It takes a little bit to get used to a new house.
Houses make noises. Furnaces kick on, air conditioners start up, floors creek, windows rattle. When you first move in, these are all familiar sounds, but the house is still unfamiliar. It’s new and a little strange, and the wind might make a slightly different noise as it blows across the gutters.
History can be like that, too.
Research is a familiar thing to many of us, whether we know it or not. If we don’t something, we know to ask questions. Normally, these go along the usual route: who, what, why, when, where, and how. If you’re able to answer all of those, then you’re going to generally be in pretty good shape.
But memory and documentation are like giant, ethereal moths that eat away at the fine woven tapestry of history. People remember stories with a few extra details that never happened, or essential census records get burned in a courthouse fire. Just like clothes hanging in a forgotten closet, there can be vast holes chewed in the historical narrative.
In 1887, newspapers around Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa reported a fantastical story that allegedly took place in the city of Rock Island. The story caused quite the stir at the time because the wife of one Albert Ames claimed to be staying in a haunted house.
That August, newspapers reported that on Albert Ames and his wife moved into the house at 1428 4th Avenue in Rock Island. All we know is what the newspapers tell us: Mr. Ames travelled around a lot for his job. We don’t know what he did, just that he wasn’t home much of the time. This left his wife home alone a lot of the time.
Existing records help little in showing who these people were. We have no idea where they came from, or how Albert earned his money exactly. They don’t even show his wife’s name, which leaves us no choice but to call her Mrs. Ames.
The first few weeks in the house went fine for Mrs. Ames. She was probably used to being on her own, and no doubt gradually began becoming accustomed to the noises her new home made as it settled and creaked.
And then, all of a sudden, she started hearing strange sounds in the middle of the night. It sounded like someone was moving stealthily through other rooms in the house. There would be soft footsteps, like someone stepping lightly on the balls of their feet, followed by loud crashes that sounded like someone was tearing down the walls.
Mrs. Ames must have been a brave woman, because for the first few nights she heard them, she just put up with them. She told herself that the noises were nothing out of the ordinary; just the wind banging a shutter against the side of the house. It made sense. There was a rational explanation, and that meant it was just a new noise to get used to.
These sounds would startle Mrs. Ames in the middle of the night, but any loud noise in a silent room can do that. But they kept happening, and in spite of making perfectly good sense, Mrs. Ames couldn’t find anything that could have logically made those sounds. Not only that, the noises occurred when there was no wind and it was dead calm outside. It was getting harder to apply a rational explanation to things.
One night, as Mrs. Ames walked through the house, she was surprised to see a man standing in one of the bedrooms. Several feeling must have swept through her as the adrenaline started to course through her body. Mrs. Ames had an intruder in her home, and she to deal with it by herself.
Ames immediately started talking to the individual, probably wanting to know who he was. The man simply stood there, saying nothing. It was as if someone had placed a statue wearing a man’s clothes in the middle of one of her bedrooms.
As she spoke to the stranger, she noticed that the man was gone. Mrs. Ames hadn’t seen him leave. It was almost as if he had just vanished, like smoke in the wind.
After that initial encounter, Mrs. Ames began to hear the noises more often. Much more disturbingly, she also began to see the mysterious man more frequently. Although he was seen in different areas of the house, he would appear most often in the room where she had first laid eyes on him.
The next the article says is that Mrs. Ames was discussing this matter with a neighbor, and an obvious question presents itself: why didn’t she get out of there and find help?
Had Mrs. Ames seen the man in her house and then get the neighbor? In 1887, the help of a neighbor was far closer than the help of the police, so it would make sense that she would go find one. But then, she apparently stayed in the house long enough to see the man multiple times in different rooms and to notice that the noises were happening more often.
The problem that we have here is that there is a hole chewed in the fabric where the answer was, and we can only conjecture. She might have gotten help and asked them to search the house, and no one was found. She could have done any number of things, but the truth is that we’ll never know what exactly she dd, or why.
But we do know that Mrs. Ames at least talked to the neighbors about her problem. She told them about the noises and described the man and what he did, including the disappearing act and that he always seemed to show up most often in that one bedroom.
The neighbor must have lived in the area for a little while, and told Mrs. Ames that the man she described was someone that they knew. The man used to live in the house before she and her husband moved in.
His name was Joseph P. Stroehle, and he been a tin worker and stove salesman. Although a relatively young man, he had become very ill.
In spite of that, Joseph stubbornly pushed on, and his condition gradually grew worse. Doctors said that his illness was terminal, but he refused to believe it. He had lived for as long as his will held out, but sheer determination can only carry a person so far. That past April, Joseph had finally passed away, and he was buried at Chippianock Cemetery a few miles away.
Mrs. Albert Ames had been seeing a dead man in her house. The neighbor told her that the room that he kept appearing in was the bedroom that he had died in.
News of the ghost spread quickly through the neighborhood. Like any good story, it made its way outward from there and into the surrounding city. Mrs. Ames’ ghost story had done the 1887 equivalent of going viral.
Neighbors who sat in the home with Mrs. Ames never saw the spirit themselves, but that’s not to say that they didn’t have experiences of their own.
Several people who walked through the home claimed to have heard the creeping footsteps and loud crashes in the house. One man who went through the house claimed that after he walked into a room and shut the door behind him, something started knocking on the door from the opposite side, in spite of the fact that no one had been there a moment before.
Several individuals from the area came to watch the house from the outside, clogging the street. One night, it was estimated that there was around 500 people watching the house, apparently just waiting to see the haunted house and maybe hoping to catch a glimpse of something supernatural.
Mrs. Ames continued to hear the noises and see Joseph Stroehle. One night, while talking with other people in her home, she suddenly let out a loud scream. She said that she had seen the ghost again, but no one else present did.
Finally, enough was enough. At least for a few nights, Mrs. Ames would not stay at her house. She also sent word to Albert, who was on business in Kansas City at that time, to come home. He did as fast as he could, and must have been surprised to see all the goings-on happening right outside his new house.
He allowed seven young men to stay in the house as a group, possibly in the hope that they would discover something that would explain the entire situation. If that’s what he was looking for, though, he must have been very disappointed. In spite of hoping for the best, the ghost never showed itself to them.
Soon, the excitement over the haunted house on 4th Avenue died down. There were other things to do, and better ways to occupy people’s time.
While there were almost definitely some people who believed in the whole story, others took a more skeptical approach. Not only did they not believe that the house was haunted, but they proposed that either Mrs. Ames was hallucinating or she was making the whole thing up.
Over one hundred years later, we’re not in any better a position that they were to make that determination. No definitive records or eyewitness accounts have been put forward that show that Mrs. Ames might have had some condition where she was prone to hallucinations, or been a habitual liar.
The ghost itself proves even more problematic.
Did the spirit of Joseph Stroehle haunt his former home? Had his desire to live been so strong that his spirit had lingered, still trying to cling to the life that it had lost? The answer to these questions is much more in the realm of philosophy rather than history. We know that Stroehle lived there and allegedly died there, as well as what he did for a living. But anything more than that is conjecture.
The proverbial moths have chewed holes into the historical narrative of this story. We know what we know, and it’s quite possible that we will never know anymore. Even if records were to be found, the question must be asked if we would ever understand as much as we would like.
As much as we’d like to understand the true nature of ghosts and hauntings, we just plain don’t. We conjecture, and we estimate, and we philosophize, but at the end of the day, we have to take what we have and do the best we can with it.
Sometimes, history is the same way. No matter how many records, family stories, or documents are floating around the wide world, we don’t’ always get the ones we need. Just like a ghost story, sometimes we have to take what we know and try to cover a big gap in our knowledge and understanding the very best way that we can.
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United States Federal Records
Rock Island, Illinois, City Directories
Ancestry.com. Illinois, County Marriage Records, 1800-1940 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
Ancestry.com. Illinois, Wills and Probate Records, 1772-1999 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. //
Rock Island’s Ghost. Evening Democrat-Gazette, 8/10/1887
Stroehle’s Spirit. Rock Island Argus, 8/9/1887
Removal. Rock Island Argus, 3/15/1887