From History, Mystery, and Hauntings of Southern Illinois by Bruce Cline.
River Pirates, the Harpes, Mason and Bixby; these are the stories that come from this little community along the Ohio River. But no recounting of tales from Hardin County would be complete without the Legend of Billy Potts and Potts’ Inn.
Along the Ford’s Ferry Road, near what is now known as Illinois Route 1, sat the infamous inn; sometimes referred to as a tavern, as many such establishments in the mid-1800s provided not only a place for weary travelers to lay their heads at night, but food and drink, and occasionally the company of a young lady. The road was a path for many traveling north, crossing the Ohio on a ferry operated by Jim Ford. Ford was less than a respectable citizen, conducting business of a more criminal kind with Potts, the spoils split between them. As legend goes, Ford would size up the travelers, determining the worth of the prey and sending ahead a messenger to Potts at the inn. Billy would welcome the wayfarer to his establishment, feed him, and provide stabling for the horses, all the while telling of a wonderful spring just to the back of the inn.
The water was cold and refreshing, especially on hot summer nights in the muggy heat of the Ohio valley. Potts proudly showed his guest the fount, offering a taste from the drinking ladle already present. As the unsuspecting traveler would bend down to drink, Billy attacked, murdering without conscience, and taking possession of the deceased’s valuables and money. Whoever escaped the escapades of the Harpe brothers in Kentucky was fair game for Ford and Potts.
Billy Potts had a son. Some say he took the lessons of murder and robbery his father taught him to other parts of the country, others that he went a legitimate way, but both stories conclude he moved away from Hardin County during his young adulthood. At a point some years later, he decided it was time to return and visit his homeplace. Arriving at the ferry, age and a beard made him unrecognizable to his father’s business partner who mistook him for a wealthy traveler. He sent a message to Potts to await the arrival of their next conquest. Potts proceeded to charm his guest, also unable to recognize his own son. The son decided it would be a good joke to go along, only to spring on his father his identity at the last minute. His last minute came a minute sooner than he expected, and he went to meet his maker by the same hand as so many others.
The next day, another traveler who was an acquaintance of the son arrived at the inn asking for his friend. Potts, bewildered, went to the shallow place he had hidden the body, exhumed it, and to his great distress identified the body of his own son by a birthmark not noticed soon enough to prevent the killing of his own offspring.
The story of Billy Potts usually ends here, no explanation for where he went, what he did or how he punished himself for such a travesty. At least, the story ends for Billy. Despite the lack of documentation of the existence of Potts or his activities, due in part to the loss of the courthouse in Hardin County twice to fire, the legend is accepted as fact; as well as the evil presence in the area where the long-gone inn stood. Many have visited the bottom of the bluff where it stood, only to recount that they would never return. They believe something evil exists there. Does Billy Potts still walk the ground, lamenting his terrible crimes and murder of his son?
Copyright Bruce L. Cline, 2014. You do not have permission to copy this post.