The Legacy Of Leo Carlson

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

There are no records left to tell how the young couple met.  But one thing was abundantly clear, Leo Carlson loved Celia.  They were young when they married in 1908.  Later, Leo’s friends would say that he would speak often of his young wife’s beauty.  That was in the beginning, of course, before trouble came to the young couple.

Leo made his living as a carpenter and it was this, as well as the close proximity to Celia’s family in Janesville, that brought the couple to Rockford.  They were thrilled to find a nice apartment at 414 Market Street.  The apartment was large and the young couple decided to rent out the extra rooms.

Celia made friends quickly and asked Leo if they could rent the extra rooms to some of her new companions.  The young ladies were all single and the extra income would save the couple money.  Leo agreed and four girls moved in.

Leo had a very good job as a carpenter but the hours were long and Celia found herself alone in the evenings.  The other girls would invite Celia to join them when they made plans.  At first Celia refused; eventually, the young girls’ pleas convinced Celia to join them.

The neighbors in the area began to gossip about the girls’ comings and goings and the word eventually got back to Leo.  At first, he ignored the talk as just gossip but one night the girls brought the party back to the apartment and the police were called.  The landlady confronted Leo and Celia and demanded that the roommates leave.  Leo agreed and carried it one step further by stating that he did not want Celia to see the girls anymore.  This caused heated arguments between the couple.

Leo’s friends would say that the turmoil at home changed Leo.  He became angry and his drinking increased which led to more fighting between the couple  This cycle continued until Celia couldn’t tolerate it any longer.  She decided to leave Leo and move to Janesville with her mother.

Celia didn’t leave empty-handed, though.  She took all the furniture and withdrew the money from the bank account.  Leo became a broken man.  His friends became concerned and claimed Leo became obsessed about the wrongs committed by Celia.

In late August of 1911, Celia filed divorce papers, claiming their differences were caused by Leo’s drinking, cruelty and jealousy.

On September 24, 1911, a month after Celia left him, Leo went to his favorite local pub and his friends were relieved to see their friend back to normal.  He spent the evening talking of his plans for the future.

The next day dawned with the promise of a beautiful fall day.  Emily Sitzkow was Celia’s mother and she rose early that day.  She was startled by a knock on the door.  Emily probably wondered who would be knocking on the door at such an early hour.  Her surprise grew when she opened the door to find her daughter’s estranged husband standing before her.  Emily would state later that she hesitated for just a second before she opened the door.  She had no idea that this single act would haunt her for the rest of her life.

Leo entered the house and Emily showed him to Celia’s room.  He woke Celia gently and asked if they might talk.  She rose and began to dress.  She stood in front of the mirror to fix her hair and Leo moved behind her.  Celia had no time to register the pistol that Leo put to her head in one swift movement.

The sound was loud as Leo pulled the trigger.  He lowered Celia’s body softly to the ground.  Emily, hearing the loud noise, was standing in the hall when Leo rushed at her.  Leo pointed the gun and said, “I’ve got a good notion to put a bullet into you, too!”

Emily stopped in her tracks and Leo raced into an adjoining bedroom.  He raised the gun to his head and fired.

The police soon arrived and found Leo dead and Celia just barely alive.  She clung to life for four hours before losing the battle.

This already strange case took another turn when a letter that was found on Leo was printed in the local papers.  The letter explained the reasons for Leo’s desperate actions and put the blame for this horrible crime on Celia.

Celia was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Janesville, Wisconsin while Leo was buried at Cedar Bluff Cemetery in Rockford. Neither grave is marked.

 

Copyright © 2016 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

The Oregon Shooting Of 1930

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

When the sun came up on that Thursday morning, July 17, 1930 people in the little town of Oregon, Illinois were bracing themselves for another warm day.  No one could predict that gunfire would disrupt the normally peaceful downtown square.  Henry Schwingle certainly had no idea as he pressed his suit in preparation for the day’s events.

Henry’s thoughts on the drive from his home in Rockford to Oregon were probably on having to attend yet another court appearance.  Henry and his wife, Evelyn, separated a few months prior and she kept dragging him into these hearings to try to force money from him.  Henry would have gladly paid her the $20 a week to take care of her and their little nine-year-old daughter, Betty Jane, but he just did not have the money.  Since he lost his important job at the Paragon Foundry, jobs were few and far between.  Henry was glad to finally have secured a job as an insurance salesman for a company in Rockford.  It meant leaving his little daughter in the care of his wife but that could not be helped.  It was the depression and Henry needed to go wherever he could find work.

Henry was concerned about his daughter because his wife was clearly not well.  Evelyn had become more and more mentally unstable.  It wasn’t always like this between them, of course.  Once they had lived a charmed life.  They had fallen in love and were married in Michigan in February of 1911.  They moved to Oregon, Illinois where Henry found work at the foundry.  They became members of the Rock River Golf Club and were active in Oregon society events.  Evelyn had once been described as the most beautiful woman in Ogle County.

The hearing on July 17 did not go in Evelyn’s favor.  She did not work outside of the home and was completely dependent on her husband’s income.  Evelyn had not received any money for weeks and was furious when the court ruled that Henry would have more time to pay what he owed her.

The judge calmed things down and Evelyn and Henry left the courtroom together.  They walked over to the garage and witnesses later testified that everything seemed fine between them.  Everyone was shocked when suddenly Evelyn reached into her purse and retrieved a small automatic pistol.

She opened fire at point-blank range in the direction of her husband.  Henry felt a bullet graze his right hand and another nick his shoulder.  He turned and ran for cover.  Everyone who witnessed the shooting would be shocked to discover later that not one of the five shots found their mark.

After Evelyn opened fire, she turned around and headed back to the courthouse.  Police were already starting to run toward the location of the shots.  No one could suspect the fact that this woman who walked calmly into the courthouse was the shooter.  Evelyn entered the office of the circuit court clerk.  She pointed her gun at the lone clerk left during the lunch hour and told him that she would not hurt him.  She just wanted to use the phone to call her lawyer.

By now the Sheriff and his deputies were at the garage and heard details of what occurred.  They raced back into the courthouse, no doubt frightened for everyone’s safety.  Sheriff Good and his deputy entered the clerk’s office and were immediately confronted by Evelyn.  She threatened to shoot them if they came any closer.

“Kiss Betty Jane goodbye for me.”  As she spoke these words Evelyn Schwingle raised the small gun to her own temple and sent a bullet crashing into her brain.  Though a physician was called, there was nothing to be done.  She died there on the floor within a few minutes.

Henry was located at a nearby hotel where he had raced for cover.  Their daughter, Betty Jane, was also located nearby where her mother had left her while she attended the court hearing.  At first, Betty Jane did not want to see her father.  She had been influenced by her mother’s hatred for the man and taken her side in the separation.  Sheriff Good spoke to Betty Jane and explained the truth of the situation and told her of the awful death of Evelyn.  Only then would the little girl agree to see Henry. Evelyn’s body was still on the floor in the courthouse as the newly reconciled father and daughter left the building.

Evelyn was sent home to be buried in her hometown of Merrill, Michigan.  Henry and Betty Jean lived for a while in Rockford before settling in DeKalb.  Both of their lives were forever haunted by the events that occurred on that tragic day in July of 1930.

 

Copyright © 2016 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Remembering Rockford’s World Boxing Champ

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Rockford has been fortunate to have many men and women whose names have put the Forest City on the map.  One of these extraordinary people, named Sammy Mandell, came to light in the 1920s and ’30s.  Though most people won’t recognize the name, Sammy was once the Boxing Lightweight Champion of the World.

Sammy’s story didn’t begin or end in Rockford but his name would be forever tied with the Forest City.  He started boxing when he was young along with his brother, Joseph.  The boys would challenge men to fight them after work.

Sammy’s next step was working with Rockford’s trainer Honk Garrett who owned a gym on East State Street.  Sammy also began to fight as an amateur at Camp Grant.  He was only 16 when he had his first professional fight.

It was not long before Sammy’s lightning-fast footwork and his devastating left hook earned him the nickname of Rockford Flash.  Sammy also had something else going for him.  Unlike most of the boxers of that time period, he was considered to be very handsome, which earned him the nickname of The Sheik.  This name was chosen because of his resemblance to the very popular actor of the day, Rudolph Valentino.

Another thing that made Sammy Mandell stand out was the fact that even though he reached a place of national recognition, he remained humble and proud of his beginnings.

Sammy’s family moved here from Sicily in 1906, when he was only a couple of years old.  The family left the small town where their ancestors had lived for generations.  His mother passed away shortly after the family arrived in Rockford and his oldest sister filled the void left by her mother’s death.  After he won his title, Sammy would buy his sister and father their own homes.

In 1923, before Sammy won the Lightweight Champion title, Rockford held a grand banquet to honor their hometown hero.  The Knights of Columbus threw the grand bash at the luxurious Nelson Hotel.  Over 10,000 people lined the streets along the route just to get a glimpse of this hometown boy.  The crowd went wild when he flashed his famous grin.

The speakers chosen for the banquet included Mayor Halstrom and Illinois Lieutenant Governor Sterling.  Sammy was presented with a beautiful Knights of Columbus ring by the Grand Knight of the local council, Edward Zeiner.  Every speaker spoke of the fine example that Sammy represented for all of the citizens of Rockford.

Sammy won the Lightweight Championship title in 1926 when he was 22-years-old in the first legal fight in Illinois at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.  He fought Rocky Kansas.  Sammy held the title until 1930 when he lost to Al Singer.

His signature fight took place in 1924 when he faced Jack Bernstein.  Sammy broke his hand in the second round.  Bernstein realized that Sammy’s hand was broken and gave him such a horrible beating that most watching were surprised that the fight was not stopped.  Those four rounds were agonizing to witness. Those spectators were never sure if Sammy found his bearings or he had been pushed to his limit.  But when the bell rang to begin the seventh round, Sammy came out of the corner with one arm hanging uselessly at his side and gave Bernstein the beating of his life.  The fight was a draw and Sammy’s reputation was born.

Sammy would participate in 168 fights that included 28 knockouts and eight losses.  Sammy stayed in Rockford after losing the title and opened a gym with his brother where they trained new boxers.  Sammy, Elizabeth and their son Richard moved to Chicago after World War II where he acquired a job as a collector for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

In October 1962, Sammy Mandell was inducted into the Illinois Sports Hall of Fame.  His son Richard accepted the award for the ailing Mandell.

Sammy died on November 9, 1967 in Chicago and he and his wife, Elizabeth, are buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Janesville, Wisconsin.  One newspaper quote from the day he died stated, ”Sammy Mandell is gone and a little more of the color and excitement of what boxing used to be died with him.”  Sammy’s rags to riches story has become part of the rich tapestry of Rockford’s history.

 

Copyright © 2016 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

The Tragic Death Of Josie Dunn

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Josephine Dunn
Arthur Grenke Dunn
James Dunn

When a woman’s body was found floating face down in the Rock River on July 6, 1925, the police realized they faced many challenges.  There was no identification on the body and there were no witnesses to what might have happened to the young woman.  Her long dark skirt was badly torn and when they turned her over to remove her from the water, they noticed that her mouth and nose were filled with mud from the bottom of the river.  The body was collected by Coroner Fred Olson’s assistants and taken to be prepared for the inquest.

The body had been spotted floating about 30 feet from the west bank of the river.  It was almost directly in front of the Rockford Country Club and close to the skating rink of the Harlem Amusement Park.

As Coroner Fred Olson started his examination of the woman’s body, he found a purse with a rosary and a Catholic Prayer book.  Several Catholic priests were brought in to see if they could identify the body.  Two priests from St. Peter’s Church, Fathers F. F. Connor and M. J. Hoare were shocked to realize they recognized the unfortunate woman.

The dead woman was Mrs. Josephine Dunn and even though she was no longer an active member of their parish, they were well acquainted with her family.

While Coroner Olson was busy trying to identify the woman, other authorities were combing the river banks for clues.  They discovered a picnic basket, a young boy’s cap, two stockings, a pair of shoes and a handwritten note.

“In the dark blue waters you will find me,” the note stated.  It was signed Josephine.  The authorities took the note to Coroner Olson along with the other items found on the bank.

By this time, phone calls had been made, one to Josephine’s husband, James Dunn.  James was still at work when he received the news that his wife of two years was dead.  The next call was made to Josephine’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Carroll.  Josephine’s mother became hysterical when she received the news.

Mrs. Carroll would later give a statement to the police.  Though her grief and her thick Irish accent made it difficult to understand her at times, the police were certain that Josephine’s mother had no idea what had taken place that day.  Mrs. Carroll also claimed that she had a premonition that something terrible had happened to her daughter.  She told the police of the nightmare she had during the night.  Mrs. Carroll heard Josephine’s voice calling out to her for help.  Mrs. Carrol became even more worried when she heard her daughter’s pleas several times during the day.

The police realized after speaking with Mrs. Carrol that Josie’s eight-year-old son Arthur was missing.  They feared the worst and began to search the river.

The police next interviewed the dead woman’s husband, James.  The couple had previous marriages and children with their former spouses.  James had a daughter and an older son, Clayton.  He and his wife had divorced and the children stayed in Chicago.  Josie was married to a man named Grenke and the couple had a little boy, Arthur.  Grenke had died in an accident a few years before.  Josie met James shortly after her husband’s death and from all accounts, the two of them were very much in love.  The only trouble in their marriage was Josie felt that James cared more for his 19-year-old son, Clayton, than he did for her and Arthur.

The police searched the couple’s apartment and found a note addressed to James.  “Goodbye.  I am going to end all my troubles and hope you will be happy.  When I go I will take Arthur with me so you will have no burden but your own son if that is enough.”  The horrible indications of what had taken place that day were too much for James and he collapsed.

Despite intense searching by the police, Arthur’s body was not recovered until the next day.  His little body was found by several boy caddies from the Rockford Country Club.  The boy that lifted the body from the water was only a few years older than Arthur.  Fred Olson conducted the autopsy of the little boy and his verdict shocked the entire city.  Marks around Arthur’s neck proved that he had been murdered by being held under the water.

The police and Coroner Olson used the autopsy findings and the interviews conducted with neighbors and family members to piece together Josie and Arthur’s final hours.  They speculated that the two had breakfast and then Josie sent Arthur out to play in the yard while she wrote the suicide notes.  Josie then called the boy in and promised him an outing.  Josie packed a picnic basket and the little boy and his mother headed for the park.  It would have been mostly deserted on the Monday morning as Josie led Arthur to the wooded area.

Josie somehow talked Arthur into wading in the river and police theorized she grabbed him by the neck and held the eight-year-old under the water.  After the horrible deed was finished, she dove into the water pushing her own face into the mud.

Coroner Olson would rule the deaths a murder and a suicide caused by Josie becoming temporarily deranged due to constant brooding over imaginary troubles.  Unfortunately, that was not the end of this tragedy.  James was devastated by the deaths and Josie’s mother and father could not accept the Coroner’s findings.  They believed in their hearts that James played some role in the deaths.  The case was splashed in the papers for two more years while the families battled about the inheritance left by Josie.  In the end, James prevailed in court but there were no winners in this case.  Both families were tortured by thoughts of how these deaths could have been prevented and by questions that will never be answered.

 

Copyright © 2016 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

 

The Torch Murder Of 1933

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

It had been a good day that Sunday, August 13, 1933.  Forty-one-year-old Earl Hanson had enjoyed the day with his 12-year-old daughter, June.  They attended church services and went to the theater.  Earl headed north on Main Street to take June back to her mother’s home at about nine o’ clock in the evening.

Earl and his wife, May Mudler, had divorced on December 22, 1932, after a 12-year-marriage.  At first, Earl believed May was happy, especially after June was born in 1922 and then little Doris came in 1923.  There was a lot of strain in the marriage especially after they realized that Doris was developmentally disabled. They made the difficult choice to have Doris placed in an institution.

So on that August night, Ed drove his little girl back to the home they had once shared.  June Hanson kissed her father and skipped into the house.  She was looking for her mother when she noticed a bright light coming from outside.

June stepped back outside and saw an image that no child should have to see.  She must have been horrified to see Earl crawl from the car completely engulfed in flames.

June’s screams soon brought neighbors running.  The first man to arrive saw a burning figure twisting on the ground.  The fire was quickly put out but there was little that could be done.  Earl Hanson was dead.

The police arrived and at first they thought they were dealing with a car that had malfunctioned.  They questioned everyone involved.  May Hanson, Earl’s ex-wife, claimed that she was in the basement when she saw a flash of light through one of the windows.

There were several warning signs to the initial police officers.  They were concerned enough to summon Chief Deputy Millard and the Coroner Walter Julian to the house. As the police explored the crime scene, a porcelain bowl was discovered in the yard, hidden in tall grass.  It was blackened and smelled of gas.

The detectives continued to search the yard and uncovered a box of matches and a gas can that contained a small amount of gas.  Police began to realize that Earl’s death was no accident.  They would later call it one of the most bizarre murders that Winnebago County had ever seen.

The first thing police officers noticed when they questioned May was that her hair, face, eyebrows and neck were singed and burned.  May explained this by claiming that she got close to the car to confirm that her daughter was not inside.

May also answered the authority’s questions in a very strange manner.  One reporter described it like May was reciting a recipe instead of describing the horrible death of a human being.  May admitted that she owned the gas can and had purchased gas that afternoon. She claimed she was trying to get her own car started.  The car had not run in over a year.

The porcelain bowl also belonged to May.  She used it earlier in the day to water the chickens.  May stated that she had no idea knowledge of how it had gotten into the yard.

The authorities began to comb through all aspects of Earl Hanson’s life.  Earl was a sales executive at Ingersoll Milling Machine Company.  He was well respected and liked at his job.  Robert Gaylord, the President of Ingersoll, handed the police what would become the main piece of evidence in the case.  It was a handwritten letter that May had sent Earl that described how much she loathed him and ended with a death threat.  The letter frightened Earl so much that he gave it to Robert for safekeeping in case anything ever happened to him.

The police knew that they had their killer but they found it inconceivable that this tiny woman would kill in such a horrific manner.  The police and coroner worked together to put together a theory of what happened that fateful August night.

Earl pulled into the driveway and waited for June to enter the house.  May hid in the bushes next to the driveway and when Earl stopped at the end of the driveway, she stepped from the shadows and splashed the contents of the porcelain bowl onto Earl.  Then she lit a match and threw it into the car.  She had no idea that the gas would cause the flames to billow up burning her flesh and hair.  May calmly moved into the yard as June came out to see her father struggling against the flames that consumed him.

State’s Attorney Nash prosecuted May Hanson in what the newspapers dubbed as the “Torch Murder”.  The trial lasted 11 days and consisted of 39 witnesses for the state and six witnesses for the defense.  The most riveting testimony came from the Hanson’s daughter, June who staunchly defended her mother’s innocence.

May was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years.  She was transferred in May of 1934 to Dwight’s Correctional Center.

Doris died in the Nebraska institution in 1940.  June was raised by May’s sister, Florence.  June would eventually marry and move to Vermont where she passed away in 1994.

Photos – Rockford Register-Republic.

 

Copyright © 2016 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Isaiah And William Donley

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Isaiah and William Donley were two brothers that moved to Rockford in 1865 with their family.  They were born in Palmyra, Missouri and as the newspaper from 1890 stated, “born into bondage”.  The family members were slaves prior to the Civil War.

They came to Rockford to begin their new lives.  Isaiah was 12 and William was ten years of age.  Both would become well known and respected in this city.  They were admired for overcoming the obstacles placed before them and giving back to their community.

Isaiah was a man of many talents but was best known for his devotion to the local Rifles Unit.  He would travel with the group and assisted them as a “colored attache”.  Isaiah worked very hard to support the group and made their travels much easier.

Isaiah was known for his honesty and integrity but it was his kindness and humor that made him so well loved.

Isaiah married Ann Upsher in August of 1874.  They had a daughter, Musadora or Musie as she was called.  Unfortunately, Ann died in 1880 when Musie was only four years old.  Many who knew Isaiah spoke of his devotion to his only child.

Tragedy struck Isaiah’s family again in January 1890 when he became ill.  Isaiah died on January 16, leaving 14-year-old Musie to be taken in by his brother William.  The men from the Rifles Unit all attended Isaiah’s funeral at Cedar Bluff.  They acted as pall bearers and carried their friend to his final resting place.

William married his wife, Mary on November 23, 1882 and they bought a house on Crosby Street a few doors down from where Isaiah lived with his family.

William was even better known than his brother.  He was a cigar maker by trade and a very popular one by all accounts.  William was also known to be very intelligent and well-read.  Many of the immigrants who came to Rockford were illiterate and William would entertain them with tales of the books he read.

William was also a talented guitar and banjo player.  He would often tell his friends and family that he loved playing for others and considered it a gift when he saw others enjoying his music.

William and his wife invited Musie into their home after Isaiah died.  The churches in Rockford took up collections to help support the little girl.  A newspaper article mentioned that Musie later moved to Chicago and married a man named Anderson.

William passed away on February 16, 1916 in the family home on Crosby Street.  He was laid to rest near Isaiah in Cedar Bluff Cemetery.

These brothers are usually forgotten about in Rockford’s history.  While their contributions may seem small when to compared with other African Americans who helped settle the area, they were part of the foundation that Rockford was built on.  The family, like so many others before and after, left behind their past lives and chose Rockford as the place to call home.  Their rising above their appalling beginnings is as inspiring now as it was to the community then.

 

Copyright © 2016 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Tragic Ending To A Well-Lived Life

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

The evening of April 28, 1909 was initially discussed because of the storm that swept over the area.  Folks in the village of Winnebago would remember exactly where they were that evening because of the fierce thunderstorm that brought almost continuous lightning and torrential rains.

That storm would also play a part in the worst crime in the history of the little community though no one would realize it for almost 24 hours.

Margaret Grippen was a widow who lived in a farm house on Bluff Street near the northeast edge of town.  Both Margaret and her husband, Demas were considered pioneers of the village and well loved.  Their property contained an 80-acre farm and a two-story house.  “Uncle Demas” as the townspeople referred to him, was known to be a helpful and very generous neighbor.

The couple had three children, two girls who died too early and their son, Demas Junior who lived in Iowa with his wife, Blanche.  When Demas died in 1895, Margaret was left all alone in the house they had built on Bluff Street.

On that night in April, Margaret was visiting the old farmer McDougall.  She visited the farmer to order a chicken and some milk.  McDougall offered to deliver the items the next day and loaned Margaret a coat to wear home because the storm was sweeping into town.

Another neighbor would report that she spotted Margaret walking home when she looked through the window at the storm.  The time was 6:30 p.m.  The neighbor could not know that she would be the last person to see Margaret alive.

The next day McDougall stopped by Margaret’s house several times to deliver her order before he knocked on a neighbor’s door to ask if she had seen Margaret.  Mrs George Ades was surprised that Margaret did not answer and offered a skeleton key that she knew would open the front door of the Grippen home.  Margaret had borrowed it several times since she noticed her house key was missing.

McDougall and Mrs. Ades opened the front door and later they both would state that they noticed reddish brown stains smeared all over the walls and then they noticed the body on the floor.  At first, they thought Margaret had fallen and they rushed toward her.  As they neared the body, Mrs. Ades started to scream.

When Sheriff Collier arrived from Rockford, the whole horrible truth was disclosed.  The 68-year-old woman entered the home and went to the second floor to shut a window that she had left open.  When she returned downstairs there was someone waiting in the darkness of her living room.

The intruder rushed her and hit her several times with a large conch shell that sat on a shelf.  Margaret fought hard for her life and battled the intruder up and down the hallway.  The attacker grabbed a pair of scissors and caused tremendous damage to the poor woman’s hands as she defended herself.

Finally, Margaret fell onto the floor where the savage attack continued.  She was stabbed 38 times in the face and chest before the maniac went into the kitchen for another weapon.  This time he carried a flat iron that he used to beat Margaret’s head so badly that no one would be able to identify her.

The attacker tried to cover up his crime by placing a kerosene lamp next to Margaret’s body and a shawl over the chimney.  He probably thought that setting a fire would destroy the perfect fingerprints that he left on the glass of the lantern along with any other evidence.  Thankfully, the shawl never caught fire.

After cleaning up in the kitchen, the killer walked past the body in the hall and out the front door.  He used a key to lock the door behind him.  He dropped the key in the front yard on his way through the yard.  The storm covered all the noise of the attack and kept any would be witness in their homes.

The man who slaughtered the beloved widow slipped away, most likely on the railroad that ran close to the home.  The only real evidence found were those fingerprints left on the lamp.

Experts came from all over to try to solve this heinous crime and to match the fingerprints.  Though over 400 different fingerprints were collected and compared, no match was ever made.  The murder of Margaret Grippen remains unsolved.

Margaret was buried in the Winnebago Cemetery next to her beloved daughters and her grandson.

 

Copyright © 2016 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

The Church Triumphant

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

George Jacob Schweinfurth was born in 1853 in Marion, Ohio.  He had a typical childhood though his mother would later claim that she knew from the day he was born that God had a special plan for her son.

That special plan would eventually involve hundreds of followers, numerous scandals, and a 600 acre farm named Mount Zion.

George would become involved with a religious movement started by a woman named Dorinda Beekman, a wife of a preacher.  The Church Triumphant was originally based in Byron, Illinois but Dorinda’s claims soon had her followers ostracized from that community.  George met Dorinda in December of 1877 and they soon became kindred spirits.

George was a gifted speaker.  He was very handsome, some would even claim that he looked just like Jesus Christ, and he was very persuasive.  Young women were especially drawn to George and he was very quickly ordained a Bishop to the church.

Dorinda became sick and died and though she claimed she would rise after death, her body was ordered to be buried by officials after a week.  That might have been the end of the Beekmanites and the Church Triumphant if George hadn’t stepped forward to accept the role of leader.

George began to claim that he was the risen Messiah and that as such, he had unlimited powers.  He could perform many miracles including curing those afflicted with disease and even, just like Christ himself, raise people from the dead.  When asked by a reporter if he really believed himself to be Christ, Schweinfurth replied, “I am more than that.  I am the perfect man.  I am God.”

George drew more people into the faith and began to search for a place for the center of what was quickly becoming a religious movement.

It was at this time that a loyal follower, Spencer Weldon offered his lovely 600 acre farm and home to George.  In 1880, the Weldon family consisted of Spencer and his wife Agnes Kelley and their six children.

George gladly accepted the generous offer and mortgaged the farm to expand the buildings and house to better fit the expanding congregation.  The men worked the land and handled the livestock while the women worked in the house and tended the gardens. The farm grew very prosperous and George eventually expanded into horse breeding. He proved to be a keen businessman and was soon raking in the profits.

Inevitably, the word began to spread about this “Mount Zion” as the congregation called it and new followers came from all over the country.  In order to live in “Heaven”, a person needed to surrender all of their worldly possessions to the church, which in turn took care of all their needs.  Most of the men lived in dormitories in the barn and the women stayed in the house with the prophet.  Marriages were no longer acknowledged and this caused many conflicts.

The Church Triumphant numbers soon grew to several hundred.  The social status of the majority of these people was surprising.  These were not country bumpkins but highly educated, high society that included the wives of business men, lawyers, and doctors who brought their husbands into the fold.

Certain young women who were all very beautiful soon became the favorites of the self-proclaimed Messiah.  One of these “Angels” was the oldest daughter of the Weldon’s, Mary Louise.  She was around 25-years-old when the family home became Heaven. She was very beautiful and one of George’s most devout followers.

One of the fundamental beliefs of the Church Triumphant was the immaculate conception of Mary with the child of the Holy Spirit.  It was such a vital part of their belief that when certain “Angels” became pregnant all believed that they, like the Virgin Mary carried the “Children of God”.  Though the exact number of these children has been lost, at least four were born in Heaven. Two children were born to the head angel, Aurora Tuttle, one to Mary Teft, and one to Mary Weldon.

Needless to say, this caused quite a controversy and the newspaper reporters soon flocked to the farm.  The stories spread until they were nationwide.  When one of the reporters asked Spencer Weldon what he thought about his daughter becoming pregnant, he replied that he was overjoyed that she carried the child of God.

The controversy continued and charges were brought against the three Angels and George for immoral behavior.  In order to quiet some of the rumors, George married Aurora in the late 1890s though this proved to be a case of too little, too late.  Finally, in 1900 George left Heaven behind and brought Aurora and their two children to Rockford before changing his name to Furth and moving to Chicago to become a realtor.  He died there in 1915 still shrouded in scandal and controversy.

The Weldon Farm in Winnebago still belongs to members of the family and has been returned to the red color that it wore in the most prosperous days of the Church Triumphant.  Angel and daughter, Mary Weldon stayed on the farm after the prophet left.  She raised her daughter with the assistance of her family.

 

Copyright © 2016 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

The Christmas Spirit Of The Illinois Cottage

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

The Illinois Cottage was opened in August of 1918.  The old Lindsey Home, located on Kent Street was acquired through the Illinois Federation of Women’s Club with assistance of the Spafford family.  Its purpose was to aid single women who came from other communities while they searched for employment or girls who were found after curfew.  One such young girl came to Rockford with her new husband.  The couple had only been married a few days when they arrived and she had no idea that her husband was wanted for forgery.  She stayed at the Illinois Cottage after her husband was arrested until arrangements could be made for her to return to her parent’s home.

One article describing the home mentioned that during the time of the opening there were many young girls that followed the young men to Rockford when they were stationed at Camp Grant.  Some of these girls could not find employment and had no way to support themselves.

Later the purpose of the home was expanded to include caring for handicapped children.  The Visiting Nurses Association would refer the children to the Cottage.  Most of the children came from very poor circumstances and were handicapped due to to malnutrition or disease.  These children would receive medical care, proper nutrition, and an education while living in the home.  For some of the children this care was life changing; without it their handicaps would have made them incapable of becoming independent and able to support themselves.

The children who were able attended nearby public schools while those who were bedridden were taught at the cottage.  Clubs allowed the children to earn money for shoes or other clothing.  The Fairy Club allowed the young girls to embroider bibs, rompers, and towels that would be sold in the gift shop.

In order to continue the funding of the Illinois Cottage many events and tours were held in the home.  Several famous visitors to Rockford were brought for a tour of the home.  Jackie Coogan, a child star, and Tom Mix, an actor who was best known for playing in early westerns, were both visitors.

One of the most touching stories in the history of the home involves a little boy who stayed there in 1931.  He came to the home weighing 23 pounds and horribly crippled from a severe case of rickets that had bent his little legs.

The little boy was sent to the Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Chicago for surgery to straighten his legs.  He was returned to the Illinois Cottage where his care was continued.  Within a few months the little boy’s weight increased and he was walking normally.

There were numerous organizations in Rockford that worked very hard to ensure that the children had all they needed.  But it was during the Christmas holiday that the true generosity of the Rockford community was revealed.  Gifts of clothing, furniture, toys and fruit were delivered from all parts of the city.  Whole classrooms of children would visit to perform concerts and programs for the children.

Christmas Eve was started with a special luncheon cooked and served by local Kiwanis groups, who were major contributors to the cottage.  In the evening, the cottage sponsored a large party and opened its doors for all the neighborhood children.

In the late afternoon of Christmas Eve, a truck arrived and picked up around 70 children who then made the rounds in South Rockford.  The children and their escorts sang Christmas songs as the neighbors came outside to join them.  The newspaper stated that “the familiar music served as a beautiful reminder of the significance of the holiday”.

The truck returned the children back to the cottage for a very special meal.  Santa Claus would arrive afterward with a sack filled with gifts, the first ever for many of the children.  The gifts were donated from families, businesses, and local churches and were given to all the children including the neighborhood visitors.  Then the children were tucked into their beds with stomachs filled with food and clutching their new toys.

These stories of the Illinois Cottage prove that the Rockford Community was built with the  generous, caring spirit that continues still today.  As the quote from the movie Scrooged starring Bill Murray reminds us, “It’s Christmas Eve!  It’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more.  For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be!”

 

Copyright © 2015 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

The Mysterious Death Of Svea Olson

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Everyone who knew Svea Olson said she had chosen the right career.  Svea was in her second year at St. Anthony’s School of Nursing.  Her roommate and patients all stated that Svea’s natural cheerfulness brightened up whatever room she entered.  Many of the bedridden patients at the hospital claimed that Svea had a special gift of bringing hope to those patients that had none.

Svea was busy with school but she always made time for her friends and family.  On Tuesday, September 18, 1923, Svea left St. Anthony for one of her regular visits to the family’s home on 9th Street.  Her parents, John and Maria Olson were well known in the Rockford Community.  They moved to Rockford in 1896 from Sweden.  John first obtained employment in the furniture factories before he and Maria opened the Olson Restaurant on 14th Avenue.

The visits with Svea’s family always passed too quickly and she seemed reluctant to leave that night.  Her sister offered to walk with her to the 7th Street car line and the girls chatted on the way.  Svea caught the 7th Street car and turned around to smile and wave goodbye to her sister, neither of them knowing it would be the last time they would see each other.

Later that evening at around 10 p.m., the staff at St. Anthony was startled by a man walking into the emergency department carrying a woman in his arms.  They questioned him about his name and the identity of the girl but he had no answers for them.  They grabbed the girl to transfer her onto a gurney and the man fled.

The girl was beyond all help and she was pronounced dead immediately.  The staff recognized her as one of the student nurses and an investigation into her last hours began.  Svea roomed at the nurse’s quarters and her fellow students were questioned.  They all stated that Svea had no enemies or boyfriends.  She was a dedicated daughter and student that spent her time with family or on her studies.

Coroner Fred C. Olson worked hard to determine the cause of Svea’s death.  There was no trace of drugs, poison, or liquor in her stomach or blood.  Her family reported that she had some issues with heart palpitations but nothing that was of any concern.  The 24-year-old girl had no marks or other signs to indicate violence.  The doctors and investigators were completely baffled by her death.

Police pleaded with the public for some information into the identity of the man in the car.  Several witnesses stepped forward to say they saw a car matching the description the St. Anthony staff had given.  They stated they saw the car stop alongside women that were walking in the area of 7th Street.  They couldn’t hear the conversation but saw the women shaking their head as if declining an offer for a ride.

Family members and friends all were certain that Svea would never accept a ride from a stranger.  The investigation into the death ground to a complete halt very quickly.  The police and coroner worked on the theory that Svea had been picked up in the car and some struggle had occurred that resulted in her death.  The family was left with only questions and no relief for their loss.

Svea’s funeral was on September 22, 1923 in her family’s home on 9th Street.  Over 2,000 people came through the house to pay their respects.  Over 1,000 traveled to the Scandinavian Cemetery for the graveside service.

Finally, in late November of 1923 police got a break.  Robert Wells came forward to testify that he was walking in the neighborhood on that night in September when he spotted a man in a car matching the description given.  The unidentified man pulled his car to the curb on East State Street just past the intersection of 7th Street.  He then jumped out and ran to the sidewalk where a figure was on the ground.  Wells approached the man to see if he could offer assistance.  The man asked Wells to help him get the girl to the car.  The rescuer stated that he saw the young lady collapse.  He offered to drive the unconscious girl to St. Anthony Hospital where she would receive medical assistance.  Wells helped the man place the girl into the car and watched him drive away.

The police and coroner decided that Wells was telling the truth and filed Svea’s death as natural though they never found the exact cause of her death or the man who brought her to the hospital.  They stated that she probably suffered issues with her heart even though they found no damage during the autopsy.  The family would never know what happened to this beautiful, young girl who gave so much to everyone she knew.

 

Copyright © 2015 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events