Mysterious America

The Ghost of Mary Hawkins and the Legend of Pemberton Hall

Sometimes Mary manifests herself as a prankster. Other times, she appears as a benevolent matriarch who makes sure doors are locked at night and warns “her girls” of trouble. But at all times, Mary Hawkins commands the respect and admiration of students at Eastern Illinois University, even 103 years after her death.

Jessica and Ashley sat in their dorm room, a cool autumn breeze blowing in from the window. A single lamp illuminated the room in a soft yellow glow, casting shadows of stuffed animals on the walls. Ashley sat on the floor with a tablet in her lap playing Angry Birds, her back resting against the bed. Jessica, her roommate, sat on her mattress curled in a pink Snuggie.

Without warning, a door down the hallway slammed shut, followed by the sound of something scraping across the old wooden floor. Jessica and Ashley jumped.

Ashley put down her tablet. “Oh my God, what was that?” she asked.

“Maybe it was Mary,” Jessica (or Jess for short) replied. Seeing her roommate’s puzzled expression, she continued. “You know this place is haunted, right?”

“Shut up.”

Mysterious America

Never Came Home: The Murder of Amy Blumberg

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

As Eastern Illinois University let out for winter break in December 1999, sorority sisters at the Gamma Mu chapter of Sigma Kappa were still grieving from the loss of Andrea Will less than two years earlier. Twenty-year-old Amy J. Blumberg, a junior family and consumer sciences major, joined Sigma Kappa in the fall of 1998, so the two young women never met, however, she undoubtedly heard stories and shared many mutual friends. She lived with around 40 other members in the Sigma Kappa sorority house in EIU’s Greek Court and served as activities chairman.

Amy Blumberg returned home to Collinsville, Illinois, a Metro East suburb of St. Louis, to stay with her parents, Ken and Sue, over the holidays. They were devout members of St. John’s Evangelical United Church of Christ. She worked at her uncle Dennis’ store, On Stage Dance Apparel at 138 Eagle Drive in nearby O’Fallon, to help out and earn extra money for school.

The store, a cottage-like brick building just east of the I-64 and U.S. Highway 50 interchange, was tucked away between a gas station, railroad tracks, and an empty field. On Friday, December 31, 1999, Amy was working alone until closing at 6:00 p.m., anticipating ushering in the new millennium with her friends later that night. It was a calm, snowless evening, with a temperature around 50 degrees Fahrenheit and falling. 

Amy never came home. Her parents began to worry when Amy’s friends called to ask about her whereabouts. At around 9:00 p.m., they drove to the store to re-trace her route, thinking her car might have broken down on the way home. Amy’s car was still in the parking lot. Ken, her father, went inside, where he discovered Amy’s body lying on the floor, wearing only a dark blue shirt pulled up to her armpits, near the restroom in a pool of blood.

Historic America

A Dog Named Napoleon

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

Officially, Eastern Illinois University’s mascot is a black panther nicknamed Billy, but in the 1950s, a golden retriever named Napoleon came close to claiming the title. An etching of the nappy brown and tan dog even graced the cover of the 1959 yearbook. Though thousands of students stroll past his grave marker in the north quad behind Old Main each semester, few know his story.

In 1946, a large golden retriever wandered onto campus. He was a young male, approximately two-to-three years of age, and quickly captured the attention of students at what was then Eastern Illinois State College. They called him Napoleon, or “Nap” for short.

As campus evolved with growing enrollment and a new library and dorms, this wandering dog was a reassuring and constant companion for Post-War students, many of whom were veterans attending college thanks to the GI Bill.

For fourteen years, Napoleon reigned over campus and was given free range by students and faculty. He strolled into classrooms, on stage at plays, and was said to attend football games. Napoleon even ran on and off the field with every substitution.

Mysterious America

Who Killed Shirley Ann Rardin?

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

At around 12:30 a.m. Monday morning, July 3, 1973, Shirley Ann Rardin, a 20-year-old sophomore art major at Eastern Illinois University, finished her shift at Hardee’s at the corner of 4th Street and Lincoln Avenue in Charleston, changed clothes, and said goodbye to her coworkers. She was 5 feet 7 inches tall, 125 pounds, with shoulder-length blonde hair and blue-green eyes. She was wearing wide flare jeans, a black halter top, and blue tennis shoes, with $5 in her pocket.

Shirley was a local girl, having graduated from Charleston High School in 1971, and a young divorcee. She had been previously married to a former manager at Hardee’s named Rich DeWitt.

Shirley was renting Apt. 203 in the Lincolnwood building at 2210 9th Street, exactly one mile from the Hardee’s, and was believed to be heading there after work. She usually rode her bike to and from work, but that night she walked. If she ever arrived, no one knew. Medication she needed to take four times daily for a serious medical condition was later found in her apartment.

Her boyfriend, David Thomas, a fellow EIU student, reported her missing to Charleston police at 1:14 a.m Tuesday. The search dragged on for almost a week, but police were hampered by the fact that Shirley was a legal adult and could do as she pleased. As the days passed without any leads, however, they began to assume the worst.

Mysterious America

“Something Terrible Has Happened”: The Murder of Andrea Will

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

It had been over 24 and a half years since sophomore art major Shirley Ann Rardin’s body was found in a wooded area northeast of Paris, Illinois. For more than two decades, students at Eastern Illinois University enjoyed a sense of safety and security. That all changed on the morning of Tuesday, February 3, 1998.

At around 10:00 p.m. the previous evening, 20-year-old Justin J. “Jay” Boulay descended the long wooden staircase to his downstairs neighbor’s apartment door and asked to borrow his car to pick up his girlfriend, 18-year-old Andrea Will, from Lawson Hall. Brian Graham, his neighbor, happily obliged. “I’ve been up to his place a couple of times by myself and I didn’t notice anything weird about him,” he later told the Decatur Herald and Review.

In a letter Justin later wrote and left in his apartment, he described getting into an argument with Andrea that evening when she told him she was dating other men. According to Andrea’s mother, Patricia, Justin called Andrea several times over winter break, but Andrea, a freshman marketing major with long blonde hair and cherubic smile, wanted to end their relationship and see other people.

“I lost it,” Justin, a sophomore history major, wrote. “I couldn’t let go of her neck.” Coles County Coroner Mike Nichols later determined Justin strangled Andrea with a telephone cord. At around 3:30 a.m., Justin’s downstairs neighbor and his neighbor’s girlfriend, Michelle McVey, heard loud but “soothing music” coming from Justin’s apartment. They knocked on the ceiling and it stopped.


A Freshman’s Lament

My first semester at EIU at the dawn of the new millennium wasn’t quite what I expected.

As a newly minted 18-year-old at Morehouse College in 1947, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “…We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

That must be why, in the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, hangs a large portrait of the building’s namesake covering his forehead with one hand in a gesture of either bewilderment or exasperation.

On Orientation Day the summer before my freshman year at Eastern Illinois University, my fellow prefrosh and I nervously and excitedly shuffled into the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union ballroom to watch a video addressing our fears of dorm life and living away from home for the first time. “EIU doesn’t have dorms,” it assured us. “It has residence halls.” The freshman in the video anxiously dreamt of having a nightmare roommate, but when they finally met, they became best friends.


New Edition of Tales of Coles County Ready for Pre-Orders!

Pre-ordering for the sixth and final edition of Tales of Coles County, Illinois is now available.

Own a previous edition? You won’t want to miss this! The original stories have been completely revised and updated. This edition also includes an index and a foreword by local genealogist Ann Winkler Hinrichs.

One hundred additional pages, five brand new illustrations by Katie Conrad, comprehensive bibliography, and over a dozen new photos await you inside.

I’m no longer accepting pre-orders because the book has officially been released! Order it today on,, and GooglePlay.