By Tim Prasil
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.