Twelve Mile Grove Cemetery

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Cemeteries have attracted people for as long as they have existed.  Some are drawn to the place because they have a loved one that has been laid to rest there.  Others want to experience the beautiful statues and artwork left as a lasting legacy. 

But there is more to learn from tombs and graves than just names and dates.  Each of the stones represent a life whether cut short or lived to a ripe old age.  There is much to learn by looking closer into the lives of those who lie under the stones. 

This is certainly true of the historic Twelve Mile Grove Cemetery.  This small cemetery is located on Pecatonica Road close to Highway 20.

 The first settlement in this area (Seward Township) was called Vanceburg.  Scattered throughout the grove were log houses and the township consisted of a tavern, stage house, two stores and a blacksmith shop.  The town was built as a stopping place for the stage coaches that traveled from Rockford to Freeport and Galena. Twelve Mile Grove was so named because it was twelve miles from the ford in Rockford.

Newspaper accounts of the settling of the area state that in 1836 a weary band of pioneers was traveling by covered wagon through the area.  They were on their way out west when they wandered into a lovely spot in the grove by what is now Highway 20.  The leader of the group was Joseph Vance.  The settlement that sprang up would bear his name.

Ironically, Joseph would be the first buried in the little cemetery when he passed away on September 11, 1841.

One of the earliest stories of this little cemetery came from a collection of remembrances of old pioneers.   It tells of a tragedy suffered by the Merchant family that once lived in the grove.  It was a very hot night with and the father of the family was trying to get his little ones some relief.  So he moved them onto the floor where it was a little cooler.  The heat brought a fierce thunderstorm that included dangerous lightning.  The lightning struck the chimney, traveled down the stove pipe until it reached all of those sleeping on the floor.  Only the mother and the tiniest baby were left from the family of six.  The lightning was so treacherous, it even killed a basket of puppies that the family dog had delivered just days before.  The four family members were buried in a mass grave.

Then there is the strange story of the lovely Julianna Phelps.  Julianna was the daughter of Mr. J. Phelps who lived in the town of Seward.  She worked and lived in the Kelly home where she was the housekeeper.  On August 11, 1875, Julianna was visiting at the Ostrander home when she fell to the floor and had a seizure.  She was carried back to the Kelly home where she lingered for two hours before passing away.

The Phelps family was heartbroken and in shock that the very healthy twenty year old would die so suddenly. Her funeral and burial in the Twelve Grove Cemetery showed her family how much Julianna was loved and respected in the little community.  Many of their neighbors came to pay their respects for the fallen girl.

Mr. Kelly brought Julianna’s trunk full of her personal things back to her parent’s home a few days after the funeral. Her grief stricken mother decided to go through the items and found an envelope with the word Mother written on it.  At first Mrs. Phelps could not comprehend the words that were written on the letter inside. The newspapers ran the complete letter the next day.

                                              “Mother – I die because I am tired of living.  Kiss the children goodbye for me.
                                              I would like to see you once more, but no – I die tonight.  When you get this I shall be
                                              dead.  Goodbye forever – Julianna.”

When the awful truth dawned on Mrs. Phelps she and her husband shared their suspicions with the town doctor, Halsey S. Clark.  Together they made the painful decision to exhume Julianna’s body.  Her stomach was removed and sent to Rockford. 

The only way to prove that Julianna had taken poison in that day was to take a portion of her stomach contents and feed them to a stray cat.  The cat began to convulse and vomit much in the way that Julianna herself had. 

Julianna was reburied in the quiet little grove.  Though her manner of death was revealed to her family, Julianna took the reason for her suicide to her grave.

Cemeteries contain many such secrets.  Some stories were once well known but with the passage of time, have been forgotten.  The stones some broken and some with the words scrubbed away by wind and time.  But these people and their stories will never be forgotten.  There will always be curious visitors who will look beyond the stones to uncover their stories.

Perhaps local historian Charles A. Church said it best in his book, “History of Rockford and Winnebago County.” 

                                                “Love that survives the tomb has been called the purest kind of attribute
                                                to the soul.  This love finds expression in the monuments erected over the
                                                graves of the dead.  Our cemeteries have been made more beautiful by the
                                                cultivation of the artistic sense, and by a deeper realization of the truth that
                                                death is but the doorway.”



Copyright © 2018 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

The Mysterious Death Of Henry J. Lacks

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

There are many mysteries contained in the following story.  For instance, it is not known how long the body had been lying there before someone saw it on June 22, 1944.  People would later state that they had noticed the man stretched out on North Alpine Road as early as 7:00 a.m.  But no one reported it to police until 11:45 when Ed Belin finally called the body in. The others would claim they thought the man was drunk and sleeping it off beside the road.

Police did not even know if Ed was the only one to touch the body after it was dumped.  The coroner said that the condition of the body indicated that it had been moved at least once several hours after death.  The man’s body was lying face down in a ditch on the west side of Alpine road.  It was obvious to the first responders that the man was deceased.  He had a large hole in the side of his head and his clothes were soaked in blood.   His pockets had been turned out as if someone had gone through them looking for something.  When they turned the man over, they discovered an exit wound.

Though there was no wallet, the authorities did find a engraved pen and pencil set with the name Henry J. Lacks etched on the front.  They were grateful for a place to start their investigation.  It wasn’t long before they found a car registered to Henry J. Lacks on Crosby Street just a couple of blocks down from his parent’s house.

They also found Henry’s wife, Agnes.  Agnes was known to police because she had been married to Deputy Sheriff Sam Rotello before he was killed while on duty in 1936.  Agnes and Henry had been married since May 1939.  She had no idea how Henry had ended up dead in a ditch.  Agnes told them that Henry always wore a diamond and sapphire ring.  It was missing though his watch was still on him.   Agnes stated that Henry had feared for his life since early June, though she could offer no reason for this.

As their investigation continued the mysteries about Henry deepened.  Henry’s main job appeared to be as an insurance salesman, a job he worked for over 25 years.  He also worked at a war plant or at least he had until June 7 when he failed to show up for work.  He never even returned to collect his paycheck.  Henry also worked at the Nylint Tool Company and was an accomplished pianist.

The police initially arrested Henry’s wife, though it was mentioned that this was possibly done as a way to convince Agnes to talk.  It was obvious something had spooked Henry and they thought that maybe Agnes knew what it was. 

Agnes was reluctant to share their personal matters with the police.  The couple had a rather unorthodox marriage.  Henry spent most nights at his parent’s house on Crosby Street.  Agnes went out with other couples to parties.  That’s where she had been the night Henry was killed.  Henry told her he had appointments and wouldn’t be home until late.  Agnes assumed he was dining out with an insurance client. 

Agnes had Henry drop her off at a friend’s house where she stayed for a party.  After the party, friends took her out for coffee and she accepted a ride home from a woman that shared the couple’s apartment at around 4:00 a.m.  When they arrived at home, she saw a man who she assumed was her husband walk across the porch and enter a car that resembled Henry’s.  The man drove away and that was the last time she ever saw her husband.

Police didn’t think the man that Agnes saw was Henry.  They knew his car was parked on Crosby Street before 4:00 a.m.  The coroner put his death before that time as well. 

The police leaned on Agnes hard, giving her two polygraph tests.  They thought she knew more than she was telling them.  Agnes finally revealed that when she went into the apartment on the morning that Henry died, the place had been ransacked.  Obviously, someone was looking for something.  But she knew they didn’t find it.  Henry kept all of their important papers and jewelry in his safe deposit box at the bank.  

As police worked the case they developed several theories about Henry’s death. The first angle they developed focused on Henry’s home country.  Henry had been born in Germany in 1900 and moved to the United States in 1910.  According to his co-workers, Henry really admired Hitler and his regime.  This was a dangerous time to be spouting that philosophy.  In fact, one of the men that Henry met on the last day of his life was actually an undercover F.B.I. agent.  It seems the government wanted to know just how much Henry admired Hitler.  Police wondered if Henry’s willingness to spread his ideas about Hitler drew the wrong attention.

The other theory that the police worked dealt with the gambling that was prevalent in Rockford during this time.  Different gangs were running card games and even horse betting.  The police knew that Henry spent a lot of time in the night clubs. They questioned co-workers, the few friends that Henry had, and even family members about Henry’s gambling. They checked into his accounts, and using the tip from Agnes, they searched his safe deposit box.

Authorities were surprised to learn that Henry didn’t gamble at all.  In fact, it was Agnes that spent time at the poker tables.  She lost big and Henry scrambled to cover what she owed.  But Henry had finally had enough.  According to his family, Henry went to the gambling dens and threatened the owners that unless they stopped taking money from his wife, he would tell everything he knew to the police.  But Henry left no evidence of what he might have known.  He had cleaned out the safe deposit box and his bank account.  If he had any hard evidence to share with the police, it was never found. 

Henry J. Lack’s murder was never solved.  His family buried him in St. Mary’s Cemetery and by August 1944, Agnes left Rockford.  Stories put her in California but researched has failed to find her there.  The local newspapers compared Henry’s murder to the 1937 unsolved murder of bookie operator, Charles Kolb and ran articles on the anniversary until 1959 when those too stopped.

Gambling in Rockford was curbed because of Henry’s death, at least for a while. Slot machines were confiscated and poker games were stopped or at least better hidden.  But the investigators never found the solution they searched for and the mystery of who killed Henry J. Lacks was never solved.


Copyright © 2018 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

The Sins Of The Father

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

When that day was over, Frank Barris would claim that he was not in his right mind on June 20, 1933. That morning Frank spoke on the phone to a young woman named Anna Trenary.   The conversation did not go as Frank had hoped.  When Frank hung up the phone, it was the last thing he would claim to remember for hours.

Frank left work early and returned to his house.  He grabbed his handgun that he had purchased a month before.  Later, Frank would state that he brought the gun in order to use it on himself in front of Anna.  He stated,“She took away everything that was beautiful in my life.”

Frank journeyed to Anna’s small house at 1511 West State Street.  Anna was having lunch with her 15-year-old son and a boarder, Vernon Morgan.  She sat with her back to the door and was just raising a sandwich to her lips when Frank burst through the door.  He fired the .44 caliber gun at her.  The bullet tore through her arm and exited through her chest.  Anna was dead before she hit the floor.

Across town at Frank’s home another scene was taking place.  18-year-old Eddie Barris was very worried about his father.  Frank had been acting peculiar and speaking of Anna almost constantly.  Eddie knew his father had left work early that June day.  Eddie stopped at the house and his concerns grew when he realized that his father and his gun were missing.  Eddie was joined by his younger sister Lucille and they raced to Anna’s home.  Unfortunately, they arrived too late to stop the horrible scenario their father had put into motion.

When police arrived, Frank sobbed as he poured out the whole story to the bewildered men on the drive to headquarters. Frank told the police that he had been living a lie.  He confessed to the police that he had been having an affair with Anna Trenary for almost 18 months.  His wife, Sophie had no clue about her husband’s affair.  

The policemen tried to make sense of the convoluted story that came pouring out of Frank.  Anna Trenary worked as a nurse for a local physician.  Frank and Sophie’s daughter, Lucille needed at home care and Anna was assigned the job.  No one could foresee the far reaching consequences that the decision would bring. 

Anna was such a great nurse that it wasn’t long before the 16 year old Lucille was back on her feet.  Anna would often visit her former client to check on her progress even after Lucille was released from her care.  It was during these visits that Frank and Sophie got to know the young nurse.  They would often share dinner and a glass of wine.  It wasn’t long before Anna started to bring her son along for the visits and the families grew even closer. 

Frank became obsessed with the 36-year-old beauty.  Before long, he was dipping into the family’s savings to pay for gifts for Anna.  By June of 1933, Frank came to the end of his money and he could feel Anna slipping away.   Whether it was the fear that his family would find out about the affair, the money, or Anna’s rejection, something inside Frank snapped.

Frank was convicted of the murder of Anna Trenary and sentenced to life in prison at Joliet, Illinois.  He would die there while serving his time.  Sophie divorced Frank and the family moved on with their lives.

By 1942, Frank’s son Eddie was married with two young children of his own.  He had recently been promoted to manager for the A & P store on West State Street.  But the darkness that had reached out to claim his father was not finished yet.  Eddie was under tremendous pressure with the new job and he started to have a drink in the evening to relax. Before long, one drink turned into more until Eddie began to lose control.  This caused problems in his marriage and by August, Eddie’s wife Ellen decided to leave. 

On August 13, 1942, the couple was dividing the household goods.  Ellen’s sister and mother were helping her pack.  Eddie brought two men along to load the truck.  Eddie asked to speak to Ellen in the kitchen.  He wanted one more chance to fix things.  When she refused, Eddie had the same reaction as her father had years before.  He pulled a gun and began to fire at Ellen.  Ellen’s sister and mother came running to her rescue.  Eddie fired at them as well, striking them both.  

Thinking that he had killed all three women, Eddie ran from the apartment and into the street. It was there that Eddie shot himself in the abdomen.  Then he drew a knife from his pants and drove the 4 inch blade into his chest.  He collapsed on the street.

Police were able to quickly piece together the scene from the many people who witnessed the attack.  Ellen and her mother, Dora were on the brink of death.  It was considered a miracle that the couple’s two little children had not been hit by the bullets flying around.  

Eddie was very close to death.  He had missed his heart but had lost a lot of blood.  But against all odds, all three women and Eddie recovered.  Eddie was arrested for the assault but Ellen’s family showed concerned and forgiveness toward Eddie.  They agreed to a plea bargain to grant Eddie a light sentence.  He was convicted of a misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon with intent to do great bodily harm.  Eddie was sentenced to one year at Vandalia Correctional Center. 

When Eddie finished serving his sentence, he joined the U. S. Army to serve in World War II.  He remarried and died at 41 years old in Madison, Wisconsin. One can only hope that the terrible legacy that Frank committed and Eddie attempted ended with them.



Copyright © 2018 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events