Birdie

Originally published on Rockford Buzz.

Alice and Clemen Schneider were at first confused by the phone call from their daughter, Terry. Terry called to tell them that her sister Rae Ann, called Birdie by everyone, hadn’t shown up to Terry’s house for the Christmas holiday.

The couple had left their home in what was then known as North Park (now the Machesney Park area) to spend the 1972 Christmas holiday with Clemen’s father in North Dakota. Two of their daughters, Terry and Birdie lived in the Bloomington, Illinois area.

Birdie joined Terry and her husband in Bloomington in August of 1972. She was excited to have a fresh start in a new place. She graduated from Harlem High School in 1971. Birdie was painfully shy and hadn’t made a lot of friends in school. She was diagnosed with epilepsy and that kept her from being outgoing and approachable. Though she hadn’t had a seizure in a while, it was always in the back of her mind. It kept her from doing so many things that other young people her age took for granted. She had never had a job before and couldn’t get a driver’s license. It also kept her from being open to relationships, especially with men. It felt like everyone in North Park and possibly all of Rockford knew about her seizures. Bloomington-Normal was an exciting college town where no one knew anything about her or her seizures.

At first, Birdie stayed with her sister’s family but by September she had found an apartment and two room- mates. Birdie also got a job. She worked as a waitress at a Steak and Shake restaurant. Her room-mates and co-workers would later say they didn’t know very much about Birdie, just that she was very quiet and a home body.

Her maternal grandmother Beryl came to visit toward the middle of December 1972. Terry, Birdie and Beryl went Christmas shopping, cooked together, and laughed as they wrapped the presents they bought. Beryl tried to convince Birdie to return to Rockford with her for the holiday. But Birdie was adamant that she was the new girl at work and had to cover the holiday hours. Terry assured Beryl that Birdie would be with her family for the holiday. Beryl couldn’t know that this would be the last time she would ever see Birdie alive.

One of the things Birdie liked about her apartment was that it was really close to work. It was about a mile away and most days she could walk it in less than 20 minutes. When she got the job at the end of the summer it was still light out at 5:00 p.m. when her shift ended. But by winter, it was dark by the time Birdie left the restaurant. Her co-workers watched her push open the door and step out into the dark on December 22, 1972. It would be the last time anyone would see Rae Ann Schneider alive.

Her room-mates started to worry about her when she hadn’t returned that night. They knew that she didn’t know many people. She had met a couple of young men but neither of them could be considered a boyfriend. They also knew that Birdie would not leave for a long period without her seizure medicine. The room-mates decided to call her sister.

Police during this time period usually waited 48 to 72 hours before even taking a missing person report, especially in a college town like Bloomington. But the fact that Birdie was on medicine put them on alert. Lt. Kenneth Morgan was put in charge of her case. When Birdie hadn’t contacted anyone by Christmas day, Morgan said he grew fearful. Another girl, Marie Burchie, had gone missing from the area back in April and was found buried in a shallow grave. Birdie’s family tried to hold onto hope. Her grandma Beryl offered a $1,000.00 reward for her safe return or information leading to the arrest of the person who took her.

They would have no answers for nine long months. When another girl went missing in the area in May 1973, Birdie’s parents were resigned to the fact that their daughter would not return home to them. They wouldn’t know the truth until the beginning of August 1973.

The case blew wide open when Jesse Donald Sumner was arrested in July 1973. He had beaten his third wife when she confronted him about molesting his step-daughter. After Sumner’s arrest, the wife had some information for the police. The wife told of Sumner’s involvement in the cases of the missing girls. When the police confronted Sumner with his wife’s allegations, he decided to confess. He led the authorities to two more graves. One was a shallow grave on the road south of Stanford on Old Danvers Road. It was where he took Dawn Huwe when he kidnapped her in May 1973. She had been hit on the head and buried alongside the road.

The other grave held Birdie’s body. She was buried in Sumner’s garage under the dirt floor. She had been beaten on the front of her head by a blunt object. On her finger the authorities found her class ring with the Harlem Huskies 1971 insignia on the side. Police theorized that Sumner buried Birdie in the garage because the ground was too frozen in December when she was kidnapped.

Jesse Donald Sumner was tried first for the April 1972 murder of 20 year old Marie Burchie. She, like Dawn Huwe was a student at Illinois State University. Sumner was found guilty and sentenced to 50 to 100 years for the murder of Marie.

Sumner was put on trial for Dawn and Birdie’s murders in October of 1974. Before handing down the sentence Circuit Judge Calvin Stone read a statement, “Cruel, bizarre, unmerciful, despicable are all understatements for this man.” He also stated that he didn’t believe that Sumner could ever be rehabilitated and sentenced Sumner to 100 to 200 years in prison. Judge Stone said he hoped that Sumner would never walk free again.

Judge Stone would get his wish. Sumner died in Joliet Prison in 2005 at the age of 68. He is buried in his family’s plot in Stanford, Illinois.

Birdie was brought back home and buried in Sunset Memorial Gardens. Her parents were laid to rest near her when they died a few months apart in 2011.

 

 

Copyright © 2019 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

A Haunting On School Street

Originally published on Rockford Buzz.

Some people say that they don’t sense ghosts. But there are some who claim to know just by walking into a house that there are spirits lingering there. The family that moved into a house on the corner of School Street and Central Avenue knew almost immediately that they had some unseen presence in their new home.

The house was around one hundred years old when the couple moved in with their six children. It was moving day and the young wife was cleaning the house with her sister. The previous tenants had left some old furniture in several rooms. The front room had an old arm chair that had seen better days. The women moved the chair into a hall way so they could wash the floors. They moved on to another room to start the next cleaning project. Later when they returned to the front room, the chair was back in the original spot.

The women said they knew from that moment on that something was not quite right about the house. In an article written for the Register Star from 1987, the family claimed that though they were startled at times, they were never really scared by their spirit. It was rather unsettling though when they were home all alone and the stereo would turn on and off. They were also frustrated several times when something that they had just set down would be moved to a completely new location. One time the young wife had arrived home and set her keys on the counter. When she went to leave a little while later, the keys were no longer on the counter. She found them several hours later in the basement, a room she hadn’t gone into since she arrived home.

The young family claimed that they thought the ghost was a man who must have had children. He seemed to like to spend time in their youngest child’s room. They had a rocking chair in the room and sometimes it would begin to rock by itself. It made a distinctive sound as the runners moved back and forth on the carpeting. They would often hear their daughter talking to someone though no one happened to be in her room at the time.

The young couple did a little digging into the history of the house and found out that the haunting had started years earlier. They questioned several of the previous owners about their experiences in the home. It was soon clear that these strange encounters had gone on for decades.

Most of the stories were similar, footsteps coming down the stairs, things moved from place to place including heavy pieces of furniture. One family that had lived in the home during the early 1970’s had trouble with their attic light going on by itself. Apparently, the father thought his sons were trying to play tricks on him. He decided to end their fun by removing the light bulbs from the sockets. No one laughed when they came home late one night to see the light shining in the attic. The dad marched the boys right up those stairs all the way to the attic. They ran down quickly when they realized the light sockets were still empty.

One elderly lady that lived in the house in the late 1960’s claimed that she too was visited by the spirit. She would often hear the heavy footsteps walking on the second floor. They always seemed to stop by the front bedroom. One day she was alone in the house and heard the footsteps walking across the hallway to the front bedroom. She went up to find the room completely empty. She sat down on the bed for a while. She had decided that she imagined the whole thing and was just about to get up when she felt a presence sit down on the bed next to her. She said she saw the bed move like a large adult had sat down.

The older lady had questions of her after that incident. She found out from the neighbors that a family built the house in the 1890’s and generations of the same family lived in the house. The elderly woman always felt that the ghost was the head of one of those generations. She felt he looked after the families that stayed there.

The young couple that purchased the house in the 1980’s felt the same protective spirit. They soon got used to items moving around and sound of footsteps walking through the fourteen room house. The young wife even named him Henry. She decided to leave the armchair in the front room just where Henry liked it.

Research into the house on School Street proved that some of the history was true. The house was built around 1893 by Julia Ginders. Julia and her husband Joseph had arrived in Rockford around 1878. Joseph passed away and Julia built the large house on School Street for her daughters. Mary S. and Fannie lived in the house on School Street with their mother until her death in 1904. Mary would marry Harry B. Andrews in 1892 in the home on School Street. The newspaper articles describe a very fancy wedding for the young couple.

The couple stayed in the home after the wedding and eventually would raise their two children there. Harry would become a prominent lawyer in Rockford and open his own firm in the Brown Building downtown. Later his son Charles would join him in the firm. The Andrews family was well known on the West Side of Rockford and Harry donated a large parcel of land to build a park in his father’s name. Andrews Park still exists a few blocks up from the house on School Street.

Harry Andrews died in the house on School Street on August 5, 1941. Mary lived in the home until the time of her death in 1961. She left her children an estate worth $170,000 when she passed away. Harry and Mary’s children built successful lives of their own and moved out of the house on School Street. Mae never married and Charles became a lawyer like his father. Harry would be proud to know that Charles’ daughter also became a lawyer.

Though there would be no way to prove that the spirit felt in the house located on School Street is Harry Andrews, the home owners certainly felt that they knew who they shared their house with. Harry was proud of his family’s legacy to Rockford. He also was proud of being a protector for his family and maybe he still watches over those who live in the big house he once called home.

 

 

Copyright © 2019 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Thomas And Judith Middleton

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Anyone reading Ralph Middleton’s obituary printed in the Register Star on July 30, 1998 would have been impressed by his life. The article mentioned his 62 years of employment at Ingersoll and that he served in the National Guard. Ralph was also voted Rockford’s Father of the Year in 1950. By all accounts, Ralph led a successful life filled with many accomplishments.

But it is what wasn’t written in his obituary that makes Ralph Middleton truly astonishing. Ralph suffered a personal tragedy that would have crippled most people. The fact that he went through this dark period and continued his success is nothing less than inspirational.

In the mid 1950’s Ralph lived on the west side of Rockford with his wife Dorothy. Ralph worked as a field supervisor at Ingersoll Milling Machine. Dorothy, who had been a dedicated teacher to children with cognitive and mobility issues, stayed at home to care for their three children. The oldest, Richard was enrolled in Harvard University working on a degree in Biology. Thomas who was 18 in 1956, recently graduated from West High School. Their only daughter, Judith was 12 years old and enrolled at Roosevelt Junior High School. Neighbors would later speak of the close bond that was evident between the family members.

Thomas Middleton

Ralph’s life wasn’t perfect, of course. There were some bumps in the marriage, typical things that all young couples face. But as the years passed, different troubles appeared. Dorothy would sometimes be overcome with depression. She became confused in her thoughts and on really bad days would speak of harming herself. Luckily, Dorothy’s parents and siblings were close and helped with the the children. Eventually, Ralph had no choice but to admit Dorothy into a mental health facility for a few weeks.

Dorothy suffered another spell several years later. Ralph must have felt helpless as he watched his wife fall into utter despair. When he returned home from work one day to find Dorothy with her head submerged in the bathtub, he once again committed her.

These incidences had taken place years before and the summer of 1956 promised wonderful things. Richard was a junior at Harvard and made high marks in all of his classes. Thomas had taken a competitive examination for the Air Force Academy and was accepted. Judith showed all the signs of being as brilliant as her brothers.

Judith Middleton

But by the beginning of September there were clouds forming on the horizon that threatened the Middleton family. Thomas had decided to take leave from the academy to think about his future. Ralph and Dorothy wanted Thomas to return to the academy but he held firm and made the decision to enroll in the University of Wisconsin at Madison instead. He was interested in becoming a dentist and Madison had an excellent program.

Ralph was obviously disappointed but wanted to show his support for his son. Dorothy on the other hand, began to think that there was something lacking in Thomas. Ralph pointed out all of Thomas’ successes during high school. Thomas was a star athlete, made the honor roll consistently, was inducted to the National Honor Society, and had passed the very tough exam required to be accepted into the Air Force Academy.

Dorothy spoke with Ralph and her sisters about the negative effect she was having on her children. They were quick to deny that claim and tried to reassure her that was not the case. Dorothy’s sisters grew very concerned. They pleaded with Ralph to return Dorothy to the mental facility that had helped in the past. They offered to take Judith until Dorothy recovered. But Ralph was certain that his wife would eventually support Thomas’ decision.

Ralph woke up on Saturday, October 13, 1956 feeling hopeful that Dorothy would change her mind. Dorothy seemed in good spirits that morning and got up early to make Ralph breakfast before he left for work. They drank coffee and discussed the plans for the day. Ralph mentioned that he was only working a half day and should be home by noon. Dorothy seemed happy as she kissed him goodbye. Ralph would later state that he had no warning of what was to come.
Ralph arrived home after noon to find a note addressed to him on the kitchen table. His hands were shaking as he tore open the letter. The letter started with the words, “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

Ralph dropped the letter and raced to the master bedroom. He was stunned to see the rifle that he used for target practice placed on the bed. The gun had obviously been fired. Ralph raced to Thomas’s room where it took a moment to understand what lay before him. There was blood on the pillow and a hole in Thomas’ temple.

Terrified now, Ralph raced into Judith’s room. There was more blood and Ralph realized that Judith had also been shot. Ralph slowly returned to the kitchen. He picked up the phone and dialed the number for the police.
Detectives arrived quickly along with the Coroner Sundberg and States Attorney Canfield. When they questioned Ralph about Dorothy’s location, he stated that he did not know. They decided to check the house and went to the basement with Ralph following behind. They found Dorothy on the floor in the basement. She was curled into a fetal position and gasping for air. They later found evidence that Dorothy had ingested a solution of lye and carbolic acid after shooting the children.

Dorothy was rushed to the hospital as Ralph tried to answer the detectives many questions. Though Dorothy had extensive burns to her mouth, trachea and esophagus, she survived. She was placed under arrest for the murder of Thomas and Judith as soon as she regained consciousness.

Richard came home to assist his father in securing counsel for his mother. The defense attorney believed that they could get a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict. The state was just as sure they could prove murder. The trial turned into a battle of the psychiatrists as the state worked to prove that Dorothy knew what she was doing was wrong because she waited until Ralph left for work before killing the children.

While Ralph and Richard dealt with Dorothy’s medical care and arrest, they also had to plan a funeral for Thomas and Judith. The children were laid to rest at Wildwood Burial Park on West State Street. The service was held at St. John’s Evangelical Church. Besides friends and family, the church was filled to capacity with many who were unknown to the family. These strangers came to show support for the family that had suffered so much.

The state decided to try Dorothy for the murder of Judith first. Dorothy, still weakened by the damage inflicted in her suicide attempt, attended the trial in a wheel chair. The jury deliberated for 2 hours and 25 minutes before returning with a guilty plea. The courtroom exploded with emotion as family members broke into tears. Dorothy became distraught and Ralph reached to comfort her. His stoic demeanor cracked a little as reporters rushed to snap photographs of Dorothy in her despair. In an act completely out of character, Ralph lunged for one of the cameramen.

There was no feeling of resolution in this case, even the thought of bringing the family justice gave no comfort. The judge called Ralph to the front of the courtroom after announcing the verdict. He expressed sympathy for Ralph for the tragedy and spoke of how this case had rocked the entire community. The judge explained that though he felt compassion for Ralph and his wife, his job was to speak for the victims. Dorothy was sentenced to 30 years at the Illinois Reformatory for Women in Dwight, Illinois. The family was devastated and filed an appeal immediately.

Dorothy was re-assessed in the prison and quickly transferred to the Kankakee State Mental Hospital on the recommendation of the prison psychiatrist. While incarcerated, Dorothy made several suicide attempts. During one attempt Dorothy damaged her hands which had to be wrapped in gauze. On April 7, 1957, she removed the gauze wrapping from her hands and used them to hang herself. The newspapers carried the news of Dorothy’s death and her funeral. The articles mentioned the pastor offered hope to the family that Dorothy could at last find peace. She was laid to rest near Judith and Thomas.

Ralph continued to fight to have Dorothy’s murder verdict overturned. In May 1957, he filed an appeal to the Supreme Court to grant a Writ of Error. Ralph spoke of the stigma the conviction brought upon his remaining son. The court denied the request.The same church that held all of the funerals for the family hosted a fund raiser to help Richard to continue his studies at Harvard. Richard eventually received a doctoral degree. He moved to New Jersey where he worked in Biology and raised his own family.

Ralph moved forward from this unbelievable tragedy. He remarried and worked at Ingersoll until his retirement in 1988. He continued to honor Dorothy’s memory whenever possible. When Richard got engaged the announcement mentioned both Ralph and Dorothy as parents. His long time commitment to the company he worked for and his service to this community brought Ralph great pride. But Ralph would probably take more pleasure in being remembered for his dedication to his family.

 

Copyright © 2019 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events