Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Dreadful tales of Little Egypt

By Edmund Meinhardt

Daily Egyptian

Southern Illinois has many such legends. Some, like the Big Muddy Monster, may forever remain mysteries. With others, like the Old Slave House in Equality, Ill., the excesses of human nature may ultimately prove far more chilling than any supernatural activity.

Screams, slime and footprints in the mud

On June 25, 1973, Murphysboro police officers responded to a report by Randy Needham and Judy Johnson, who had been parked near a boat ramp by the Big Muddy River.

Needham and Johnson heard a strange scream from the woods near the river. When they looked in the direction of the sound, they saw a seven-foot creature approaching them, lumbering on two legs, its long white matted hair streaked with slimy river mud. As the creature approached to within 20 feet, they drove away quickly and contacted the police.

Officers Meryl Lindsay, Bob Scott and Jimmie Nash returned to the area with Needham and found footprints in the mud. While they were investigating, they heard the creature scream again, this time from about 100 yards away. All four men retreated for the safety of the patrol car for a while but went back out to follow the footprints and try to track down a splashing noise they heard in the distance. They didn’t see the creature.

The next night, there was another sighting, this time in the Westwood Hills subdivision of Murphysboro. Randy Creath and his girlfriend, Cheryl Ray, who were then 17 years old, were talking in the breezeway between her parents’ house and garage when they heard something moving in the bushes behind the house. They also noticed a foul smell and walked out to investigate.

He said he saw the creature standing about 15 feet away.

“There was mud and crud in the bushes,” Creath said. “You could see where it had flattened the bushes and grass so it could sleep or do whatever it was doing out there, like a deer beds down. It was between seven and eight feet tall, fairly substantial in girth. It had light-colored fur. I saw its outline more than actual detail.”

Creath and Ray returned to the house. Ray’s mother called the police.

“It had gone by the time the police arrived,” Creath said. He told police the creature appeared to weigh about 300 to 350 pounds and smelled distinctly of river mud.

The police were initially skeptical.

“They thought we’d been drinking or smoking something,” Creath said.

Christian Baril, then a four-year-old child who lived near the Rays’ property, reported seeing a “big white ghost” the same night.

After talking to Creath, Ray, her parents and Baril, the Murphysboro police were convinced, according to a story in the Southern Illinoisan on June 27, 1973.

The story quoted the Murphysboro police as saying, “We believe these people saw what they said they saw.”

The creature, called the “Murphysboro Mud Monster” or the “Big Muddy Monster,” made a few more appearances, according to a Web site maintained by Troy Taylor, formerly of Alton, a collector and publisher of supernatural legends.

Carnival workers reported seeing the creature near some Shetland ponies on July 4, 1973, and Nedra Green, who lived on a rural farm near Murphysboro, reported hearing a screaming sound coming from her barn.

Creath is now a Methodist pastor living in Melrose Park, Ill. He is bemused and somewhat irritated by the seasonal interest in his encounter with the legend.

“I wish I’d kept my mouth shut,” he said.

George, the itinerant artist and the jasmine lady

Alton, Ill., located north of St. Louis near the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers, has a reputation for being one of the most haunted cities in the United States.

Nestled between the Mississippi and some dramatically sloping streets is the Mineral Springs Hotel, built in 1914. It was originally the site of a meat-packing operation, but the discovery of mineral water during the excavation for an ice storage site gave rise to the idea of a spa hotel. A chemist declared the water to have medicinal properties. It was pumped out of the ground and put into swimming pools and into smaller tubs where people could pay a dollar to soak for “water treatments.”

In the early part of the century, it was considered improper for men and women to swim together, so a large pool was built just below the ground level for the men, and a smaller pool was placed on a lower level for the women.

Spas were very popular at the time, and the promise of water treatment cures drew people from great distances. For a time, the hotel flourished, but business began to decline in the 1930s, when few people could afford to pay a dime to swim or a dollar for a water treatment.

Several strange tales are told about dark events and lurking spirits at the Mineral Springs Hotel.

One legend tells of a man, referred to in some accounts as “George,” who drowned in the men’s swimming pool. His wife, fed up with his numerous infidelities, confronted him by the pool and struck him in the face with her shoe. Momentarily blinded by blood, he walked into one of the stone columns which surround the pool, fell into the water and drowned. After that time, guests began to report seeing an angry, brooding man in tie and tails standing by the men’s pool from time to time.

Another tale tells of an itinerant artist, who couldn’t pay his bill and was supposedly allowed to paint a mural of the city of Alton in the bar. He died before finishing it, or so the story goes, and can sometimes be found on the ground level looking confused and smelling of alcohol. Guests called him the “drunk ghost.” The unfinished mural can still be seen on the wall of what is now an antique store.

By far, the most famous Mineral Springs Hotel ghost is the jasmine lady. Her story, too, is rooted in an adulterous affair. One day her husband discovered her at the hotel with her lover. During the confrontation, her husband pursued her out of the room and she fell or was pushed down a flight of stairs. She died of her injuries, and her husband went into her room and hung himself. The jasmine lady is so called because of her fondness for jasmine perfume, and people report smelling it in the building. Some also report being able to see the jasmine lady walking slowly down the stairs.

Wayne Hensley, who has run a barber shop in the building for 25 years, conducts regular “ghost tours” on the premises.

“Out of 47 people, 10 smelled the jasmine on the last one,” Hensley said. “I didn’t smell it, but I have smelled it in the past many times.”

Hensley said strange things often happen on his tours.

“It’s not unusual for camera batteries to go dead,” Hensley said. “On the last one, one lady’s camera battery went dead, then it started to get warm. She said it started to vibrate. She gave it to me to hold, and I couldn’t feel anything at first, but then it did start to vibrate.”

The jasmine lady’s room is now part of an apartment, Hensley said.

“It gets cold up there,” he said. “Covers get pulled off beds. There are two little dogs up there, and sometimes they stand outside of that room and bark. They won’t go in that room.”

The Mineral Springs Hotel has been featured on Fox Family and on the Travel Channel’s “Weird Places” show.

Hensley said there is a theory about some of the other strange occurrences that people report, which include weird orbs of light, gathered into a straight line.

“There was a Civil War prison about four blocks away,” Hensley said. “They may have used some of the stones in the basement after they tore it down.”

The spirits of some of the men who died in the prison may have followed the rocks, Hensley said.

In addition to the tours, guests can sleepovers. People bring sleeping bags and camp out in the swimming pool in hopes of catching a glimpse of a ghost.

McPike Mansion

Not far from the Mineral Springs Hotel stands the remains of McPike Mansion, another favorite attraction of the ghost tours which regularly wend their way through Alton.

It is owned by Sharyn and George Luedke, who live next door. They conduct tours of the property, although they can’t let anyone inside.

“It’s condemned,” Sharyn said.

Brightly colored signs affixed to the front of the house declare it to be unsafe for human occupancy. There is also a bright orange building permit, issued by the city of Alton. The roof of the porch is collapsing. About two dozen molded plastic chairs sit facing the front of the house.

It was built in 1869 for Henry Guest McPike, a businessman active in local politics.

Since buying the house in 1994, Sharyn said she has since encountered many of the spirits lingering in the house. Once she felt a tug on her jacket as she tripped on some bricks and said she thinks it was a spirit trying to keep her from falling.

They have 25 minutes of footage of a foggy mist in the basement. Photographs taken in the vaulted wine cellar sometimes show orbs of light.

“Sometimes there is a lady in white who stands at the window,” Sharyn said.

Even though they can’t let anyone enter the mansion, they have campouts on the grounds. Someday, she hopes to refurbish the house, so people can once again enter.

Hickory Hill

Construction started in 1838 on Hickory Hill, John Hart Crenshaw’s house in Equality, Ill. Crenshaw bought his way into the salt business and was reputed to have constructed a system for sending freed blacks back into slavery in the South.

Jon Musgrave, a former reporter for the Harrisburg Daily Register and author of the book “Slaves, Salt, Sex and Mr. Crenshaw,” said he has found ample evidence in his research to support this idea.

“Crenshaw was a kidnapper,” Musgrave said.

One of the more sordid rumors about the Old Slave House involves a stud slave named Robert Wilson, also known as “Uncle Bob,” who supposedly spawned 300 children while held captive by Crenshaw in the 1850s.

“He was a real person,” Musgrave said. “We don’t have a detailed account of his life. We know from historical research that slave breeding did take place, and there are affidavits from many people who talked to him during the twenties, thirties and forties. He told dozens of people that he was used as a stud slave.”

Musgrave said Wilson died in 1948 in Elgin, Ill., at the age of 112.

Strange devices have been found in the attic, which some speculate may have been whipping posts. There are rings set in the floor that could have been used to shackle slaves.

Stories abound of eerie and unsettling sounds of crying, whimpering and dragging chains coming from the attic. These stories date back to the time Crenshaw lived in the house.

Musgrave said the stories are probably based on real sounds, and that it is possible Crenshaw hid slaves in his attic, biding his time until he had enough of them to make it worth the risk of selling them south.

Even after Crenshaw sold the house, stories of the sounds persisted. The house was occupied by an immigrant family who spoke little English. Musgrave said Crenshaw probably continued using the house in his lucrative slave trade, even as the family lived there.

“There are stories in circulation which would indicate the father was involved,” Musgrave said. “He was probably paid to look the other way.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, the house was also said to have been cursed by a witch.

“People who lived there were running a coal mine at that time,” Musgrave said. “They burned down the house of a woman who lived at the foot of the hill. She walked up the hill and put a curse on all of the male inhabitants and said they would all die horrible deaths. From what I’ve been told, they all did.”

The Sisk family bought the house in 1913. George Sisk lives in the Old Slave House, also known as Hickory Hill. For years, he tried to persuade the state of Illinois to purchase it and run it as a state historic site. In 2000, he succeeded.

The site is closed due to a lack of operating funds.

“The state needs to look at how we manage historic sites. It expects them to operate without admission fees,” Musgrave said. “It’s better to charge admission than to keep it free and keep it closed. That’s almost criminal neglect, especially with counties down here hemorrhaging jobs.”