About these ads

Stickney Mansion Mystery Solved

By Tim Prasil

Stickney House, Photo by Michael Kleen

Stickney House, Photo by Michael Kleen

Stickney House poses a mystery. This mid-nineteenth-century, two-story, brick house—some call it a mansion—remains standing in Bull Valley, Illinois, roughly midway between Chicago and Rockford. A curious thing about this structure is it was built with almost no right-angled corners, neither inside nor out. Most of the major corners were rounded. That much is certain.

The mystery is why Stickney House was built with no corners.

One explanation is given by some area residents, including a local newspaper reporter and the Bull Valley Village Clerk. The same explanation is easily found on the Internet—even on Wikipedia and Yahoo News. According to this view, the Stickneys were avid Spiritualists, and their beliefs held that 90-degree corners hinder the movement of spirits. They commissioned a house that would let ghosts move freely, thereby fostering greater communication between the living and the dead at the many séances the Stickneys conducted.

This is a wonderful explanation, one so appealing that it has become legend. Like many legends, though, the logical problems are sidestepped.

The first problem is the timing. Spiritualism sprouted in 1848, when sisters Kate and Margaret Fox told their parents that they could communicate with a ghost in their home in Hydesville, New York. A new religion blossomed. As early as June of 1850, Scientific American reported that the Fox sisters had returned to New York after having bedazzled the West, the South, and the East with their touring séances.

Although Spiritualism made converts with surprising speed, construction of Stickney House began in 1849. Spiritualism would have been very, very new—if known at all in Illinois—during that year. According to a book of local history, George Stickney had lived in New York State from 1817 to 1835, and he probably stayed in touch with people near the birthplace of Spiritualism. Still, designing one’s house in accordance with a religion barely one year old seems exceptionally bold even for a prairie pioneer!

There’s another problem with the built-for-séances explanation. I’ve hunted through many books about Spiritualism for a comment about conventional corners obstructing spirits. Starting with Charles Grafton Page’s Psychomancy (1853) and ending with Joseph McCabe’s Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847 (1920), I searched ten different books, both pro and con, using a variety of search terms.

None of those ten books about Spiritualism has anything at all to say about corners hindering séances.

Now, this lack of corroborating evidence doesn’t disprove the claim that Stickney House was built to facilitate séances. In fact, a similar house still stands in Georgetown, New York, that was also reputedly designed for séances. Its Spiritualist owner, Timothy Brown, claimed that spirits even guided him through the architectural design of what has come to be called Spirit House. Importantly, the structure has rounded corners. (I haven’t been able to discover if its corners were rounded on the inside, where séances would be held, but pictures confirm that they are on the outside. When comparing this to Stickney House, though, we need to remember that Spirit House’s construction began in 1864, after Spiritualism had had well over a decade to take root.)

Another explanation for Stickney House’s odd corners involves George Stickney adapting the idea from round barns. George Washington had a round barn, and a Christian group started constructing them in Massachusetts in 1824. Outsiders nicknamed this religious community “Shakers.” While simple efficiency probably had much to do with their adopting round barns, tales were spread about the Shakers believing that evil spirits could hide in corners—thus, cornerless barns.

The same idea has been transferred to Stickney House in some sources, including another Wikipedia article. Here, the Stickneys’ goal wasn’t to welcome spirits but to evict the devilish ones. Interestingly, the desire to block evil spirits also accounts for those famous curved eaves on Chinese houses.

The more likely reason why the Shakers built round barns—and why many more were built after the Shakers had faded—suggests another possible theory. A 1910 pamphlet promotes round barns because of their convenience, strength, and affordability. Meanwhile, in the late 1800s, hospital wards such as those at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins or New York’s Presbyterian Hospital started utilizing rounded corners to promote better air circulation and superior cleaning. Simply put, rounded corners have certain practical advantages, from improving structural strength to facilitating housekeeping.

Of course, there’s nothing very exciting about the prospect that the corners at Stickney House were designed for purely pragmatic reasons. My goal hasn’t been to “pull the sheets off” those other, more spirited explanations. Instead, by offering this third possibility, I hope I’ve only added to the mystery of the house with no corners.

Tim Prasil blogs about ghosts and supernatural fiction at tim.prasil.wordpress.com.

About these ads

Comments

  1. One small but significant correction. It was in the late 1800s, not the late 1900s, that hospital wards started to be built with rounded corners for better sanitation. One digit. One century. Ouch.

  2. then what accounts for the rooms inside the house also having smooth rounded corners? just because a movement becomes “recognized” in a certain time period does not mean it was not being practiced before said time period. not to mention the belief in spirits, the afterlife and the attempt to communicate with the dead was around along time before spiritualism. mesmerism, clairvoyants and the like preceded spiritualism and could very well have influenced the stickneys well before spiritualism became a household word. sylvia stickney, a talented medium, wanted to be able to communicate with her dead children and that was the primary goal for the design of the house. it was meant to act as a sort of communication portal. the wikipedia page is absolutely full of mistakes and needs to be rewritten.

    • Forgive my late response. I hadn’t seen your comment before now.

      You make an excellent point about the Stickneys being one part of a wider movement that resulted in Spiritualism. It’s hard to believe that the Fox sisters were solely accountable for the entire movement (even though many accounts suggest as much).

      To answer your question about what accounts for the house having rounded corners, I simply don’t know. This article’s title is, well, unfortunate and not my own. I had hoped to offer a few possibilities, such as the added structural integrity and other advantages associated with round barns. There’s evidence in a book titled History of McHenry Country, Illinois (Chicago: Interstate Publishing, 1885) that George Stickney worked in the lumber business in New York before moving to Illinois. It’s feasible he knew a few things about construction and was hoping to apply the concept of round barns to his mansion in tornado territory.

      But I present that only as one possibility.

      It does concern me that I haven’t found any evidence of Spiritualists or related groups who conducted seances believing that rounded corners facilitate spirit communication. Maybe this only reveals something about my research methods. If so, I’d very much like to be guided to such evidence — or to a letter, a newspaper article, or anything else confirming that the Stickneys conducted seances.

      I grew up about seven miles from Stickney House, and I know the local legends well. I love the story that’s often told to explain the house’s curious architecture.

      But I also know that hearsay is powerful — sometimes, more powerful than evidence.

Trackbacks

  1. […] enjoy the article at http://mysteriousheartland.com/2013/10/14/stickney-mansion-mystery-solved/ .  If you’re from the area — or even if you’re not — you can find out […]

  2. […] following you guys leads me to new haunts. This week, Tim Prasil wrote a piece about the Stickney Mansion for a site called Mysterious Heartland: A Celebration of Midwestern Curiosities. I foresee me […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,894 other followers

%d bloggers like this: