Carrie Brown was born in August of 1860 to parents Horace and Mary August. Carrie was her parents pride and joy. She was described as being remarkably handsome and as one of Rockford’s fairest daughters.
Horace and Mary must have felt very satisfied with all three of their children. The whole family was very happy when Carrie met Frederick Lee. He was a fine young man who held a high position at an insurance company in Iowa.
Carrie graduated from Rockford High School in 1880. She and Fred became engaged and the wedding was planned for Carrie’s graduation from the premier finishing school that she was accepted into. The Dillaye’s Chestnut Street Seminary was located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Carrie was excited but anxious about going so far away for school. She was very close to her family and was reluctant to leave her home town. Things went well at the school and soon Carrie settled in to the dormitory. She did complain to her roommates about having trouble sleeping attributing it to stress.
It was this stress that would lead to a life-changing event. Carrie had a horrible accident while away at school. She had a room on the second floor of the woman’s dormitory. Carrie was apparently sleep- walking when she fell from a window. Luckily, her night dress caught on a flag pole and though it did not stop her fall completely it did help slow her descent.
Carrie fell onto the sidewalk and struck her head quite hard on the ground. Carrie suffered extensive trauma and was sent home to recover. She couldn’t move her limbs for a time but slowly, over time that improved.
Carrie became quite depressed with the effects from her fall. She struggled to recover her physical abilities but even as these began to improve, her depression did not. Her parents eventually sought treatment options and eventually even tried shock treatment on the young girl.
Carrie loved music and she agreed to try to go to school in New York state for vocal and instrumental music but had returned home that spring of 1885.
On April 9, 1885, Carrie’s parents were sitting in their home before retiring for the evening. Carrie was writing letters. It was a usual night in the Brown home. Horace and Mary decided to go to bed but Carrie told them she wasn’t quite ready yet. The couple told their daughter good night and went to bed. Mary was a little apprehensive that night because there had been a rash of break-ins at several homes in their neighborhood. She slept restlessly and woke suddenly when she heard the sound of a door opening. She waited to see if there were any other sounds. There were none so she lay back down. The next morning, Mary was up before the sun, still restless. She became frightened when she saw the lantern for Carrie’s room still on the table. She then went to check on Carrie and found her room empty except for two letters.
One letter was dressed to the family and the other to her fiancé. The newspapers printed Carrie’s letter, which stressed that it was her health issues that were causing all her problems and that she could no longer struggle on the way she had. She ended the letter with, “The River bed in front will be my resting place tonight.”
Horace clutched the letter and ran out to the river bank in front of the home. It was there that he found his daughter’s favorite shawl. Nearby neighbors were startled to hear the usually stoic man’s sobs of grief.
One does not even want to imagine what that moment must have like for Horace. Dealing with his own grief and also knowing that he had to break the horrible news to his wife must have been devastating.
It all seemed cut and dried, but as often happens in these cases, questions arose and then rumors soon followed. People said that the letters did not appear to be Carrie’s and they thought someone had taken her. It was also suggested that maybe she had changed her mind about marrying young Fred and did not know how to face the family.
The police were notified and telegraphs were sent to her brother and sister in Chicago and Fred in Iowa. The search began almost immediately. People began to search the bank of the river and lookouts were stationed on both sides. When they didn’t see anything the first day, they began to drag the river with hooked lines. There was no sign of Carrie anywhere.
After a few days, when the body had not been spotted it was decided that a more drastic technique must be used. Horace hired a man with a cannon and powder to discharge the weapon. The thought was that the percussion would shake Carrie loose from whatever she might be snagged on.
Almost a full month would pass before Carrie’s body was found. It was down south all the way to Grand Detour a full 36 miles away. A ferry ran back and forth across the Rock River at that point and it was the ferryman who spotted Carrie’s body floating face down. When they brought her to the bank of the river and lifted her out, everyone was shocked to see that the face was just as if she had spent the last month sleeping instead of submerged. The hair was gone, probably washed away with the fierce spring current but the fair face was untouched.
Fred Lee and Carrie’s father drove the six hour trip with an empty pine box in the bed of his wagon. Friends of Horace Brown arranged for a special train to bring Carrie’s body back to Rockford. When they asked the price for them to have this service, the man in charge told them there would be no cost. Coroner Marsh met them at the station and transported Carrie to the Undertaker’s Office.
In another strange twist, a young German girl who worked at Nordstrom’s store during the search for Carrie, began to say that she was Carrie. Erma Erke started to claim that she was Carrie brought back to life. She became increasingly more insistent that she see the Browns until finally they relented. The girl actually stayed at their house for a few days and was quite upset and didn’t understand why the Browns did not want her there longer. The paper stated that it was thought that the young girl would end up in an institution.
As in most of these cases, Carrie’s death left more questions than answers. Her family laid her to rest in Greenwood Cemetery in their family plot. Her tombstone is a final tribute to the girl who the Rockford newspapers referred to as “The Water’s Waif”.
Copyright © 2016 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events