Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Sweetin Mansion and its Lost Treasure, Greene County, IL

Engulfed by encroaching vines, trees and brush from the nearby woods, the Sweetin Mansion feels as if it's hiding a dark secret from the world. Built in 1848 by English immigrant Azariah Sweetin, the house is a shadow of its former glory. The ruin sits in a remote part of the countryside in western Illinois. The crumbed limestone walls and broken timbers slowly destroyed by time only hint at its dark past.

Also known as Hartwell Ranch House and “the old stone house,” the manor was constructed with three floors, walnut woodwork, a grand ballroom, three foot thick walls, and the unsual feature of a natural stream running through the basement for a water supply and to keep the house cool. For some strange reason the Sweetin family didn't move into the house until fourteen years after construction began.

History has it that on July 4th, 1862, a party was held for two farmhands Henson and Isham who had recently enlisted in the Union army. The two began to quarrel. During the argument Isham thought Henson was going to throw something at him so he pulled out a knife and stabbed Henson in the back. As Henson lay bleeding to death in front of the third floor fireplace, a large stain of blood seeped into the stone floor forming a shape of his body. Many years after the event the blood stain could never be removed. The ghost of the young Henson would often be seen in this area when the house was still intact.

With the country in the middle of the Civil War in the 1860's many farmers suffered financial hardship but Sweetin prospered during this time trading cattle. Sweetin had a distrust of banks so he began stashing jars of gold coins throughout the property. After a horse riding accident in 1871 Sweetin's mind was so damaged from being thrown from the horse, he couldn't remember where he buried his tresaure; his ghost is said to be still searching for it.

Family members had tried in vain to find the gold but where unsuccessful. Treasure hunters have also tried searching, but turned up nothing. There is another legend that two Sweetin farmhands had found the gold and disappeared shortly after Azariah Sweetin had died.

On our journey to this location in June of 2011 the air was hot and muggy when we found the ruin off the main road. We almost drove past the mansion because the vines and trees had hidden much of the outer walls. With a change of clothes we walked through chest-high grass to reach the ruin. (I worried that we could encounter poisonous snakes hiding in the grass.) Large pieces of the wall had fallen and the overgrown trees had made entering the heart of the structure very difficult and precarious. We felt like explorers entering an ancient castle. Inside the structure we saw the stream that still flows through the basement. Large pieces of the wall had disrupted the naturall flow, causing a large pool to form at the inside base of the structure. The large wooden beams that once held the second floor were still set inside their footings. The site was incredible to see but difficult to photograph, with much of the outside structure covered over and mature trees growing on the inside. These obstacles made photographing an exterior and interior overview shot impossible. I was able to obtain only portions of the overall impression this old house ruin made.

We left the Sweetin Mansion very satisfied. The house was well worth the long trip. We can see how legends of haunted ruins have captivated people for years. The sad feeling of a once grand home now destitute makes one wonder what happened to allow its owners to let such a property fade away…

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Haunted Castle of Chicago, Irish castle, Beverly Unitarian Fellowship

Robert C. Givins, a successful real estate developer, drew the Irish Castle in Chicago entirely from memory. The three-story castle was built in 1886, designed with nothing more then a hand sketch of a castle from the designer's ancestral home of Ireland, the building was constructed out of limestone from a nearby quarry and was situated on a hill overlooking Longwood Drive. Three crenellated towers pay homage to the medieval castle on the River Dee, between Dublin and Belfast in Ireland. The house's fifteen rooms were decorated with tapestries, ornate chandeliers, copper gaslights, tiled fireplaces and stained glass windows.

The Givins family lived periodically in the house until 1909. During that time the Chicago Female College rented the castle from 1895 to 1896. After the Givins left, John B. Burdett and his wife Jessie bought the house and added electricity and installed additional amenities of that time. They lived there until 1921. Later Dr. Miroslaw Siemens, a prominent physician, lived in the house until 1942, after which time the house was purchased by Beverly Unitarian Fellowship and extensive remolding began changing the look of the interior.

The first sightings and strange activity began in the 1960s when a church custodian making her cleaning rounds noticed a young girl in a long dress standing in one of the rooms. The custodian approached and the girl remarked how the place had looked so different since she had lived there. The custodian left the room, then realizing how strange the remark was because no one lived in the castle in over 20 years. The custodian returned to the room finding the girl had vanished.

The phantom is believed to be a girl who died in the early 1930s from a serious case of influenza during the time that house was the Chicago Female College.

There are other more recent occurrences. Late at night a light from a candle has been seen floating across windows and up the staircase when the castle is unoccupied. The church's pastor was even touched by unseen arms. Strange sounds of clinking of flatware and glasses like sounds from a party have been heard despite no one having such an event.

When we found that Chicago had its own haunted castle we became very excited and immediately wanted to go visit to get some photographs. As we were in Chicago during a family vacation in late spring, we decided to make a quick drive over and take a look at the castle.

Late in the day we finally found the church after driving through some very interesting (!) neighborhoods. As we looked up we admired the imposing structure that was set back from the road, its dark windows felt like eyes staring at us. We remained taking pictures until the light faded, happy that we had chosen to make our stop to explore this fascinating location and its legends.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Most Haunted Cemetery in the Midwest, Bachelors Grove Cemetery

Bachelors Grove Cemetery is one of the most haunted places I know, a mysterious and foreboding land steeped in legend and myth. This abandoned cemetery has long been a source of intrigue by many who have entered its twisted metal gates. One of the oldest cemeteries in south Cook County, Bachelors Grove Cemetery, has developed a reputation as the most haunted cemetery in the Midwest.

On a chilly spring day I found the overgrown trail leading to the cemetery entrance. The road was covered with leaves from last year's autumn season; the trees seemed to arch over the road, engulfing the trail and hiding it from the world. The trail was once a section of the Midlothian Turnpike but was closed in 1960s.

Named for the large number of bachelors buried in the cemetery, Bachelors Grove has been neglected even before the Midlothian Turnpike closed. Teenagers would frequent the area for drinking and other activities. Chicago mobsters often dumped the bodies from their murders into the adjacent pond. Satanists used the place for conjuring during their rituals, grave robbing, desecration and vandalism has been a part of the cemetery's long sad history.

As I walked along the trail with my cameras the spring day I visited, I began to feel anticipation of the unknown. The trees seem to tighten around me as I traveled deeper into the woods. This is where tales of a phantom farm house in the woods have been seen. Descriptions of the house have been consistent through the years, a white house with porch pillars, a swing and a soft light burning in the window. When anyone approaches, the house is said to vanish. Legend has it if you reach the porch of the house you will never return. For years records and explorations of the area have given little proof of a house ever being built in the woods near the cemetery until recently. Indeed, two foundations of a house were uncovered, adding a mysterious validity to the legend.

Deep in my thoughts about the many stories of this notorious cemetery, I was startled by the unexpected appearance of the entrance to Bachelors Grove Cemetery. The winter snow that receded only a few weeks previous had weighted down the long overgrown weeds and grass exposing a handful of broken tombstones. I also noticed that no birds were singing around the cemetery.

I looked at the various tombstones, many leaning and broken, as I walked through the cemetery. One particular tombstone jarred my memory; the tombstone had an unusual checked pattern and was the very tombstone from the famous photograph, taken by Mari Huff ,of the White Lady of Bachelors Grove ghost sitting on the tombstone.

So many haunted and bizarre experiences have accrued here its hard not to believe something very strange is happening in this isolated place. Many have seen the phantom of the farmer who was pulled into the water by his plow horse and both drowned by the weight of the plow in the 1870's. Strange colored ghost lights have been seen darting around the tombstones and in and out the surrounding trees. A two-headed creature has been seen several times rising from the muck of the pond. On nights of the full moon the White Lady of Bachelors Grove has been spotted wandering among the tombstones carrying her baby in her arms. Apparitions of monks in long black robes have been observed. Ghostly cars have appeared and disappeared on the road that bridge over the pond.

While I was taking pictures I constantly felt I was being watched. Often times I looked over my shoulder thinking someone or something was standing near by. Once my pictures where shot and my equipment packed up, I was happy to leave. I felt relief as I gained distance walking on the trail from the cemetery. When I reached the edge of the woods I noticed the birds were singing once again.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

John Zaffis in new SyFy series Haunted Collector

Last week with the lights dimmed down we enjoyed watching the premiere of SyFy's new paranormal TV series Haunted Collector. The show features John Zaffis, eminent paranormal investigator and demonologist, along with members of his family and team as they investigate paranormal activity and look for items that may be causing a haunting. Zaffis will later remove the item at the owner's request. It's really great to see such a well- known and seasoned investigator working a case. Zaffis portrays a relaxed and gentle personality that is highly knowledgeable about the paranormal field. He gives creditability to his evidence and how he obtains it. I was surprised how little equipment he carries; most of the time he just uses a digital tape recorder.

With over 35 years of experience Zaffis has worked on cases like the case in Connecticut on which the movie "A Haunting in Connecticut" is based on. Zaffis runs the Paranormal and Demonology Research Society of New England which he founded in 1998. He began his supernatural study under the guidance of his uncle and aunt Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are also well known in the field from their work on the Amityville house case. He continued his studies under prominent exorcists in that field like Bishop Robert McKenna, Malachi Martin, and Reverend Jun.

Over the years Zaffis began collecting souvenirs from cases and stored them in a barn in the back of his Connecticut home. At over a 1000 items, he wondered what he could do with all the items he amassed. Zaffis decided to set up a museum to tell the stories about the items that interfered with people's lives and how the individuals were affected. Named the Paranormal Museum, items included are as diverse as the places they are from. The collection features dolls, guns, clocks, musical instruments, carved items, clothing and even paintings. Zaffis, upon removing the object after finding them in clients' homes, often experiences car trouble as he drives the item to the museum. As quoted on his own website, Zaffis reports, that "before items are brought into the museum, binding rituals are performed over each item by clergy. The goal of these rituals is to cease any spiritual phenomenon associated with the item. Items that are particularly active are kept in cases. Each time the item is removed from the case, another ritual is performed on the item".

But sometimes "unhaunting" proves to be difficult. Says Zaffis: "Some items are so strong that the binding rituals performed over them are not completely effective. Although the specific phenomenon associated with the items stop for the most part, many people describe a distinct feeling upon entering the museum". A few items are unable to respond at all. "There have been some items which carry with it such a strong spirit that a cleansing ritual will not be effective". When Zaffis comes across an item that seems unable to fully respond to the binding rituals it is either disposed of, buried in the ground, or thrown into a body of water. Destroying such an object would cause more harm then good; according to Zaffis, the spirit attached to that object will often gravitate towards the individual who destroyed it.

Zaffis is no stranger to TV. He is often seen on paranormal shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures. A documentary film was recently made of the museum, written by and starred in by Zaffis himself. The film talks about his experiences and the stories behind the creepy items. Fans of paranormal TV shows can see Zaffis in action on Wednesday nights after the SyFy channel's highly popular Ghost Hunters with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson.