The Girl in the Furnace


Shaffer Franklin

As October comes to an end and Halloween approaches, this week’s article will be the last in the month-long series of ghost stories.

Not only is this the last article, it is also the 90th anniversary of Elfrieda Knaack, also known as “The Girl in the Furnace.” I talked with Mrs. Kathy O’Hara for an hour one day, and she gave me all the insight on this spooky story.

Elfrieda Knaack was a 29 year old woman who lived in Deerfield and was well known. She was the youngest daughter and had a shy personality. She was a school teacher and was taking speech lessons in Waukegan. This is where she met Charles Hitchcock – who was the teacher of the speech class. Hitchcock was a 45 year old man who was married and had children. He lived on Center Ave. in Lake Bluff.

Hitchcock became a silent film producer but decided to stay in Lake Bluff instead of going to Hollywood and becoming famous. Since he stayed in town, he became the night policeman.

When questioned about the relationship by her mother, Hitchcock stated that he and Knaack had no relations; besides he was her teacher; however, she thought there was more going on between them. Knaack would come and visit him at Village Hall.

On October 29, 1929, Elfrieda Knaack was working in Chicago selling encyclopedias. At 6:30 PM, she had just finished giving a great presentation. She called her sister and told her she would be home soon and bought a train ticket from Chicago to Highland Park, and then would take a bus to Deerfield.

It is known that she made it to Highland Park because her ticket was checked. Then she made a phone call to Lake Bluff and purchased a round trip ticket to Lake Bluff. She was not seen or heard of again until 7:00 AM, October 30 in the basement of Village Hall.

Charles Hitchcock was not at work that night and the Village Chief swears that everything was locked up when he arrived. When the janitor and Village Chief arrived, they thought it was too cold so they went to the basement to turn on the furnace. The janitor first believed he saw a ghost. After closer inspection, he discovered a naked figure leaning against the five foot tall furnace, whom he believed was an African American. The person’s arms and legs where charred black and the head was cracked open with the skull in sight. Quickly, the janitor realized the person was still alive. Knaack was living in and out of consciousness for three days before she passed away in the hospital – blaming Hitchcock the entire time.

Originally people thought she was murdered, but then changed their minds and thought she committed suicide. If she committed suicide, however, she would have had to stand on one of her burnt feet as she burned the other one. Also, the furnace was stone cold when she was found which would be impossible if she, or anyone, had turned on the furnace the night before. There was also no smell, which is surprising because burning anything, let alone flesh, gives off a very distinct smell. As stated before, Village Hall was completely locked up when the chief and janitor arrived. Knaack had a key, but it was later discovered that the key was still in her apartment. There was a blood smear in the door leading to the basement – so on the outside. Some consider that she was potentially brought into the basement from a different location.

Where were her clothes? There was a camisole behind the furnace, but they did not find it upon the first search of the room, and there was nothing else found. Doctors state that the pain would have been so bad, it is very unlikely that she did this to herself.

A factor that could be in effect is that Hitchcock’s wife and oldest child here in Highland Park the night of October 29 as well. Could they have met?

Soon after, Charles Hitchcock’s resigned. In the spring he was arrested with his 17 year old son for a burglary in Lake Bluff. His 17 year old son had to spend a year in jail while he got off free. In 1944 he got a divorce. He also always had his desk locked- suspicious or not?

In 1940 news came out that Knaack’s best friend was also in love with Hitchcock. Could she have been involved in the killing?

People say that if you walk by Village Hall late at night and look up you may be able to see Elfrieda Knaack.

There are so many unanswered questions. What happened between 6PM – 7AM?

If you want more information, read The Furnace Girl: The Mysterious Case of Elfrieda Knaak by Kraig W. Moreland and Toby Jones.