“There Goes the Old Witch”

Decatur, Illinois’ 1885 witch scare shows how immigrants brought belief in witchcraft to urban areas.

Founded in 1823, Decatur is an industrial city straddling the Sangamon River in central Illinois. It was an important juncture of the Wabash, Illinois Central, and Baltimore & Ohio railroads. In 1885, its population had grown to roughly 13,000. Recent Eastern European immigrants, particularly from Poland, crowded into Decatur’s Fifth Ward, located on the city’s far northeast side along the Illinois Central Railroad. That year, a controversy erupted over a 50-year-old woman who neighbors suspected of being a witch.

In October 1885, the woman, who lived at the east end of Condit Street, appeared at an attorney’s office downtown and inquired about bringing a lawsuit against her neighbors, who were harassing her and accusing her of witchcraft. Soon after moving to Decatur, she alleged, a neighborhood boy named Starbati died, followed by the son of a man named Nalefski (or Nowleski).

Another child recently became sick, and neighbors accused her of giving the child a bewitched drink. Rumors quickly spread through the tight-knit Polish settlement. According to The Decatur Herald, neighbors ostracized the woman, and when she passed by, pointed their fingers at her and said, “Da geht die alte Hexe,” a German phrase meaning, “There goes the old witch.”

When a reporter visited the neighborhood, its residents were eager to share their stories of encounters with “the witch,” whose identity remained anonymous. “I went to a neighbor’s well and got water,” one woman said. “The old witch was there and talked to me. She bewitched me and I went into the house and fell down in a faint.” According to another, “She shuffles cards and decides who of us are to die, who are to be sick, and who are to be afflicted with sores. She decides also by coffee grounds.”[1]

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The Embrace Of Thanatos

Embrace Of Thanatos

“Thanatos,” a monument to John E. Hubbard (1847-1899), in Green Mount Cemetery at 250 State Street (U.S. Route 2) in the City of Montpelier, Washington County, Vermont. John Erastus Hubbard was a controversial figure. He allegedly duplicitously gained a sizable inheritance from his aunt, Fanny Hubbard Kellogg, who intended her wealth to benefit the City of Montpelier. The controversy surrounding the will tarnished Hubbard’s reputation.

Upon his death in 1899, Hubbard did leave the fortune to Montpelier, and some of his wealth went toward building a gate and chapel at Green Mount Cemetery. An Austrian artist named Karl Bitter designed his monument, calling it “Thanatos” after the Greek god of death. One side of the inscription reads:

Approach thy grave
Like one who wraps
The Drapery of his couch
About him and lies down
To pleasant dream

According to legend, bad luck will befall anyone foolish enough to sit on the figure’s lap (popularly called Black Agnus).

Isabella’s Spectral Form Chills Guests at Geneva’s Belhurst Castle

The ghost of an elegant opera singer is said to wander the grounds of this 19th-Century mansion in New York’s Finger Lakes.

Designed by architectural firm Fuller & Wheeler and built between 1885 and 1889 for Mrs. Carrie M. Young Harron Collins, Belhurst Castle is a Romanesque Revival-style mansion on Seneca Lake in Geneva, New York. The property has a long and colorful history, and is rumored to be haunted by several ghosts, including an opera singer named Isabella.

In 1824, an English lawyer named Joseph Fellows acquired rights to the property and built a home called the Hermitage, which he leased to a mysterious man named Henry Hall. “Henry Hall” was actually the assumed name of William Henry Bucke, who fled to the United States from London, where he had been treasurer of Covent Garden Theater. Bucke had embezzled theater funds and married his stepmother, who according to legend was an actress or opera singer named Isabella. Bucke died in 1852 of an untreated injury.

Harrison G. Otis purchased the property and named it ‘Bellehurst,’ or “beautiful forest”. The Otis family lived there until 1878, when it was taken over by the United States Trust Company. Local residents picnicked in “Otis Grove” in the shadow of the abandoned Hermitage, and spun yarns about escape tunnels William Henry Bucke/Henry Hall had built leading to Seneca Lake. The old house, they said, was haunted.

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Sturges Park: A Lesson in Legend Formation

Pinpointing the exact origin of a legend is rare, so this example from Minnesota is invaluable to folklorists.

I once listed Sturges Park in Buffalo, Minnesota as the fifth most haunted park in the Midwest in a Top 10 list on my old website Mysterious Heartland (to be fair, there aren’t many haunted parks). In response, Mac Loomis of Hoofprint.net published an article revealing the true story behind the park’s legend.

Historically, Alfred E. Sturges and his wife Adelaide opened this five-acre plot of land to the public in 1903. The City of Buffalo purchased the park in 1958. According to legend, Mr. Sturgis’ ghost reportedly haunts the park, and visitors have also seen orbs of light dancing through the trees. It is also rumored that names written in blood appear on the bathroom mirrors.

According to Mac Loomis and Ryan McCallum, an English teacher at Buffalo High School, the source of this legend is none other than Ryan McCallum himself. He says:

“It was 1987, I was a bored and lonely kid because I had just moved here from Arizona. My class took a field trip and I didn’t have anyone to go with, so I went down to the lake and found a huge dead carp. I had an idea. I started cutting it open with a stick. I brought [the fish parts] to the girls’ bathroom and started smearing it all over. I wrote ‘help me’ and ‘you’re next’ and put the eyeballs on either side of the sink handles. When my classmates asked why I didn’t do anything I told them that I was going to the bathroom but I saw horrifying things, and I saw a ghost. I saw Old Man Sturges.”

The legend spread from there. You can read the rest of the article at this link.

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Ghosts of Chicago Raised the Bar for Books of Chicago Ghostlore

Books about Illinois ghostlore have become a “copy and paste” industry, and literally dozens of paperbacks devoid of original content line the shelves. That cannot be said for The Ghosts of Chicago: The Windy City’s Most Famous Haunts by Adam Selzer. Published by Llewellyn Publications in 2013, The Ghosts of Chicago is a necessary addition to any collection of books on Chicago ghostlore. It retails for $18.50 and is 340 pages in length.

“Professional ghost hunter and historian Adam Selzer pieces together the truth behind Chicago’s ghosts, and brings to light dozens of never-before-told firsthand accounts,” the cover promises. Selzer delivers on this promise, not necessarily by adding new locations to our catalog of tales, but by greatly expanding our understanding of well-known stories. That is what makes The Ghosts of Chicago so great—it takes on a simple task and does it better than it has been done for nearly a decade.

Two examples of this are the chapters on Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery and Resurrection Mary. Both are obligatory inclusions in any book about Chicago ghostlore, and you would think not much more could be written about them. Selzer pushes the stories beyond their usual retelling, however.

In the chapter on Bachelor’s Grove, for example, he goes into detail about the famous “ghost photo” of the lady dressed in white sitting on a broken headstone. Unlike most other accounts, he explains the who, when, and how of the photograph—giving credit to the photographer and telling her story.

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Do Past Shadows Lurk at Historic Illinois College?

Nearly every building on campus is thought to have a ghost or two.

Click to expand photos

Founded by Presbyterians in 1829, Illinois College in Jacksonville is one of the oldest colleges in Illinois. Its first president was Edward Beecher, brother of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. With such a rich history, it comes as no surprise that Illinois College is rich in ghostlore too. The female dorm at Illinois College, Ellis Hall, is allegedly haunted by a young woman who committed suicide. A “gray ghost”—and a faceless phantom at that—hangs out on the stairwell of Whipple Hall.

Another gray ghost, this one dressed in a Confederate uniform from the Civil War, has been seen in Sturtevant Hall. Phantom footsteps have been heard in Beecher Hall, the oldest building on campus. It is rumored that early in the college’s history, medical students stole cadavers from nearby hospitals in order to learn about anatomy. After a while, the hall where the bodies were stored began to smell, and the student’s grisly enterprise was uncovered.

Designed to accommodate 113 students, administrators at Illinois College named Ellis Hall after Rev. John M. Ellis. Ellis founded Illinois College in 1829. The residence hall was built in 1957, and the ghost of a young woman who committed suicide by hanging herself in the closet is rumored to haunt a room on the third floor. In truth, a young woman named Gail died in Room 303, but of a terminal illness. Still, residents believe her ghost opens and closes doors, hides personal items, and knocks on the walls.

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Pros and Cons of Paranormal Tourism

Despite positive news about allegedly haunted locations opening their doors for paranormal tours and events, the value of such tourism is still a hotly debated topic.

Over the years, there have been many stories of so-called “ghost hunters” trespassing and committing a variety of other crimes including vandalism, theft, arson, underage drinking, and even grave robbery. Because of the sensational nature of these incidents, local media loves to hype them up. It is undeniable that certain individuals have gone to allegedly haunted locations to commit mischief, and others use this fact to paint everyone interested in legend tripping with a wide brush. They argue the simple act of writing about an allegedly haunted location invites harm to it.

I believe that legends and lore can be a great way to create interest in Local history. Critics assume stories on the Internet draw negative attention to these places, when in fact, they are already well known in the local community. Many have already suffered vandalism long before the internet or personal computers became widely available. Many of these stories developed during the 1960s and ’70s when these locations were used as party spots for teenagers who went there to drink, take drugs, or hook up.

None of that, however, has anything to do with people who are interested in folklore and ghost stories. The individuals involved in these crimes use ghost stories as an excuse for delinquent behavior. Many allegedly haunted locations are remote and unsupervised, perfect locations for mischief, but they do not have to have anything to do with ghost stories to attract petty crime.

In 2009, three teenagers were arrested in South Side Cemetery in Pontiac, Illinois as they were seen trying to tip over a headstone. Days earlier, as many as 60 headstones had been damaged at the same location. This cemetery was not associated with any legends or ghost stories.

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