She disappeared off the face of the earth in February 1977.
Her body was never found, nor was a murder weapon, much less her killer. But the spirit of Helen Brach lives on at Glen Grove Stables near Chicago.
My fellow nonfiction writers may know what I mean when I admit to wishing for interesting things to write about. All I can say is be careful what you wish for.
I came across a cloth-covered journal I kept in 2003. My bright idea at that time was to take the journal with me to my 14-year-old’s riding lesson at Glen Grove Equestrian Center next to the forest preserve in Morton Grove. The stables had a waiting area with an old fireplace, two beat-up picnic tables, and a window into the arena where Emily had her lesson with her trainer, Paula. My plan was to sit on the wooden bench of the picnic table and write while also watching Emily jump with her horse. I was always looking for more time to write.
Seemed like a plan. My only worry was what to write about. Would I observe the secret life of the equestrian set? The personal connections riders made with the horses?
One thing I knew about Glen Grove is that it had a colorful past, associated with several tragedies. The stables were once owned and run by Richard Bailey, a con man who swindled wealthy widows by selling them defective horses for huge amounts of money. One of those widows was the Brach candy heiress, Helen Brach. She was too sharp for him and just as she was figuring out his dastardly game, she disappeared. Her body was never found.
The girls who rode horses at Glen Grove liked to stay late some nights and have a little séance with the spirit of Helen Brach, just to spook the heck out of themselves. Several nine-year-old girls told me, with solemn conviction, “Helen Brach is buried in the fireplace.”
So there was that mystery (since solved, if you believe the confession of a man who said that Brach’s body was smelted into oblivion at a steel mill). There was also a sad story of three boys murdered at the stables back in the 1940s. Horses as well were killed as one way for Bailey to collect insurance money on his overpriced steeds. The thug he hired used electrocution. Bailey was eventually tried for conspiracy to murder and sent to prison for life. The actual killer has never been named.
But now Glen Grove is a peaceful, pastoral equestrian center run by the park district. I wondered what I would write about as I sat there for two hours. At least, I figured, I would save on gas by not driving there twice, and I could watch Emily’s progress. So Emily and I set out on July 24, she with her riding gear and me with my cloth-covered journal.
We drove west past Old Orchard Mall and turned on Harms Road, but there we stopped. We couldn’t get in the Glen Grove gate because the police were there stooped over a man on the ground. A man with blood on him. The police put the poor fellow in a body bag and waved us through. Emily and I looked at each other as I parked the car. What is going on here?
It turned out that Paula, Emily’s trainer, spotted the corpse at the edge of the forest preserve, next to the entrance of Glen Grove, and called the police. (Strangely, when WGN News showed up, Paula disappeared. I guess she didn’t want to be on TV.) The man died from a gunshot wound, apparently self-inflicted. It was a sad story.
I did write at Glen Grove Stables for a few months, but I never again worried about–or wished for–something interesting to write about.