Illinois’ Top 10 Most Enduring Mysteries

Every once in a while, events occur that leave a lot of questions in their wake. Disappearances, unsolved murders, curses, strange lights in the sky–events that remain unsolved for years, even decades. Illinois history is full of such events, but some continue stand out as persistent enigmas. After careful study, Mysterious Heartland has compiled this list of Illinois’ most enduring mysteries. Perhaps you can help solve them.

10. The Cursed Stone

Glen Ellyn, Illinois

stoneSome people believe tokens will bring them good luck. In the 1970s, Gilbert and Trudy Woods discovered a stone behind their suburban home on Hill Avenue that had the opposite effect. Strange symbols, including what looked like a serpent, adorned its face, and the couple saw fit to add it to add the mysterious object to their rock garden. Poltergeist activity soon followed, along with a series of unexpected medical crises. After Gilbert had a heart attack and Trudy developed Multiple Sclerosis, they decided to give the stone to a friend, who also began to have bad luck. As their story spread, the stone attracted the attention of the local news and the New Age community. The stone passed from one owner to another, always leaving a trail of unfortunate events in its wake. Today, however, the location of the stone is a mystery. It just may be sitting in your own garden.

9. Bailey’s Lost Million

Richmond, Illinois

Treasure3Harvey John Bailey (1887–1979) was one of the 1920′s most successful bank robbers and known as the “king of the holdup men.” He worked in a gang or alone, and his career spanned 13 years and several states. In 1931, his gang robbed the Lincoln National Bank in Lincoln, Nebraska and made off with roughly $1 million in cash. After the robbery, he is said to have hidden the loot on a farm near Richmond, Illinois, where he had been staying. He robbed his last bank in Kingfisher, Oklahoma and was sentenced to life in prison on October 7, 1933. He served time until his release in 1964. He died seven years later, but without recovering his stash. To this day, no one knows what happened to the $1 million.

8. Lost Copper Medallion

Lawn Ridge, Illinois

In August 1870, three men drilling an artesian well discovered a small copper coin or medallion more than 100 feet beneath layers of clay and soil. The profile of a woman holding a child and wearing a headdress was crudely etched onto one side, and a figure with ears like a mule or rabbit was etched into the other. Strange writing or symbols appeared around the edges of the coin. The coin found its way to the Smithsonian and generated much discussion among coin-experts, geologists, and archeologists. The coin or medallion showed signs of age, but its origins were mysterious. Some speculated that a French or Spanish explorer dropped it in a deep hole as a practical joke. Others believed it was a hoax perpetrated by the men who drilled the well. Incredibly, a third theory maintains that the coin or medallion was evidence of an ancient, lost civilization in North America. Its origin remains a mystery.

7. Colonel Clark’s Lost Silver

Chester, Illinois

Treasure8George Rogers Clark is a celebrated name in Illinois history. In 1778, as the Revolutionary War raged out east, Clark asked Patrick Henry (then Governor of Virginia) for permission to lead a secret expedition to capture British posts in the Illinois country, which included Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes. Patrick Henry commissioned Clark as a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia militia and authorized him to raise troops. Before his 175 man army left, the Virginia governor gave him several thousand pounds silver sterling to pay for the expedition. As Clark’s army was preparing to attack Fort Kaskaskia on July 4, they buried 1,200 pounds sterling west of present day Steeleville, near the Mississippi River, in case things went badly. He was victorious in battle, but unfortunately, the Mississippi flooded and obscured the location of the coins. This money has never been recovered. Was it washed down the river, or is it still buried in the Southern Illinois’ mud?

6. The Rockford Lights

Rockford, Illinois

UFO3Over the past several decades, hundreds of local residents around the Rockford Metropolitan Area have seen yellow lights, red glowing spheres, numerous other bright lights, and orbs in the night sky over the city. There were even mass sightings of a large triangle, as in the famous “Phoenix Lights.” To this day, strange orb-like objects are seen in the night sky according to hundreds of Rockford-area residents. In February 2000, there were multiple sightings of clusters of yellow lights over the Rockford-area, and around 9:00 PM on January 11, 2001, WREX Channel 13 Television and other news media reported that they had received some 600 reports of UFOs over the city. Sometimes as many as twelve lights or UFOs were reported conducting maneuvers, and some computer and electrical shutdowns coincided with the reports. What are the origins of these strange lights? Are they from outer space, or from somewhere much more mundane? No one knows for sure.

Check out these stories and more in Michael Kleen’s
Haunting Illinois: A Tourist’s Guide to the Weird and Wild Places of the Prairie State!

5. The Burton Mystery Cave

Adams County, Illinois

Ever since its discovery by H.L. Tandy in 1832, Burton Cave has been plagued by rumors of strange and alarming apparitions. During a picnic in the 1880s, visitors noticed a light emanating from the cave and went to investigate. They claimed that a man wearing a black robe dashed from the entrance, and when the startled picnickers peered inside, they saw a woman, dead, covered in a white robe. Candles surrounded her body. When the local sheriff arrived, however, the strange scene had vanished. After that, locals often told tales of ghosts inhabiting the cave. Burton Cave is now part of a scenic nature preserve, and its deepest area is sealed off to protect the endangered species of bats that live there. Who was this strange occultist, and what happened to his victim? The mystery remains unsolved.

4. The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

Mattoon, Illinois

Mad_GasserIn September 1944, dozens of people—mostly women—reported strange smells, paralysis, and other unusual occurrences they attributed to a “mad gasser” or “anesthetic prowler” in the east-central Illinois town of Mattoon. Panic seized the town, but as time went on the police department became increasingly skeptical. They blamed it on  odors emitted by local industrial plants. Representatives of Mattoon industry responded by denying that any such gasses had escaped from their factories. Their employees had not reported becoming sickened that month, nor had there been one instance of sickening in the previous four years. Mass hysteria fueled by the climate of the Second World War has been the official explanation for the “phantom anesthetist” ever since. In his book The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria (2003), Scott Maruna theorized that the attacks, at least some of them, were real and were perpetrated by a University of Illinois chemistry student named Farley Llewellyn, who was disgruntled by the treatment he received at the hands of his peers. Were the strange attacks in Mattoon in September 1944 an act of revenge, or were they caused by over active imaginations fed by years of stories of bizarre Nazi plots and chemical weapon attacks? The victim’s testimony, it seems, overwhelmingly points to a human perpetrator, but without more concrete evidence, it is unlikely that a definitive explanation will ever be found.

3. Burrows’ Discovery

Richland County, Illinois

Treasure5In the early 1980s, a man named Russell Burrows claimed to stumble upon a hidden cave somewhere near Olney. Even more incredible were the artifacts he said were hidden there. He found human remains, metal weapons, and an ancient language carved into gold tablets. Stranger still, the language was Middle Eastern and European in origin, and not from any known American Indian culture. According to Burrows, “The artifacts include ax heads of marble and other stone material, an ax head of what appears to be bronze, a short sword of what appears to be bronze, and other artifacts which might be considered personal weapons.” The find excited archeologists who believed that ancient cultures had interacted across continents. Unfortunately, Burrows refused to reveal the location of the cave to mainstream scientists, and the artifacts that allegedly came from the site were all shown to be frauds. After decades of debate, Burrows’ Cave is now widely believed to be an elaborate hoax, but until the location of the cave is found, no one knows for sure.

2. Airtight Torso Case

Coles County, Illinois

Haunted_Midwest_Bridges_4Designed by Claude L. James and built in 1914, Airtight Bridge spans the narrow Embarras River in rural Coles County and was long known as a drinking spot and a hangout for rough characters. Locals say it earned the name “Airtight” because of the unnatural stillness encountered while crossing it, or because early automobiles would stall on the steep hill leading to the bridge if there was more air than gas in their fuel tank. On the pleasant Sunday morning of October 19, 1980, two men from rural Urbana spotted the body of a nude woman about 50 feet from the bridge as they drove past. The body was missing its head, hands, and feet. After an extensive murder investigation, no killer was ever located and the identity of the victim remained a mystery for more than a decade. Even though her headstone now bears her name, three decades have not brought authorities any closer to solving this case.

1. The Watseka Wonder

Watseka, Illinois

Watseka_WonderOne of the most compelling cases of spirit possession in American history occurred right here in Illinois. In 1878 in the small town of Watseka, a 13-year old girl named Lurancy Vennum began to slip into short-lived comas. When she awoke, she spoke of having gone to heaven, and claimed to have communicated with spirits. Her parents sought the help of Dr. E. Winchester Stevens, who was a doctor and a spiritualist. Dr. Stevens advised Lurancy to allow one of the spirits to take over her body until she was strong enough to fight the catatonic spells on her own. Lurancy complied, and when she awoke, she claimed to be Mary Roff, who died in a mental hospital when Lurancy was an infant. Incredibly, Mary Roff’s family still lived in Watseka, and Lurancy asked to be returned to them. As “Mary Roff,” she seemed to have intimate knowledge of her former life, and convinced the Roffs that she was indeed channeling the soul of their long deceased daughter. After four months, she said it was time to depart, and Lurancy awoke with no knowledge of what had happened. To this day, no one has been able to explain this incredible event.

Haunting Illinois by Michael KleenCheck out these stories and more in Michael Kleen’s Haunting Illinois: A Tourist’s Guide to the Weird and Wild Places of the Prairie State! Three years in the making, the 3rd edition of Hunting Illinois is your ticket to adventure in your own backyard. This edition contains 60 new listings and 35 new pictures, for a total of 260 haunted or mysterious locations and more than 120 photos and illustrations. Divided into eight distinct regions and listed by county and town or neighborhood, each location features a description, directions, and sources from a wide variety of books, articles, and websites. Haunting Illinois challenges you to get off the couch and start exploring our wonderful State of Illinois. Go here to order!

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  1. daftasabrush46 says:

    Like the fact you illustrated the Sterling treasure, with current Sterling One Pound coins, which most know to be pretty worthless, except during this little blip when good for buying Yoyos, sorry Euros! Was back on the Aul Sod Northern Ireland, and we thought prices exorbitant in the Irish Republic/Eiré, which is in the Euro, but my revered aged one thought he was getting great exchange rate for Sterling to Euro. Still clear many of these mysteries still that soupconne of old superstition from the old countries. Hope the military continuing well Michael. Good luck for the rest of the battle up the greasy ladder. Better than saving the world on the video games! Spent entire holiday pointing out haunted sites, and places of military interest and battles ancient and modern. Overload and obsession with history, and paranormal, or OCD obsessions?! Lol. Have a good week, and continue the great multitasking Michael. Enjoy reading the history, haunted stories, and your military service. Thanks again for keeping us plebs informed.


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