Phantom At The Factory

Peter Reed was almost finished with work on November 7, 1889.  It was 6:00p.m. and he  had put in a long day at the Rockford Union Furniture Factory.  Peter was a well-respected carpenter and his role on that day was as a supervisor for some of the work being done on the new factory.  Peter turned to head down the darkened staircase.  For some reason, he decided not to use the light that he carried.  That would prove to be a fatal error.

Peter did not realize that his location was not where he imagined it to be.  He raised his foot to descend the staircase but instead stepped into the open doorway of the elevator shaft.  Peter’s scream could be heard all through-out the building as he fell twenty six feet down. 

The men that arrived on scene were very surprised to find Peter still alive.  They loaded him into a wagon and took him to his house on Kishwaukee Street.  Dr. Catlin was summoned by some of Peter’s co-workers and he rushed to treat the semi-conscious man.   Peter suffered a nasty gash across his face, broken ribs and appeared to have bruises all over his body but Dr. Catlin feared that the worst damage was internal. 

Peter suffered horribly from his injuries through that long night before finally succumbing to his injuries.   He was only fifty years old when he died.   Peter’s funeral was held at the Emmanuel Lutheran Church where his family had belonged for years.  Over 5,000 people came to pay their respects to Peter’s wife Johanna and their four children.  Peter’s body was taken to the Scandinavian Cemetery where he was laid to rest.

But that was not the end of Peter’s story.  Rumors started to circulate a few weeks later.   One of the night watchmen of the Union Factory reported that he heard sounds in the building when there was no one else in the building.  The report stated that the guard heard the sounds of footsteps and terrible moaning that seemed to come from all directions at once.  He would search the building but there was never anyone else around.   According to the guard the sounds would continue throughout the night, filling him with terror.  He would become so frightened that he would lock himself in one of the offices until it was time for him to leave.

This night watchman shared the story with some of the other workers that arrived in the morning.  He was very frightened by the possibility that the factory had a ghost.  The guard believed that Peter Reed was haunting the factory because of his awful accident.

 The story leaked to the press after one particular night when the guard became so frightened by the moans and shrieks that he finally left his job vowing never to return.  Towns people began to gather outside the building on 18th Avenue to see if they could witness the claims made by the guard. 

Word got back to the family and Johanna was very distressed to hear that her husband’s spirit was not at peace.  She begged the newspaper to print a statement that the claims of Peter haunting the building were false.  The newspaper wanted to help the young widow so they honored her request.  But by this time, the story had spread to all parts of the city.  Many people would wait all night outside the building. 

Surprisingly, this went on for weeks until finally no new stories were reported and the crowds dwindled away.  Peter’s family was left in peace to continue mourning the loss of their beloved husband and father.

 

Copyright © 2017 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Ghostly Warning

Originally published in the Rock River Times

Carol Neal was awakened by the sound of one of her young daughters screaming in an adjoining bedroom in the middle in the night.  Carol ran for the bedroom where she found two-year old Laura, crying and trembling.   The badly frightened girl told her mother that she had seen another little girl in her bedroom.  Carol searched the room but could find no one.  When the Laura quieted down, Carol questioned the toddler about what had frightened her.  Laura claimed that a little girl with “no clothes” had come through the ceiling from the attic to talk to her.

Laura was the first person in the Neal family to see the ghostly little girl but over the next several years others would share that experience.   In a newspaper article from the Rockford Register dated February 6, 1976, the Neal family members shared their frightening encounters with the young ghost.  Allen, Laura’s father told the reporter that he was sleeping on the couch one evening when he “felt someone touch his arm above the elbow.” He woke up and was shocked to see a little, blonde girl running down the hall toward the bathroom.  “It scared the hell out of me.”

The Neal family had experienced the ghostly visits for over four years by 1976.  They rented the home on Nina Terrace and were at first very skeptical about what they had seen.  But then more family members began to share what they had seen and heard.  Everyone who saw the girl gave the same description.  They claimed she was three feet tall, had beautiful blonde hair and blue eyes.

 They also began to notice a pattern to the series of encounters.  They noticed that there would be a period of no sightings and then, suddenly they would see the little girl again.  They realized that the visits were usually followed by something bad occurring to the family.  After one sighting, the family dog was killed by a truck.  After another experience, a family member was attacked by a stranger.  The family began to view the visits as a warning from the little girl. 

The family decided to question neighbors about the history of the house to see if they might know the identity of the child.  The neighbors offered Carol a clue when they mentioned that a small child of a previous owner of the house had drowned in the bath tub sometime in the early 1960’s.  This author decided to further research that story and learned that the story told to the Neal family proved to be almost correct.  The actual truth of the toddler’s death was more dreadful.  On December 22, 1961, a little girl, almost two years old was being cared for by her uncle.  The uncle drew a bath for the child but stepped out of the room for just a minute to grab something.  He hadn’t checked the temperature of the water and did not realize how hot it was.  The little girl fell into the tub of scalding water. 

The first to arrive on scene were the sheriff’s deputies who wrapped the little girl in a blanket and rushed her to Rockford Memorial Hospital.  The tiny girl was burned on 80% of her body and she succumbed to her injuries several hours later.  She was buried in Willwood Burial Park.

Maybe the fact that a cruel accident caused her death made the child want to help the family that resided in her former home.  Whatever the reason, Carol Neal took comfort in the fact the child was still there.   Carol was quoted as saying, “I don’t mind seeing our little ghost, but I know she is warning us to be careful and something bad always happens afterward.”  Besides sharing the story with the Rockford Register in 1976, Carol also sold this story to the National Enquirer.

 

Copyright © 2017 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Haunted By A Dream

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

That August night in 1895 was hot. The old man, Peter, rose from his bed and stood by the open window in his bedroom. The heat was not what disturbed him, however. It was a dream that had awakened him that night. It was a strange dream; one that ended quite differently than it began. It started as a familiar dream from his past. In the dream, Peter was once more working with Marcellus Churchill on his estate. At least he was trying to work.

But the Churchill’s daughters were there begging Peter to take a break. Peter gave the Churchill children rides on an old horse. The girls were still just children in the dream, though Peter knew they were all grown up now with families of their own.

The dream suddenly turned dark and ominous. He still saw the girls but realized they were no longer laughing. They were crying and Peter heard Florence’s voice. Flo, as Peter called her, had always been his favorite. In his dream, Flo was calling to Peter for help and reaching her arms toward him.

The dream stayed with Peter all the next day. He had no idea why this dream bothered him so much. He hadn’t worked for the Churchill family for years. In fact, Marcellus and Abby were both dead and the children had moved around so often that Peter had no idea where they all were living. Peter decided that he would check with their old neighbors to see if they had heard from the girls.

Peter’s unease grew as he approached the neighbor’s house. When he asked about the Churchill girls, the neighbors told him they had gotten some bad news that day. The young girl he knew as Flo was dead.

Florence Churchill Frances was the daughter of Marcellus and Abby Churchill. She was born in 1859 in Rockford and spent her childhood chasing her siblings around her parent’s homestead.

Florence married Arthur Frances in 1888 and the couple had a beautiful little boy they named Claude after Flo’s little brother who had passed away years before. Their little boy meant everything to his parents and they felt their lives were very blessed. Arthur worked hard to give his family a good life.

Arthur was especially proud that he could afford to take his little family away for a wonderful trip in the summers. In August of 1895, the little family went on vacation to their favorite place at the Willows Resort on Spring Lake near Grand Haven, Michigan.

They arrived at the lake on Thursday, August 15, 1895. Claude was four that summer and loved to play in the water at the shallow end of the lake. On Saturday, Arthur went off with some of the men for a fishing trip, leaving Flo and Claude to spend the day by the lake. It was a warm day and there were quite a few people that were enjoying the water and the shade trees that lined the lake.

Flo watched her son play in the lake but was unaware that the area contained a dangerous drop off under the water. Unfortunately, Claude wandered over to the area. Witnesses saw the little boy splashing in the water but every one of them thought that the child was just playing. They had no idea that the little boy was fighting for his life. Florence saw her son and rushed into the water to save him. She too, got into the deep hole when she grabbed her boy. Flo wore a full-length dress with several layers of petticoats underneath. All of that material quickly became soaked and weighed so much that Flo was unable to escape the water. She quickly sank to the bottom with her little boy held tightly to her chest.

Flo was found at the bottom of the lake an hour later. Claude was still wrapped inside his mother’s arms. The men who had brought the bodies up were haunted by the sight of the young mother and her child.

Of course, those men weren’t the only ones left haunted by the deaths. Arthur lost his whole family in a few horrible moments and Flo’s sisters were left with a huge void in their lives. Peter, the man who had such a dreadful dream of Flo calling out for his help, was completely devastated. He spent the rest of his life wondering if there wasn’t some way that he could have saved Flo and her little boy. 

 

Copyright © 2017 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

A Hard End To A Hard Life

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Margaret Burke led a hard life. She moved to Rockford around 1883, bringing her only surviving child William to the city from Janesville, Wisconsin. Mrs. Burke had buried two husbands and ten children in her 60 years. William’s father had died in a freak accident inside an ice house in Green Bay, leaving his widow destitute. Mrs. Burke worked hard cleaning houses and doing laundry for others, barely scraping enough money to support herself and her son.

When questioned later, her neighbors would speak fondly of Margaret. She impressed them with her positive outlook. One neighbor stated that Mrs. Burke always claimed life was sweet.

Anyone else might not have seen her life quite that way. The neighbors all knew Margaret’s 23-year-old son, William. They had overheard the arguments, seen the bruises left on the old woman’s face, and had heard William come in at all hours of the night. Despite her cheery disposition, they knew that William made Margaret’s life a living hell.

When they tried to speak to Margaret about her son’s behavior, she always brushed it off. She would say that William would have spells and wouldn’t know what he was doing. The neighbors knew the truth behind the poor woman’s excuses. They had heard her pleading with William not to drink and visit the houses of ill repute.

No one believed that William would really hurt his mother, of course. So they were surprised to see the police breaking down the door of the Burkes’ house on April 29, 1893. They knew nothing of the events that had unfolded earlier that day.

Sheriff Burbank was at his usual post that morning when he heard a commotion outside of the courtroom. There was a scruffy man who was obviously intoxicated attempting to enter. The sheriff stepped forward to intercept the man. The man instantly recognized the sheriff and began to sob: “I killed her….I killed my best friend! Why did I do it?” the man stated as the sheriff moved him further from the door.

The sheriff began to question the young man and realized who it was that stood before him. He decided to take the man to the jail and offer him some coffee. While he was attempting to sober the man up enough to get a statement, Sheriff Burbank sent two of his deputies over to the family’s cottage on Court Street to ask Mrs. Burke to join them.

The deputies did as they were asked. They knocked on the door but got no response. They decided to enter the house and found the door unlocked. As soon as the two men opened the door, they realized from the smell that something horrible had taken place inside the cottage.

When they finally entered the home they found Margaret on her bed with a blanket pulled up over her head. They pulled the cover back and were shocked to find that Margaret Burke had been shot in the chest at point blank range. She had been dead for almost a week and the body was badly decomposed.

William would later tell the sheriff that he feared that the townspeople would rise up and lynch him when they realized what he had done to his mother. When asked why he would do such a terrible thing to his own mother, William claimed that he had no memory of the killing. He also claimed that it was the whiskey that made him do all kinds of bad things.

William Burke’s trial would make headlines all over the United States. William’s defense was handled by the Andrew Brothers Law Firm. They felt they had a great case for insanity. State’s Attorney Frost, on the other hand, believed that William knew exactly what he was doing when he killed his mother.

The defense team brought forward many men who knew and worked with William. They all testified that he had always been odd but that his violence had increased with his rapid addiction to whiskey.

The prosecution called a multitude of doctors who had interviewed William. They all testified that William knew what he was doing was wrong. They brought forward the fact that William had written a note and hung it on the door that stated that Margaret would be away for a time. The prosecution also read back William’s confession allowing the jury to hear the details from William’s own mouth.

State’s Attorney Frost also shared another shocking claim. Margaret was not to be William’s only victim. She was the first name on a list of six individuals that William wanted dead. Four of the names were police authorities that William felt had treated him badly. William stated that he hadn’t acted on killing the others yet because “the Almighty God had not given him the courage to do that.”

William was found guilty of the murder and sent to the penitentiary in Aurora. The debate over William’s sanity would reappear and within a few years, he was transferred to a hospital for the criminally insane.

 

Copyright © 2017 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Rockford’s Boys Of (17)76

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Winnebago County is blessed by many men and women who have dedicated their lives by serving in our Armed Forces. These men and women who sacrificed so much are recognized and honored all year in our county at different events.

Some of these events have been recorded in the local newspapers for generations. One article written in the Rockford Morning Star paper in February of 1930 spoke of three men with the label “The Boys of ‘76”. These men all served in the Revolutionary War and moved to Winnebago County later in their lives.

Jehial Harmon was born in Suffield, Connecticut, Oct. 5, 1762. He was only twelve years old in April of 1775 when the Battle of Lexington occurred. Though Jehial expressed his desire to go to war and fight with his older brother, his parents thought he was too young. They finally relented in 1779, when Jehial turned sixteen. His brother was ill and was forced to leave the service. Jehial stepped up to replace his brother and from all accounts fought bravely. He survived the war and married Betsy West. Jehial moved to Rockford in 1844 when some of his children came to the “west” to settle and start families of their own. Jehial died here in Rockford on March 3, 1845 and was buried at Greenwood Cemetery.

Samuel Campbell, another of the Boys of ‘76, is buried in the Hulse Cemetery near Pecatonica. He was born in Massachusetts in 1762. Samuel served just over three months in the war but was highly thought of by his commander. He married Grace Plum in 1793. The couple had ten children and decided to move to Illinois, choosing Winnebago County. Samuel passed away on November 8, 1844.

The third man, Ephriam Palmer had a military career that was easier to trace than the other two. He was born on December 17, 1760 and enlisted in the army in Massachusetts in 1777. Ephriam was captured by the British forces and taken prisoner in June of 1779. He was sent to New York and held in an old sugar house until 1780. An article written by Brooklyn College Professor Edwin Burrows, “The Prisoners of New York,” offers a glimpse into the conditions that Ephriam would have suffered as a prisoner of this war. According to Burrows, the Tories would line the streets as the prisoners were marched to these sugar houses. The crowd would yell and throw stones at the men as they shuffled toward their fate.

The prisons were dark, airless quarters and the men who numbered between 4-500, were forced to face conditions that were described as horrendous. There was little space, no adequate clothing, and very little food. Disease ran rampant and as many as eighteen thousand men died in these prison camps. It was a miracle that young Ephriam survived.

Ephriam was freed during a prisoner exchange and returned to his service. In 1780, he was given the task of guarding the infamous Major Andre during his confinement. Major Andre was a British officer in charge of the Secret Service. He conspired with Benedict Arnold, was captured and held prisoner in Tappan, New York.

Major Andre was actually admired by the members of the Continental Army and became friends with many of his captors. Andre showed great courage when he was hanged on October 2, 1780. The executioner was preparing Andre by placing the blindfold over Andre’s eyes and the noose around his neck when he faltered and could not continue. Andre bravely placed the noose around his own neck. This act gained him the respect of every man gathered to watch the execution.

After the war, Ephriam married Margaret Force in 1786. The couple settled in the east and had three children. Margaret died in 1809 and Ephriam moved his family west finally settling in Harlem, Illinois. He was 92 when he died in 1852 and was buried in the Kishwaukee Cemetery.

All three men’s graves have been remembered for their service to our country with assistance from the Daughters of the American Revolution. It is a humbling experience to visit their graves and remember these men who were mere boys when they picked up their guns and joined the fight for our independence. 

 

Copyright © 2017 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Rockford’s House Of Mystery

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

The November night in 1958 was cold, and the almost full moon cast shadows from the tree branches and the slight breeze caused them to shake. It created the illusion that the branches were reaching toward the group of teenagers as they walked through the woods.

The 12 teenagers were on an adventure. They must have been filled with excitement at the thought of visiting a spooky old house that had a reputation for being haunted. They probably felt that excitement right up until the police officers shone their flashlights on them.

The entire group was hauled down to the police station and charged with disorderly conduct. When questioned, the teens in the group all told the same story: The house had gained a reputation as a haunted house. The owners, Frank and Maude, had lived there in seclusion until Frank died and Maude was driven insane by the ghosts. All the kids in school spoke about the house but none were brave enough to check it out until now.

Usually, police officers shake their heads at these types of tales but even they had heard the stories of this particular house. By this time the house had earned the name, “Rockford’s House of Mystery.”

It was built by Thomas Swords, a well-known Rockford businessman. He moved to Rockford as a child when his father came to work as an engineer at the Water Works. Thomas worked his way up through the ranks at some of the largest companies. He and his wife, Katherine Frances had children and built a great life together. Thomas would eventually become the head of Swords Electric Company as well some of the biggest businesses in Rockford. He devoted countless hours to design and oversee the building of the grand home on Spring Creek.

The Sword fortunes changed after they moved into their dream home. Thomas died shortly after moving into the house in 1930 and the family lost everything during the depression. The couple had four children, three boys and a girl. By January of 1953 only their daughter survived. Katherine lived with her daughter in a small house miles away and worlds apart from their dream home on Spring Creek. Katherine died on January 16, 1953 in a horrible fire when she tragically fell asleep smoking a cigarette in bed. It seemed to some that the family was cursed.

The next owners of the luxurious home on Spring Creek were Frank and Maude Williams. Frank like Thomas before him was a well-known business man with a good reputation in real estate. By 1936, Frank became the president of the Pioneer Life Insurance Company. When the couple moved into the impressive mansion on the hill, people supposed they would be entertaining with lavish dinner parties.

Instead the couple became reclusive and did not allow anyone inside the house. They didn’t belong to any club or organizations. They had their groceries delivered and met the delivery men at the door. They also refused to see doctors of any kind. The property fell into disrepair and rumors started to spread about the couple and the house they inhabited.

One day in 1952, Frank fell and Maude couldn’t lift him by herself. She had no choice but to call for assistance. When paramedics arrived they were shocked when Maude led them into the basement. Frank was on the floor and his condition caused them to become very concerned. Maude fluttered around them, insisting that they just needed to lift Frank back onto the cot he had fallen from.

The men noticed that Frank was horribly thin and unconscious. They loaded him onto a stretcher and rushed him to Swedish American Hospital. The police were also called. They had questions for Maude about Frank’s condition. When doctors examined Frank they discovered he was suffering from malnutrition and anemia. He had broken his hip in a previous fall that had occurred approximately ten days prior to the call. When they asked Maude why Frank was in the basement, she stated simply that “He liked to sleep down there.” Frank never regained consciousness and died shortly after being admitted.

There was an inquest into Frank’s death but in the end, there was no evidence of foul play. Maude was so frail that it was completely conceivable that she just couldn’t care for Frank. That combined with their distrust for medical doctors created a recipe for disaster.

Maude stayed alone in the house as the years took its toll on the property. Rumors continued to spread until they trickled down to the students. Maude passed away in a nursing home in December 1961.

Many families have lived in the house over the years. Each one has improved the house and the property. If there was a curse or the house was haunted at one time, it seems that the loving care shown by the owners has cleared that away. It has once again been restored to its reputation as one of the finest homes in Rockford.

 

Copyright © 2017 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Rockford’s Skeletons

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Rockford has plenty of skeletons in its communal closet; there are many stories that some people wish would never come to light. But this story is about the actual skeletons that have popped up in our city from time to time.

Some of the oldest skeletons come from the hundreds of mounds that were built along the Rock River over one-thousand-years ago. There have been some skeletons found where one would not expect to find them.

One such story took place in September of 1874. It was the location of one of the first hotels in the downtown area. The hotel itself burned down around 1864 but the foundation still remained.

On this particular day, Henry Williams was digging by the bank of the river. He scraped away the layers of rotten straw until he reached the boards that once made up the floor of the building. Henry was pleased to see that the wood for the floors was in pretty good shape. He began to pry up the boards and throw them into his cart.

Henry had been working for a time when he uncovered something unexpected. He was digging under the boards to see what else he might salvage when he discovered some bones. At first, he believed that they might be some animal bones but, as he dug deeper, he realized that the bones were human.

The authorities were called and the bones were properly extracted. The ground was inspected carefully to ensure that no other bodies remained.

The bones were examined by local doctors. Due to the small size of the skeleton, it was suggested it might have come from a woman or an older child. The pelvic area was too damaged to give a definite answer and the top portion of the skull was missing. The teeth that remained were in good condition and the doctors thought that the person could not be more than 20-years of age.

The bones were in very delicate condition and appeared to have been buried for quite a while. The body was found deep enough that it was actually under the cellar portion so it was surmised that it may have been there prior to the building of the hotel which took place in the 1850’s

Though there was a cemetery located nearby (across from the Tinker Swiss Cottage), it did not extend this far down toward the river. But some older settlers remembered an incident that might account for the body.

In the 1840s, a family was passing through Rockford with all their worldly goods and a flock of sheep. They attempted to cross the river where the ford was once located and some of the sheep got into a dangerous area. The son quickly moved to drive them back and got into the deeper area himself. His father, sensing the danger rushed to help.

They both were drowned that day and buried together. This could account for the skeleton and an extensive search was made in case there was a second body buried in the same location, but no other body was found. This led to speculation that this person might have been the victim of foul play.

Another partial skeleton was discovered in a keg by the depot on South Main Street in August of 1887. Its discovery was made while police were investigating a strange report. A person who was in one of the taller buildings on State Street had seen a group of young men sawing a body into pieces. The barrel was opened and the contents were sent to the coroner for further inspection.

A newspaper reporter decided to check out the story and snuck into a building owned by the Hanford Oil Company. On a shelf, he noticed a box marked “soda”. He opened the box and found the rest of the skeleton, including the skull which was cut into two pieces. In fact, all of the bones had been sawed apart.

Further questioning was done by the police and it was discovered that a number of young men had formed the Rockford Anatomical Society. It seems that the manager of the Hanford Oil building, Charlie Porter, was also the head of this particular club. Charlie was chastised by the police and told to “take better care of your dead.” There was no word about where the young men had acquired the dead body.

And our final story takes place in 1914 at the intersection of Shaw and McCaughey Streets (now Second Avenue) on the near-east side. While construction men were excavating the area to prepare it for a new sidewalk, they discovered some small bones, wood and metal pieces. These would later prove to be a part of a casket.

This particular find caused a sensation but not as much as the previous two stories because it was known that an old burial ground was located in that area. The bodies had been reportedly moved over 63 years before. The original private cemetery was located on the land owned by Bela Shaw, one of Rockford’s early settlers.

Judge Bela Shaw was one of the founders of the Cedar Bluff Cemetery Association and the owner of the twelve acres that was purchased for the cemetery in 1851. He and the other men of the association contracted David D. Alling to remove the bodies from the private cemetery and to place them into Cedar Bluff Cemetery. The records for the private cemetery were incomplete however and unfortunately, some of the bodies were not located for removal. It was theorized that the pieces of bone and wood were from one of the bodies that had remained.

 

Copyright © 2017 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Walton Wheeler’s Unsolved Death

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

People may recognize the name Wheeler from road signs around the city of Belvidere. Fewer people know that the road was named after Walton Wheeler, a man who was murdered in 1934.

Walton Wheeler lived with his wife, Floretta and their eight children on a farm five miles north of Belvidere. Walton once owned 1,000 acres of land in Illinois and another 500 acres in Wisconsin and was considered one of the richest men in the county. It was said that some of that land was acquired when Walton loaned money to men and foreclosed on their property when they couldn’t pay him back.

Some men would have used that money to furnish their family with a fine home. But this, as with most of things concerning Walton, was contrary to the way he lived. The family resided in an old farmhouse that was described in the newspapers of the day as squalid. His children supposedly dressed in rags.

But his family loved him and forbade any ill talk of the man. People respected their wishes, in their presence, anyhow. There was much said about Walton Wheeler whenever folks gathered out of the family’s earshot, of course. Some of those stories have survived, even after all this time.

There is the story of how Walton almost got himself lynched one day. It happened when crews were working on Highway 76 which ran past the Wheeler home. The men had been around for weeks and had been silent witnesses to the Wheeler’s family life. They grew concerned for the safety of Floretta and the children. It must have concerned them quite a bit. This was during the time of the depression and prohibition. Most folks minded their own business and for these men to put that aside and act upon what they had seen was quite brave.

One day the workers had seen enough and they grabbed Walton and drug him to a large tree that stood in his front yard. They threw one end of the rope over a strong limb of the tree. The other end, fashioned into a noose was placed around Walton’s neck. It was fortunate for Walton that a supervisor arrived at that moment to check on the worker’s progress on the road. Whether the men meant this to scare Walton or were serious about hanging him, this story is remembered as well as the event that was to come.

A couple of months before he died, Walton seemed to become frightened. He was more cautious and spoke to Floretta about his feeling of being followed. There were unidentified noises out in the farmyard at night and strange whistles were heard. Walton insisted the whistles were men signalling each other. Floretta reported later that she just brushed these stories aside and didn’t take them seriously.

On April 11 at 7:30 p.m. Walton’s 15 year-old daughter Hazel was in the barn doing chores when she heard a strange low whistle. She was startled to hear a car in the driveway. Hazel crept to the doorway in time to see four men with scarves covering their lower faces.

The men yelled for her father. Walton came out of the house and walked down the stairs. The men rushed him and began to beat him. Hazel screamed and ran to her father’s aid only to be met by a shotgun. Floretta must have been watching from inside because she rushed from the house. The man who was holding a shotgun on Hazel then turned the gun on Floretta and insisted that both women go back inside. He forced them to the house at gunpoint.

As the door shut behind them, they heard Walton yell as he broke away from the other men. He made it to the steps before they opened fire. Four shots rang out. Two found their mark and it must have seemed like a miracle a moment later when Walton drug himself into the house. He died on the floor surrounded by his children. The four men jumped into their car and sped away.

Police searched for weeks and many motives were developed. Unfortunately, there were too many motives and too many suspects that wanted Walton dead. Some folks theorized the men that Walton had foreclosed on might have committed the deed, while others thought the mob had something to do with it. The police searched the house and found $6,000 hidden in coffee cans and other hiding places throughout the house. Walton had over $800 in his wallet at the time of his death. A new theory was developed that men had been sent to kidnap Walton for ransom.

There were other theories about Walton’s ties with the mob. Police knew that Walton had problems with another money lender in town. “‘Fifty Percent” Al Benham (so named because he promised a fifty percent return to investors) threatened Walton because people turned to Walton instead of him for loans.

The family was given police protection for a short time in case the men returned. But soon the guards left and the clues dried up. Though suspects were found and questioned throughout the years, nothing was even proven. Walton’s death remains unsolved after all these years.

 

Copyright © 2017 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

A Most Devious Plan

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

The evening was warm and muggy, a July night in northern Illinois. The events that unfolded on a back road at the border of Winnebago and Ogle Counties were anything but typical, however. A dark car pulled over to drop off two men before moving on to the intersection known as Westfield Corners. Once the automobile reached the intersection, a third man exited the car and walked to the side of the road. Glancing around nervously, he bent down to place a package underneath a large blackberry bush. He hurried back to the car which then sped off.

The two men left by the side of the road were understandability nervous. They were private detectives who had been hired by a private party to apprehend anyone who retrieved the package. The two detectives made their way through the darkness to a position with a better view of the area. Their apprehension grew with each passing minute. The two men knew all too well what could happen if they failed their client.

It was July of 1924 and the whole country was aware of a recent story that very similar to the one unfolding. Just two months before on May 21, 14-year old Booby Franks had been kidnapped on his way home from school. His parents, Jacob and Flora Franks were part of the influential social elite of Chicago. They lived in the South Kenwood suburb of Chicago filled with large homes and mansions. The family became alarmed when Bobby didn’t arrive from school at his usual time. That alarm turned to absolute terror when they received a phone call from the kidnappers at around 10:30 p.m. The caller stated that they had taken Bobby and that in order to ensure his safe return, the Frank’s would need to gather a large sum of money. The caller also mentioned that further instructions would be delivered by mail.

The letter came the next morning, around the same time that a body of a young boy was discovered inside of a culvert on the city’s East Side. Bobby Franks had been ruthlessly murdered by two teenagers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

The thought of this recent crime must have played through the minds of all involved with the incidents that took place on that night of July 3, 1924. It certainly was in the thoughts of the two detectives as they waited in the muggy night for some sign of the kidnappers.

It was just before midnight when the two detectives finally spotted their quarry. They saw two men walking through the nearby field. The older of the two men glanced around to see if anyone was looking before he darted to the side of the road. He immediately went to the blackberry bush and fumbled around before obtaining the package that was there. He rejoined his partner in crime and the two men began to walk quickly down the road.

The two detectives sprang from their hiding place and quickly caught up with the two. The dark car that had dropped the detectives off now returned and the two men were forced inside.

That day had begun as a regular morning for the McCormick family. Ruth McCormick, whose husband was Sen. Joseph Medill McCormick was used to her husband’s busy schedule of traveling. The only difference was that this time his journey was to France for a family matter. His mother Katherine had taken ill and the family was concerned enough to ask Joseph to make the trip. He was on the Atlantic Ocean aboard a large ship on that Thursday morning.

Ruth was at home on their large estate, Rock River Farms in Byron. Ruth’s days were filled with the running of the farm and the couple’s three children. Ruth had risen early and was sharing breakfast with a close friend of the family, James Keely.

Ruth and Keely were discussing politics, a passion for both of them, when a letter arrived. Ruth opened the letter and though the writing was hard to decipher, she quickly realized the implications of the message. James Keely noticed the color drain from Ruth’s face and was instantly concerned.  He took the letter from her trembling hands and began to read.  

The letter threatened the McCormick’s with the kidnapping of their 8-year-old son and included a demand for money to guarantee his safety. After checking on the boy’s safety, James and Ruth discussed a strategy that would ensure the children’s safety and allow for the capture of the writer of the letter.

James arranged for private detectives and prepared a decoy package using a mixture of real and fake bills. He also decided to drop the money in the blackberry bush himself. Ruth would remain on the farm with another detective that would ensure the family’s safety.

Everything went better than hoped for and soon two men were in the custody in the county jail in Rockford. They were arrested for the attempt to extort money from the McCormick’s. George Peek, 49, and his son Clarence, 24, both worked as farm hands at a property nearby the Westfield Corner area.

Both men claimed innocence at first. The police did find evidence against the father when they searched his room where he stayed. They located a pad of paper that showed indentations from the writing done on the previous page. The indentations proved to be from the kidnapping note.

Clarence was bailed out of jail after serving fifteen days and George who pled guilty to a lesser offense was released after one hundred and nineteen days. The newspapers would claim that the men’s devious plans were thwarted by the braveness of Ruth McCormick and the near genius planning of James Kelly.

 

Copyright © 2017 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Ernest Pearson’s Unwavering Commitment

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Ernest Mellquist had only been on the job as a fireman for two weeks when a fire erupted at Rockford Paper Box Board Company on March 8, 1909. Later, people would call it destiny or fate. Personally, Ernest didn’t care what anyone called it, he was just grateful to be alive.

Ernest’s sister was in the crowd that Sunday. She was one of a thousand people that came to watch the fire men work on the burning building. She was the first person Ernest saw after the dust settled and only then did he realized how close to death he had actually come. As they embraced Ernest pleaded, “Don’t tell mother how close that was.” That was a promise his sister would not keep.

As it turned out, it didn’t matter if Ernest’s sister kept her promise. There was no concealing the news of the terrible fire or the devastating consequences. The word spread throughout the city almost as fast as the fire had consumed the building.

Two men had died in the past during fires in the city. Ralph Emerson Junior, was killed assisting the firemen on the Union Furniture Factory In 1893 and a watchman named Upson perished in the fire of the Central Furniture Company. But 1909 was the first time that an official Rockford firefighter was killed in the line of duty.

Ernest Pearson was Mellquist’s partner for that March day in 1909. It was actually his day off but Pearson was the captain of Company Number Five and he took his role very seriously.

No one even knew how the fire started. The guard for the company was walking through the building around 3:00 p.m. and noticed smoke coming from the area where the baled paper and boxes were stored. The first fire units rolled up to the building within five minutes of the call. The firefighters were stunned to see the building engulfed in flames when they arrived. Giant columns of black smoke billowed from the windows of the building. It was the smoke that drew the huge numbers of people to the scene.

Chief Thomas was supervising the men that day and Pearson reported to him when he arrived. Thomas told Pearson to grab Mellquist and get the hose spraying on the south side of the building. Other companies were already working and Chief Thomas felt hopeful that with Pearson and Mellquist on the south side, there might be a chance that at least a portion of the building could be saved.

Chief Thomas joined Ray Wantz who was the superintendent of the building to check on the men’s progress. As they reached the south side of the building, Chief Thomas noticed Pearson and Mellquist on a pile of rubble by the building. Pearson had the hose on the building and Mellquist was assisting him. The Chief realized the men were very close to the wall of the building and he yelled a warning to the men to back up a little. But his warning came to late.

The crowd of people watching could see what Pearson and Mellquist could not. The intense heat from the fire was causing the brick wall to buckle. In a horrible twist of fate, Pearson’s wife, Irene, was part of the crowd that day. She also saw the wall buckle and recognized the danger. In an unbelievable act of courage, she pushed through the massive crowd at the same time that the others started to back up in fear.

Irene knew she would not make it in time when she heard the shriek of the wall as it began to fall. Later, the Chief and Ray Wantz would testify at the inquest that when they heard that roar they both looked to see Captain Pearson and Mellquist still on top of the rubble. Time seemed to slow and they saw both men began to move. Pearson still held the hose and as he moved they were horrified to see the hose catch on some of the debris. As Pearson turned to see what had stopped his movement, his eyes caught the Chief’s. Chief Thomas knew what was going to happen and he closed his eyes as the wall fell.

The wail of the falling bricks was replaced with a horrified roar from the crowd. At first, it was thought both Pearson and Mellquist had been caught by the wall. Men surged forward to begin the task of rescuing their fellow firefighters.

It took less than five minutes to get the bricks removed. During that time, the crowd had parted enough so that Irene could reach her husband’s side. The firefighters gently lifted Pearson’s broken body onto a stretcher and covered the worst of the damage from the eyes of his wife.

Irene accompanied the body of her husband to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. Every bone in Pearson’s body had been broken in the accident.

Pearson’s wife and young son were accompanied by his fellow firefighters and police officers in the funeral procession to Scandinavian Cemetery where he was laid to rest.

Ernest Mellquist served our city as a firefighter until 1930.

 

Copyright © 2017 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events