Stories for a full moon

Tonight Illinois and the rest of the nation will be lit by a full moon, which some believe can be a harbinger of strange occurrences. In thousands of years of Illinois history, it is not hard to find a good-sized collection of unusual and unexplainable places and events. Some of these curious tales and unique places have been studied and explored, while many of those which remain unexplained are compiled in Troy Taylor’s 2005 book Weird Illinois.

English spies?
The list of unidentified flying objects observed throughout history could (and does) fill several volumes. One of the most famous occurrences in Illinois concerned strange lights in the sky which were observed and tracked by several law enforcement officers in the three counties of the Metro-East area near St. Louis in 2000. But an even more unusual phenomenon was an airship that was observed across the country and throughout Illinois in 1897. First sightings were reported in California, but it was also reported in Washington, Nebraska and Kansas before showing up in Illinois.

The first Illinois sighting was reported in Evanston when around 500 people reported seeing an airship, “composed of two cigar-shaped bodies attached by girders.” A local newspaper speculated that the machine might be carrying “English spies.” Photos were reportedly taken by a local man named Walter McCann, but they were lost. Reports of sightings then began coming in from all parts of the state, outside Springfield and as far south as Mt. Vernon. Some of these reports even included accounts of conversations with passengers from the airship. A few days later, Illinois sightings stopped and Indiana sightings began, as the mysterious craft seemed to continue east across the country. It was never reported in Illinois again.

Along the Mississippi River in Jackson County just west of Carbondale, downriver from their more famous counterpart the Piasa Bird, are a series of ancient carvings on the sandstone rocks overlooking the river. Fountain Bluff’s petroglyphs have been studied for years, but no clear interpretation has ever emerged. Carvings of animals and humans, as well as symbols like those on the Rock of the Shaman, have led many to believe that ancient people carved the petroglyphs as part of a religious observance or initiation ritual, but no one really knows for sure.

Burrows’ mysterious cave
In southeastern Illinois’ Richland County a local man named Russell Burrows claimed he was hiking one day in 1982 when he fell into a small opening and discovered a cave rich with ancient relics and cave art. Those who have studied materials said to be from Burrows’ cave disagree over whether the find was legitimate or a hoax. The cave art and the words carved on stones from the cave don’t seem to follow any known language patterns, but a possible explanation is that they came from a language older than the ones we have studied today.

As for how the relics reached the Little Wabash valley, one theory is that they were carried there by ancient explorers who found the area by traveling up the Mississippi valley and placed them in the cave before they met their demise. Or not. The mystery isn’t likely to be solved any time soon.

The Chesterville witch
Chesterville was a small town in east-central Illinois which was home to an unusual woman whose name has been lost to history. An eccentric character, she challenged many of the shared views of her community until she was eventually branded as a witch and banished. She was found dead in a farmers’ field not long after, and many in the community flocked to the local funeral home to view the “witch’s” remains. When she was buried in the Chesterville cemetery, a tree was planted atop her grave to try to lock her spirit inside. But over the years there have been reported sightings of the “Chesterville Witch” in the surrounding area.

An assist from a ghost?
West of Galesburg Taylor and his friends checked out a story about bizarre happenings at a local bridge, but this time they found a plausible explanation. The legend was that a group of teenagers had been killed in a terrible car accident near a certain bridge in the area, and that if you drove onto the bridge and put your car in neutral, the ghosts of the teenagers would push it the rest of the way over.

With some local guides, Taylor found the bridge and stopped the car in the middle, only to feel the vehicle slowly but surely making its own way across until it was back on land. The thrilling mystery seemed to have been confirmed until further investigation with a carpenter’s level found an ever so slight grade in the bridge’s surface. This ghost story has an easy explanation, but many others, including stories about some other haunted bridges throughout the state cannot be so casually dismissed.

Plenty more mysteries still lurking
These are just a small sampling of the many mysterious happenings and stories throughout Illinois history. The state has been home to all kinds of strange stories, everything from the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the abandoned Meadowdale International Raceway in Carpentersville, an assortment of sasquatch-like monsters seen from one end of Illinois to the other, and many ghost stories tied to famous events like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and other, more obscure tales and local legends.

Whole books have been written about ghostly occurrences and other seemingly supernatural stories about Abraham Lincoln. Illinois has also been the setting of stories like the Demon Butcher of Palos Park, Hell Hollow near Decatur, Cave-in-Rock’s brutal outlaws, Devil’s Backbone and the nearby Devil’s Bake Oven. It is even suspected by some that the many disasters which have befallen Illinois’ first state capital city of Kaskaskia are the result of a curse placed on the town almost 300 years ago. These stories from across the centuries of Illinois history range from the interesting to the genuinely creepy.

Enjoy this evening’s full moon.