THE BIG BOOK OF ILLINOIS GHOST STORIES Review – History and Mystery

JULIA BUCCOLA PETTA’S MONUMENT AT MOUNT CARMEL CEMETERY

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GLOBE PEQUOT, ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHING

Author Troy Taylor has been writing about ghosts and the paranormal for a long time, long enough to have authored over 120 books on the unexplained in America. His historical research is thorough, his details numerous. He and his wife have also founded the American Ghost Society, a paranormal investigative group which spans all of North America, as well as the Haunted America Conference to be held next in June 2020 in Alton, Illinois. The 24th annual conference will offer ‘new and returning speakers on ghosts, hauntings, the paranormal, and the unexplained’ plus how-to workshops, ghost hunts and tours. 

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AUTHOR TROY TAYLOR

‘Illinois is a very haunted place,’ Taylor writes in his introduction. He closes his book with comments on the Chicago legend of Resurrection Mary. ‘You see, our individual belief, or disbelief, does not really matter. Mary lives on anyway—a mysterious, elusive, and romantic spirit of the Windy City.’

The majority of his ghosts are far from romantic. From Cairo nestled between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers on the southern tip of Illinois north to Chicago along Lake Michigan, from Quincy on the western border to Watseka on the eastern, murders and mayhem, not to mention an excitable press, have captured the attention and imagination of citizens throughout the state. Consider untimely deaths in our early history: wars fought between Native Americans and settlers, pirate raids along the Mississippi River, fetid prisons that housed Confederate Soldiers, asylums, massacres, gangsters. 

The ‘Headless Horseman of Lakey’s Creek’ in McLeansboro brings to mind Washington Irving’s 1819 Icahbod Crane of Sleepy Hollow fame. 

The ‘Lingering Ghosts of the Lincoln Theater’ in Decatur includes Taylor’s personal account: 

We rounded the staircase and reached the top, then stood talking for a few moments. What happened next was enough to convince the cameraman, a skeptic about the existence of ghosts, that the Lincoln Theater was haunted. 

I find ghost stories most chilling when narrated in first person.  

The ‘Mad Gasser of Mattoon’ terrorized Mattoon in 1944. The gas that smelled sweet and caused temporary paralysis has never been identified, the perpetrator never found. Perhaps it was foretold by James Thurber in his 1933 story, ‘The Night the Bell Fell.’ In the story Aunt Sarah never sleeps without fear that one night a burglar will blow chloroform through a tube under her door.

In the ‘English Country House on the Illinois Prairie,’ Taylor describes the haunting of Robert Allerton’s country estate between Decatur and Monticello along the upper Sangamon River. Even now that the mansion and grounds are under the care of the University of Illinois, his jilted fiancée still haunts the house, described by all who come across her as a woman in white. I wonder about the influence on our current ghosts of Wilkie Collins who published his mystery novel A Woman in White in 1859. Meanwhile the mansion and grounds have been turned into the Allerton Park & Retreat Center.   

So many ghosts linger in Chicago due to massacres and disasters. They can also be found in colleges and police stations, pubs and graveyards. Consider, for instance, the case of the Italian Bride, Julia Buccola Petta, who died in childbirth and was buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery in her wedding dress with her still-born child in her arms. Julia’s mother started having nightmares that her daughter was alive in the casket. Six years later Julia was exhumed and found not to have decayed. Julia’s family believed it was a sign from God and built a monument.

‘What mysterious secret rests at the grave of Julia Petta?’ Taylor asks. ‘How could her body have stayed in perfect condition after lying in the grave for six years?’ He writes that to this day no one has an explanation and her case remains ‘one of Chicago’s great unsolved mysteries.’

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JULIA PETTA AFTER SIX YEARS IN HER GRAVE

This book is packed with intriguing history worth reading whether or not one believes in ghosts. I further believe any one of the 73 stories Taylor describes could be turned into a fictionalized, spine-tingling first-person ghost story fit for a dark and stormy night. We might not understand how a vaporous cloud or wisp of light can wreak havoc around us, but my personal inability to see ghosts doesn’t mean there are no ghosts to be seen. One must become a skeptical detective searching for evidence while keeping an open mind.

To return to Resurrection Mary, Chicago’s most famous ghost, she was a young woman killed in the 1930s while hitchhiking north along Archer Avenue from the ballroom where she danced with a boyfriend. Angry with him, she decided to leave alone and was struck by an automobile. This woman in white continues to haunt the avenue on her way north from the ballroom in the wee hours in her attempts to return to her burial place: Resurrection Cemetery.

I have it on good counsel that Resurrection Mary is most often seen along Archer Avenue on nights before the Full Moon. If such is the case we have the following opportunities to see her this year for ourselves: Jul 15, Aug 14, Sep 13, Oct 12, Nov 12, Dec 11. Happy hunting!

Photos: Courtesy of THE BIG BOOK OF ILLINOIS GHOST STORIES

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