Lonely Struggle — Charles Patterson

Originally published in The Rock River Times.


The young man walking through the little cemetery wasn’t the least bit frightened on that chilly November night. Not at first anyway. Britton Thorsen’s father was the Sexton for the Newark Cemetery and he spent many hours there. Britton would later say that he had always found the cemetery to be very peaceful. All that changed as the 17-year-old Britton approached the cemetery’s small building that at times was used as a chapel.

He stopped in his tracks as his brain struggled to comprehend what it saw in the dim light. It was a young man’s body and Clinton could tell that the death was not a natural one. The body was face down and there was a wound in his head. Britton had a good idea of the young man’s identity. Charles F. Patterson had been missing from Beloit College since the previous Wednesday, November 15, 1933. The word of his disappearance had spread all over southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

Charles F. Patterson was 19 years old and a junior at Beloit College. He was a good student and involved in many clubs including sports, photography, and business groups. He belonged to the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity. The fraternity was established in 1860, and was the oldest on the Beloit campus. Charles appeared happy and well-adjusted to campus life.  A popular boy, he always seemed surrounded by friends. A fact that was proven when large groups of students showed up to search for him on the several days he was missing.

Charles was seen leaving his fraternity house in the morning of November 15, 1933.  He had a car at the school but left it parked in front of the fraternity house that morning. But this was just the beginning of this mystery. When Charles did not return that evening his friends and fraternity brothers reported him missing to the college President, Irving Maurer.

Charles Follett Patterson graduated in 1931 from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois.  He worked hard through his high school years and was considered one of the top students from his class. He pledged and was accepted into the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity at Beloit College. It would be these fraternity brothers that would later carry Charles’ coffin to Eaton Chapel where his service would be held.

Friends described Charles as very organized, a deep thinker, and a gentle soul. He had a great work ethic and was very successful in his school work. His parents were very proud of Charles and very touched that he wrote home so often.


It was Maurer who notified Charles’ parents that he was missing. They lived in Jackson, Michigan with his sister, Jean.  The police began the search immediately but soon, Charles’ family and many friends came to help. Charles had gone to high school in Winnetka, Illinois and still had many friends there. It speaks volumes about this young man’s character that people flocked to help search for him.

All who knew him were baffled first by his disappearance and then by his death. When young Britton found Charles in the Newark Cemetery on that Sunday evening, it really only answered one question, “Where was Charles?”  On the other hand, it led to so many more.

When Charles’ body was recovered, the men who were sent to retrieve his corpse discovered a .22 caliber handgun underneath. The police who were working on the theory that Charles might have met with foul play now changed their minds. Their focus now became on gathering evidence of why Charles would commit suicide. The police met with a lot of resistance to their new theory. The thought that Charles had hurt himself was incomprehensible to everyone who knew him.

When police recovered and later tested the gun, they discovered that it had recently been fired three times. The fatal bullet entered his right temple and exited under his left cheek bone.

Police worked hard to interview the many friends and classmates of the young man. Again, the interviews brought more questions than answers. No one who knew Charles believed that he would ever hurt himself. But one of his teachers stated that during the previous six weeks, Charles seemed quieter and his grades had slipped. His fraternity brothers mentioned that Charles was worried about something but wouldn’t tell them any details. Whatever was worrying Charles didn’t seem that serious to any of his friends.

The police interviews found a couple of men who saw a young man walking on the same afternoon that Charles went missing.  Eric Thorsen worked as the sexton at the Newark Cemetery and was the father of the young man who discovered Charles’ body. Thorsen and another man stated that they spotted a young man walking in the direction of the cemetery. It was 16 miles from Charles’ dorm room to the little cemetery, and the time given by the two men didn’t allow for Charles to walk to the spot he was seen. Police tried to find someone who might have given Charles a ride but no one ever came forward.

Police were hopeful when they realized that there was a house nearby the little cemetery. They hoped to narrow down the time of death. But when they interviewed the family that lived in the house, the mystery once again deepened.  The family had been home during the evening but never heard a shot, let alone three. Police never recovered any evidence of the other two bullets.

Charles’ funeral was hosted by Eaton Chapel at Beloit College. His heartbroken parents, Charles and Emma and his sister Jean, attended the service. They found some comfort in the fact that over 500 students came to pay their respects. Many of the students approached the family and spoke of the things they admired about Charles.  Things like the fact that he was a hard worker, a good role model for the underclassmen, and that he had accomplished so much in his short life. But no one could tell them what they really needed to hear. No one could answer the question that they needed answered. They left shortly after the ceremony.

There were so many questions left unanswered when Charles died. The mystery of this young man’s death will remain forever unsolved.

Beloit College President Maurer spoke eloquently at Charles’ funeral and put it much better than this author could ever hope to express.

“ Into the dark tragedy of his sudden death and into the forces which played upon him so swiftly in the last few days of his life we cannot enter. Here we find ourselves baffled
by the inscrutability which cloaks the human soul. God knows-we simply bow in sorrow
at the thought of the lonely struggle into which this talented, able, promising life was
was hurried.”



Copyright © 2022 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

The Mysterious Ghost Ship of Lake Michigan

Originally published in The Rock River Times


The Holiday Season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is often referred to as “The Most Wonderful Time of Year”.  But others point out that there is something beyond the colorful lights and tinsel that can make this time of the year seem eerie and dark.  The shorter days and much longer nights leave a lot more time for the bumps in the night to make us wonder if something else is lurking just beyond the flickering lights. In fact, many cultures share ghost stories during their Winter Celebrations.

During this time of year, friends and families gather to celebrate the season with certain traditions.  One of the most enduring traditions involves hauling an evergreen tree into the house and decorating it with lights, ornaments, and garland. While it is very easy these days to find these trees, it wasn’t always the case, especially in the bigger cities like Milwaukee or Chicago.

Most folks purchased their tree from wholesalers or local store. These vendors were supplied the trees by local shipping businesses.  These men loaded their ships with freshly cut trees from the upper parts of Michigan and Wisconsin and then sailed down the coast of Lake Michigan to deliver them to the vendors.  It was a dangerous business with the severity of the storms that would blow in without warning to the lake. These ships were called “Christmas Tree Ships” and during the years between late 1870’s and 1920’s, they brought thousands of the trees to this area.

One family that became famous for delivering these trees were the Shuenemanns.  There were three brothers in the family and they began to transport trees in 1876.  They ran this business even after one brother, August was killed during the November run in 1898.  Herman Schuenemann had to put his grief aside that season and he brought two loads of trees down that year. By this time, Herman had three children of his own to support and took on the responsibility of August’s wife and children.

The Shuenemann families lived in Chicago close to the Clark Street docks and knew that many folks couldn’t afford a tree.  They decided that they would sell the trees directly to the folks in the area.  In order to keep their overhead low, they sold these trees right off the boat.  They decorated it with Christmas lights and guaranteed the lowest prices.  A lot of the people that lived in the area stated that the Christmas Season started when the Schuenemann ship sailed up to the dock.  Herman was always known to give a few trees away to the families that couldn’t afford to pay for one.  Herman earned such a good reputation for his generosity, that he was given the nickname “Captain Christmas”.

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In 1910, Herman bought a share of the 124 foot long schooner named the Rouse Simmons. The schooner was built in 1868 and had been used for hauling lumber for its whole life. Herman was proud to be the captain of this ship that had created a good reputation for over 25 years of sailing the Great Lakes.  By 1912, the Rouse Simmons was beginning to show her age and many speculated that she might not be sea worthy any longer. That year the storms had been particularly brutal and roared in earlier than other years.  Some of the Christmas Tree ships had decided that it was too risky to make the run that year.

This made Herman even more determined to make the run.  The wagons carrying the trees from the local farms came to the dock and were unloaded.  They stacked the evergreens into every available space until over 5,000 trees were jammed onboard.  The Rouse Simmons sat low in the water and Herman cast a worried eye to the ominous clouds that were moving in.  Though some of the crew thought they should wait out the storm, Herman knew that this would be the last sail of the season.  He decided to head out and hoped that he could outrun the storm.

Unfortunately, the storm slammed into the ship shortly after it left the safety of the port.  The 60 mile an hour winds drove the icy rain down on the deck of the Rouse Simmons.  Soon the trees stacked on board were covered with snow and ice.  The weight of the trees pushed the already overloaded Rouse Simmons deeper into the water.

The ship was seen by the Life Saving Station at Sturgeon Bay.  They reported that the ship was flying its distress flags and was struggling with the large waves that were now breaking over her bow.  All of the Life Saving Stations were on high alert because of the gale.  The Two Rivers Station had a power boat that was sent to spot the Rouse Simmons.   The ship was spotted only once for a brief moment.  Later reported to look more like a block of ice than a ship, those that witnessed her felt there was little chance for the ship to survive the storm.  It was the last time the Rouse Simmons would be spotted for over 60 years.

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By December 13th, all hope was gone when frozen Christmas trees began to wash up on the shores of the Lake.  A tree decorated with black ribbon was placed along the bridge at Clark Street where the Rouse Simmons would normally dock.

Later, a bottle was washed up by Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  The message inside read, “Friday..everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. During the night the small boat was washed overboard.  Leaking bad.  Invald and Steve lost too.  God help us.  Herman Schuenemann.”

Herman’s wife Barbara and her two daughters would continue his legacy by shipping the trees on trains and then selling them off a rented ship.  They continued to sell trees on the Clark Street Bridge until Barbara’s death in 1933.  The daughters later opened a store on North Lasalle Street to sell trees and other Christmas decorations.

The Great Lakes held onto the secret of what had happened to the Rouse Simmons until October 30, 1971 when scuba diver Kent Bellrichard from Milwaukee stumbled unto the wreck by accident.  The ship lay in 165 feet of water about twelve miles northeast of Two Rivers.  After close examination it was discovered that the wheel had been damaged when the mizzenmast driver boom, which was the support for the main sail, snapped and crashed in to the wheel, damaging it.  The Rouse Simmons was completely at the mercy of the storm and unable to steer to safety.  The Christmas trees still lined it decks.  One of the trees was later stood on the front as a memorial to the men who died onboard.

Shortly after the disappearance of the Christmas Tree Ship, rumors began to spread amongst the sailors on Lake Michigan.  Many of them told stories of spotting the doomed schooner, still covered in ice, laboring low in the water as she made her way toward home.

Other stories came not from sailors but from folks who lived on the shore of Lake Michigan.  One woman, Joyce Phippen was interviewed by Rochelle Pennington for her book, The Historic Christmas Tree Ship.  Phippen swore she had witnessed the ship twice: once at dusk and another time during the night.  She described the ship as seeming to float above the water, still heavily covered in ice and emerging from a heavy mist.

None of the crew of the Rouse Simmons was ever recovered.  Herman’s wallet was brought up in a fisherman’s net from the bottom of the lake in 1923.  It was wrapped in oilskin which protected it contents.  Inside were business cards, an expense sheet, and an article about the Christmas tree ship and Captain Santa.

The Schuenemann family’s legacy of supplying Christmas trees to everyone whether they could afford to pay or not continues even to this day.  The US Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw brings a load of trees from northern Michigan to hand out to families who otherwise would not have a tree for their celebrations.

The storm of 1912 was reported as one of the worst up to that time on the Great Lakes.  Many lives were lost during that storm.  But the story of the Rouse Simmons is still shared today. Some say it is due to the sacrifice of Herman and the other men who died trying to bring joy to folks for the holiday.  Others say it is due to the women in Herman’s family who carried on his legacy.  Still others say that it is due to the sightings of the ice ladened ship that continue even today.


Photographs are from Schoolcraft County Historical Society.

Copyright © 2022 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Ice Cold Betrayal

Originally published in The Rock River Times.


It was January 1,1884 and George realized he had been wrong. He thought this day would be easier than the past few. But as he stood by the coffin, he knew that this day would be the hardest. Today was the day that he would bury his young wife. George was glad that they had traveled from their home in Osceola, Nebraska to bring her back to Rochelle. George looked around the room and was struck by the thought that it was good to be surrounded by all these people who also loved his wife.

But Catherine was easy to love. The year that they had since their wedding had been amazing. They left Rochelle shortly after the wedding to create a life in the small town of Osceloa. She was so supportive and a hard worker. Even when they found out they were expecting, she didn’t slow down.

And when little Joseph was born on November 19, 1893, the young couple was so happy. Even when the doctor took George aside to warn him that there were some complications that could turn severe, he didn’t worry. But that all changed quickly.

George stood as everyone came to pay their respects. One of the last to approach was a man that George was surprised to see. His name was J. N. D. Shinkel and George thought he was in Chicago, going to school to be a doctor. Newt (as Catherine called him) was once a close friend of Catherine’s. In fact, their families had hoped that Catherine and Newt might be more than friends. But luckily for George, that didn’t happen.

Newt shook George’s hand and then moved on to Catherine’s parents. Martha and Joseph were both devastated by their daughter’s death. Shinkel shook Joseph’s hand and then moved away.

The blizzard that folks said was on the way arrived in earnest by the time the family left the cemetery. George was glad to arrive back to the house where he had left his newborn son. Little Joseph was all George had left of Catherine now.


Later George would say that it didn’t surprise him that he dreamed of Catherine that night. But it did surprise him that it would disturb him so much. Catherine kept calling to him in the dream. It seemed that she was lost and afraid and needed George to find her. It was the first of many disturbing dreams.

The day after the funeral the rumors made it to the family. Friends and family were passing along stories of bodies of the freshly dead being ripped right out the ground. The bodies were used by the medical schools in Chicago for the students. George didn’t give it much thought at first. He made his way to the cemetery to visit with Catherine, trying to find some peace.

George didn’t see any disturbances in the deep snow that fell during the storm that hit the day Catherine was buried. But he just couldn’t shake the feeling that something was not right. And every night he woke with the sound of Catherine’s pleas hanging in the air.

Finally, George couldn’t take it any longer. He approached Joseph with his fears and found that he, too had been having nightmares about his daughter. The men decided to hire a detective and went to speak to the sexton at the cemetery. The sexton called the grave digger into his office to discuss whether he had seen anything odd at the cemetery. The grave digger offered to check his tools and was back quickly with the strange news that his tools had been used and returned dirty, which was not how he left them.


George, Joseph, and the detective convinced the sexton to grant permission to open Catherine’s grave. The group gathered by the mound to conduct their horrible business. At first, there was no indication that anything was out of the ordinary. But as the digger neared the coffin, there were clues that George was correct. They found Catherine’s funeral shroud in the dirt about a foot above the coffin. Even with this clue, they were all shocked when the coffin was exposed. The entire top of the head area of the coffin had been smashed in by force and Catherine’s body was gone.

The authorities told the family that it must have happened the very day Catherine was buried. The blizzard would have offered perfect cover, making it impossible for anyone to see the evil deed that was committed that night.
The authorities also felt that the body snatchers must have been to the funeral since they knew exactly where to find the snow covered grave and the tools that they borrowed from the shed. The family refused to believe that anyone who knew Catherine could be so heartless.

But they did believe the police that whoever took Catherine away would make their way to Chicago. There were 5 Medical Colleges in Chicago during this time and the men swore to visit every single one of them. It had been so many days that the detective warned them that this trip might not end the way they wanted.

It was at the Chicago Homeopathic Medical College that their quest finally ended. The detectives had been correct when they warned the family, that this might not end the way the family hoped. In the seven days that it took to locate Catherine, the students had worked on her. The damage to her face and head was extensive and her father wept when he saw her.

The somber group returned to Rochelle where Catherine was once again buried in her family’s plot in the little cemetery. George later said it was the first time he had slept in a very long time.


But unfortunately, George’s peace would once again be disturbed. The story soon broke that the authorities had two men in custody. It shook the entire community when one of the men turned out to be Catherine’s childhood friend, Newt Shinkel. His accomplice was another medical student named Waterman. The trial just about tore Rochelle apart and the judge granted a change of venue for the defendants. The trial was held in Rockford and though the prosecutors felt they had a strong case, the men on the jury disagreed. Both men were acquitted but were soon arrested for another case of grave robbing, this time in Sycamore. There had been 5 cases of grave robbing found in small towns all over the area. The two men had gotten a break in Rockford, but their luck finally ran out in Sycamore.

Waterman was put on trial first and found guilty. He was sentenced to a year in prison. Newt Shinkel was out on bail when the news reached him. He swore that he would never stand trial for the charges against him. Newt Shinkel jumped bail and ran. He would never stand trial for the other cases.

Newt Shinkel and Waterman returned to medical school and became doctors. Shinkel was never convicted in a court of law of body snatching but he could never run awayfrom what his former neighbors and friends knew to be true. He became the black sheep of his family and the newspapers of the day all talked of the awful character of the man who once had so much potential.


Catherine was laid to rest in the Craft family plot. George remarried and when he died in 1931, he too returned to Rochelle. He was buried next to his own family a few rows away from Catherine.

When Shinkel died over twenty years after the incident with Catherine, the papers didn’t talk of all the people that he helped as a doctor. They all mentioned the fact that he had been accused of betraying a family who once thought the best of him. The papers mentioned that when Shinkel broke into Catherine’s coffin that he broke the heart of the community that had embraced him as one of their own. It is ironic that while Shinkel thought he had left no trace of his horrible crime, the impact of that crime out lasted any good that he might have accomplished. He too is buried in the cemetery in Rochelle.









Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

The Mysterious Death of Theodore Lakoff

Originally published in The Rock River Times.


Theodore Lakoff had dreams like many who came from far away to call Rockford their home. He traveled from his home country of Bulgaria to Liverpool England in 1911. He was only 18 years old when he stepped off the passenger ship, Baltic in the New York harbor.

Theodore traveled to Chicago and was living there in 1913. He would spend the next several years working a variety of jobs and moving around quite a bit before settling in New Diggins, Wisconsin. One article mentioned that the young man worked at several Supper Clubs in Wisconsin before arriving in the Roscoe area in 1930.

Theodore operated his own roadhouse resort on North 2nd Street from 1930 to the beginning of 1931. The resort was long suspected of hosting illegal operations from serving alcohol (this was during Prohibition), to gambling and girls. Theodore also used several different names by early 1930. Tony Evanoff must have been a favorite. It appears in the newspaper articles as often as Theodore Lakoff.

On Saturday, January 3, 1931, Theodore had a full house. People were still celebrating the New Year and the card games were in full swing as well as the liquor sales. George Farmer from Beloit would later testify that he was one of the last to leave just after midnight. Theodore lived at the resort and he followed the stragglers outside to wish everyone a Happy New Year before heading back inside.

On Sunday, Ted Manley showed up for an appointment with Theodore at around 10:00 a.m. He thought it strange that the doors were still locked. He knocked but Theodore did not answer. Manley decided to check in with Theodore’s manager, Charles Smith to see if he knew of the man’s location. Smith was so startled to hear that the doors of the resort were still locked that he decided to accompany Manley back to the roadhouse.

They later stated that they both had an eerie feeling as they unlocked the door and stepped inside. This feeling grew as they made their way to the back portion of the place where Theodore was known to sleep on a couch. That is exactly where they found him. Theodore was curled up on the couch with his hands under his head. Or what was left of his head.

It wasn’t long before Sheriff William C. Bell and Coroner Walter Julian arrived. They theorized that whoever killed Theodore had hid in the roadhouse sometime during the evening’s festivities. The assailant waited in the dark until Theodore was asleep before he crept from his hiding spot and fired the gun into the top of Theordore’s head. The shot killed him instantly.

A thorough search was made but only deepened the mystery for the authorities. Theodore’s wallet was laying on the floor completely empty. Witnesses from the night before stated that Theodore had around $100.00 in the wallet. But the search proved that there was a lot more money on hand that was not taken. They believed the wallet was only emptied to make it appear that robbery was the motive for the shooting.

Of course, being a resort owner during the turbulent years of Prohibition opened the possible motives up tremendously. There were often rival gangs that used strong arm tactics to convince the owners to purchase their liquor from their particular stock. Authorities focused on this theory pretty quickly.

But after questioning several of Theodore’s closest friends, they began to change their minds. These friends told of a young woman who was giving Theodore some trouble. Viola Hunsficker may have only been 20 years old at the time of Theodore’s murder but she had earned the reputation of being very street smart. Viola had worked for Theodore at the roadhouse for a short time. But something must have happened between Theodore and the young woman. The witnesses told the authorities that Viola was extorting money from Theodore. They heard horrible arguments between the two and stated that Theodore had stated he wasn’t going to pay her any more money.

When Viola was picked up by the Sheriff’s deputies and her apartment searched, they found two guns. One of them was Theodore’s gun that many people had seen him carry. The other gun was of the same caliber of the weapon that was used in the murder. Viola stated she had never seen the guns before. Sheriff Bell arrested the young woman but continued to question acquaintances of the slain man.

Bell also sent the slug retrieved from Theodore and the gun found in Viola’s possession to Chicago. The results came back after two weeks. They did not match and Viola was released.

As the police delved into Theodore’s personal life they were astonished to find 5 other women who were under the impression that they were Theordore’s only girlfriend. Some of these women also had boyfriends and even husband’s that added to the potential motives for wanting Theodore dead.

The authorities developed many other theories in the days following Theodore’s death and followed many leads. They always believed that whoever had killed Theodore was probably close to him. But like several other killings during Prohibition, Theodore’s murder was never solved. He was buried in the Eastlawn Cemetery in Beloit.


Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Tragedy In The Sky – John Wallace Blair

Originally published in The Rock River Times.


Today the Goodyear blimp is well known, especially to sports fans.  According to their website the airships fly over events like the Daytona 500, PGA Championships, and the College Football Playoff National Championship.

Goodyear built its first balloon in 1912 and started its production in America when the U.S. Navy ordered nine airiships.  SInce the hangar hadn’t been completed in Akron, Ohio, the production took place in a Chicago amusement park building.

After World War I, Goodyear built the airships for its own use. These blimps were mainly used for advertising and marketing for the Goodyear Company and soon the airships were spotted all over the United States.  The first, “Pony” was built in 1919.  The dirigibles traveled from city to city, offering fifteen minute rides for a few dollars per person.

Rockford had several visits from these dirigibles during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.  The Register Star featured a great picture of the airship “Vigilante” that was taken from a plane flown by Fred Machesney. The airship visits were a huge draw for the folks in Rockford and the surrounding area.

In the early 1930’s Goodyear was unveiling a new generation of dirigibles.  The “Vigilante” was one of the first built of these airships.  Unfortunately, the Vigilante crashed in November of 1931.   The gondola car and fins were used in the production of a new airship, the  “Columbia”.  The airship was written about in dozens of newspapers.  One article described the dirigible as 144 foot long and stated that it cost $65,000 to build. It also mentioned that it  had walnut woodwork and leather chairs. It carried six passengers and it flew at an amazing 60 miles per hour.

One of Rockford’s own was hired as the Chief Mechanic for the “Columbia”. John Wallace Blair had only lived in Rockford for a couple of years.  He and his wife Betty married in 1926. John worked as an auto mechanic and a driver for the Blue Line Transfer Company during his time in Rockford.  John’s brother, Roland was hired at the same time as a pilot.

John must have thought it was the chance of a lifetime when he was hired by Good Year.  As Chief Mechanic for the “Columbia” John would be in charge of maintenance for the dirigible. He would also be riding in the airship.  John and Betty left Rockford to begin their new life in New York.

The “Columbia’s” christening ceremony was scheduled for July 14, 1931 at the Goodyear-Zeppelin Airlock near Akron Municipal Airport. The people in Akron welcomed the new airship with a 200 piece band and a huge chorus.  The Vice President of the Goodyear Fred M. Harpham’s wife broke a bottle over the cabin.  The bottle contained liquid air instead of champaign.  Mrs. Harpham was joined by other executive’s wives for the first flight.

In August 1931, the “Columbia” traveled to the home base at the Holmes Airport in the Jackson Heights in Queens, New York.  The airship ran as a sight seeing service.  People paid $3.00 for a 15 minute flight around New York City.

On February 13, 1932, John was with the pilot Prescott Dixon flying over Long Island.  The wind was bad that day with gusts over 40 miles per hour.  The airship was being tossed around and the pilot struggled to keep control.  John and Prescott tried to keep control of the dirigible as the wind pushed it toward the ground. The men’s efforts became frantic when they noticed they were approaching electrical wires and a large gas tank.

John Blair suggested that they should “rip the ship”. This was a defensive measure that called for the mechanic to grab a rip cord and yank it.  The cord was attached to the top of the airship.  When the cord was pulled, it would tear the section open and allow gas to escape.  This move would lower the airship quickly to the ground without (hopefully) putting the men in danger.  The major problem with this maneuver was that the rip cord was just beyond the gondola.

John reached for the rip cord. Just as he touched the rope, the wind surged and the large bag rolled. The rope wrapped around John’s arm and pulled him from the gondola. Time seemed to stand still as the rope caught and held.  A full minute passed then the rope broke and John’s body fell many feet before smashing into the ground.  John never knew that he had been successful in causing the “Columbia” to fall to the earth before it ran into the wires, saving the craft from catching fire and the pilot from certain death.

crashed blimp

Thousands of people had gathered to see the “Columbia” in action. Almost all of them watched as the horrible tragedy played out in front of their eyes. The newspapers stated that there was an audible gasp from the crowd when John’s body slipped from the gondola.  John’s body was found 100 feet from the wreckage of the airship.

John’s brother, Roland accompanied John’s wife Betty and John’s body back to Rockford for burial.  Betty returned to Rockford to live and eventually married again.


Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Hidden Wounds – Charles Schultz

Originally published in The Rock River Times.


On Friday, May 11, 1877, Winnebago County would experience one of the worst disasters it had suffered up to that time.  While constructing a new courthouse, the time came to lower the new dome onto the limestone walls.  The men were all in place as they lowered the elaborate piece onto the walls. Folks in town had been fascinated with the whole process and they lined the streets.  Suddenly, there was a loud cracking sound.  No one could believe it when the walls began to crumble under the weight of the dome.

Men and limestone blocks tumbled everywhere. Towns folk worked together for days to dig out men both alive and dead.  Newspapers from those days were filled with the graphic descriptions of the wounds suffered by the men.

They laid the bodies of the dead on the lawn and rushed the injured to the City Hotel where they were treated by the doctors gathered there.  One of the injured men was Charles Schultz.  He had serious injuries including a bad head wound.  His friends and family all said that he must be the luckiest man they knew.

Though Charles’ wounds healed quickly, his wife Elizabeth grew worried about him.  There was something different about Charles after the accident. The news articles through the years gave clues to these changes.  Charles was arrested numerous times for drinking, for fighting, and for disturbing the peace.

The drinking and violence increased until finally in 1884, the decision came that something must be done with Charles.  There must have been an incident with the family because it was given as the reason for his “confinement”.  Authorities were concerned about Charles’ hurting someone, especially his family members.  The correlation between personality changes and brain injuries was years away.  But it was easy to see that Charles had changed after his accident.  The people who knew Charles before the accident no longer referred to him as lucky.

Charles was escorted to the Winnebago County Poor Farm and Hospital on North Main Street.  He was confined to a wooden cage in the basement area.  It was an area used only for the most “demented” patients.

John Atkinson was the Superintendent of the Poor Farm in 1884.  He had held the position since 1876.  It was a prosperous time for the Poor Farm. Atkinson had earned the reputation of a kind, patient keeper.  But the treatment of the insane was archaic during this time and consisted more of confinement than treatment.  In the daytime during warm weather the inmates were confined in large wooden cages outside.  They were brought inside and locked in large wooden cages during inclement weather and during the night.

Superintendent Atkinson’s day began early and by 5:00a.m. on May 12, 1884 he began his rounds of waking the inmates.  He worked his way from the top floor where most of the residents were just there because of their financial situations. He saved the basement patients for last.  Atkinson unlocked the main door and began to make his way to the first cage which housed Charles Schultz.  Atkinson was surprised to see Charles standing by the cell door.  The fact that Charles did not move when Atkinson greeted him alarmed the superintendent.  He rushed back to his office for the keys to the cells.

When he opened the door to Charles’ cell it was obvious why he hadn’t answered.  Charles had a noose made from cloth wrapped around his neck. His beard had hidden this fact from Atkinson at first.  Lifting his beard, Atkinson saw the black bands that proved his fear to be true.

Atkinson backed out of the cell and called the coroner.  Coroner McCaughey arrived in short order.  Schultz’s body had been cut down by Atkinson and his assistant.  They laid him on a small bed inside his cage.

McCaughey would later testify that Schultz must have planned his suicide from the day he arrived.  He ripped strips from the bedding.  Then Charles took the time to weave these strips together to form a rope.  When confronted with the fact that it was too thick to fit through the small opening above the door, Charles had removed a piece of wire from his mattress.  He used this to attach the woven rope to the doorway.  Charles then placed the noose around his neck, climbed on his bed and hurled himself from the bed.  One of his feet was still on the bed when Atkinson cut him down.

The headlines from the day carried the story under the head line “Schultz Shuffles off this Earthly Coil with a Coil of Rope.”  Charles was laid to rest in the Poor House Cemetery.  His wife Elizabeth married again and stayed in the area with her new husband.  One can only hope that she and Charles’ children remembered their father the way he was before the horrible accident that changed his life and theirs forever.



Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events


Warner “Varney” Samuel Anderson

Originally published on Rockford Buzz.

Warner A. 1

Warner Samuel Anderson was born in Geneva, Illinois June 18, 1866 to parents Swan and Frederika. Later records would state that his parents had both been born in Sweden.  According to records in Ancestry, Swan and Frederika Anderson came over from Sweden on the ship Lucia in May of 1852.

Varney was the fourth of seven children born to the Anderson family. Swan worked as merchant tailor and Frederika took care of the children.  By 1880, the family had moved to Elgin where Swan worked at the watch factory.  Frederika passed away in November of 1879 and the oldest daughter Emily was still living at home helping to care for her younger brothers and sisters.

Varney would follow his father’s footsteps and work in the Watch factory. But Varney had bigger plans.  He knew that Rockford also had a Watch Factory that had gained quite a reputation for their quality watches since their opening in 1875. Some might argue that this is what lured the young man to move here.  But they would only be half right.  There was another reason why Varney chose to make Rockford his home.

Besides having a Watch Factory, Rockford also had a Minor League Baseball League.  Varney came because Rockford had been making a name for itself on the baseball field.  He loved the game and hoped that Rockford would help him make his dream of playing in the Major Leagues a reality.  The newspapers from the day are filled with headlines and articles about Varney’s success here in Rockford and eventually beyond.

In 1887, when he was only 21 years old, Varney was playing for the Milwaukee Brewers in the Minor Leagues.  He played for two different teams during the 1888 season; the Minneapolis Millers and the St. Paul Apostles.

Warner A. 2-b

In 1889, Varney’s dream finally came true when he was chosen to be a player for the Major Leagues.  Rockford hailed Varney as a hometown hero when it was announced that he had secured the position of pitcher and outfielder for the Indiana Hoosiers.  He only played in 2 games that year.  In 1890, he became a player and the manager of the Burlington Hawkeyes in Iowa.

Varney wasn’t only noticed by the men who attended his games.  The women in the area would gather on Ladies Day to watch the handsome young man pitch against team after team.  Varney would eventually fall for one of his fans and he married Florence Doughty in 1891.

Florence would always claim to be his biggest fan. The happy couple would have three daughters over the years.  Varney would travel during the season and Florence and the rest of Rockford always made a big deal of welcoming him home again when the season ended.

Varney was hailed as a great team manager and continued to climb the ladder of success.

In 1895, Varney was invited to join the Washington Senators.  He must have felt like all of his hard work paid off during his time with the Washington team.

The local newspapers were not the only ones talking about Varney’s skills on the baseball field.   He was mentioned in the 1894 issue of Sporting Life.  “Varney Anderson, surprised by his wonderful work in the box against them.  His main strength appeared to be in his deceptive drop, which he has completely under his control.”

Varney continued to play for the Washington Senators and 1895 was his best year.  Varney had achieved his lifelong goal of playing in the Major Leagues but he also knew that he was getting older.  He returned to Rockford to help manage the team and to play for the town that helped him achieve his dream.

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Headlines in 1897 told of Varney’s successes.  One from August 23, 1897 claimed, “(Varney Anderson) Contributed to the Most Sensational Finish Ever Seen in Rockford!”

Varney and his wife Florence raised their three girls in their little house on South Main Street here in Rockford. Varney wanted to give back to the community that had given him so much.  He became a Freemason and joined the E.F. Ellis Masonic Lodge. Varney was as successful as a Freemason as he was on the field.  He became Master of the Lodge in 1902.

Varney and Florence purchased a house on South Main Street where they would finish their days.  Varney lost Florence to illness on January 24, 1931. He laid her to rest in Willwood Burial Park.  He would join her there after his death on November 5, 1941.



Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events.

Just An Ordinary Day

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Looking back later there was nothing to indicate the day would be any different from others.  It started out as just another typical day.  It was June 9, 1966 and the weather that day was overcast with an occasional drizzle.

Edwin Lyons and his wife, Lauretta had breakfast together before he left for work that day.  They had been married in Dubuque, Iowa on October 20, 1939. Lauretta was only 20 when they married. She had been born and raised in Rockford and it was here that they decided to make their home.


Both Lauretta and Edwin were considered successful.   She had been a secretary but quit her job at the Block and Kuhl Department store to open her own pet accessory store.  Edwin and Lauretta were partners in this venture.  They had a little shop on Mulberry Street in downtown Rockford called the Lyon’s Den.  They also traveled to fairs to display and sell the fancy dog collars from their shop.

Lauretta was a member of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, the Rockford Women’s Club, Rockford chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star.  She was also a member of the American Kennel Club and the Canadian Club.  She had been a member of the Business and Professional Women’s Association. Lauretta also volunteered in her spare time.  She was a pink lady at Rockford Memorial Hospital.

Edwin worked as a chemist at the Rockford Drop Forge Company.  Edwin’s father was well known in Rockford.  He owned the  Brown’s Business College.  Edwin and Lauretta had operated the school for a while before it was sold in 1942. The school would eventually become the Rockford School of Business.

Edwin left shortly after breakfast, right around 7:30a.m.  The Lyon’s house was a little off the beaten path out on Latham Road where it intersects with Owen Center.  It sat back a little ways from the road and was surrounded by trees and cornfields.  It was not visible to any of the other houses.

Later that day when they were interviewed, the Lyon’s neighbors claimed that they did not know them very well.  Richard T Hare stated that he very rarely saw them.

Before Edwin left, he and Lauretta made plans for lunch.  He was going to meet her at the shop.  When Edwin left for work he had no way of knowing that this seemingly ordinary day would turn out to be anything but that.

Lauretta was next seen by Julian Cwyman, a 38 year old telephone repairman.  He told deputies that he saw Lauretta with her three dogs walking around her yard.  They had spoken briefly and Lauretta even showed Cwyman some of the tricks she had taught the dogs.  He left the area around 9:20a.m.

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Edwin went to the shop for his lunch date with his wife.  He was surprised when she wasn’t there.  He tried to phone but received no answer to his attempts.  So he decided he better check on her to make sure everything was well.

He arrived home around 12:30p.m. Edwin noticed that the doors were locked and the dogs were all inside.  He stated he walked into the living room and saw his wife lying on her stomach on the floor in a pool of blood.  There were several of his neckties around her, one was even clenched in her hand.

He immediately called the sheriff’s department and an ambulance.  In the long moments it took help to arrive, he desperately searched for a pulse.  Lauretta’s favorite dogs was curled up next to her and Edwin had to pick him up to get close to her.  He noticed that its fur was still damp from an earlier walk.

Help finally arrived but even though Edwin pleaded with the ambulance crew to “Save her, save her” there was nothing to be done.  They loaded Lauretta in the ambulance and drove her to Rockford Memorial where she was pronounced dead.

Police arrived in full force with the lead investigator, Sheriff’s Lt. Michael Iasparro,(father to Dominic Iasparro) over seeing the investigation.

Police noticed that the doors were all locked and that nothing was taken even though there was a large amount of money in the home and a valuable stamp collection.

There were signs of a struggle.  Furniture had been disturbed, a curtain was ripped down and there was blood on the floor by the front door.  This told investigators that Lauretta had fought her attacker.  When Coroner Carl Sundberg conducted the autopsy on Lauretta he reported that her jaw was swollen and that her lips and tongue were cut.  She had not been raped.  But she had been brutally strangled with one of her husband neckties.  The tie had gouged into her neck.  Lauretta had another tie in her right hand and police discovered it had been cut off cleanly apparently with scissors.  They searched the entire house looking for the missing tip.  It was never located.

Police theorized that someone might have come into the house while Lauretta was out walking her dogs and was there waiting when she returned.  They fought in the living room and Lauretta broke free and made it to the door.  She was then strangled from behind and left there for hours until her husband found her.

Neighbors were questioned. Edwin was interrogated but his alibi of being at work held up.  He told investigators that he had pulled his wife’s car out of the garage for her before he left for work at 7:30 a.m.  Sheriff Kirk King was surprised when five people came forward to state that while they were driving by the home the morning of the murder, they had seen another car in the Lyon’s driveway.  It was described as a 1957 maroon ford.

This case was never solved.  The closest the police came was a few weeks after the murder when there was another attack on a woman.

Charlene O’Brien had finished her shopping at the Colonial Village Mall and walked back to her car.  It was there that 43 year old Sanford Harris forced her into the car and kidnapped her.  She was found 40 hours later, brutally beaten and abandoned along a farmer’s lane near Perryville Road.  Charlene was able to describe her attacker as a middle aged negro man and police quickly picked up Harris.

He was living with his common law wife, Mary Ann Walker.  Walker told police she was 21 but they found out later she was only 15 years old.  Harris was on parole from the state of Michigan.  Harris had killed a 41 year old woman and received a life sentence but was later paroled.

When people were asked to look at Harris and his car, they identified him as being the one they saw around Lauretta’s house the day she was killed.

This story has made the paper several times, always listed as one of the unsolved crimes of this city.  According to the latest article written in the Rockford Register Star in 2007, Rockford had formed a new cold case squad and Deputy Chief Dominic Iasparro has a special tie to this case.  Sheriff Lt. Michael Iasparro was his father.  Dominic Iasparro is quoted in the 2007 article.  He states that “There was significant focus on one suspect but there was never enough evidence to charge that one individual.”

It has been 47 years since Lauretta Lyons was killed in her own home.  Almost as much time has passed since her death as she was on this earth.  The chances are very slim now that her killer will ever be brought to justice. Her family must feel a little comfort that she has not been forgotten.  It must bring them a little peace that the torch has been passed from the original officer to his son who has now made it his mission.


Copyright © 2020, 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Horrendous Crime Still Lingers In Stateline Memory

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Most people in Northern Illinois wouldn’t have recognized the names Catherine Rekate, Carl A. Reimann, or Betty F. Piche.  But that would change on December 29, 1972.  It was a Friday night and the Christmas lights were still up in the Pine Village Steakhouse and Tavern in Yorkville, Illinois.  The dinner rush had ended and 16 year old Catherine Rekate was finishing her shift as a dishwasher.  Her father, Donald, was already out in the parking lot to give her a ride home.  Catherine had begged her parents to let her get the job only a few weeks before.  She wanted extra money to buy Christmas presents.

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There were only a few other people inside the restaurant when Carl A. Reimann walked in with his girlfriend, Betty F. Piche.  The staff knew the couple but one waitress, Harriet thought it odd that Betty was wearing a blonde wig that night. Harriet was working in the back a few moments later when the terrifying sounds of gunfire rang out. She ran out the back door and across the yard to the owner’s house.  Wendell Flint couldn’t quite understand the hysterical girl that pounded on his door that night.  He only understood the words “gunshots fired”.

Catherine’s father, Donald Rekate was an amateur radio buff and he quickly called the police on his scanner when he heard the gunshots.  He was able to give a description of the couple that came running out of the steakhouse. Donald also managed to notice the direction the car headed as it sped away from the parking lot.

Police Officer Richard Randall and owner Wendell Flint arrived at about the same time. They were horrified by the scene.  “There were bodies all over the place.” Flint would state later. Officer Randall would describe it as the most heinous crime scene of his career.  There were three bodies behind the bar and one victim was on the floor in front of the bar.   Another man who tried to flee made it to the dining room before he was shot.

Carl Raimann
Carl Raimann

Kendall County Coroner, William Dunn would later describe the scene as a “bloody massacre.” Everyone was astonished to find one of the victims clinging to life. John Wilson was a bartender at the restaurant.  He had been shot twice in the head. Though all efforts were made to save him, Wilson succumbed to his injuries a few days later.

The officers’ horror at the brutal scene quickly grew when they realized that there was a couple with two small children hiding under one of the tables near the bar.  They rushed the hysterical family to safety.  The family told officers they had entered the restaurant just as Reimann and Piche were gathering the money from the cash register.  Reimann told them to sit down and not to look at them.  Later police would find out that Reimann had planned to shoot the family but he ran out of ammunition.

Coroner Dunn made his way through the restaurant examining the dead.  The victims were: 35 year old Dave Gardner, who stopped by the restaurant to get his family dinner, Robert Loftus a 48 year old retired Navy Veteran, 73 year old George T. Pashade, a chef at the Pineville for 11 years and 16 year old Catherine Rekate.  One doesn’t even want to think about what was going through Donald’s mind as he waited outside the scene for news about his daughter.

Forty minutes later near the small town of Morris, Illinois a police cruiser spotted the 1959 Chevrolet and pulled it over. Carl A. Reimann still carried the .32 caliber chrome automatic revolver that he had used in the shooting spree. The police were also able to recover the money that was taken. The $500.00 amount seemed too small for the death of five people.

Authorities learned that Reimann had served two years in a Nebraska prison for armed robbery.  He came to live with his mother in Sandwich, Illinois upon his release.  They theorized that maybe this time Reimann decided not to leave any witnesses.

Betty Piche
Betty Piche

This crime changed life for everyone in Northern Illinois. People found it hard to believe that the slight, young man could shoot five people in cold blood.  The defense team argued that there was no way that Reimann and Piche would receive a fair trial in Kendall County.  The lawyers won their argument and the case was shifted to Winnebago County.

The week-long trial began in May of 1973.  Seven men and five women listened to all the horrendous details of the crime. It was the first time that the details were released to the public.  Some of the victims had been shot more than once but they had all been killed with shots to the head.

Carl A. Reimann was sentenced to a 50 to 150 year for each of the 5 counts of murder and a 20 to 60 year sentence for the robbery charge. Betty F. Piche was sentenced to serve a 20-60 year term for each of the 5 murders and a 10 to 30 year term for the robbery charge.

This case has continued to gain headlines even though 49 years have passed.  Piche served her sentence and was released in 1983.  She died in 2004. Carl A. Reimann was paroled under a lot of protest in 2018.  In fact, people in the towns where he tried to settle protested three times before the state could find someplace for him to live.

Officer Randall kept in touch with Catherine Rekate’s family through the years. The Rekate family’s greatest fear was that Reimann would be released from prison.  Donald passed away on December 30, 1995, long before Reimann walked free.  Randall remembered that people in Yorkville were grateful for that.  “There is only so much heartache one family can take.”


Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Fire And Ice

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

February 15, 1911 was a day that many people in Rockford would remember for a long time. It was an unusual day for a couple of reasons. One, the ice had started to go out on the river about a month early. The winter had been a hard one and there were large pieces of ice that had broken away and started to grind their way downstream. These large ice rafts would get snared on bridges and other things until an ice jam was created. This caused the water behind the ice jam to back up and flood over the banks. The ice jams were so bad in 1911 that the Rockford Republic labeled it the worst year for ice since 1881. Many bridges, small buildings, and docks were destroyed by the flow while the flooding damaged many of the buildings that lined the banks.

City officials decided that the situation had become desperate enough to authorize the ice jams to be blown apart by dynamite. Blasting continued throughout the night of February 14 and 15th. This situation may have contributed to the second reason February 15th would remain in the memories of the all those who lived here during that time.

When an explosion happened at 12:45 a.m. on February 15th, most people mistakenly thought it was the work being done on the river. Of course, the people who lived around the 700 block of Corbin Street knew differently. All of the windows of the house that faced the two storied home at 711 were blown out by the explosion.

Joseph Vitoli, and his wife Rena and their two children had been in bed for hours at the time of the explosion. Rena was on the side of the bed closest to the window. She preferred that side because it made it easier for her to get up in the middle of the night without disturbing Joseph. Rena was eight months pregnant and made frequent trips to the bathroom. Their one year old son Phillipi slept in his parents’ bed cradled in his mother’s arms. Their young daughter had a cot next to the bed.

The bomb was placed on the window sill just two feet from Rena’s head. The next door neighbors, the Giacolone family, heard footsteps in the area between the houses a couple of minutes before the explosion took place. The police later determined that a long fuse had been used to give the bomber ample time to escape before the explosion occurred.

The blast blew inward and the iron head board of the bed was twisted nearly in half. The debris was blown right into Rena’s head and arm, causing extensive damage. One piece of debris ripped through her arm and struck the sleeping child she held. It caused a compound break in the one year old child’s arm. Rena was scalped and her head crushed so badly that everyone who saw her found it unbelievable that she was still alive. The entire family was rushed to the hospital.

Doctors hurried to do what they could for the injured mother but the damage was just too extensive. Joseph stayed by his wife’s side until she took her last breath at 7:15 that night. The reporters of the day stated that Joseph was crushed by the death of his wife. They had been married ten years that February. They left two of their older children behind when they moved from Italy around 1905. The couple spent three years in New York before settling in Rockford.

Authorities struggled right from the beginning with this case. They began with the theory that the dynamite might have been stolen from the efforts to unblock the ice jam but that lead went nowhere.

Unfortunately, during that time, the Italians in Rockford mistrusted the police and refused to talk. This was partly due to the fear of the organization called the Black Hand. From January through March of 1911, there were at least eighteen murders, scores of stabbings, over one hundred bomb explosions, and thousands of dollars reported paid out to black mail rings. All of these crimes were attributed to the men who ran the Black Hand organization in Chicago’s Little Italy. The men would send families warnings that included a black handprint. These warnings included an offer for a type of insurance that would protect these families from becoming victims of the Black Hand. It was an “offer they couldn’t refuse” that would become famous in the later mob organizations that were created. When families wouldn’t or couldn’t pay, bad things would happen to one or all of the members. The Black Hand Crew committed these murders in the most brutal and highly public ways to deter others from refusing payments.

The authorities worked that angle hard as well as looking into the past of both Joseph and Rena, searching for some clue why someone would want this entire family dead. Joseph had been out of work for a time and the family took in some men as boarders. Two of these men had been asked to leave because of their habits of carrying guns and their late hours. Police followed several of these leads but without the assistance of any witnesses and no real physical proof there was little they could do.

Tensions ran high in the days that followed the bombing. Everyone was frightened about further violence and men armed themselves in order to protect their families from danger. It was so bad that during Rena’s funeral at St. Anthony’s Church, Father Marchesano pleaded with everyone to let the authorities do their job and stop any vigilante action. He spoke of the escalating violence in Chicago as the grip of the Black Hand crew tightened there.

Rena’s family laid her to rest in St. Mary and St. James’ Cemetery. Police Chief A.E. Bargen and State’s Attorney Harry B. North were so desperate in this case that they offered a reward for any clue leading to an arrest. This and the fact that Rena was pregnant captured the attention of the nation and the news spread from coast to coast. Unfortunately, no one stepped up to offer any help and the reward was never claimed. The last local article about the case was carried in the May 6, 1945 edition of the Morning Star. What reporter Bill Garson wrote in the article remains true to this day. “The identity of the dark figure who scuttled into the shadows after placing the dynamite bomb on the Vitoli’s window sill is still as shrouded in mystery as it was on the cold February night in 1911.”


Copyright © 2020 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events