The John Hancock Center is a popular tourist draw, but few visitors know that the land it sits on was where a dangerous criminal hatched his notorious schemes.
George “Cap” Streeter served in the Union Army as a private, not a captain. His first wife, Minnie, left him for a life in vaudeville. He and his second wife, Maria, made plans to pilot his steamboat Reutan to Honduras and become gunrunners, but they lacked funding for the endeavor.
According to the Chicago Public Library’s Streeterville Collection, Cap, Maria, and their crew ran the Reutan into a sandbar 450 feet off Chicago’s near north shore on July 10, 1886, at the future site of the Hancock. Streeter claimed the area—today known as Streeterville—as the independent U.S. District of Lake Michigan. He filled the sandbar area with rubble and secured a title, then sold lots and collected taxes on them.
Streeter converted the landbound Reutan into his stronghold. The top half was his home, and the bottom half served as his “war room.” As Chicago experienced a building boom after the 1871 fire, the land surrounding the boat had became valuable and he claimed it as his domain. The Streeterville Collection indicates that Cap’s legal standing depended on an 1821 government survey that
deemed his 186-acre U.S. District of Lake Michigan to be outside of Chicago and Illinois boundaries. He lorded over his trash
Using forged documents, Streeter sold property that he had dubious claim to. Police and private detectives tried to oust Cap. He and Maria responded by dousing them with boiling water or firing birdshot at them from muskets. Cap faced the courts several times and was eventually sentenced for the murder of John Kirk. A December 18, 1988, Chicago Tribune article claimed that Kirk was a trespassing night watchman, but a December 21, 2017, Chicagoly article offered that Kirk was a hired gun out to kill Cap. He was pardoned by the governor of Illinois after nine months. The Dead in Chicago website shows that Maria died in 1903 from complications following a trolley car accident.
Streeter married his third wife, Emma “Ma” Lockwood Streeter, in April 1906. The two were a match. When the Chicago Title and Trust Company tried to seize the fortress, she retaliated with a meat cleaver. Cap died of pneumonia on January 24, 1921. As he had never actually divorced his first wife, the courts would not allow “Ma” to file claims on his property.
A statue of Cap stands at Grand Avenue and McClurg Court. A marker commemorates him as “The eccentric resident who gave Streeterville its name.” While it’s not untrue, the description fails to capture his gunrunning and land-grabbing side. v