Airtight Bridge Murder Part 1 of 3: A Gruesome Discovery

On a typical autumn evening, Charlie and his girlfriend Megan left the campus of Eastern Illinois University to enjoy a game of miniature golf at Lincoln Springs Resort. They found themselves driving down a rural route somewhere northeast of Charleston. The sun had gone down before the two could find their way back to a main road, and Charlie hadn’t bothered to bring a map. As trees and fields flew past, it was clear they were getting further and further away from their destination.

Tensions were already running high when their headlights fell on two pairs of eyes that shimmered near the mailbox of a white, double-wide trailer. As Charlie’s silver Mitsubishi Outlander drove past, two unleashed dogs jumped at the car and chased it to the edge of the paved road. They disappeared into the dirt and dust kicked up by the Outlander as it ground the chalky gravel under its wheels.

Navigating several sharp curves, Megan and Charlie’s hearts raced as the road pitched downward and the fallow cornfields disappeared behind thick woods and desolate meadows. Charlie slowed down to avoid spinning out, and everything became eerily quiet aside from the sound of tires against the road.

Charlie threw his girlfriend a worried glance as they approached a small, white sign warning of a weight limit of eight tons. Suddenly the trestles of an old, one lane suspension bridge loomed out of the darkness. The branches of two large trees, a sycamore and a bur oak, formed a natural arch over the foreboding entrance. Lurching forward, the Outlander rolled over the broken pavement suspended fifteen and a half feet above the inky waters of the Embarras River. For a moment, the burgundy, steel supports were all the two saw in every direction.

As Charlie and Megan reached the opposite entrance, their headlights revealed an old greeting spray-painted onto the guardrail that cryptically read, “Howdy Grimster.” The sounds of nature returned after the two had crossed the 60-yard distance to the other side.

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Haunted Rockford, Illinois

Haunted Rockford, Illinois, Kathi Kresol’s latest offering from The History Press, is a spine-tingling look at the history and folklore of the Forest City. Kathi also wrote Murder & Mayhem in Rockford, Illinois, and originally those were going to be a single book. Though related subjects (many traumatic events are believed to spawn hauntings), splitting them up was ultimately a good decision thematically.

Like Murder & Mayhem in Rockford, Haunted Rockford delves into the history and personalities behind the stories. Kathi created the popular Haunted Rockford Tours, but this is no recitation of a tour script. These stories are painstakingly researched and documented, relying primarily on interviews and newspaper articles. The chapters are divided into two parts: Ghostly Encounters and Legends, Curses and Other Curiosities.

The two most interesting chapters are “The Terrible Tragedy of Geraldine Bourbon” and “The Witch of McGregor Road.” In the first, Kathi tells a personal story of how she came to live in a haunted house in Rockford, and the horrible events that precipitated it. Imagine finding out your home was the scene of a double murder after a number of bizarre experiences. Kathi told me about her experience several times over the years and it doesn’t lose its impact in print.

In “The Witch of McGregor Road,” Kathi uncovered a possible origin for Rockford’s infamous “Witch Beulah” legend. The legend involves a school teacher who was blamed for a fire at her schoolhouse out on Meridian or McGregor Road. Or, perhaps, Beulah was a witch who cursed Arthur Blood’s family and caused the mysterious events along Blood’s Point Road.

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All-American Diner Tour: Alexis Diner in Newburgh, New York

Located off I-84 at the juncture of Route 9W and N. Plank Road at the north end of economically depressed , New York, Alexis Diner is a 24-hour Greek restaurant-diner hybrid with all the chrome you can ask for. Its extensive menu and desert offerings includes a full bar. There is limited counter seating but plenty of booths and tables. Wall murals and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling make for an unusually classy atmosphere.

On my visit, I ordered the Mediterranean Panini with grilled chicken, fresh spinach, mozzarella cheese, and pesto for $10.75. It came with French fries, cole slaw, and half a pickle. I was able to substitute macaroni salad for the French fries for no extra charge. The waitress was attentive and the food was good.

My only complaint was that the chicken pieces in my panini were too large but otherwise it was perfect. I normally don’t eat desert, but my waitress persuaded me to try the rice pudding. I thought it would be served in a small bowl, but it came out in a large glass topped with whip cream and cinnamon! So good.

As mentioned earlier, their menu is quite extensive. At twelve pages, it’d be hard not to find something you like. There is an entire selection of southwestern cuisine, including stir fry, fajitas, quesadillas, nachos, and a taco salad. Their specialty sandwiches include a “Jitterbug,” an open-faced hamburger slathered in gravy, served with French fries or potato salad and cole slaw for $7.25.

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20-Acre Enigma of Naples’ Rosemary Cemetery

A graveyard is not something many people expect to encounter while visiting the pharmacy at a busy urban intersection in one of the wealthiest communities in the United States, but that is exactly what you will find at the intersection of Tamiami Trail North (U.S. 41) and Pine Ridge Road in Naples, Florida.

For years, passersby have wondered about the origin of this small cemetery and the identity of the people interred there. Adding to the mystery are reports of paranormal activity and rumors that neighboring businesses inevitably close their doors after only a short period of time.

While only home to a little over 19,000 people, Naples, Florida is one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, with the sixth highest per capita income and the second highest number of millionaires per capita in America. Every year, tourists flock to the area, and Naples Beach was voted the best beach in America by the Travel Channel in 2005.

It wasn’t always this popular, or this populated. In the 1870s, reporters described the area’s agreeable climate, abundant fishing, and shoreline as like that of Italy. So when a U.S. Senator from Kentucky named John Stuart Williams and his partner, businessman Walter N. Haldeman, founded a city there, they called it Naples, after the city in Italy.

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Witchcraft in Illinois, 1818-1885

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Early historians claimed witch beliefs vanished from Illinois along with its earliest pioneers, but in this chapter I discuss incidents involving witchcraft that occurred even after the Civil War. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

The end of the Revolutionary War opened the vast Northwest Territory to settlement, and Scotch-Irish pioneers began to cross the Appalachian Mountains and travel down the Ohio River looking for new land. Many settled in the bottomlands between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, in what would become southern Illinois.

Following close behind, Yankees from New England spread out across northern Illinois and down the Illinois River Valley. Rapid growth transformed the state from a sparsely populated wilderness to a thriving agricultural region. Between 1800 and 1840, Illinois’ population grew from 2,458 to 476,183 residents.

Southern Illinois was called “Egypt” or “Little Egypt” for its proximity to a vital river trade route (like the Nile delta in Egypt) and the presence of towns with names like Cairo, Thebes, Dongola, and Karnak. New Englanders who immigrated to Illinois in the early half of the nineteenth century also called it “Dark Egypt.” They viewed the Scotch-Irish pioneers who preceded them as uneducated, boorish, and backwards.

For their part, the Scotch-Irish, who emigrated from Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas, viewed these Yankees, in the colorful words of one historian, as “a skinning, tricky, penurious race of peddlers, filling the country with tinware, brass clocks, and wooden nutmegs.”

According to cultural historian David Hackett Fischer, Scotch-Irish pioneers were obsessed with magic and sorcery, and they brought those beliefs with them into Illinois. One early account of witchcraft in Little Egypt comes from the History of Williamson County Illinois (1876). “From 1818 to 1835,” its author claimed, “there were a great many witches in this county.” On a place called Davis’ Prairie (also known as David’s Prairie), there lived a woman named Eva Locker, who was widely reputed to be a witch.

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Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears

chancellorsville-by-stephen-w-searsIn Chancellorsville, Stephen W. Sears charts the 1863 Chancellorsville Campaign, beginning with the recovery of the Union Army of the Potomac after the Battle of Fredericksburg and ending with two armies facing each other in much the same way as before the campaign began. In what was Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s most stunning victory, he divided his army in the face of a superior enemy, in violation of basic military rules, and sent Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps around the Union Army’s flank. Jackson’s death, accidentally shot by one of his own soldiers, has been recounted numerous places before, but less well-known is how Union General Joseph Hooker managed to lose a battle that looked so much in his favor.

One of the most stunning takeaways from this book was the Army of the Potomac’s condition after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Desertion, low morale, in-fighting among officers, and expired enlistments whittled the army down to an empty husk. On January 31, 1863, the Union Army counted 25,363 deserters (1/4 of the army!). In contrast, Lee had 91,000 men under his command. Why didn’t he move against the disorganized and demoralized Union Army?

One reason was lack of intelligence. Lee couldn’t be certain how many (or how few) enemy soldiers he faced. Another was lack of supply. Lee couldn’t stockpile enough supplies to go on the offensive with the trickle coming from Richmond. He actually sent 20,000 men south to relieve the burden. So his best opportunity to crush the Army of the Potomac slowly slipped away.

Chancellorsville is above all a vindication of Major General Joseph Hooker. Hooker is usually portrayed as the Union general on the losing end of Robert E. Lee’s most stunning victory. But he was a brilliant organizer and military innovator. Unfortunately, “Fighting Joe” didn’t get along well with his peers. He was outspoken, a rough character, and a middle-aged bachelor at a time when that was viewed suspiciously.

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All-American Diner Tour: Center Diner in Peekskill, New York

Situated on Peekskill Bay on the Hudson River’s east bank, Peekskill is a small river town with a modern downtown. The Center Diner, opened in 1939 on Bank Street off Route 202 (Main Street), is a classic greasy spoon wedged between an alley and a plasma center. It is a rare, true diner. Classic diners were prefabricated buildings modeled on train dining cars and mass produced by companies out of New Jersey. This model is called a “National diner,” and it inspired the Sunset Diner in Little Lulu comics.

On my visit, I ordered the Golden Brown French Toast, which came with two sausage patties and a can(!) of Coke for $5.95. Restaurants selling cans of soda, rather than having a beverage fountain, is a pet peeve of mine, but it came with the meal so I guess I can’t complain. Two potbellied old men sat at the counter, talking about politics while an industrial fan whirled in the background. My waitress was a grandmotherly lady who, if she was the same waitress mentioned in countless reviews, had been working there a long time. The French toast was good, price was reasonable, and service efficient.

The Center Diner has a typical menu with a few surprises. There is a small Greek section, offering gyros, balboa, and something called chicken souvlaki served in a pita. According to Wikipedia, souvlaki is a popular Greek fast food consisting of small pieces of meat and sometimes vegetables grilled on a skewer. I’ve eaten this before but never knew what it was called. That’s only $6.50, or $8.50 with French fries.

Center Diner has a 4.3/5 average out of 34 Google reviews and 4.0/5 average on Yelp. Customers generally enjoy the nostalgia and affordable prices. In a typical positive review, Google user Jeff Altorfer wrote, “This place is downright great! It’s the real thing: This is an OLD fashioned NY diner. I mean that in every way. Run down, neglected, NO artifice what so ever. Hard working almost painfully efficient staff that have ZERO patience for modern customers that have no idea what they want, how they want it, or that need 50 options on everything…”

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Akron Civic Theatre’s Ghostly Trio

Originally known as the Loews Theatre, the Akron Civic Theatre was designed by Viennese architect John Eberson in grand “Atmospheric” style. The ceiling was painted to look like the night sky, and it is one of the few theater ceilings that can rotate. The Civic is believed to be haunted by three ghosts. A girl who allegedly committed suicide by jumping into the canal behind the theater has been encountered walking along the edge of the canal, weeping uncontrollably. The ghost of a longtime employee of the theater, a janitor named Fred, has been spotted all over the building. Finally, the anonymous ghost of a man has been seen sitting in the balcony. These phantoms make the Civic Theatre one of the most spirited in Ohio.

The Akron Civic Theatre is located at 182 South Main Street in downtown Akron, Ohio. L. Oscar Beck began construction on this site in 1919, intending to build an impressive entertainment complex called The Hippodrome. His project went bankrupt in 1921 and the site stood incomplete until Marcus Loew, founder of the Loew’s theater chain, built the Loews Theatre there in 1929. It was an ambitious project incorporating Moorish and Mediterranean architecture and decor. The theater lobby extended over the Ohio and Erie Canal. It had many owners over the years, including the Akron Jaycees and the Women’s Guild. In June 2001, the Akron Civic Theatre closed to undergo a $19 million renovation. Today, it is one of only sixteen remaining atmospheric theaters designed by architect John Eberson in the United States.

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