Saturday,  October 30, 2004

Haunted Southern Illinois: Region full of the scary, bizarre, and freaky phenomena

By Marleen Shepherd
Southern Illinoisan

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS – The ghost stories of a region are the remnants of an oral tradition, a chronicle of persons and events that are chillingly recounted for generations.

Our history books only tell part of the story; our wild imaginations fill in the blanks. Or is it imagination? Humanity has been wrestling with that question for centuries.

What we do know is that our own tales of rattling chains, of strange forest creatures, of visitors from beyond the grave, are as deeply ingrained in Southern Illinois culture as the historic sites from which many of the tales emanate. The sheer expanse of Southern Illinois’ phantasmic folklore has been the subject of several books such as “Haunted Illinois,” “Weird Illinois” and “Weird Egypt: History, Haunts & Lore of Southern Illinois.”

Several ghost stories from Southern Illinois reach back to and beyond the area’s settlement. The region’s eerie tales – like those of the Old Slave House in Equality – are still used by native Southern Illinoisans to spook their children on stormy Halloween nights, some 150 years after the first ghost story about the plantation appeared.

Others, like the spirits at Carbondale’s DCI Biologicals, are newly told here and will likely be added to the campfire compendium entertaining the next generation.

Here are some of the area’s finest, sure to send the proverbial chills up your spine and leave you to wonder, “Was that knock just now really the house settling?” Maybe it is a new tale to add to the repertoire of spirited stories that tell us as much about our history as they do of the paranormal.

DCI Biologicals, Carbondale

This historic building that once served as Carbondale’s stately cement post office is a place where “weird things happen all the time,” according to Michelle Kell, the center manager who did not believe in ghosts before working at the building on Main Street.

Now Kell admits she’s afraid to be alone there at night, and she recently lost the employ of a night janitor who could not handle the intensity and frequency of poltergeist activity.

According to Kell, one of the janitor’s scarier nights on the job included becoming locked in a closet when the door shut behind him and a chair flew behind the door. This has been known to happen to other employees, sometimes in broad daylight.

Kell has been alone in the building when doors of the nearly century-old edifice open and shut by themselves.

“I’ve heard a phone ringing downstairs. We don’t have any phones downstairs,” said Kell, who also reports the radio routinely turns on and off by itself at night. “That’s the reason I don’t want be here by myself.”

The huge chandelier in the lobby also takes to swinging back and forth of its own volition and a recent photograph snapped in the lobby revealed a ghostly figure posing for the camera behind an employee.

“It looked like somebody white standing behind her. You could see it perfectly, like a white form,” Kell said.

The white feminine outline, wearing a long dress, has been spotted at other times floating through the lobby.

Kell said the old post office, where a postmaster reportedly died, was also used to house other government offices like that of the FBI.

Old Slave House, rural Equality

This home, originally named Hickory Hill, is considered not only one of the most haunted places in Southern Illinois, but in the nation.

It was once used in the reverse underground railroad to capture free blacks and sell them into slavery for hefty profits. Some slaves were kept in Illinois for the excruciating work in the salt tracts owned by the home’s owner, John Hart Crenshaw.

The attic of the beautiful white home was fashioned into a torture chamber where the blacks were shackled to small make-shift cells. The whipping post, bars on the two tiny windows that allowed practically no airflow into the slave holding cells, a ball and chain and the secret passage leading directly from the attic to a carriage door are grim reminders of the horrors endured here.

Jon Musgrave, a researcher of the home’s history, says rumors of ghosts in the attic actually started appearing in the 1800s when townspeople weren’t hearing Hickory Hill ghosts. They were hearing the all-too-real moans of live people.

When the house re-opened for tourism in the 1920s under new ownership, the ghost story revived as inhabitants and visitors alike told of strange noises throughout the house, most noticeably from the attic where, reportedly, blood stains appear on the walls and where chains still rattle and cries still echo at night.

The building, which closed to tourism eight years ago on Halloween, has hosted some 150 ghost hunters who tried to spend the night in the home. Only one made it through an entire night, departing with tales of ghostly sounds, according to “Haunted Illinois” author Troy Taylor, as recounted on his Web site

Reports of ghostly shapes and areas of extreme cold in the house, even on the hottest August days, continue through this day.

The Murphysboro Mud Monster

He has been called Bigfoot in the United States, the Abominable Snowman in the Himalayas, Mapinguari in the Amazon, Sasquatch in Canada, Yowie in Australia and Yeti in Asia.

In Jackson County, where a string of sightings occurred in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he’s known as the Big Muddy Monster, named after the river he reportedly used as a main thoroughfare.

According to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Association, which has an extensive on line database of all sightings in the United States, the Murphysboro Mud Monster earns a class C in credibility, the lowest ranking.

However, many of the people reportedly saw the beast (often smelling a foul odor beforehand) still talk of the rare sightings of a creature most often described as looking like a big-boned and hair-covered 7-foot-tall biped. The hair was usually matted with mud and plant material, and recounts of the color vary from white to brown with silver streaks.

The monster never hurt anybody but spooked local hunters, children, lovebirds and once a troupe of carnies that said the beast stopped in to inspect the Shetland ponies one night while the group was setting up for a Riverside Park carnival.

The slew of sightings drew headlines from newspapers across the United States, including The New York Times.

It has been a decade since the last sighting of the mud monster, or Mongo as he is sometimes dubbed. But locals in the community still trade stories of the piercing cries made by the creature and large footprints left in the mud.

The Bigfoot Field Researchers Association reports a dozen other Bigfoot sightings in Southern Illinois over the last 50 years. The agency contends that Native Americans in the area first documented “non-human peoples of the wild,” and for 400 years the wilderness of North America has been entertaining similar tales.

Devil’s Bake Oven, Grand Tower

Historians surmise that places with names like Devil’s Bake Oven often earn such monikers because of a belief by early inhabitants that such lands are cursed or somehow connected to the paranormal.

The once-booming iron town of Grand Tower, along the Mississippi River on Illinois 3, is no exception.

According to Taylor, legends of ghostly activity were first circulated by the Native Americans who called this area home. Powerful rapids slap the base of the rock, which caused numerous deaths at nearby Devil’s Backbone, a rocky ridge about a mile-and-a-half long at Grand Tower’s northern edge. Devil’s Backbone continued to thwart the most experienced riverboat captains, resulting in many tragedies.

Ghost stories continued throughout the ages, including the story of a drowned wedding party that resurfaced from the river and foretold the coming of the Civil War to their descendants.

The most famous spirit in Grand Tower is that of Esmerelda, the daughter of a prominent citizen in the mid-1800s who lived atop Devil’s Bake Oven. Esmerelda was said to have fallen in love with the handsome rogue pilot of a riverboat appropriately named “Spectre.”

After a boiler explosion claimed her lover’s life, according to legend Esmerelda leaped to her death from the high cliff. While her home that sat above the cliff is long gone, some believe Esmerelda remains.

Locals have said the dead girl appears as a fine mist. According to Taylor, she walks along the pathway and vanishes among rocks near the old house. The moaning and wailing that still echo from the area are said to be most acute during thunderstorms.

The Hundley House, Carbondale

This historic brick home on Main Street with accents such as an original Art Nouveau stained-glass window was the site of an unsolved murder in 1928 of the former mayor J. Chas Hundley and his philanthropist wife, Luella.

Speculation on the killing abounds with tales of shady connections the family may have had in the heyday of prohibition and mobsters. The only suspect was Hundley’s son, who was allegedly involved in a bootlegging ring. He was never charged.

The hole from the 45-caliber bullet that ended Luella’s life still remains by the private back staircase leading up from the kitchen of the current gift and wine shop to private rental quarters.

Guests and residents have reported ghostly activity continuously for the last seven decades. The porch swing starts swinging by itself on windless nights, pots and pans bang in the kitchen, doors open and close, and lights turn on and off by themselves.

Tenants who live in the upper level of the house also have reported creaking on the steps where Luella was slain.