'Black Ghost' of the Culver Mansion May 18, 2017 9:44:02 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on May 18, 2017 9:44:02 GMT -5
‘Black Ghost’ of the Culver Mansion
DECATUR, Ill. – Florence Culver and her husband John were sitting down to dinner on a late-fall evening in 1903 when Florence was frightened into hysterics by what she saw come out of the fireplace.
According to Lynn Potter of the Historic Decatur Foundation, the story of what scared Florence in her home at 412 W. Prairie Ave. was passed down for years in the family’s oral history. “She saw this black apparition,” Potter said. “It floated across the room, through the wall, into the kitchen and then it disappeared. The next morning, she insisted her husband have the fireplace bricked up to keep whatever it was from coming down the chimney again.”
Mrs. Culver wasn’t the only Decatur resident who encountered the dark entity in November of 1903, she was just the first. In fact, for a week, Decatur – particularly the West End – was terrified by a veiled black figure carrying a stick, or baseball bat. Some believed the being was supernatural; others claimed it was someone in costume.
There are many stories of hauntings in Decatur, but few have received as much attention as the “black ghost,” which has been reported as far back as 1880. The apparition was described in the Nov. 14, 1903, Decatur Herald as a “creeping thing with awful eyes which burn like fire, the face of the terrible creature covered with a veil, adding to the frightful appearance of this ghastly something, bringing forth screams from the unaccompanied ladies of the west end of the city as they go to their homes.”
“I’m really not sure what the black ghost was,” Potter continued. “But the Culvers weren’t the only ones who saw it, so there was definitely something going on.”
The Herald reported that some thought it might have been a man dressed in women’s clothing, but several witnesses noted: “The eyes are most fiery and piercing,” and that a veil fell over the head. The following night, the figure was seen, “peeping into the windows and prowling the bushes.” Groups of young men took to the streets in search of the entity, but nothing was found.
Black ghost fervor reached its peak Nov. 16. After having terrorized the west side, the black ghost moved east. According to the Herald: “The black ghost. That is all the people are talking about, it is the one thing that men, women and children fear, and it is now even concerning the police. The wildest run ever made by the patrol wagon occurred last night and it was because the officers were after the ghost. The black horses hitched to the black covered wagon dashed into the blackness of East Eldorado at a rate of speed that was terrific, all in order to catch the black ghost.”
In addition to its police chase down East Eldorado, the ghost was almost cornered by some “railroad boys” at Martin’s Restaurant (604 N. Jasper St.), and people all over the east side of town reported tapping at their windows, knocks at their doors and other mysterious sounds. A girl named Lulu Williams, “18 and drunk,” was brought in under suspicion. She was quoted as saying: “Am I the black ghost? Of course I am. I am the one who has been scaring all these people and tonight I am drunk. I am glad that you have got me arrested for the ghost.”
The most detailed sighting came from Fred Travis and Del Hooey, employees of CH&D freight house, at 6:20 p.m., just north of the intersection of Monroe and Cerro Gordo. “Hooey and I were about halfway between Cerro Gordo Street and the railroad, on Monroe, when we saw an odd figure in front of us and coming in our direction. The thing that attracted my attention was the fact that the figure did not have the motion of a man walking, but seemed to glide along. Then I noticed that the face was covered with what seemed to be a black veil. Hooey and I at once concluded it was the ghost and we ran forward. The man or woman or whatever it was turned and ran the other way. When it moved north from us, it still had that motion of gliding. I had a piece of board in my hand that I was taking home for kindling and I threw that at the figure but didn’t hit it. Just then the figure disappeared and I don’t know if it turned the corner and went out on the Wabash right-of-way or if it turned into a yard there. At any rate we could not find it and we made a search.” According to Travis, the ghost was 5-foot-9 with broad shoulders and wore a nun’s habit with a veil. It was holding a stick 18-inches-long.
Decatur police chief Daniel Sullivan was skeptical of the ghost tales. He said the original ghost had been a woman trying to catch her husband with another woman and that after the original had accidentally frightened a couple people and the newspaper made mention of it, others, he claimed, took advantage of the ghost scare and went out to have some fun. Still, Sunday and Monday night, the entire police force patrolled the outskirts in hope of catching the elusive phantom.
Though there were sightings in Warrensburg, then Assumption, Oakland and Edinburg during the following year, the black ghost disappeared from Decatur. Maybe it was the chiding editorial that appeared in the Herald of Nov. 19, 1903: “Of course there is no ghost or anything except some idiot or crank trying to frighten people as alleged fun. He should be suppressed and the public should come to its senses.” Or maybe it got too commercial. On Nov. 23, the Central Union Telephone girls enjoyed a ghost party at the home of Miss Benitta Livingston on South Walnut. A couple months later, members of Post KTPA (the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal order) threw a ghost party at the K of P Hall in the Powers block. It was called the “Reception of the Black Ghost” and after all had arrived, the black ghost was introduced. Then there was dancing, cards, popcorn, taffy and apples. By that time, the black ghost had become a joke, but it’s at least a little creepy that similar supernatural sightings occurred 23 years earlier.
In the early days of the Herald, the Dec. 31, 1880, edition featured the headline: “A ghost.” The story described several black citizens of Decatur near St. Peter’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, 515 S. Church St., who saw a, “huge, dark object, darker than the darkest night” that “bore the general appearance of a gigantic man, headless and armless, and it moved swiftly, though it did not walk.” A great number of people claimed to have seen the phantom, even Macon County Board of Supervisors Commissioner Houston Singleton. Many believed it to be the spirit of Isiah Barrister, who had been murdered by Mike Hackett four years earlier. The ghost appeared in various shapes. At times it wore the garb of a man, and other times a shroud. It caused enough of a stir that – as happened in 1903 – a large group of men stood watch with “pistols, boomerangs and shillelaghs,” ready in case they saw something. It was later noted that the appearance of the black ghost coincided with the disappearance of Frank McKinley’s chickens, which had prompted the interest of the police.
The 1880 incident happened just before construction began on the Culver House. Those involved in the restoration of the old mansion fpr the last 17 years have never seen a black ghost, but many of have heard strange noises. “It’s obviously haunted,” said Historic Decatur Foundation member Joyce Rhodes. “I know people have seen lights and orbs.”
While construction began on the house in 1881, it wasn’t finished until after John Culver purchased the residence in 1901. In the 1950s, the house was converted into apartments, but by the 1970s, it had fallen into disrepair. There was a murder in the Culver House in 1988 and two people committed suicide in the old dwelling. Potter claimed the house was built on “Indian burial ground.”
However, to this day, no one has been able to explain what came out of the Culver House fireplace in the fall of 1903.
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Save the Culver Mansion. The 128-year-old, red-brick, twin-turreted, Queen Anne-style mansion was on the demolition list as far back as 1980, and from 1994 to 1999, it seemed an inevitability that the magnificent old edifice would be razed. A museum has been in the plans for 17 years now, but there’s still a lot of money to be raised and work to be done before this becomes a reality. “We need trim work, we need plumbing – we need access to water,” Kim Aukamp said. “We need a handrail. We need tuck pointing, because the previous work didn’t hold up.
The Culver House restoration is in dire need of donations of money and time. Anyone interested in offering money or helping out with work at the Culver House should call Kim Aukamp at the Wabash Depot (217) 233-0800. The foundation is looking for volunteer plumbers, painters and anyone handy or willing to donate their time.
Source: Justin Conn, The Decatur Herald & Review, April 20, 2017, & May 9, 2017.