THE DECATUR GHOST SCARE OF 1903
A recent blog delved into the mystery of the phantom that preyed on the people of O’Donnell Heights, a neighborhood in Baltimore, in 1951. [click here to see the “Horror of the Heights”] I’ve always had an affinity for weird stories of “phantom attackers,” which arrive to terrorize a neighborhood or community and then abruptly vanish without a trace. It’s possible that my fascination with such tales stems from stories that I heard about the “Mad Gasser of Mattoon” when I was growing up. Mattoon, Illinois was less than an hour away from me and the story was once from the not so distant past. But the “Mad Gasser” was not the only phantom attacker from my neck of the woods. Even my hometown of Decatur had its own mysterious figure, who wreaked havoc for one week of sheer terror in November 1903.
It began on November 13, and for the next week; fear gripped the city of Decatur, Illinois. According to reports, a chilling apparition in a black robe, with a veil covering its face and “awful eyes that burned like fire” began terrorizing the residents of the city’s west side. Some claimed the unknown monster it was a man dressed in women’s clothing while others swore that it was a demon from hell. Whatever the creature was, it generated a panic in Decatur like nothing that had ever occurred before.
The first sighting occurred on Tuesday night. A young lady was walking alone along West Wood Street when a black-shrouded phantom appeared from between two houses near Union Street. The “black ghost,” as it was later dubbed, came quickly toward her and she began to scream. Just at that moment, a carriage drove out of a nearby barn and the creature fled. The young woman reported the incident to the police, who assumed that it was nothing more than a prank – until more sightings began to be reported on the West Side. More black ghost appearances were noted, on West Main Street, West Wood and along Pine Street. Who, or what, this specter might be was unknown, but it terrified people as it lurched from the shadows and then vanished without a trace.
News of the ghost quickly spread throughout the city. Sightings were reported in the newspapers and the phantom became a heated topic of conversation in restaurants, saloons, barbershops, billiard halls and schools. The police admitted to being perplexed by the weird sightings and the average people in the city were intrigued – and a little unnerved.
Two additional black ghost encounters took place on November 14 when dozens of people were out looking for the monster. The first occurrence took place during the early evening hours when a young man called the police from a grocery store on the West Side, claiming that he had seen the black ghost. Although the caller never gave his name, the authorities took the call seriously and dispatched two officers to the store. The witness left before the officers arrived and a search of the neighborhood revealed nothing out of the ordinary.
Millikin University on Decatur's West Side in 1903
Henry Ray, a student at Millikin University, was out that evening, having taken a streetcar from the college to a downtown theater. He stayed late and the streetcars had stopped running before he needed to return to Millikin. Content to travel on foot, he had reached Haworth Avenue when he told police that he encountered the black ghost crouching in the shadows along the north side of the street. The creature appeared to have a club in its hands and when it saw Ray walking alone, it got up and started toward him. Ray said that he first thought he would confront the ghost, but then he changed his mind and began to run south on Haworth Avenue. He claimed that the creature had chased him as far as Dr. Lonergan’s home on West Decatur Street and then had disappeared.
The ghost returned again on November 15. Fred Travis and Dell Hooey, two young men who worked for the Chicago, Bloomington & Decatur freight house, encountered it on North Monroe Street, just north of the Cerro Gordo Street intersection. The two men were on their way home from the freight house around 8:30 p.m. They had just turned north from Cerro Gordo on the east side of Monroe and were about halfway to the railroad tracks when they met the specter. They were busy talking to one another when it appeared and startled them both.
“There it is,” Hooey shouted to his friend. “Let’s find out what it is!”
The young men’s description of the creature matched what had been reported by other witnesses. It was black from head to foot and was draped in apparel that was like that of a nun, except that the face was covered by a black veil. Its motion was not like that of a person walking, but rather a gliding movement, as if on wheels or rollers. Travis later stated that it seemed to have a shiny object, like a fork or small rake, in its right hand. Its other arm was folded across its chest, hunching the monster’s broad shoulders.
Both of the men gave chase to the ghost. Travis, who had recently placed for a semi-professional baseball team, was regarded as one of the fastest men in the city. Regardless, the ghost easily outpaced them. Travis had been carrying a board with him, which he planned to take home and burn in his stove, but when he saw the ghost was getting away, he hurled the board at it. He was sure that if the phantom had been a material being, the board would have hit it. Instead, it passed through the ghost and fell to the sidewalk. Moments later, he said, the specter disappeared.
Later that same night, a man named Theodore Fowler also encountered the black phantom, this time on West Decatur Street. He was in the 900 block, walking east on the north side of the street at about 10:30 p.m., when he saw a black-shrouded figure appear ahead of him. It glided along for about a half block and then abruptly vanished. This convinced him that the figure had been a ghost.
By this time, the stories of black ghost sightings were sweeping through the city and the people of the West End, especially women, were becoming terrified. Many of them were too scared to leave their homes at night but, unfortunately, even staying indoors was not enough to protect them from visitations from the ghost. The phantom appeared at the residence of Elmer Wood at 1120 West Macon Street on November 16. Three young women from Millikin University, who were boarding at the house for the school year, were talking and having a good time in the parlor. They heard a noise on the front porch and one of them went to the door to see who was there. When she looked through the glass, she let out a bloodcurdling scream. The black ghost was lurking on the front porch with its veiled face pressed to the glass of the front door. At the sound of the scream, the phantom fled from the porch and went straight across the street to a house on the other side. It rattled the doorknob with great ferocity and when the woman of the house came to the door, she saw it and ran away screaming. The black ghost vanished into the darkness.
Later that same night, Mrs. Jake Lehman was terrified by the creature near her home on West Macon Street. She had walked to a nearby store on an errand and was on her way back home when the ghost appeared from the shadows. She let out a scream and the creature chased her all of the way home. She burst through the door and fell down, much to the surprise of her family. “I was so badly frightened,” she later said, “that I was hardly able to tell what was the matter.” Someone looked out the window and saw the black ghost, which hurried past the house and then disappeared.
These were not the last sightings on this night. Edward Freemont spotted the black ghost sliding along North Monroe Street and then two young women, who were walking home from church in the 300 block of West Decatur Street, also saw the phantom. It was standing in a yard a short distance away from them and as they approached, it turned and floated around the corner of a house without a making a sound. Although it made no threatening gestures, or chased them, as it had so many others, the girls were terrified and immediately ran home and called the police.
By November 17, the city was in a frantic state. Plainclothes police officers were put on patrol on the West Side, looking for any sign of the black ghost. They didn’t track down the creature, but they did give stern words of warning to several pranksters, who thought it would be fun to dress up in a black overcoat and jump out and scare people. Unsure of what to make of the sightings that could not be explained away, police officials dismissed the ghost as a female “morphine fiend” who went crazy when she couldn’t obtain her drugs. Of course, this failed to explain the mysterious disappearances of the creature or how a board could be thrown at the “morphine fiend” and pass through her as if through thin air.
The people of Decatur were convinced that a real ghost was in their midst and search parties were organized to try and track the monster down. Early in the evenings, crowds of men and boys could be found in every part of the West End. Eldorado and Monroe streets were thoroughly searched. All of the search parties went armed with sticks and clubs, apparently hoping to thrash the ghost if they managed to catch it. They roamed the streets and alleys for most of the night, shouting and laughing to one another. The only thing these “ghost hunters” managed to find was trouble since sleeping residents began reporting their behavior to the police around midnight.
But not every ghost hunting party was made up of local ruffians and teenagers. Dr. L.E. Conradt and about twenty members of the respected Iroquois Club took up the search for the black ghost. They armed themselves with clubs and went all over the West Side of town, exploring behind signs, down fence rows, in orchards and down alleys. They searched for more than two hours but were unable to find anything that resembled the phantom.
No additional sightings of the black ghost occurred on November 18, although the search parties were still out on the hunt. The people of Decatur remained on edge and women were still terrified. In fact, they were so scared that talk of the ghost was blamed for two women almost burning themselves to death. A Mrs. M.M. McDonald of Stonington was spending the night of November 18 with her friend, Mrs. Gates, who lived at 531 North Monroe Street. The ladies were alone in the house, reading about the ghost sightings in the newspaper and talking about the mysterious creature, and had become very nervous by bedtime. When they retired, they placed a lighted lamp on a chair beside the bed so that they could see which way to run in case the ghost decided to call during the night.
Around 2:00 a.m., Mrs. McDonald awoke and found that her nightdress was on fire. The lamp had somehow tipped over and had set fire to the sheets. She screamed and awoke Mrs. Gates, who managed to get her into the bathroom, soak her with water, and put out the fire. Her friend’s sleeve had been burned away and her arm was badly scorched. Meanwhile, the bed itself was still on fire and Mrs. Gates managed to wrestle the bed covers into the bathtub and extinguish the flames. The fire department was summoned, but the blaze was already out. Dr. F.M. Anderson arrived to dress Mrs. McDonald’s wounds and pronounced that both women were very lucky. Needless to say, the whole incident was blamed on the black ghost.
The ghost might have been at the Gates house “in spirit,” so to speak, but it was certainly not making its presence known anywhere else. After the rash of ghost hunting parties, which started on November 17, no sightings of the ghost were ever reported again. Whoever, or whatever, the creature had been, it had apparently left Decatur for good, never to return. The excitement over the “ghost attacks” subsided and the wandering gangs of ghost hunters soon found other things to do. Eventually, the Decatur Ghost Scare was largely forgotten.
Who, or what, was this strange creature? Was the black ghost merely a prankster who entertained himself by scaring people on Decatur’s West Side and then decided to give up the joke when too many people started looking for him? Or was the specter really just that: a genuine supernatural being? It’s certain that we can blame at least some of the sightings on the hysteria that swept through the city that long ago November, but can we dismiss them all? How do we explain the rational accounts of a ghost that disappeared without explanation, or the thrown board that passed through it?
The mystery of the black ghost will likely never be solved, but it certainly managed to establish Decatur as a weird and haunted place, even back in 1903.
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