Legends and Lore of Western IllinoisBy JOHN J. DUNPHY
Author's Note: The most successful writers are the ones who truly know their public ..... and do I ever know mine! I've always known that Springhouse readers enjoy few things more in this old world than a good ghost story or, better yet, a collection of ghost stories. My "More Legend and Lore of West-Central Illinois," published in the October 1992 issue of our magazine, has drawn an unprecedented response from readers. Thank you, thank you!
Perhaps as a result of my Celtic ancestry, legends and tales of the supernatural have always fascinated me. The image of an Irish family huddled around the hob, reverently listening to a shanachie (storyteller) as he recounts the ancient tales of the banshee and the puca (an animal spirit) is as indelibly etched in my mind as though I had actually witnessed the scene.
William Butler Yeats, in The Celtic Twilight, compared such folk art as these legends to a rich, fertile soil in which all great art is rooted. However naive they may sound to our modern ears, legends and folk tales will always comprise a vital portion of our cultural heritage and certainly deserve to be preserved for posterity.
The Prairie State abounds with a unique and diverse array of legends. Here are a few of the oldest and most interesting that are native to this region.
The Mansion House, located on State Street here in Alton, is the site of one of the most extraordinary ghost stories in the area. Built by William Harped in 1834, the Mansion House was named after the residence of the Lord Mayor of London and soon became a favorite lodging for travelers. Tom Boothby, a veteran of the Indian Wars, arrived at the Mansion House in 1836 and was assigned a room in the southwest corner on the second floor.
An old man who had lost an eye and an arm over the years, Boothby was obsessed with the notion that the spirit of an Indian was stalking him, seeking revenge for some unspeakable outrage he had committed during his bloody career. The other guests, much to their consternation, soon learned that Boothby was subject to bizarre seizures during which he would hysterically scream that this spirit was trying to strangle him so that his soul could never find peace, either in this world or the next.
Boothby died during one of these seizures in 1838 and a number of the more superstitious residents of Mansion House immediately decided that the Indian spirit had finally attained its revenge upon one who had brought so much misery to Native Americans. This story gained such credence that Boothby's room remained unoccupied for quite some time after his death. It was said that arrivals at the Mansion House specifically requested to be placed anywhere but in the "haunted corner." Some guests maintained that Boothby's tormented ghost, condemned to remain in Mansion House for eternity, could be heard walking about and moaning at night.
In his Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain sardonically noted that virtually every community in America seemed to have a Lovers' Leap, and Alton is no exception. Georgia McAdams Clifford, in Indian Legends of the Piasa Country, related a colorful tale about a point on the great bluffs that overlook the mighty Mississippi.
Many years before this region was settled by the first pioneers, according to the story, a young Indian maiden named Laughing Moon enjoyed sitting on the bluffs at night and watching the river so far below as it glistened in the moonlight. The only daughter of Owatoga, the Illini chief, she was much sought as a wife by the young braves but had refused all of them.
One night, as she sat alone on the bluffs, she was visited by Black Otter, a warrior of the Osage tribe which was the deadly enemy of the Illini. Black Otter had braved the swift river and scaled the bluffs to meet the fair maiden who had won his love from afar. The young warrior beguiled Laughing Moon and soon assuaged her fears that she would be discovered consorting with an enemy of her people. Black Otter began visiting Laughing Moon every night on the same spot, each time swimming the Mississippi and scaling the bluffs as he had that first night.
But an Illini brave learned their secret and reported to Owatoga that his beloved daughter was infatuated with one of the hated Osages. That night, the chief stole away to the spot where they had been seen, determined to kill the Osage who had entranced Laughing Moon. When he saw them together, he placed an arrow in his bow and let it fly but Laughing Moon, hearing someone rustling in the bushes, threw herself in front of her lover just as the arrow left the bow. She was killed instantly.
Owatoga was overcome with remorse when he realized what had happened and cried out in his anger and grief. Immediately, a large number of Illini braves appeared and began to advance on Black Otter. Showing no fear, the Osage warrior picked up the lifeless body of Laughing Moon and leaped over the bluffs into the dark water below. And thus was born the legend of Lovers' Leap.
Mrs. Clifford related yet another tale of starcrossed Native American lovers in her book but I heard the Legend of the Twin Springs from a fellow hiker in Marquette Park in Grafton back in 1978. In either case, the story centers around ... well, some twin springs that are located in what is now Marquette Park. According to the legend, the water from one of these springs remains warm all year while the other issues only cool water, a phenomenon which the Native Americans explained with a tale of tragic love.
Many years ago, it was said, the Iroquois tribe was led by a cruel, cunning chief named Moauqua. Having no son, he hoped that his nephew, Powhanta, would one day assume leadership of the Iroquois and lead them to victory over the hated Illini. One can hardly imagine his shock when he learned that Powhanta loved Wauniti, the daughter of the Illini chief.
Determined to end the romance, Moauqua stole to the spot where his nephew had been meeting the woman and saw her waiting for Powhanta to arrive. Enraged, he drew an arrow into his bow and let it fly.
Moauqua departed, confident that Powhanta would return to his senses with Wauniti dead. It was a costly miscalculation. Powhanta was crazed with grief when he discovered his lover's body. Drawing his knife, he joined her forever.
In memory of these unfortunate two, the Indians believed that twin springs erupted from the Earth: the cool spring to commemorate Wauniti whose body was already cool when found by her lover, and the warm spring in honor of Powhanta whose life's blood was still warm when it flowed out of his body. Early Native Americans maintained that the Twin Springs would endure forever as a memorial to the power of love.
Now let us depart from Native American lore for a time and return to those tragic years of the Civil War. Smallpox Island, in the Mississippi opposite Alton, was used as a burial site for Confederate POWs who perished while incarcerated in Alton's military prison (see my "New Light On Smallpox Island," Springhouse, Volume 7, Number 4). As one might expect considering its sordid history, the island is the scene of a number of ghost stories, some of them quite grim. The following yarn was told to me as a child by my great-uncle, the late Joe Dromgoole of the Alton Telegraph. Like many oldtime Irish-Americans, Uncle Joe had a real flair for stories, a gift never more obvious than in this tale.
It seems that three boys from Alton who had heard stories of eerie happenings on Smallpox Island decided to spend the night there to impress their friends with their fearlessness. The intrepid trio paddled to the island in an old canoe, pitched a camping tent, built a small fire for warmth, and soon drifted off to sleep.
Sometime during the night, the boys were awakened by the sound of shuffling footsteps in the darkness stretched beyond their dying campfire. The foot steps gradually drew closer until they finally materialized in the form of pale, emaciated men dressed in the tattered remnants of Confederate uniforms. Even in the feeble glow of the burning embers, the boys could see that the men's faces were horribly disfigured by the ravages of smallpox while their eyes were the empty, sightless eyes of the dead.
One of the ghosts who wore a sergeant's stripes on the sleeve of his filthy shirt stepped forward and pointed a spindly finger at the terrified boys. In a voice that echoed as though it came from the depths of a vast sepulcher, he icily demanded, "Who dares to intrude upon our resting place?"
This was precisely the catalyst needed to break the paralysis born of fright. The boys bolted from their tent, leaped into the canoe, and furiously paddled back to Alton.
Uncle Joe concluded the tale by noting that no one had believed the boys when they described their experience on Smallpox Island. Most folks simply ascribed it to the overactive imagination of youth, he said, while a few assumed that the boys had carried along a bit of "Irish Cheer" to the island to warm themselves against the chill of the river wind.
"Irish Cheer?" I asked. "What's that, Uncle Joe?"
He mulled over my question for a moment or so, trying to decide how candid he should be to a child. Finally he answered with a chuckle, "Well, nephew, you might say that it's spirits of a different kind!"
John Russell was a man who truly loved folklore and tales of the supernatural. It was this Bluffdale author who was largely responsible for the creation and popularization of the Piasa Bird legend, probably his most famous literary endeavor. Russell sought to immortalize many other tales of the Prairie State but, unfortunately, most of them have slipped into obscurity. One of the most colorful and poignant was published in the October 1833 issue of Western Monthly Magazine and reprinted in the March 14 and 15, 1850 editions of the Daily Journal of Springfield. Supposedly grounded in fact, "The Spectre Hunter, A Legend of the West" deserves to be reintroduced to Illinoisans.
In the 1760s, a strange figure was often seen furtively stealing about the Cahokia Indian Mounds and the dense woods on either side of the Mississippi. The figure seemed to be generally nocturnal but those who caught a glimpse of him when the lightning bolt of a storm illuminated the landscape reported seeing a tall, bare-headed, barefoot man dressed in a sackcloth with a powder horn dangling from a wildcat skin belt.
There was much dispute whether the figure was actually man or demon but the mystery was finally resolved in 1774 when a St. Louis priest held a funeral Mass for the "Spectre Hunter" and revealed the wretch's identity.
The phantom was Don Manuel, a wealthy and powerful Spanish grandee who had been brought to ruin by the notorious green-eyed monster. Don Manuel, it seems, had journeyed to the country to inspect some of his lands but returned home unexpectedly and found his beautiful wife being entertained by a richly-dressed cavalier. Enraged, the Don drew his dagger and plunged it into the interloper - only to discover that he had fatally wounded his sister who had been dressed in the costume as a jest.
The tragedy proved to be Don Manuel's undoing. The nobleman was subsequently imprisoned, lost his estate, and went temporarily insane as catastrophe piled upon catastrophe. Recovering his reason, Don Manuel and his faithful servant, Diego, took flight to the wild country of the Mississippi River Valley where the grief-stricken grandee spent the rest of his days living the arduous life of a hunter. Diego, faithful to the end, began a small shop in St. Louis to keep Don Manuel supplied with shot and powder.
Only by death was the nobleman finally released from the harsh penance he imposed on himself for the crime he had inadvertently committed. The Spectre Hunter, whose frightening appearances had caused such consternation in the future states of Illinois and Missouri, had at last found peace.
Perhaps the best-known ghost story in the Metro East area revolves around Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey and its alleged shade in-residence, Harriet Haskell. Born in Waldoboro, Maine, in 1835, Miss Haskell became the principal of Monticello Female Seminary (as LCCC was then called) in 1867, a post she held until her death in 1907. Stories about occurrences stemming from her continued presence in the school to which she dedicated her life are endless so only a few can be described here.
The present-day library was the Seminary's chapel in Haskell's day - her favorite room - and it is there that the greatest number of incidents have been reported. Library employees attest that they have the distinct impression of being "watched" by someone, even when they are alone in the room. Several claim to have felt the touch of a ghostly hand on their arms but found no one there when they turned to look. One young woman has even admitted to having seen an apparition while working in the library. The spectre, a woman dressed in an old-fashioned long dress, had then literally vanished into thin air. Had it been Haskell?
Mysterious voices have often been heard in the library while one woman thought that she heard faint screams from a lower room at the library known as "the dungeon." One persistent legend of LCCC concerns a young woman who was supposed to have committed suicide in one of the old dormitories. The woman, mistress to a wealthy married man who apparently placed a disproportionate value on the intellectual development of his concubines, had been under Harriet Haskell's guidance during her sojourn at Monticello. When faced with return to a life that she now found repugnant, she chose to hang herself. Her spirit is still thought to remain under the guidance and direction of Haskell's much-stronger spirit, dominating the young woman in death as she had in life.
Several psychics of one sort or another have visited LCCC in an attempt to contact Haskell, although the results of these little excursions into the unknown have been generally something less than rewarding. One skeptical student has even remarked that "the whole thing sounds like an old episode of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone," a sentiment many share. Lars Hoffman, a member of the LCCC faculty who has spent a great deal of his time in the investigation of the alleged phenomena, may have summed it up best when he observed that whether Harriet Haskell really walks the floors of the school is unimportant since it has, at least, given LCCC an interesting tradition. "Even if it's nonsense," he admitted in a newspaper interview, "it's still fun."
(Incidentally, since this article's original publication in 1983, Lars Hoffman has been elected Godfrey's first mayor. Whether the demands of polit ics and public office will diminish his interest in "Haskellology" remains to be seen.)
While current students may enjoy having a ghost occupy their future alma mater, it is not at all certain that poor Harriet particularly relished seeing her beloved, stately Monticello Female Seminary transformed into a bustling community college. In 1971, just as the final papers were being signed which legally transferred Monticello to the Lewis and Clark Foundation, a great oak tree fell to the ground on the Monticello campus. Was it merely a coincidence, as most said, or was Harriet Haskell expressing her displeasure that the institution to which she had devoted her life would be no more?
The final legend that we will examine is not quite indigenous to this region but nonetheless worthy of our attention by virtue of its association with the great Mr. Lincoln. In Myths After Lincoln, Lloyd Lewis mentioned an incredible tale that was once part of the folklore of the track-walkers and section hands of the New York Central Railroad many years ago.
It seems that in the month of April, the air on the railroad tracks became very cold and cutting although the air on either side of the tracks remained quite warm. When the watchmen noticed this strange metamorphosis, they slipped off the tracks and sat down to watch the passing of a most unique spectre train, the Phantom Lincoln Funeral Train.
All clocks and watches suddenly stopped as the pilot engine came into view with its black streamers and a band of spectral musicians playing dirges. The train itself was staffed by grinning skeletons who occasionally waved their bony arms at by-standers along the route. The Phantom Train's passengers consisted of an honor guard of fallen Union soldiers, either leaning on their coffins or holding them on their backs, who guarded the single large coffin that held Lincoln's body.
The very track itself seemed covered with a black carpet in honor of the martyred president while clouds concealed the moon. When the last car had disappeared, clocks and watches began running again, although they were now five to eight minutes behind. Everywhere on the road, the old-time railroad men insisted, all timepieces were found to be behind because of the Phantom Lincoln Funeral Train.
These tales represent only a fraction of the treasury which is the folklore of Illinois. This fascinating aspect of our state's ethnic and cultural heritage will survive only if we care enough to make a conscientious effort to preserve it.
[Source: John J. Dunphy. June 1993. "Legends and Lore of West Central Illinois." Springhouse. 10:3. 26-30.]
Created October 9, 2003 by Jon Musgrave © 2003