrie, Mark. Many A Midnight Ship: True Stories of Great Lakes Shipwrecks

Chicago Examiner. Chicago Ready For War? Look! November 24, 1915

Chicago History Museum Images Foolkiller

Chicago Tonight. The Foolkiller Submarine.

Chicago Daily Tribune. Submarine “Foolkiller” Found After 18 Years. November 24, 1915

Chicago Daily Tribune. Skulls Found on Foolkiller, Old Submarine. January 16, 1916

Chicago Daily Tribune Foolkiller Submarine. January 30th, 1916

Chicago Daily Tribune Perils of Deep Tame to Alimony Order Ashore. December 20, 1916

Chicagology The Foolkiller.

Delgado, James. Silent Killers Submarines and Underwater Warfare

Eastland Disaster Historical Society

Greene County Observer Reporter. Salvagers Find Shipwreck in Lake Erie. June 26, 1991

Gruse, Patricia A. Great Lakes First Submarine-L.D. Phillips Foolkiller 

The Inquirer. A Shipwreck Resurfaces Atlantic’s Treasure in Dispute Again. September 14, 1991

Keel Block. Earlier Submarine ?Mystery?

Keel Block. Earlier Submarines 

Mattoon Commercial Star. Find “Sub” Lost 25 years ago. November 25, 1915

Mysterious Chicago. The Fool Killer Submarine: 100th Anniversary Podcast and New Theories!

Naked History. The Fool Killer-The Submarine In The Chicago River.

Ontario V. Mar Dive Corp.

The Sea Hunters. Season 1 Episode 3 The Steamship Atlantic. National Geographic.

Selzer, Adam. The Foolkiller Submarine: All We Know! Mysterious Chicago. Internet Wayback Machine

Selzer, Adam.  The Foolkiller Submarine. Mysterious Chicago.

Selzer, Adam. The Foolkiller Submarine Ad. Mysterious Chicago. Internet Wayback Machine.

Selzer, Adam. The Foolkiller Submarine-More Evidence. Mysterious Chicago. Internet Wayback Machine.

Selzer, Adam. Foolkiller Clue? Mysterious Chicago. Internet Wayback Machine.

Selzer, Adam. Finding the Foolkiller Submarine – New Info! Mysterious Chicago. Internet Wayback Machine.

Selzer, Adam & Taylor, Troy. Weird Chicago

Straight Dope Chicago. Update on the Foolkiller Chicago’s Mystery Submarine. Internet Wayback Machine.

Straight Dope Chicago. What’s Up With The Odd Submarines Found Sunk In Chicago Waters? Internet Wayback Machine.

Taylor, Stephen J. A Victim of His Valor: Great Lakes Daredevil Peter Nissen. Hoosier State Chronicles

The New York Times. Two Wreck’s of 1850’s Are Found In Lake Erie. June 26, 1991

The New York Times. Lake Erie Journal; A Dive to Solve A Mystery. June 28, 1991

Another View of the Raising of the Foolkiller


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