Historians are keepers of the stories of the dead. I suppose it only makes sense that they would cross paths every so often.
Although I’ve had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, I’ve rarely sought it out per se. Sure, I’ve been on a lot of haunted walking tours and even played with a Ouija board a few times when I was younger, but for the most part I never went looking for it. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come looking for you sometimes.
Over the years, I’ve amassed a private collection of stories of experiences that I cannot explain. Some of these are my own, while others are from friends and family. I’ve found that the paranormal, like so many things in life, has a lot more impact when it happens closer to home than to some stranger half a world away.
So please, take a seat. Make yourself comfortable. It’s Halloween, and I have a few stories for you.
When I was going to college at Iowa State University, a few friends and I were talking about dreams.
I had just read a book by a famous psychic at the time, and he had claimed that sometimes the dead visit us in our dreams. While other psychics have also made that claim, this particular author defined it a little better.
Just having a dream about a loved one didn’t necessarily mean that they had come to visit you. That could just be some subconscious junk floating around your brain. However, if you had a dream that was incredibly clear and vivid, almost like you were right there, then it could very likely be someone coming to visit you.
When I finished explaining all of this to my friends, one of them looked thoughtful for a moment, then started telling me a story.
He said that, when he was in high school, a friend of his had a very strange dream.
In it, he was riding around with his grandfather, who had passed away. They just drove around and talked about different things – nothing weird or bizarre like you get with some dreams. What struck him as odd though was the kind of car that it was. It was something cooler, something that he would have never thought his more pragmatic grandfather would have ever driven.
When he woke up, the dream stuck with him.
A while later, the friend was talking with his dad when he remembered the dream he had.
He began telling his dad about it and said that it seemed really normal except for the part about that car. He laughed, saying that his grandfather would have never driven a car like that.
Instead of laughing along, the dad stayed quiet. After a few moments, the friend asked what the matter was. His dad said that, in actuality, the grandfather had owned a car exactly like the one from the dream, down to every detail. The grandfather had loved the car but had decided to get rid of it when he had started to have a family.
Did the grandfather visit the grandson after his death? Did he decide to come back and take him for a ride in his beloved car? I have no idea.
But what I do know is that I was very close with my own grandfather. He passed away when I was only sixteen, but he definitely made a life-long impression on me.
Ten years later, when I was on my honeymoon, I had a dream.
I was sitting at the kitchen table with my grandfather in his old house. I knew he was dead, and the house had been demolished, but there we were, talking like he hadn’t been in the ground for a decade. I don’t remember what we said, but I remember having a good time, and how much alike we were.
Almost twenty years later, I still remember that dream like it just happened. I can almost feel it as I sit here talking about it now.
Maybe my grandfather came to visit me that night. Maybe it was just a really weird dream that’s stuck with me. Personally, I like to think that it was him coming to wish me well.
In 2002, my dad and I took a trip to Mount Carmel Cemetery just outside of Chicago, Illinois. Managed and maintained by the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, Mount Carmel is a huge, sprawling cemetery full of famous characters from both local and national history.
Arguably, Mount Carmel is perhaps best known as being the final resting place for several Prohibition-era gangsters from Chicago history, including Al Capone. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that dad and I went there to see those graves.
The first one that we found was the Capone family plot, just inside the cemetery entrance.
One of the things that strange people like myself – and more than a few historians, mind you – do is get our pictures taken at gravesites. This was the closest that you’re probably ever going to be to the mortal remains of these people, so it only seems appropriate. It’s like getting your picture taken with a rockstar you run into at Starbuck’s or something, only a lot more morbid.
I was in my mid-twenties at the time, and I had already been in more graveyards than I could count. Growing up, I’d spent countless hours going through them with my dad. My uncle’s house was right next to a cemetery, and my cousins and I used to go and play among the tombstones. Suffice it say, they didn’t bother me, and the certainly didn’t freak me out.
But, as I stood there, I began to get this really strange feeling.
It’s hard to describe, but the best I can say is that I started to feel almost unwelcome. It was like my presence there was being tolerated, but not enjoyed.
At first, I thought that it was just my imagination playing tricks. I chalked it up to me being a little tired and that had started to creep up on me and influence me a little. But the feeling persisted, and try as I might, I couldn’t shake it.
The next grave we visited was Dion O’Banion, leader of the North Side Gang and a direct rival to Capone’s South Side Gang. It was fun to stand there and imagine his funeral, the first of the giant Outfit funerals of that era full of elaborate floral arrangements and thousands of people crowded into the cemetery to pay their final respects.
But still, there was that feeling. I was almost shocked. I’d never been in a cemetery where I felt so unwelcome. And for no reason!
I felt silly. I didn’t understand where this feeling was coming from, or why I couldn’t get rid of it. But from grave to grave, from picture to picture, I was being tolerated.
What was stranger to me was this feeling that something was demanding me to be respectful. Make no mistake, I’m very respectful in cemeteries anyway, but this time, that taken up a few notches. It was like I was hosting a foreign diplomat, and any kind of untoward behavior would be acceptable.
Dad and I finished our tour, and I was back in central Iowa a day or two later.
I had started to see someone around that time, and I told her about our trip. I hadn’t looked through the pictures that we had taken yet, so I asked if she wanted to take a look at them with me. She agreed, I loaded the program, and we began to shuffle through them, taking breaks here and there so I could explain who some of these people were.
Eventually, we came to the photos of the Genna Brothers mausoleum.
The Genna Brothers were Chicago bootleggers, and a few of them had died very violent deaths during that era. Their mausoleum had two benches out front, each flanking the sidewalk leading up to it.
Dad had sat on the bench on the left to get his picture taken, and I had taken two or three shots in quick succession to make sure I got a good one.
When we were there, it was a cold, clear day. The sun eventually came out and brightened things up. In the first picture I had taken, it shows that.
But in the next photo, on the bench directly across from dad, is a misty form that is human shaped. In nearly a hundred photos that we took that day within the span of about an hour did we get any other phenomenon that looked remotely misty. Just in that one picture.
I sat there, staring at the screen, trying to let my mind accept what I was already thinking. After a moment, the girl I was with said, “It looks like you got a ghost picture!”
After another moment I agreed.
I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to accept that, but there was no other explanation that I could come up with. And it did explain the strange feeling that I had that day.
Maybe the spirits of those long-dead gangsters were there, tolerating my presence and yet making it be known that I had better be respectful. And maybe one of them just couldn’t help but get their picture taken with one of us.
I honestly don’t know what it was in the photo, or why I felt the way that I did that day. All I know is that in the twenty years since I visited Mount Carmel, I’ve spent countless hours looking at graves of murdered people, criminals, and untimely, violent deaths. Not once have I ever felt that way again.
About a year later, my dad called me. He wanted to take another trip up to Chicago, this time to the Queen of Heaven cemetery and mausoleum, which sits right next to Mount Carmel.
Unfortunately, I had to turn him down because I was busy at the time. Not only that, after my last experience there. I was in no hurry to go back.
A few weeks later, I saw him and asked him how his trip went. He told me that he didn’t find the person that he was looking for, but he certainly found something else.
He was thinking that the individual he was looking for was interred in the Queen of Heaven mausoleum, a huge, sprawling building that has something like 33,000 burials there.
When he went inside, the only other people he saw were a couple of older women who were visiting the grave of a loved one. They soon left, leaving him completely alone.
Off of the main halls, Queen of Heaven has rooms full of burial niches. The lights in those rooms were activated by motion sensors, so they stayed off until someone walked in the room.
As he wandered, Dad started hearing people talking. He told me that it sounded like a small party going on. Figuring that it was a funeral, he didn’t really pay it any mind.
As he looked, the talking got louder as he gradually came closer. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but he knew it was a group of people talking.
Soon enough, he realized it was coming from one of the side rooms. Thinking that it was most likely a funeral, Dad stayed quiet so as not to disturb them. As he walked past the doorway to the room, he came close enough to activate the motion sensor of the light inside.
The lights came on, and all of the talking stopped. As the deafening silence began to fall around him, Dad’s eyes began to search that small room. There was no one inside, and no other exit. It was completely empty, except, of course, for the dead.
In that moment, dad suddenly didn’t care about the person he had spent his afternoon looking for. He immediately walked out of the building, got in his car, and came back home. To the best of my knowledge, he’s never been back.
When I got out of college, I didn’t want my hard-earned research skills to deteriorate, so I took up genealogy as a hobby.
Not a lot was known about my maternal ancestors past my grandfather, so I dove in and began my study.
I soon discovered that my great, great grandfather, Otto, had two siblings that absolutely no one had known about. I was not only interested, but also very proud of myself, as I was probably the first family member to utter their names in over a century.
The youngest was Grace. She had passed away after a lingering illness when she was in her twenties. The next oldest, George, was a carpenter living in the Davenport, Iowa area.
He was working at a local company when a wooden plank he was walking across gave way, sending him plummeting some twenty feet or better to a concrete floor. A week later, he died of his injuries.
Grace, George, Otto, and two more siblings were sent back to Washington, Iowa – where they were all born and raised – to be buried in Elm Grove Cemetery.
. Knowing that they were all there, I really wanted to go to Washington myself and visit their graves. My dad was always up for a road trip, so I grabbed him and off we went.
Thanks to Google Maps and the miracle of modern technology, we were able to find both the town and the cemetery very quickly. As we drove through the town, I could see why my ancestors had all wanted to return there.
Washington is a pretty town, full of old houses and tall trees. It has a big town square, lined with historical buildings. Looking at it, it made me think that this is what all rural Midwestern small towns should look like.
Before too long, Dad and I arrived at the cemetery. It was very clean and well kept. We drove to the caretaker’s office, where he was kind enough to help us find the burial records. It turned out that all my relatives were buried in the same area, which wasn’t unusual or surprising. He had some work to do, so he asked a couple of the other employees to show us to the gravesite.
While they were very friendly and helpful, the two men weren’t sure where exactly the grave was. So, they took us to the section it was in, and wished us the best. While I was appreciative, I was also slightly frustrated. The section was huge. I knew that we were going to have to walk the section down.
For those of you who have never done this, let me take a moment to explain. You can either idle down the cemetery roads, scanning the names on the tombstones from your car window, or you can walk the rows of the cemetery section doing the same thing. Either way, it’s generally inefficient and very tedious.
It’s easy to miss the name and the tombstone, and that day was no exception. Despite our enthusiasm and experience, we came up empty.
I was disappointed. I wanted to see the ancestors, and I wasn’t sure when I would be able to make the trip back to Washington. Sadly, I got back in the car and we started to drive out of the cemetery.
When we had driven about halfway through the section, I suddenly got this strange sensation.
Have you ever had someone shout out to you very suddenly in a quiet place? There’s that sense of shock and surprise, and your senses come alive. Well, that was the exact feeling that I had right at that moment. I experienced every sensation to go along with someone calling out to me, but I never heard a sound.
Almost instinctually, my head snapped to the right, staring out the car window. And that’s when I saw it.
About ten feet away was a three-foot-tall headstone, made from gray granite. And there, plain as day, was the family name that we had been looking for.
I got out, took some pictures, spent some time with the relatives. Thanks to that odd little occurrence, I was able to confirm that they were all there. While I was pleased to have found it, that feeling was tinged with something a little colder.
I still couldn’t shake that feeling that someone had called out to me, like a friend trying to get your attention at a busy restaurant. And if it hadn’t of been for that, I wouldn’t have ever seen it.
Was it supernatural? I don’t honestly know. But sometimes I like to think that when I was reaching out to find out my ancestors, they were reaching back to meet me halfway.
Villisca is a sleepy town in southwest Iowa.
While there’s not much there now, it’s still full of the reminders of a much more prosperous and prestigious past. There are many beautiful and well-kept Victorian and Queen Anne houses, and the town square, the heart of the town, is comprised of turn of the century brick buildings that used to showcase the towns prosperity and wealth.
The town is quiet, not congested by noisy traffic speeding from one place to another. People still wave to strangers as they walk down the sidewalk.
It’s the last place in the world where you would have expected one of the most brutal murders in the state’s history to have occurred.
On a dark summer night in 1912, someone entered the home of Josiah Moore and his family. Josiah, his wife Sarah, their four children; Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul, and two friends of Katherine’s, Lena and Ina Stillinger, were murdered with an axe while they slept.
The killer – or killers – then took their time moving back around the house, covering the faces of all of their victims and draping cloths over every mirror in the home. Before dawn, they left their kerosene lantern on the floor at the top of the stairs and left, vanishing into the darkness.
The family was found the next day, and the investigation began.
The first major suspect was Frank Jones, a local businessman and an Iowa state Senator.
He and Moore had been rivals in the agricultural implement business, which had supposedly led to a deep, mutual animosity between the two men. Not only that, but Moore had also allegedly had an affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law, Dona.
Accusations were made and rumors swirled, the question of Jones’ guilt dividing the town, a rift that would last for years to come.
In spite of a massive effort to convict him, Frank Jones was found innocent, although at a high price. His political career was destroyed, and his personal reputation was permanently tarnished.
The next major suspect was a man named Lyn George Jacklin Kelly, a travelling preacher. Originally from England, Reverend Kelly, as he was more commonly known, had been in Villisca the night of the murders, even attending the Children’s Day services at the Moore’s church.
Kelly had turned in bloody clothes to be cleaned in a nearby town and had also been talking about how a murder had been committed in Villisca before the bodies in the Moore home had even been discovered.
Ater questioning Kelly multiple times, the preacher finally confessed. He said that he had been compelled by God to take an axe from outside the Moore home and use it to kill the family.
The evidence against Kelly wasn’t very strong, and he eventually recanted his confession. The first trial against Kelly resulted in a hung jury, and in a second one he was acquitted altogether.
Over the next several years, other potential suspects came and went. While some were more compelling than others, authorities couldn’t connect any of them strongly enough to the Villisca murders to bring them to trial for the deed.
The murders of Josiah Moore and his family, as well and Lena and Ina Stillinger, remain unsolved to this day.
The town moved on, and the rifts that had been caused in the aftermath of the murders slowly started to heal.
Many locals still remembered the murders, but very few were willing to openly talk about them, choosing only to talk about them in private away from prying ears. It was Villisca’s dark secret, better forgotten and lost to time.
But while the locals stayed quiet, the house itself still stood in mute reminder of that grisly night in 1912.
It had changed hands several times over the years and was even used as a rental property for a while. In the 1990’s, the notorious house was finally in danger of being torn down. That was when Darwin Linn, the owner of the Olson-Linn Museum in Villisca, stepped in and bought the property.
Darwin decided to renovate the house, returning it to the same condition as it was when the Moore’s had lived there. He and his wife, Martha, opened it as a museum, choosing to embrace the darkest part of the town’s history instead of trying to hide it.
Today, the museum is a tourist mecca for southwestern Iowa, with perhaps hundreds coming there from all over the country every year to see the infamous murder house for themselves. Some are drawn by the home’s dark past, individuals who want to see where the most infamous unsolved murder in Iowa history took place. Many others, however, are drawn by something more…intangible.
For years, stories of paranormal phenomena have surrounded the house. People have claimed to have heard voices and seen apparitions, seen objects move by themselves, as well as various other things over the years.
Many claim that the spirits of the children still linger in the house where their lives were cut so tragically short and interact with visitors.
Allegedly, one of their favorite things to do is to roll a playground ball back and forth across the floor between themselves and a visitor. To accommodate anyone who wanted to try this for themselves, the owners used to have inflatable plastic balls around the house.
While I don’t completely discount this phenomenon, I do believe that there are other explanations for it.
Many old houses all over the world have very uneven floors. There can be several reasons for this, including settling of the home over time, warped subflooring, or bending floor joists. It could even mean that the floor or house wasn’t built well to begin with, and the floor has always had a slight slope to it.
Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that some of the floors in the Villisca house have a gentle slope to them.
Theoretically, if someone were to push a ball on the upward slope of a floor, then gravity would cause the ball to roll back down the slope at the pusher. I’m not saying that this completely rules out supernatural origins being the cause behind all such phenomenon taking place there, but I would definitely contend that it explains some instances of it.
But however skeptical I may be, there was something that happened once that I cannot explain.
A few years ago, my dad calls me up and tells me that he has something to show me.
His family is originally from southwest Iowa, and he’s made several trips to the area over the years to do family history research. Because he’s been in the area so often, Dad has also made several visits to the Villisca murder house.
Curious, I ask him what it is. Dad explains that he had just made another stop at the murder house, and he wants me to take a look at something. I say I will, then grabbed my keys and headed over.
When I get to his place, Dad’s already in his office with his laptop booted up. With little to no pretense, he motions me over and begins to explain.
At that time, he was big into taking panoramic pictures. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the process, please allow me to explain.
The procedure is pretty much the same whether you’re outside or inside. You start at a given point, say a tree, or maybe a door frame. Then, turning steadily, you slightly overlap your camera’s field of vision with the first picture you took. Once you’re framed up the way you want, you take another picture. Then you keep turning, taking pictures in the same way until you’ve completed a full circle and come back to the first shot you took. Once you get the hang of it, the entire process usually takes less than a minute.
When you’re done, you download the pictures onto your computer and put them into a specialized program that blends all of them together. When it’s complete, you can, through a minor digital miracle, stand at a fixed point and take a complete 360 degree look around a given place, just like you were standing there yourself.
As we’re waiting for the program to start, Dad explains to me that he had decided to take some panoramic photos of the Villisca murder house for his own private use. Back then, the house wasn’t quite the tourist hotspot that it’s become, and when he arrived there wasn’t anyone else there in the house with him.
Dad decided to start in the living room. Looking around, he chose to use a chair as his starting point. Resting on the floor next to the chair was a very large, green, inflatable ball. That was the first picture.
Dad points the ball out to me and tells me to make a note of it. I do and he proceeds to begin moving forward through the photos.
Click, click, click.
Nothing extraordinary is going on. Same old-fashioned wallpaper, same furniture put into place where it roughly was when the Moore’s were murdered there in 1912.
Click, click, click.
Ten, fifteen seconds later we’re back to the first photograph.
“Do you see it?” he asks.
At first, I didn’t, and then when I did, it took me another moment to process what it was that I was seeing. But it was clear as day. The green ball had moved from the floor and into the chair.
I felt myself stretching for an explanation, some rational explanation as to how, or what, had moved the ball into the chair. My mind didn’t want to accept it.
Dumbfounded, I asked, “Do that again.” Dad obliged.
Click, click, click.
It was the same result. “Are you sure you were alone in the house?” I asked. He was sure. He had been completely alone, and the movement had been so subtle that he hadn’t even noticed that the ball had moved until he had been looking through the photos when he got home.
While my dad had turned in a tight circle that only took him about thirty seconds to complete, a ball had moved from the floor into the chair, seemingly by itself.
I was completely dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say. No settling or sloped floors were going to explain that.
To this day, I have no explanation for how that ball moved. Was it the ghost of the small children who were so brutally murdered in that house? Or was it something different, something darker, like some people claim?
Whatever it may be, I, for one, am more than content to let the ball keep its secrets.
Last year, in 2021, I decided to put on a small event in October. It was wall Uninvited Guests: Haunted Mansions of the QC. It focused on the history and folklore of the Quad Cities region of eastern Iowa and western Illinois.
I approached the owners of the Renwick Mansion, a former lumber baron’s home and current event and wedding venue, to see about doing it there. They were very open to the idea and were kind enough to allow me to host it there.
My concept was simple: I would tell ghost stories for about an hour, then the owners would take everyone on a tour of the mansion. Afterward, I held a book signing and meet and greet. To help me out, my wife and two oldest daughters came with me.
The presentation was held on the south side of the house in two large parlors. We jammed seventy-two people in there that night, with a little overflow into the hallway outside. As I regaled our guests with some of the haunted history of our region, my wife sat in a sitting room across the hall, trying to work the bugs out of a recently acquired computer program.
The room was largely empty except for a few chairs, a table with my books on it, and a piano and bench behind her.
As she sat working in the silence in the room, she heard the piano bench behind her slide across the wooden floor.
Thinking that it was our daughters, she turned around to tell them to stay quiet during the presentation. But they weren’t there. They were across the hall, listening to me. My wife was in the room by herself.
Suffice it to say I was more than a little surprised when I talked to her after my presentation, and she had a ghost story of her own to tell me!
While these aren’t all of my experiences, these are some of favorite stories from my personal collection.
Maybe they were caused by something supernatural, or maybe it was just my imagination. I always like to approach all of these kinds of experiences with a rational mind. I’d like to say that it was more open, but I don’t really allow my thoughts to wander until I can find no other explanation for what happened.
The one thing that I’ve learned from all of this is that, whether we seek it out or not, sometimes something reaches out to you from beyond. What the nature of those things are – rational or more esoteric – I leave for you to decide.
Whatever your conclusions may be, I hope that they leave your life a little more interesting for having considered it.