WORMWOOD FILES     “Spooks of Southern Illinois”

By Dr. Abner Mality

It’s no secret that the Good Doctor’s laboratory is located at the very top of Illinois, only a few miles from the border with Wisconsin. There are strange things up here, to be sure, including the most haunted cemetery in the nation, Bachelor’s Grove, which I’ve visited and written about here. With its history of crime and murder, Chicago has always been a hotspot (or maybe COLDspot) of ghostly activity. But the truth is, if you really want to be surrounded by years and miles of hauntings, you need to head south. And the further south you go in Illinois, the more ghosts, witches and monsters you will run into.

The great state of Illinois is really two states, the North and the South, with an odd band in the middle that’s a bit of both. The North is more industrial, with more money and bigger businesses and better infrastructure. The South is more rural, far away from the mega-tropolis of Chicago and its innumerable suburbs. There are great stretches of forests, swamps and wild country, including the huge Shawnee National Forest. Cornfields are everywhere, both North and South, but they seem deeper and more pervasive down South. Coal is still mined in Southern Illinois, something totally unseen in the upper part of he state, and many communities huddle in close proximity to the mighty Mississippi River. People speak differently and a Southern accent is not uncommon downstate. Up north where I live, we often forget that Kentucky is a neighbor.

Southern Illinois has spawned uncountable ghost stories and sociologists have said that the “Little Egypt” area at the very bottom of the state near the Mississippi River is one of the most superstitious places in the world. My paternal grandmother and her family hailed from the area and were very much believers in “haints”.  Many of the communities down there, such as Cairo, has gradually fading away and becoming ghosts themselves. But even when the people have left, the legends and lore remain. In this edition of the Wormwood Files, we will take a look at some of the more famous supernatural tales of this unique area of the country. 

A remnant of Kaskaskia

There is now nothing left of the original capital of Illinois, the once thriving town of Kaskaskia. There is a wide spot in the road that calls itself “Kaskaskia” but it’s located three miles from where the original town was located. Looking at this pastoral area closely bordered by the great Mississippi, it’s almost impossible to believe that this area once rivaled Chicago and St. Louis as a vibrant city of the colonial-era Midwest.

The Mississippi rose to engulf and devour the original Kaskaskia, but many believe the town was actually destroyed by perhaps the most devastating curse ever uttered in America...one that has seemingly come true in every detail. “The Curse of Kaskaskia”, also known as “The Indian’s Curse”, is  likely the most well-known supernatural tale from a land known for its haunts and eeriness.

The rugged French settlers who lived, hunted and traded in Southern Illinois made their home on a peninsula of land that jutted between the Mississippi and Kaskaskia rivers. It was a place of constant activity that gradually became a thriving town in the early 1700’s and eventually the capital of the Illinois territory in the days before the Revolutionary War. 

By the 1730’s, Kaskaskia was at its peak. One of the most prominent men in town was a hard-working and ambitious French fur trader named Jean Bernard. Bernard owned one of the busiest trading posts not only in Kaskaskia but the whole state of Illinois and he employed a large force of workers. Among the workers were many native Americans from many tribes. Bernard considered himself a friend of the Indians but his generosity towards them would soon snap and break.

One of Bernard’s workers was a handsome young tribesman named Ampakaya. His name changes depending on who tells the story, but Ampakaya is the most common one given. Bernard and Ampakaya had an excellent working relationship at first, but things began to rapidly sour when Bernard learned that Ampakaya had an eye for his pretty young daughter Marie. It was an interest that Marie returned and the two carried on a secret relationship.

When Bernard learned the truth, he exploded in rage and warned the two to stop seeing each other. He broke off relations with Ampakaya and had him run out of town. But that wasn’t enough to prevent the two from continuing their tryst. Ampakaya snuck back into town and spirited Marie away, heading into the wild countryside. Bernard went wild and set off in pursuit with a posse of men.

He finally caught up with the couple and brought them back to Kaskaskia. The Indian’s defiance stoked Bernard’s hate to an evil pitch. He had Ampakaya tied securely to a log and the log dropped into a dangerous part of the river. The young brave floated off to a watery death but before he was out of earshot, he uttered this dreadful curse:

“May the filthy spot on which your altars stand be destroyed, may your crops be failures, may your homes become dilapidated! Your dead will not rest in their graves and your land will become a feeding ground for the fish!”

More than 300 years later, all that Ampakaya foretold has come to pass. Kaskaskia has been gradually wiped from the earth as flood after flood pounded the town. The effects on Bernard and his family were more immediate...both he and Marie were dead within a year of the Curse being uttered. Marie was said to have died from a broken heart and the once successful Jean Bernard was not long in following her.

One of many floods in Kaskaskia...

The Crenshaw House today...

The destruction of Kaskaskia took longer. The great Mississippi River swallowed up and overcame the smaller Kaskaskia River...the peninsula on which the original city of Kaskaskia was located slowly washed away due to continuous flooding. The fortunes of the town once considered to be the state capital declined dramatically in the 1800’s and by the late 1890’s, it was largely abandoned. The flood of 1881 was the real turning point and it really began to shrink.

The ancient church of the original city was relocated brick by brick to its current location, but not before flooding wrecked the altars.  Many of the graves of the original Kaskaskia were dug up and relocated as well...but not all of them. Some people refused to let their graves be moved. Over the years, the continuous flooding has created a macabre pattern of bones and debris being washed up further down the river. To this day, it is not uncommon for human bones to be found on the sandbars in the area. As Ampakaya said, the dead did not rest in their graves.

By 1915, most of the Indian’s Curse had come to pass. Kaskaskia in its original location no longer existed and now is nothing more than a sandy spit of land that spends a good part of the year under the water. As for the “new” Kaskaskia, it’s fortunes are not much better. A small hamlet was established but an enormous flood in 1993 seemed to have finished that off as well. The modern Kaskaskia is not really even a village, but mainly just the old church surrounded by a few homes. And flooding is still a problem.

While the Curse of Kaskaskia had perhaps the longest lasting consequences of any supernatural event in Southern Illinois, the most haunted location downstate is undoubted Hickory Hills in Equality Township, a place better known as the Old Slave House. If human suffering and misery generates ghosts, it’s no wonder this place is overflowing with spirits in agony.

It’s known by many names...the Crenshaw House, Hickory Hills, the Old Slave House...and it was once one of the most splendid residences in Illinois, built by a man of great wealth and power named John Hart Crenshaw. But there was a festering darkness behind the pleasant facade of the classic architecture of the house, just as John Hart Crenshaw’s respectability was tainted by the evils of slavery.

John Hart Crenshaw and wife

Crenshaw built the house in the early 1830’s, on a high hill overlooking the nearby Saline River. The house was located in Equality Township, the name of which was cruelly ironic, considering Crenshaw was one of the few men allowed to keep slaves in the supposedly “free” state of Illinois. Much of Crenshaw’s fortune came from the salt licks on the Saline River which his family mined and sold. In those days, salt was a vitally necessary element to preserve food and it was almost as good as gold.

Although slavery was technically outlawed in Illinois, an exception was made for Crenshaw’s salt mining operations. The work was so brutal and miserable that no free white man would accept it, so in a case of disgusting hypocrisy, Crenshaw was allowed to use slaves in the salt mines.

Even so, it was hard keeping the mines stocked with slaves, so Crenshaw secretly created a kind of “Reverse Underground Railroad”, where free black men would be kidnapped and forced into slavery. Crenshaw used a cadre of “night riders” to round up slaves, many of whom were kept in the dreadful attic of Hickory Hill. Conditions in the attic were inhuman, with slaves chained in tiny stalls and virtually no heat or ventilation. It was stifling in summer, frigid in winter. Rumor had it that there were secret tunnels under the house that would go to the river, making for easy concealment of Crenshaw’s slave trade.

Crenshaw was at one time one of the richest men in the state and he was visited by many dignitaries, including Abraham Lincoln himself. Few knew the real source of his riches. Slaves in the attic and also in the mines were subject to whippings and ill treatment and it was said that slaves were bred almost like cattle in the attic of the Old Slave House.

Crenshaw’s fortunes began to decline when richer and more accessible salt deposits were found in Ohio and Virginia. Plus, it was impossible for him to conceal all traces of his dirty business and after he had beaten a female black slave almost to death, many turned away from him. Although it can’t be proven, it was said Crenshaw lost a leg when one of his slaves attacked him with an axe. Eventually, he was forced to leave Hickory Hill and the salt mines closed.

The Old Slave House remained a handsome property despite its evil reputation and a number of different owners took possession of it over the years. Even before Crenshaw left, people said that horrible moans and sobbing could be heard at all times. Long after the slaves were gone, the noises continued, along with the sounds of clanking chains and cracking whips. On warm days, the attic was reported as being freezing cold. Later owners tried to downplay the rumors of hauntings, but nothing could stop the reports.

When the Sisk family eventually bought the property, they decided not only to stop fighting the ghost stories, they decided to cash in on them. For years, tourists could visit the Old Slave House for a small charge. While many were interested in the history of the place, even more were interested in the hauntings. And they continued for decades on end. Several brave (or foolish) souls tried to stay a whole night in the notorious attic. Only one man ever succeeded at that challenge...a reporter named David Rogers, who even managed to do it on the spookiest night of the year, Halloween. Although Rogers made it until dawn, he admitted he never was able to sleep and heard many unexplained sounds that made him uneasy.

Tours are no longer conducted at the Old Slave House. The Sisks no longer own the property, selling it to the State of Illinois itself. Since the late 90’s, it has been closed to the public and is monitored 24 hours a day by security. The future of this historic location is gravely in doubt currently and it seems as if only the ghosts of its tragic past are visitors now. I sure hope that this manor can be restored to its former glory before it’s too late...even with its dark reputation, it is a part of Illinois’ history that can’t be ignored.

Haunted attic of the Crenshaw House

Fort De Chartres today

Earlier, I spoke about the French presence in Southern Illinois back in the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the physical embodiments of that French presence was Fort De Chartres, located in Prairie du Rocher, which was not far at all from the former capital of Kaskaskia. The fort, which can trace its history back to 1718, is one of the oldest in the country and is the location for one of the most fascinating hauntings in the US: the Phantom Funeral Procession.

The fort, located near the Mississippi River, suffered from the same kind of flooding that tormented Kaskaskia, and by the late 1700’s, the fort was finally abandoned. It gradually decayed to almost nothing until the state purchased the area in 1930 and started to restore it. But for all the many decades that the fort lay empty, it was said to be the abode of ghosts and spirits. 

A particularly heinous murder occurred during the fort’s heyday...a wealthy member of the local community was ambushed and killed by a man who felt he had been cheated. The names of these individuals have been lost to history, but the victim was buried at night on July 4th, a Friday, when a full moon hung in the sky. He was laid to rest in the fort’s cemetery.

The dead man stayed at peace...except when the 4th of July fell on a Friday, with a full moon in the sky. Then history replayed itself, with a procession of phantom figures leading a coffin to the old cemetery, where the dead man who be interred once more into the same earth he was originally buried. The procession was a lavish one, complete with horses and a trail of mourners.

Phantoms on the move...

In 1889, the 4th of July just happened to fall on a Friday. That was when a frontier woman named Mrs. Chris was sitting on her porch and visiting with a neighbor lady whose name is unrecorded by history. It was a pleasant warm night with a full moon and quiet except for the sound of frogs and insects. The neighbor brought Mrs. Chris’ attention to a strange sight.

Coming up the dirt road leading to the ruined old fort was a huge procession of people, some on foot, some on horseback. Forty wagons decorated with black bunting trundled by, followed by thirteen pairs of horsemen. In the center of the procession was a wagon obviously carrying a coffin. The women noticed with astonishment and horror that this great funeral procession made absolutely no sound. The hooves of the horses were dead silent. There was no speech and the wheels of the wagons made no noise.

It dawned on Mrs. Chris and her friend that the procession was made up of phantoms, re-enacting a scene from more than a hundred years ago. The next day, other people living along the road leading to the fort said that they also had seen the ghostly cavalcade go by.

The sighting of Mrs. Chris and the others formed the foundation of the legend of the Phantom Funeral Procession of Fort De Chartres. It became one of the most well-known hauntings of Southern Illinois, on a scale more massive than any other. Somehow over the years, the particulars of the date and the full moon became established and part of the legend. By the late 20th century, curious ghost seekers would congregate on the old road leading to the fort when the time was right. Were there more sightings of the Phantom Funeral Procession? Some would claim they did indeed see the ghostly mourners go by…

There are many more eerie tales that can be told of Southern Illinois, especially in the River Country near the mighty Mississippi. Cave-In Rock, a cavern which overlooks the river, has in recent times become more notorious for the Gathering of the Juggalos sponsored by INSANE CLOWN POSSE, but in the early 19th century was better known as the hideout of every river pirate, horse thief, murderer and night rider in the territory, including the infamous Harpe Brothers, America’s first true serial killers. No one knows how many were killed there, but their spirits linger and many have heard moans and cries from the cave when nobody was there. Another famous haunted location is the old Sackman home in Marion, IL, which has been investigated by many paranormal expeditions and found to be brimming with unexplained activity including odd noises, cold spots and moving objects.

As stated earlier, there’s enough weird shenanigans going on in Southern Illinois to fill not just one book but several. I’ve just skimmed the surface here so perhaps we will return to this haunted land in a further edition of the Wormwood Files.

This is Dr. Abner Mality, turning out the lights...