Culver House, 412 W. Prairie Avenue in Decatur, Illinois, a beautiful redbrick Queen Ann style home, took 20 years to be built. John and Florence Culver began construction in 1881 and it wasn’t finished until 1901. John H. Culver was a prominent local businessman who owned an electric and telephone company. Shortly after his family moved in, it experienced an frightening event when a dark figure emerged from the fireplace. This unsettling apparition appeared during a spate of sightings of a “black ghost” in the area. Ever since, the house has a reputation for being haunted. The Historic Decatur Foundation has worked hard to restore it to its former glory.
A decaying manor frozen in time, the trappings of opulence stubbornly refusing to fade. It’s the stuff made for Southern Gothic.
The American South has a long and tragic history, where wealth was obtained on the backs of slaves and the scars of war lasted for generations. Relics of the antebellum South are natural incubators for ghost stories, and nearly every mansion and plantation home is believed to have a ghost or two. The following are a few of the Southern mansions I’ve visited over the years. Who can say what lurks there after dark?
Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi
Otherwise known as Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library has an interesting history. It was built in 1852 by a wealthy plantation owner named James Brown. Ex-Confederate President Jefferson Davis did not reside in the house until 1877, twelve years before he died. His daughter Winnie continued to live there until her death in 1898.
The Jefferson Davis Soldiers Home opened on the grounds in 1903 and operated until the 1950s. It was home to around 1,800 Civil War veterans and widows of Confederate soldiers. Roughly 780 of them are buried in the cemetery located on the property. Several visitors have reported encountering someone who they assume is an actor playing Jefferson Davis in the gardens.
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.
Dennis Friend Hanks (1799-1892), a distant cousin of Abraham Lincoln, once owned this property and a log cabin near the corner of Jackson Avenue and 2nd Street in Charleston. Hanks was a businessman who, among other things, was a cobbler and ran an inn and gristmill. He died at his daughter’s house in Paris, Illinois in 1892 after being hit by a wagon.
Col. Thomas Alexander Marshall, Jr. (1817-1873) was a lawyer, politician, and another Lincoln friend. He built a stately Italianate home on Hanks’ former property in 1853. During the 1960s and ‘70s, his house at 218 Jackson Avenue was widely reputed to be haunted by the ghost of Dennis Hanks.
In addition to playing host to Lincoln and his circle, it’s rumored the house was used to hide runaway slaves. Its basement contained a dungeon-like room with barred windows and what looked like 12 fasteners to hold shackles.
In 1965, Eastern Illinois University English professor Dr. Marie Neville Tycer (1920-1970) and her husband Forster purchased the home, renovated it, and opened it as the Tycer House Museum. They lived there for five years, furnished it with antiques, and allowed groups to tour the historic home.
These storied homes are valued for their architecture or their role in historical events, but many visitors and residents report that something otherworldly lingers…
Lizzie Borden House
The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum in Fall River, Massachusetts was the scene of a gruesome unsolved double murder, perhaps among the most infamous in the U.S. Thirty-two-year-old Lizzy Borden became the chief suspect, but she was acquitted at trial. Today it’s open for tours and overnight stays.
The Franklin Castle
Built between 1881-1883, Franklin Castle (or the Tiedemann House as it is more properly known) is located in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. It is rumored to be home to more than a few tortured souls left over from a series of gruesome murders – but are any of those stories true? Only a few people have been allowed inside its wrought iron gates to know for sure.
Since acquiring the Allison and Wheeler-Stokely mansions, rumors persist at this Catholic university that both former estates have an active spiritual life, and not of the religious variety.
Marian University in Indianapolis, Indiana was established in 1851 by the Sisters of St. Francis as St. Francis Normal in Oldenburg, Indiana. In 1936, it merged with Immaculate Conception Junior College to become Marian College. The Sisters of St. Francis purchased Riverdale, the former James A. Allison estate in Indianapolis, and moved in. Marian College officially opened on September 15, 1937. Its name changed to Marian University in 2009. Since occupying the Allison Mansion, and in 1963, the Wheeler-Stokely Mansion, rumors persist that both former estates have an active spiritual life, and not of the religious variety.
Built for automotive mogul James Asbury Allison (1872-1928) between 1911 and 1914, this Art & Crafts Country-style mansion quickly gained a reputation as a “house of wonders”. It was revolutionary at the time for integrating the latest advancements, including intercoms, automatic lighted closets, an indoor swimming pool, and even an electric elevator. Allison co-founded the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, co-founded the Prest-O-Lite Company, and founded the Allison Engineering Company.
Architect Herbert Bass designed the mansion’s exterior, but Allison fired him before completion and hired Philadelphia architect William Price (1861-1916) to design the interior.
The Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenberg purchased Allison’s estate at 3200 Cold Spring Road in 1936 and moved their school there, renaming it Marian College. It served as their main administration building, library, and living quarters for decades. Allison had previously worked with the Sisters of St. Francis to open a hospital in Miami Beach, Florida. After his death in 1928, rumors spread that his ethereal form remained at his beloved Indianapolis estate, which he called “Riverdale”.
From colonial aristocratic manor to dilapidated squatter’s nest to historic landmark, Carlyle House has survived centuries, but eyewitnesses claim something otherworldly has survived with it.
A Colonial Era ruin uncovered after decades hidden behind an antebellum hotel should be enough to ignite storytellers’ imaginations, but it’s reports of numerous apparitions that make Carlyle House in Alexandria, Virginia a mandatory stop on any local ghost tour. Built by Scottish merchant John Carlyle on premier lots along the Potomac River from 1751 to 1753, this mid-Georgian stone manor is older than our country. History was made in its parlor.
John Carlyle (1720-1780) began his career as an apprentice to an English merchant, but soon made his own fortune in the British colonies. He married Sarah Fairfax, daughter of William Fairfax, who was a cousin to the largest land owner in Virginia. Carlyle himself became quite wealthy, with three plantations, dozens of slaves, and several business interests.
In the French and Indian War, British General Edward Braddock used Carlyle House as his headquarters before he embarked on his ill-fated campaign into western Pennsylvania. During a conference with colonial governors at the house, Braddock and the governors clashed over British demands for the colonies to fund his campaign, an early source of tension that later led to the Revolutionary War.
Remnants of a Colonial-Era jail where prisoners were held in appalling conditions make this centuries-old home ripe for ghostly tales.
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In its early days as a British colony, North Carolina was perceived as a backwoods territory full of crime, indentured servants, pirates, and other rough characters. Many ended up locked behind iron bars in the old Wilmington jail, over which John Burgwin built this home. Today, you can tour the house and see its history firsthand, but don’t be surprised if you hear something unusual.
Wilmington’s original wood, brick, and stone jail, known as a gaol, stood at the corner of Market and Third Streets from 1744 to 1768, when it burned in a fire. Nearby was Wilmington’s historic public courtyard, where debtors and lawbreakers were hanged or pilloried. Sensing an opportunity, a British merchant named John Burgwin purchased the property, along with its stone foundations. He built a handsome Georgian-Style home where he could conduct business while in town.
Ingenious construction methods allowed the home to remain cool over the hot summer months, but the Burgwin family spent most of their time on their plantation outside of town. Joshua Grainger Wright and his wife Susan purchased the house from Burgwin in 1799. The Wright family lived there until 1869. Its rooms are well-furnished with eighteenth and nineteenth century antiques, reflecting how these families lived.