Central Illinois encompasses a large swath of the state, from the Mississippi River in the west to the border of Indiana in the east. Mostly small towns and farmland, central Illinois also boasts many of our state’s most prominent colleges and universities. Its residents are generally salt of the earth folks. As we at Mysterious Heartland can attest, however, central Illinois is also ripe with ghost stories and haunted places. Which will prove to be the scariest of them all?
10. Pemberton Hall
Pemberton Hall is the oldest all-female dormitory in the state of Illinois and was the brainchild of Livingston C. Lord, president of Eastern Illinois University from 1899 to 1933. The old-English look and feel of the dormitory was well suited for its first full time matron, Mary Hawkins, who emigrated from Great Britain in 1901 and assumed the position of dorm director in August 1910, when she was 33 years old. Sometime after her death, the girls of Pemberton began to believe her ghost returned to haunt the hall. The Roommate’s Death, a common folklore motif in which a student is murdered by a crazed janitor, has merged with the story of Mary Hawkins to create a unique tale. Sometimes Mary manifests herself as a prankster; a young woman who scratches at doors, leaves bloody footprints, or wanders up to the fourth floor dressed in nothing but a white gown. Other times, Mary appears as a benevolent matriarch who makes sure doors are locked at night and warns “her girls” of trouble.
9. Springdale Cemetery
Founded in 1855, this sprawling 225-acre cemetery has over six miles of roadways and is the final resting place for almost 70,000 people. It is so large that it has over two dozen different burial areas with names like “The Glen,” “Vista Hill,” and “The Willows,” with terrain ranging from open prairie to wooded hills and valleys. It even features a pet cemetery. Springdale was a private cemetery until 1999, when it was seized by the state due to profound neglect. Since then, it has recovered, but strange tales remain. One of the oldest stories involves the “Witch’s Circle,” a family burial plot surrounded by a circle of stones nestled in a field. Visitors often avoid this isolated area. As a young man, one person claimed that his friends and he were chased to the circle by mysterious glowing eyes, where they encountered a group of robed figures. At least one murder has occurred in Springdale Cemetery. In June 1935, the nude body of 19-year-old Mildred Hallmark was found in a ditch along Valley Road, the victim of a serial rapist named Gerald Thompson. Today, she is said to appear as a “lady in white,” and ghost lights have been reported near the crime scene.
8. University of Illinois
The University of Illinois was established as an industrial university in 1867 and first opened on March 2, 1868. It became the University of Illinois in 1885 and was renamed the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1982. As the oldest public university in the state of Illinois, the campus hosts a number of ghost stories. The English Building is purportedly haunted by the ghost of a student who either drowned or committed suicide there in the early 1900s during the time when the building served as a female dormitory. The third floor of Lincoln Hall has its own ghost, but so does the ultra-modern Psychology Building, where a student threatened to kill himself by jumping from one of the upper floors overlooking the foyer. He survived the incident unscathed, but died a few years later. Some students claim that his ghost has returned to torment his analytically-minded former classmates. Even the YMCA cannot claim to be ghost-free. According to legend, the spectral manifestation of Chief Illiniwek is said to roam the basement of this venerable building, which formerly hosted a painting of the university’s mascot. Perhaps all the recent controversy has contributed to his unrest!
7. Phi Mu Alpha House
This Victorian home, now occupied by Phi Mu Alpha, a music fraternity, was built in 1898. According to a macabre legend, the house was built by a local doctor and his wife. Their daughter had fallen in love with a sailor and became pregnant. Her father attempted to abort the pregnancy himself, but she died in the operation. He dismembered her body and lowered the pieces into the basement, where he buried them. In 1971, a student claimed to see her ghost, wearing a white veil, in his bedroom on several occasions. Others have seen her apparition sitting on the couch. These encounters are never described as threatening. In the basement, bricks placed over where her body was allegedly buried continue to “sink,” no matter how many times they are replaced and the depression is filled with new soil. According to research done by Anna Deters, the original owner of the home was a physician who did in fact have a daughter, but she married in 1903 and had several children of her own.
6. Voorhies Castle
Piatt County, Illinois
“Voorhies Castle” is the colloquial name for a mansion built between 1900 and 1904 by Nels Larson. The mansion was designed to resemble a Swedish chalet in Queen Anne style. The town of Voorhies, however, was named after Jack Voorhies, whose brother and he owned most of the land on which the village would be built. Larson quietly built a small empire while working for Voorhies, and eventually owned the town. A large clock tower used to sit on the property, but a tornado destroyed it in 1976. To this day, it is said, the sound of a clock chiming can be heard on March 29, at the exact hour Nels Larson died. In addition to his two children, there were rumours that Larson had a third that was developmentally disabled. People whispered that Larson locked this child in a secret room somewhere in the mansion. While one or more secret rooms have been discovered, Larson’s decedents deny any such child ever existed.
After Larson died in 1923, the mansion sat abandoned for a number of years, until it was sold in 1967 to the Illinois Pioneer Heritage Centre and opened for tours. Caretakers heard strange sounds and saw shadows moving in the mansion, and a paranormal investigation was conducted there. A married couple purchased the Voorhies Castle in 1972 and publicly acknowledged it was haunted, but they were forced to abandon it six years later. After a succession of owners, Steven Seitz, a political science professor at the University of Illinois, purchased the property in 1999. While renovating the mansion, he discovered a small toy unicorn sealed in the wall—just one more mystery hidden in this unique building.
5. Western Illinois University
Western Illinois University began as a teacher’s college. Originally called Western Illinois State Normal School, its classes were confined to one building, now known as Sherman Hall. Sherman Hall was then known by the unimaginative title of “Main Building.” In 1902 the university added a training school to Main Building in order to allow its students to obtain teaching experience in the classroom. As the student body expanded, they constructed a new building to house the training school. In the 1960s, as Western Illinois State Normal School became Western Illinois University, the Training School building was converted to house the Department of English and Journalism and renamed Simpkins Hall.
For years, students and faculty in Simpkins Hall have told stories about the ghost of an adolescent girl, but she is only one of the apparitions rumoured to haunt the 71-year-old building. Many other odd occurrences at the hall are attributed to “Harold,” a former janitor or graduate assistant who lurks among the classrooms on the third floor. After classes finish for the day, the disembodied sound of keys jingling, doors opening and closing, or a typewriter clicking, rattle the nerves of even the most seasoned educator. Another story circulating the hall is that of a woman who can be heard crying in the first floor restroom.
4. Williamsburg Hill
Shelby County, Illinois
Ridge Cemetery and Williamsburg Hill are notorious in the lore of central Illinois. The hill is the highest point in Shelby County and once sheltered a town, in addition to its cemetery. Williamsburg, as the town was known, was platted in 1839 by two men, Thomas Williams and William Horsman. Many Horsmans can be found buried in Ridge Cemetery to this very day. The town disappeared in the 1880s as the railroad bypassed its inconvenient location. The legends surrounding Ridge Cemetery involve occult rituals, spook lights, phantom funerals, and the ghost of an old man who disappears upon approach. Animal mutilations have also been reported in and around the cemetery.
3. Illinois College
Founded by Presbyterians in 1829, Illinois College is one of the oldest colleges in Illinois. Its first president was Edward Beecher, brother of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. With such a rich history, it comes as no surprise that Illinois College is rich in ghostlore too. Nearly every building on campus is thought to have a ghost or two. Like Millikin University, the female dorm at Illinois College, Ellis Hall, is haunted by a young woman who allegedly committed suicide there. A “grey ghost”—a faceless phantom at that—hangs out on the stairwell of Whipple Hall. Another grey ghost, this one dressed in a Confederate uniform from the Civil War, has been seen in Sturtevant Hall. Phantom footsteps have been heard in Beecher Hall, the oldest building on campus. It is rumoured that early in the college’s history, medical students stole cadavers from nearby hospitals in order to learn about anatomy. After a while, the hall where the bodies were stored began to smell, and the student’s grisly enterprise was uncovered.
2. Peoria State Hospital
The hospital began in 1885 as Bartonville State Hospital. No patients were ever housed or treated in that building, however, and it was torn down in 1897. The institution was rebuilt and reopened in 1902 with a new name and a new superintendent. Now called Peoria State Hospital, a progressive physician named Dr. George A. Zeller took over the facility and instituted new, more humane treatments for mental illness. During his tenure there, he recorded many stories of daily life, including some that were almost beyond belief.
The main story associated with the hospital concerns the unusual circumstances surrounding the death of one of the patients, A. Bookbinder. Dr. Zeller assigned Bookbinder to the hospital’s burial corps, and he performed his job admirably. Old Book, as he was sometimes called, mourned the passing of each and every person he helped inter in the cemetery. When Bookbinder died, Dr. Zeller wrote that four hundred staff and patients observed his ghost mourning at his own funeral just as he had for countless others while he was alive. They even opened the coffin to confirm that Old Book was really dead. His corpse was securely inside.
1. Greenwood Cemetery
Greenwood Cemetery is rumoured to be one of the most haunted locations in central Illinois. According to Troy Taylor, the land that would become Greenwood was originally an Amerindian burial ground, and then was later used by the first white settlers to bury their dead until the late 1830s. These graves have since disappeared. The oldest visible marker on the grounds dates back to 1840, and Greenwood Cemetery was officially established in 1857. One of the most interesting stories at Greenwood concerns the ghosts of dead and dying Confederate prisoners who were dumped at the cemetery on their way to a prison camp and buried in the hillside under what is now a memorial to Union soldiers. Years later, heavy rain collapsed part of the hill, mixing the bodies together. The hill was repaired and the bodies reburied, but many believe their spirits were permanently disturbed. Another popular legend concerns the so-called “Greenwood Bride,” who wanders the grounds in her wedding dress searching for her fiancé, who was murdered by bootleggers. Greenwood Cemetery is also haunted by phantom funerals, ghost lights that flicker in the southeastern hills, and other, more sinister apparitions.
Check out these places 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 neighbourhood, 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!