Today, Fox Run Subdivision is situated off Crissey Avenue near the banks of the Fox River. On the other side of the Fabyan County Forest Preserve and Settler’s Hill Golf Course sits the Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, home of the Kane County Cougars minor league baseball team. On calm summer nights, sounds of the cheering crowd drift across the green and through the trees to the meandering rows of nearly identical houses. The sound disturbs the eerie quiet just inside the treeline, where rows of nearly identical gravestones poke through the grass behind an iron fence.
This tiny cemetery is all that remains of the Illinois State Training School for Girls at Geneva, which for 84 years housed adolescent girls between the ages of 10 and 16 who had been convicted of offenses punishable by law. Inevitably, deaths from illness and suicide occurred at the facility. Girls without families, or who had been disowned, were buried in a cemetery on the property. Several dozen infants were buried there as well, and today the cemetery contains 51 graves. After the institution closed and was torn down, a plaque was erected at the cemetery that reads:
Beginning in 1894, this land was used by various government agencies as a center for ‘wayward girls’. The colonial-style cottages, service buildings and fences are gone, but these 51 graves remain. These markers are a testimony that they are no longer wayward but home with their Creator. My God’s peace be with their souls.
In the 1970s, Cherie Livett Bombell worked with incarcerated juveniles at the Illinois State Training School for Girls, first in a medium security female unit (Geneva Cottage) then the maximum security unit for aggressive females (Oak) and later, when the institution became co-ed, with male inmates at Wallace Cottage. She wrote a blog about her experiences called Kids Behind Bars. She briefly described what life was like for the inmates:
Prior to the early ’70, all activities were strictly controlled and scheduled. Inmates had very little ‘free’ time other than being either in school, eating a meal or locked in their rooms. For example, on weekends, a time was set aside specifically to write letters in your room. About 1970 with the appointment of a new Superintendent, the rules changed. ‘Behavior modification’ practices and a token system were introduced. People were given more responsibility and opportunities to make decisions. And, the institution became coed – young men were incarcerated and attended school with the girls and young women. Dances were organized on site and became a big incentive to make decisions that would allow you to attend.
According to Michael A. Rembis, a historian at the University of Buffalo in New York State and author of Defining Deviance, the majority of girls incarcerated at Geneva were first or second generation European immigrants, particularly Germans and Pols, with approximately 10 percent African Americans thrown into the mix. In 1916, a tunnel system was completed that connected all the existing buildings. There was a gymnasium, schoolhouse, pool, and chapel, as well as administration and living quarters. It is unknown whether all or part of this tunnel system exists to the present day.
Even in the early 1900s, there were allegations of abusive practices at the facility. Several Chicago journalists accused its superintendent, Ophelia Amigh, of using handcuffs and whips to punish unruly girls, many of whom finished their tenure unreformed. Girls were expected to sew their own clothes, tended gardens, and helped raise livestock like cows, sheep, and chickens. Each girl had an account that her wages were paid into and was accessible upon release. Medical and dental expenses were deducted from this account.
This environment, coupled with the emotional distress of the inmates, naturally lent itself to strange tales. Since the 1940s, visitors to the cemetery have reported seeing red eyes in the woods, as well as the specter of a woman in a white gown or flowing dress in the cemetery itself. Others have heard a crying infant. Shortly after construction was completed on the Fox Run Subdivision, some residents began to report eerie encounters. Most of these encounters centered on the tiny cemetery at the southwest end of the subdivision, but some—notably ethereal singing, knocking, and a physically aggressive phantom wearing an old-fashioned suit—were experienced by at least one resident in her home. The developers of Fox Run agreed to maintain the cemetery in perpetuity, so it will always remain as a reminder of what was once there.