With all the recent popularity of haunted houses, paranormal investigation, and legend tripping, it is easy to forget that ghost stories have been told for as long as human beings have walked the earth. Here in Illinois, the love of a good ghost story was alive and well in the 1800s and early 1900s, and some of our best tales come from that bygone era. Which one will prove to be the most timeless?
10. James Nolan Lights
Bond County, IL
During the early 1880s, local residents gathered nightly around an abandoned farmhouse outside the small town of Pocahontas in order to catch a glimpse of strange lights that emanated from within. Some claimed to hear sounds and even see the ghost of a man leaving the house with the body of a headless woman cradled in his arms. One skeptical reporter blamed the lights on a prankster.
9. Gooseneck Ghost
The Gooseneck Ghost was the local name of a spook light that appeared along the railroad tracks just west of town in the early 1900s. It was first seen in January 1908 by a father and son who were driving a team of horses back home. The light startled their horses and they took off running. The local newspaper described the ghost as “a bright light” and noted its proclivity for chasing travelers in that area. Looking for the Gooseneck Ghost became quite a sport for Macomb area residents, and some even brought ice cream and picnicked as they watched for it. Eventually, it was discovered that the ghost was actually a hoax that involved a Japanese lantern attached to a kite, but the prankster was never caught.
8. Diamond Island Phantom
During the 1880s, dozens of eyewitnesses saw a strange fireball on an island in the Illinois River a short distance from the town of Hardin. Two boys first witnessed the fireball in 1885 while fishing on the shore across from the island. The bright light shot out of the trees and hovered along the riverbank, sending the boys fleeing for home. Over the next few years, many reputable people witnessed the phenomenon, but others remained skeptical. The skeptics decided to camp out on the island and prove the whole thing was a hoax. After a few hours, the orange fireball appeared and flew over their heads, ultimately landing in one of their boats where—they claimed—it transformed into an old man wearing overalls before it ultimately vanished. The phantom was never seen again.
7. Haunted Cabin
Pope County, IL
Titled “The Miser’s Gold” in Charles Neely’s collection of folktales from Southern Illinois, this story is nearly identical to the one told about the cabin near Kingston in Adams County. This story takes place “in the early days of Pope County” (c.1820s) and concerns a family from Kentucky who took shelter in a cabin near the Ohio River. The cabin had been owned by a wealthy elderly hermit who was murdered by thieves, and neighbors believed it was so haunted that no one could live there. The wife was a devout Christian, however, and was unafraid of the ghost. When the ghost appeared, she asked him what he wanted and he told her where to dig to find a pot of gold in the cellar. Sure enough, when her husband returned, the two dug where the ghost had indicated and discovered a small fortune.
6. Rock Creek Ghost
Rock Creek, IL
Rock Creek was one of the many early settlements in Southern Illinois. A very well-known legend among locals there concerned a ghost that appeared in three different forms, always around the same branch of Rock Creek near a church. In the first encounter, a sheriff and his deputy were riding their horses down the road when suddenly their horses were spooked by what they described as an old-fashioned carpet-bag, which rolled toward them. The two peace officers fired their pistols at it and it vanished. The ghost’s next incarnation was of a large shepherd dog that crossed the path of a group of boys who were coming home from church. One of them kicked at the dog, but his foot passed right through it as though it wasn’t even there. The phantom dog continued to be seen into the early 1900s. At night, travelers often heard something following them in the brush.
5. Old Chicago Water Tower’s “Hanged Man”
Constructed with limestone quarried in nearby Lemont in 1869, this unique water tower was the only structure in downtown Chicago to survive the Great Fire of 1871. Surprisingly, its resident ghost has nothing to do with the fire. In the evening, several visitors have seen lights and open windows at the top of the tower, but there are no offices up there that would explain the phenomenon. Another, older ghost story associated with the tower is that the shadow of a hanged man can be seen in the windows. This was a popular tale before 1900, but there have been no recent sightings.
4. Lady in Black
Between 1898 and the first decades of the Twentieth Century, residents of the small mining town of Colchester were startled by the sudden appearance of a woman dressed in black. Her face was always covered with a black shawl. According to a local newspaper report, the first sighting took place at the corner of Hunn and Macomb streets by a woman who was walking home from church. The lady in black did not make a sound, but merely followed the woman for several blocks before disappearing into thin air. The apparition was also spotted in the nearby towns of Bushnell and Macomb. According to reports in the town of Bushnell, the lady was seen “robed in deepest mourning.” She appeared at all hours of the night and “in a noiseless manner.” On one occasion, citizens of Bushnell even pursued the phantom, but she disappeared after a few yards. The lady in black has not been seen for at least a generation.
3. Ghost of Marshal Welch
In 1863, Union army deserters ambushed and killed a provost marshal named Welch along Dug Hill Road. There are two versions of the story, one involving three deserters, the other involving a dozen or so. In the second version, Welch’s own friend betrayed him and led him into the ambush. Since then, his ghost has been seen along the road. Another legend concerns a man named Bill Smith, who reportedly witnessed a spectral wagon pass over his head. The wagon was typical ghoulish fare—pulled by a pair of black horses.
2. Phantom Steamboat
Tales of phantom ships frequently grace the coasts of Florida and the Carolinas, but such things are not unheard of in Illinois. Until the advent of automobiles and air travel, riverboats were a primary mode of travel and a common sight on Illinois waterways. Fulton County is home to a phantom riverboat that makes its appearance whenever the waters of the Spoon River swell. The legend began in the late 1840s, when an inexperienced riverboat crew attempted to navigate the river during a flood. The sound of a whistle and the passengers singing “Sweet By and By” was the last the townsfolk ever heard of the vessel, until, that is, a few years later.
In 1853, during another flood, eyewitnesses heard the distinctive sound of a whistle blowing in the fog. They rushed to the river’s edge and saw the same boat that had vanished years before. This time, it was wrapped in an eerie glow, and four, gleaming white passengers stood on deck, singing “Sweet By and By.” Several men attempted to approach the steamboat with a skiff, but as they got closer, the air became icy and the fog was too dense to see where they were going. The phantom vessel disappeared into the night.
1. Headless Horseman of Lakey’s Creek
The headless horseman of Lakey’s Creek is quite possibly one of the oldest ghost stories in Illinois. Passed down as an oral tradition until John W. Allen put the story on paper in 1963, the mysterious man named Lakey, as well as his untimely end, has been immortalized in the folklore of Southern Illinois. Long before a concrete bridge spanned the shallow creek 1.5 miles east of McLeansboro, a frontiersman named Lakey attempted to erect his log cabin near a ford along the wagon trail to Mt. Vernon. One morning, a lone traveler stumbled upon Lakey’s body. Lakey’s head had been severed by his own axe, which was left at the scene.
According to legend, his murderer was never found. For decades after the murder, travelers reported being chased by a headless horseman that rode out of the woods along Lakey’s Creek. “Always the rider, on a large black horse, joined travelers approaching the stream from the east, and always on the downstream side,” John Allen wrote. “Each time and just before reaching the center of the creek, the mistlike figure would turn downstream and disappear.”
Check out these stories and more in Michael Kleen’s Haunting Illinois: A Tourist’s Guide to the Weird and Wild Places of the Prairie State! Haunting Illinois contains 200 mystery sites and 85 individual illustrations. In this book, Michael not only examines the sites, but also the hobbyists and professionals who have devoted their lives to exploring the strange and unusual in our great state. Divided among eight distinct regions and listed by county, each location features a description, directions, and sources drawn from a diverse variety of books and articles. Haunting Illinois challenges you to get off the couch and start exploring our wonderful State of Illinois. Go here to order!
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