2009, Alton, IL PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sylvia Shults   

RIP’s first road trip together was to Alton, IL. One of our members, Gail, had always wanted to visit the McPike Mansion. When we learned that Troy Taylor was leading tours of the mansion to kick off his October calendar, we decided it would be the perfect opportunity to get our feet wet with ghosthunting.

 We all climbed into Shari & Urs’ van (promptly christened “The Mystery Machine”) for the three hour ride down to Alton. The trip went quickly, fueled by reading aloud from Troy’s book Haunted Alton to get us all in the mood.

Our first stop was the cliff face overlooking the Mississippi River, and the restored painting of the mysterious Piasa Bird. This monster terrorized the Indian tribes of the area, snatching victims and carrying them away. A chief, Watoga, decided to put a stop to this, and hatched a plan. Accompanied by the men of his tribe, Watoga went up to the top of the bluff to wait for the bird’s attack. But when the monstrous talons reached out for him, the chief clutched at the rocky outcropping, hanging on with all his strength while his braves peppered the bird with arrows. The Piasa Bird was finally driven off, and the tribe was saved from danger. (For a more complete account of the Piasa Bird legend, see Troy Taylor’s book Haunted Alton.)

Piasa Bird, Alton, IL
Piasa Bird, Alton, IL

We then backtracked to downtown Alton and made our first stop at the site of the Alton State Prison. (Again, Haunted Alton is an excellent resource for the history of the prison.) Only a corner of the prison wall stands today, and even that was moved from elsewhere on the site. What was once a solidly built prison is now a parking lot ringed with sumac, honeysuckle, and osage orange. The day was overcast and gloomy, and we shivered as we contemplated the remains of the wall.

Alton State Prison, Alton, IL
Alton State Prison remains, Alton, IL

As we drove through downtown Alton, I spotted the perfect antidote to a cloudy, gloomy fall afternoon. Shari swerved into the parking lot of My Just Desserts with a squeal of the van’s tires. Part of the joy of a road trip, after all, is finding good places to eat. 

When we got there, half an hour before closing time, there were five kinds of pie left. As there were five of us, we ordered one of each, and at the waitress’ suggestion, when the desserts arrived, we’d each take a bite of pie, the pass round-robin around the table. Even with every one of us working on each piece, none of the plates were clean by the time we admitted defeat. Our dinosaur mascot even tried valiantly to climb the mountain of pie.

Our plan was to go over our touristy map of haunted places in downtown Alton, and to hit as many of them as we could before our tour of the McPike Mansion, which was scheduled for 9:30 that night. As we  spread the brochure out on the table, we noticed that we were actually at one of the locations already! My Just Desserts is haunted by the spirit of a ghost of a short, slightly built man who may have worked in the store when it was a flower shop. Oddly enough, he always appears in sepia tones, not in the shades of gray we tend to associate with apparitions. Our hostess graciously regaled us with her encounters with their resident ghost.  Although the ghost didn't make an appearance for us, we certainly enjoyed our visit nonetheless!

My Just Desserts, Alton, IL
My Just Desserts, Alton, IL

After dark, our ghost hunting began in earnest. When we got back to the parking lot and the ruins of the Alton State Prison, there was a tour bus already idling there, so we politely decided to wait to investigate at the ruins. The evening was dark and calm, with just a slight breeze to send clouds scudding across the full moon. As we waited, we felt a strange pull towards the upper corner of the parking lot, but soon the tour bus left, and we walked to the ruins.

I had our little voice recorder going, even though there was a lot of traffic noise from the nearby road, and a steady, constant drone from the power station. We walked quietly around the ruins, with Shari and Gail taking pictures, and Urs using the instant-read thermometer. We asked a few questions, assuring the spirits of our respect. The streetlight next to the ruins did cast some very strange shadows. At one point, I saw my own shadow – and a shadow behind me, that looked oddly like a person standing there with a saber hanging at their side. I looked around, and the other four girls were to either side of me, or in front of me, unable to cast shadows from the same light source. I still can’t explain that.

Gail, our sensitive, was asking questions too. At one point, she got a mental image of men huddled in the lee of the wall, shivering with cold. (Remember, Alton State Prison was used to hold Confederate prisoners of war. Men from Georgia or South Carolina would have been ill-prepared for an Illinois winter.) Aloud, Gail said, “Did you come out here bundled up against the cold?”  At that moment, Urs reported that the temperature, which had been steady at 55-56 degrees, suddenly dropped to 34 degrees.

We walked away from the walls and decided to explore our mysterious attraction to the corner of the parking lot. The ambient temperature, even with a slight breeze, was in the mid-fifties. As we approached the corner, though, the thermometer read 35.5. Oddly enough, Gail had just asked, “Does someone here remind you of home?” when the temperature plunged. Gail started towards the corner with the EMF meter. As she moved closer, though, the temperature went back up – whatever it was that was hanging around was not interested in being “read” with the meter.

I went to the corner alone with the voice recorder and the EMF meter, and the others fell back. We were all hoping that if a spirit was out that night, that it would be more likely to interact with one of us instead of the group. I asked a few more questions, but got no response from the EMF meter. Reluctantly, I said, “All right then – goodbye.” As I turned to leave, a loud, long, mournful hoot filled the air – one of the Mississippi River barges was blasting its horn.

 “Oh, nice touch, guys,” I laughed.

We still had about an hour to go before we were due at the mansion, so we took a stroll in downtown Alton. We stopped in at the Mineral Springs Hotel (haunted!), where other ghost tours were in full swing. We asked one of the tour guides about the Cracker Factory, just down the street. Sadly, we were told that the Cracker Factory (again, haunted!) is currently not open to the public. A few months before, a tornado had roared through Alton and had destroyed the roof and the top floor of the Cracker Factory building. It’s one thing to read those words on a screen, or have someone tell you. It’s another thing entirely to stand on the sidewalk and look up at a building and see a fire escape that climbs up the wall that just…isn’t…there anymore.

Cracker Factory, Alton, IL

Cracker Factory, Alton, IL

At last, we got to our final destination, the McPike Mansion. Once more, I’ll direct you to Troy Taylor’s Haunted Alton for an excellent recap of the history of the mansion. We pulled into a crowded yard and parked. White icicle lights strung between two ancient trees in the front yard provided illumination to the rows of plastic yard chairs set up in front of the house. Closer to the street, a small, tidy campfire crackled and glowed in the very center of a ring of stones. The fire lent a welcome warmth, and a flood of subliminal feelings – the summertime smell of woodsmoke, the whole “tales around the campfire” vibe.
 Our host for the evening was Len Adams, a colleague of Troy’s and a fine ghost story writer in his own right. It was a genuine pleasure to hear him speak, not only about the mansion, but about some of his own ghost hunting adventures as well.

Before we were all called together for the tour, Gail, Allie, and I made a quick circuit of the house. The breeze was beginning to pick up, and it was doing a great job of chasing the drifting clouds away from the brilliantly shining moon.

McPike Mansion

There were enough people in the tour that Len decided to split us up into two groups. The five of us hung back, preferring to be in the second group. We were looking forward to hearing Len’s lecture on the history of the mansion before we went in. Also, we weren’t quite sure what to expect on this “tour”, since we had been told that most of the house is dangerously unstable and in dire need of restoration. (At one point, Len told us, Troy was in the attic, and was able to look down through a hole in the floor all the way down to the basement.) The funds raised through tours of the house go towards these restoration plans, so if you can, please support this project by taking a tour of the mansion.

When it was our group’s turn to enter the house, we were ushered into the basement. Actually, we were in the wine cellar of the house, a surprisingly cozy small vaulted space lined with red, crumbling bricks. We sat down in the white plastic yard chairs that ringed the room. (As a matter of fact, that’s what made me feel better about the whole thing – when we sat in the chairs, our backs were fairly close to the walls of the wine cellar. I never felt that my back was to some open, yawning blackness, which went a long way towards making me feel comfortable.) Shari, Urs, and I sat together, while Gail and Allie took seats on another wall, facing us diagonally. One worklight in the far corner cast a yellow glow over the room. Our guide for the tour, a quiet psychic woman with long dark gray hair, sat next to the lamp, so she could turn it off when the time came.

McPike Mansion Wine Cellar

The psychic started off by assuring us that the spirits that would visit us that night were not malicious. She had such a calm, reassuring manner that, even sitting in a dank, dirt-floored wine cellar, the one light in the corner glinting off of the puddle in the middle of the floor, I felt a sense of calm and quiet expectation. The psychic went on to say that the spirits would manifest in different ways. For instance, when the spirit of Henry McPike showed up, the room would get darker.

Now hold on just a minute, the skeptic in my mind piped up. (This is the little voice in my head that’s always far too polite to speak out loud, but usually calls bullshit in the bony privacy of my skull.) The lights are going to be off, I just know it. How can pitch blackness get any darker? Gimme a break.  I told the voice to pipe down and just see what happened. Grumbling a little, the voice did as I told it.

I turned on the voice recorder, as Shari sat next to me, readying the video camera. She tucked the green glowing light of the camera under her arm to hide it. I put my finger over the red light of the recorder, but it glowed through my fingertip. I stood the recorder on end, hiding the red light against my knee. (This will be important later.)

The guide turned off the worklight, and the experience began. Soon I felt a pressure on my right arm, and I whispered, “Shari? Is that you?”

“Yup,” she whispered back. I leaned my arm into hers, grateful for the solidly human contact. The guide began asking questions in a quiet voice, inviting the spirits to join us in the wine cellar. I stared into the blackness. Human eyes were not designed to look at nothing, and I could feel my mind rebelling at the blank nothingness I was asking it to comprehend. I was tempted to close my eyes, just to relieve the mental discomfort, but I resisted the urge. (Besides, I know myself. If I sat for too long in a dark, unfamiliar place, with who-knows-what floating around me, with my eyes closed, I’d end up freaking out. And that would be embarrassing.)

The psychic said, “Henry’s here.” And here comes the crazy part: the darkness actually did get darker. It was 10 o’clock at night. We were in a basement. With the door closed. And the lights off. It was dark. I had my eyes open the whole time, and the dark of the unlit room was suddenly overlaid with a deeper blackness. Next to me, Shari murmured, “My left shoulder feels colder than my right.”

Realization dawned, and I yelped softly, “Hey, I’m on your left!” A nervous chuckle ran through the room, and I felt a tiny bit better about whatever entity was hanging out between me and my friend. We started asking a few questions, and Henry and I, both being avid gardeners and winemakers, even managed to have a conversation of sorts through the psychic.

Then the psychic told us that another spirit had joined us, a female entity. This spirit was supposed to manifest as a light blue mist.

The house where I grew up had a dimmer switch that controlled the lights in the dining room. Sometimes, kids being kids, I would amuse myself by turning the dimmer switch almost all the way down, seeing how low I could get the light level before I could no longer detect it. That’s what the faint mist before my eyes now looked like – just a barely perceptible hint of diffuse blue light.

We were joined later, the psychic told us, by a couple of animal ghosts. Before she said that, I thought I felt something bump up against my left shin, like a friendly hello from a wandering cat. It could have been the touch of my jeans against my skin, but I was being careful to hold particularly still, as I was wearing a creaky leather jacket, and I didn’t want the noise to bother anyone. So I can’t explain what I felt brush up against my leg.

Back in the hotel room, we toasted the success of our first RIP outing. As we laughed and joked over plastic cups of cheap spumante, Gail said, “Yeah, wasn’t that blue mist freaky? I was so glad you and Sylvia were over there recording. I kept looking at those two little red lights and remembering it was you guys over there, and I felt so much better.”

Shari and I exchanged uncertain glances. “Umm…Gail, the light on the camera is green.”

Gail stared at us, her smile fading. “Guys, really. I was looking over to where you were, and there were two red lights. I could see that light blue mist, and up in the middle of it there were red lights. I’m not kidding.”

 “Yeah,” Allie chimed in. “There were two red lights, sort of at head-height. I saw them too, Mom.”

 “We never said you were kidding. But seriously,” I said, “I was hiding the recorder light down against my thigh. I wasn’t holding up at any height at all, certainly not up by my head.”

 “And I swear the light on the camera is green,” Shari added.

 Gail took a gulp of champagne. “You know what the worst part of this is?” she said, her shaky voice almost accusatory. “I was looking at those red lights thinking all the time it was you guys. I could picture the three of you over there, and I was looking at them for comfort!”

 I shrugged. “Sorry!” We still have no explanation for that.

The next morning, we continued our tour of haunted Alton (after Gail grabbed the camera as soon as she got in the van and, after a thorough examination, reluctantly conceded that no, there was no red light-it was green!). Our first stop was the Confederate Monument and Cemetery on Rozier Street. During the time the prison was open, in the Civil War, there were 1354 soldiers buried here and on a small island in the river. The soldiers were mostly Confederate prisoners of war. They were buried in trenches, sometimes two to a coffin, as starvation and disease took their toll. The trenches were designated with wooden markers, but no other memorial was made at the time. After the war, the wooden markers rotted away, and the land was used as a cow pasture. In 1897, the government put up a memorial – one huge obelisk to stand as a monument to the fallen, with the names of the soldiers on plaques at the four sides of the base.

Confederate Cemetary, Alton, IL

The gloomy weather of the day before was a faint memory on this beautiful, sunny morning. The white stone of the monument gleamed in the brilliant sunshine, and I could easily imagine cows peacefully cropping the lush green grass that covered the gently sloping hill of the site. What was not so easily imagined was the fact that this quiet field was the final resting place of over a thousand soldiers. There was nothing about the green field that looked remotely like a cemetery.

Confederate Cemetary, Alton, IL

Our next stop was the hugely more believeable Alton Cemetery. This massive graveyard is the site of the Lovejoy monument, commemorating Elijah Lovejoy, the abolitionist newspaper publisher who was murdered by a mob in Alton in 1837.  One interesting thing about this monument is that if someone sits in one corner of the curved stone bench behind the monument, and another person sits in the opposite corner of the bench and whispers into the corner, the other person will hear it perfectly clearly!

Lovejoy Monument, Alton, IL

The cemetery seemed to be a popular Sunday morning walking destination, since we saw quite a few people out on the wide paths, enjoying the fall sunshine. We wandered the paths ourselves, taking pictures and exploring. I found an open (but empty) crypt, that turned out to be a great place to take author photos. (And no, nothing turned up hovering in the open door behind me. I don’t know whether to be relieved or bummed about that.)

Alton, IL Cemetary
Alton, IL Cemetary

After that, we made another visit to My Just Desserts for a fabulous lunch and another amazing round of pie. Then it was time to climb back into the Mystery Machine for the drive back to Pekin. We all agreed that RIP’s first outing was a success, and had given us a lot to think about.  On the way out of town, we stopped back by the McPike Mansion for a final picture in the daylight, and reluctantly said good-bye to one of the most haunted towns in Illinois!

McPike Mansion, Alton, IL
McPike Mansion, Alton, IL