Saturday, November 18, 2017

Cemetery of Shadows and Light

Cemeteries have long fascinated us and have often been a source of fear for the living. Since before recorded history mankind has always buried their dead, or given some sort of funeral rights to honor or make the deceased’s journey into the afterlife a pleasant one. The Victorians designed their cemeteries as parks for picnics and strolls with loved ones among the picturesque ponds, weeping willows, headstones, and mausoleums. But for criminals, undesirables, the insane, and suicides their burials were treated with less respect. They were often buried in a field far away from the main interments and in unmarked graves or with a small headstone with just a number as the only means of identification.  

One Midwest cemetery that has been a source of countless ghost stories is Greenwood Cemetery in Decatur, Illinois. The cemetery was officially incorporated in 1857 but burials go much further back. Through the years the cemetery has been neglected, from over grown grass and weeds to the inferior construction of the mausoleum that continually leaked. Grave robbing was also a constant problem. Years ago, flooding from the nearby river had washed away part of the cemetery and several coffins were swept away in the turbulent waters. Some of the bodies were recovered but identification was impossible, so the bodies were buried in a mass grave. Dark misty figures and ghost lights can be seen floating in the area where the coffins originally resided.

The mausoleum has been a source for much of the strange activity. Anguished screams were heard coming from the structure and ghost lights have been seen dancing around the mausoleum during the time it was still standing. The building was finally torn down in the late '60s. The area is still known for its sounds of faint screams and sightings of strange lights with no explainable source.
Two notorious legends of the cemetery have frightened many visitors over the years. One is concerning the Greenwood Bride that has been sighted as a white figure wondering among the headstones looking for her fiancĂ© who was murdered before they were to be married. The grief-stricken woman’s identity remains a mystery but it's thought she drowned herself after finding out he was murdered from a shady business deal that went horribly wrong.

The other legend--and the most horrific--takes place during the height of the Civil War when the Union Army was advancing into the south. Captured Confederate soldiers were transported by train to POW camps. One train carrying dying Confederate prisoners stricken with yellow fever passed close to the cemetery. The dead prisoners were unloaded and buried in a hastily dug mass grave. Some of the prisoners are believed to have been still alive when they were covered over with soil. Strange uneasy feelings have been felt in the area of the cemetery dedicated to those who fought in the bloody Civil War. Apparitions of Confederate prisoners have been seen and appeared as a living person that seems disoriented and confused to where they are and how to get home.

The reason why cemeteries become haunted remains elusive but some of those that investigate paranormal activity feel that maybe the soul or spirit still retains a strong attachment to its body refusing to pass on, or is confused and upset with how its remains have been treated.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The mysterious James John Eldred House

Death to the Victorians in the 1800s was a very natural and common part of life. Children often died due to disease or infection. Medicine, surgery and the basic understanding of germs was in its infancy. Many diseases that we take for granted today caused considerable suffering and death to those during that time. Entire families could be wiped out within a year from measles, smallpox, tuberculosis to even a simple cut getting infected. The mortality rate was high and the Victorians took such a tragic event to celebrate those who had passed with elaborate showings, funerals, jewelry made from a dead loved one’s hair, and family photographs with the deceased were a very common and natural practice.     

One Illinois family that had seen such tragedy was that of James John Eldred. The house he built and lived in rests among the trees and tall grass of western Illinois north of St. Louis. Built in 1861 for his wife and four children, Eldred built the limestone house in the Greek Revival style with touches of the Italianate style. Eldred made his money farming his land and raising livestock, and was well known for the social parties he often hosted in his elegant home.

The years the Eldred family spent at the house were often filled with hardship and tragedy. The agricultural life was unpredictable, difficult, and constantly left his finances strained. The onset of the Civil War made things even worse for the family. Their three daughters started to get ill from tuberculosis and eventually died; Alma died at age 4 in 1861, Alice died at 17 of in 1870, and Eva died at 17 in 1876. Eldred’s son Ward survived and continued to help with the farm. James J. Eldred and his wife stayed in the home till his death in 1911.
Over the years the house changed ownership and was eventually purchased by a local famer and used for storage.  The house currently is owned by the Illinois Valley Cultural Heritage Association and is used for living history events and ghost hunts. The profits are used to help restore the house.

Visitors to the house often report bizarre experiences, from the sounds of mysterious footsteps to strange rappings on the doors to faint conversations between a man and a woman when the house seems quiet; also poltergeist activity of rocks being tossed within the house has been experienced. Dark shadows have been seen darting throughout the house, giggles of a little girl have been heard and apparitions have been spotted in and on the grounds of the old house. Visitors have even been touched by ghostly hands, leaving a cold clammy feeling at the place of contact. The sighting of a ghost of a traveling salesmen that died on the property as been seen, but finding verification of the death has been elusive. Excavations around the house revealed bones from the grave of a Native American that was buried long before the house was built. Once the burial ground was disturbed a phantom of a Native American has been seen wandering among the trees of the property.   

With the expansion of America towards the west, migrating settlers often infringed on the ancient lands of the natives that have been occupying those places for centuries. The natives lived, worked and died in those lands and the oral history that they shared with each other was the only record of the places where their ancestors where buried. It’s not surprising when these lost graves are disturbed, that those who were buried there become restless and demonstrate to the living their loathing of the careless infringement. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Vengeful Pirate of Ham House

The mighty Mississippi River has been of major importance to the settlement of the Midwest by transporting food, goods, livestock and materials from Louisiana in the south to Minnesota in the north; thereby, playing a major role in the expansion of the American frontier. Fortunes where made using these major rivers, but many criminals also found ways to exploit these early settlements, which lacked proper protection of civil authorities and institutions. River pirates terrorized the two major rivers in the Midwest; the Mississippi and the Ohio. During the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century river pirates, often robbed, captured or murdered river travelers to gain access to cargo, slaves and or livestock, to be later sold down river. Many river pirates where known to enter homes along rivers to steal food, weapons and valuables.
Mansions built along these rivers often incorporated a belvedere as a look out for marauding pirates. Home owners in smaller communities often needed to be armed to keep their family and valuables safe since these early establishments lacked proper law enforcement.
One legend from this dangerous time is of Ham House, a large stone mansion that sits on top of a bluff overlooking the turbulent waters of the Mississippi River in Northern Iowa. The mansion became the setting for love, loss, death, revenge, murder and where phantoms of the past refuse to remain as history. Built by one of the earliest settlers of the area, Mathias Ham used his fortune from lead mining, lumber, agriculture and his shipping fleet to build his house in 1856 for his wife Margaret and their six children. Ham became one of the most socially prominent families in Dubuque at the time. The house was designed by architect John F. Rague who also designed other well-known buildings in the Midwest from the original state capitol buildings in Springfield, Illinois to the old state capital building in Iowa City, Iowa.
Ham adored his three-story home and decorated it in the most opulent way; from plaster rosettes and moldings, to ornate walnut staircases. He furnished his home with Victorian furniture. Ham would often watch boat traffic move along the Mississippi river from the belvedere perched at the top of the house. However, one seemly normal day of river watching would change the course of his family and leave their souls to haunt the beloved home forever.
Ham spotted river pirates harassing his cargo ships. He quickly contacted the authorities and the pirates were arrested. The pirates knew Ham was reasonable for their capture and vowed to take revenge on him and his family.
That event seemed to be a turning point for the family. During the next few years, Mathias Ham began to lose his fortune in several bad real estate deals and from the financial crash of 1857. Mathias and Margaret died within a few years of each another. By the 1890’s, most of the family died off; leaving his last surviving daughter, Sarah, to inherit the house and what was left of the remaining fortune.  
Living alone in the empty mansion, Sarah began to have problems with prowlers late at night. Speaking to her neighbors about this, they suggested she put a light in her window to signal to them if she needed help. A few nights later, Sarah was reading in her bedroom on the third floor when she heard an intruder inside the house. Sarah locked her bedroom door, put the lit lantern in the window, and grabbed a gun. As Sarah waited in silence, straining to notice the slightest sound, she faintly began to hear footsteps slowly creeping up the staircase and moving slowly along the creaking floor. Footsteps shuffled in front of her bedroom door. Sarah nervously called out to ask who was there, silence. She raised her gun and shot twice at the door. Hearing the gunshots, the neighbors peered out toward Sarah’s house to see the lantern glowing in the window. They rushed over to the house and up the stairs to find her bedroom full of smoke, the scent of gunpowder hung heavy in the air and Sarah still holding the gun and upset from the event tried to explain what had happened. As they began to investigate what had happened, Sarah and her neighbors saw among the splinters of wood that lay scattered on the floor in front of the damaged bedroom door, a trail of blood was leading down the stairs, out the front door, towards to the banks of the Mississippi. At the end of the blood trail and  laying in the thick mud of the river's edge was the lifeless body of a river pirate, who had recently been released from prison and returned to seek his revenge on Ham.
As the years went on, Sarah found it more difficult to maintain her home financially and was forced to sell the mansion in 1912 to the city of Dubuque. Sarah died in 1921. The Dubuque County Historical Society converted the mansion into a museum in 1964.
Over the years, the mansion has developed a reputation for being haunted. Victors as well as employees at the museum have seen several phantoms throughout the house and have experienced several unsettling events that have been difficult to explain. The ghost of the vengeful pirate is said to haunt the main staircase and third floor where he is still trying to seek his revenge. From the belvedere, Mathias Ham can still be seen watching the boats move along river. Hushed sounds of footsteps, whispered voices, crying and faint screams have been heard throughout the house. Locked doors and windows have been found wide open for no reason. Doors will open and close by themselves. Lights flicker on and off and the nonfunctioning organ has been heard playing on its own at night prompting workers to leave the house as soon as possible when tour hours are over. Unusual cold spots have been felt. Objects have been known to vanish and later reappear in a different location. Ghost lights have been seen to drift throughout the house and have even been spotted floating outside at night. Many museum workers and visitors have had uncomfortable feelings of being watched.
As for the reason why the spirits of the dead choose to remain at certain places and not others are not fully known. Many investigators in the field of the paranormal often think when someone has a deep love for a place or has experienced a traumatic event that has led to their death, a spirit may remain earthbound; not realizing they have died or has unfinished business. Those spirits can’t pass over till they come to terms of its previous actions or their mortality. I find it ironic that the only true way to know how the spirit realm works is when we pass through the thin vail of death and into the spirit world, by then it’s often too late.