Steve Stout, 58, of Utica, Illinois, a graduate of Illinois State University, is a Galesburg native who now works as a staff writer for The Times, a daily newspaper in Ottawa. He is perhaps best known as an area historian and author of numerous books and articles about Illinois Valley events. Stout’s first two books, Black Damp: The Story of the Cherry Mine Disaster and The Starved Rock Murders, are novelized accounts of two of the most famous historical events in North Central Illinois. Stout credits fellow Galesburg native and famous poet Carl Sandburg as his inspiration for his love of writing and appreciation of Illinois history.
You have written several books about Starved Rock State Park. What do you find so compelling about that particular place, and what first attracted you to it?
As many have done, I fell in love with the park after my first visit more than 30 years ago. a place I find to be a photographer’s paradise in all seasons. I live right outside the park in Utica and so it is easy for me to spend an hour or the whole day exploring the many miles of wooded trails and majestic canyons. After studying the well-documented adventures of French explorers Joliet and Marquette, I came to understand the Starved Rock region was the first site of recorded history in the area and important to the growth and heritage of the state.
Writing about the tragic murders of 1960 inside the state park helped me to understand the ongoing evolution of the state’s criminal court system and how the news media worked in reporting the crime during the last 50 years.
We have heard rumors about the Starved Rock Lodge being haunted – do you believe it is haunted, or have you heard any stories about ghostly encounters there?
Yes, I have heard many tales of the Starved Rock Lodge being haunted but nothing too dramatic. I believe old buildings have an energy all to themselves where some sensitive souls can see, feel or hear things that others cannot. The lodge is a wonderful place with many mysteries that have yet to be uncovered. It is my favorite place to hang out with friends or working solo on writing projects.
Take us back to when you first heard about the 1960 murder of three women in St. Louis Canyon. What compelled you to write a book about the event? Do you believe that Chester Weger was the killer?
I was working at a newspaper in La Salle-Peru in the 1970s when I first heard details about the horrific crime back in 1960. Starting a personal investigation into the murders, I was surprised about how many locals did not believe the right man was convicted for the crime and was awed by the massive amount of publicity the crime received not only locally but around the entire nation. It was clearly the “O.J. Simpson” case of its day.
After years of researching, I can come to no other conclusion in the case than prosecutors did back so long ago. I believe Chester Otto Weger committed the murders exactly the way he confessed to authorities in 1960. It was a robbery that got out-of-hand and ended with murder to prevent any identification. To this day, many people can not accept how one man could attack, intimidate and ultimately kill three women, each of whom were larger than him. I say, go down to St. Louis Canyon to find the answer. The truth is waiting there.
Have you ever heard about Henri de Tonti’s lost gold at Starved Rock? And if so, do you have any leads?
Of course, a lot of history-minded people here in the Ottawa area have heard the legend of de Tonti’s gold. It is a great story but I have found no basis to believe a hidden treasure exists in or around the state park. Though history tells us Rene-Robert La Salle and de Tonti finished Fort St. Louis at Starved Rock in the late 1600′s, no real evidence of him having or hiding great quantities of gold has ever been uncovered. Remember, if you travel into the Starved Rock area with a shovel, you will be stopped and /or fined by the conservation police. They will protect state property.
What is your favorite ghost story (or legend) from the Illinois river Valley?
It is not a ghost story but the legend of how Starved Rock State Park got its name has always fascinated me. Many times I have climbed to the top of the ROCK and tried to imagine myself in a situation surrounded by people below who want to kill me, letting me starve into submission. Frightening.