Everyone loves a good ghost story, whether it's reading a Stephen King novel, going to haunted houses come October or watching scary movies. There's just something about that fear factor that intrigues us. Maybe it's the underlying reminder of how vulnerable we really are. Perhaps it's just fun to jump and scream while enjoying other's discomfort as well. Ghost stories have embedded themselves in our culture, from being told around the campfire, to frightening kids on a dark and stormy night. While those of us who have grown up in Peoria are familiar with local legends, I would like to refresh your memory and for some readers, frighten you with our most popular local ghost stories.
Peoria is not only the largest city on the Illinois River, but one of the oldest settlements in "The Land of Lincoln." Our history dates as far back as 10,000 BC, when several large Native American tribes resided in the river valley. The village of Peoria was seeded in the early 1700's, and by 1845, had a population of over 7,400 people. In fact, Peoria grew so much by the time the Civil War began in 1861 that two military training camps were established here. Out of our enlisted, five-hundred and two lost their lives. Many of these deceased were later interred at Soldier's Hill in Springdale Cemetery.
By 1872 Peoria's population had tripled with 22,850 residents. As the early products Peoria produced involved corn or corn products unsurprisingly, whiskey distilleries sprang up. This mass production of alcohol lead to us having the designation as the "Whiskey capital of the world." In fact, it was primarily this whiskey that brought Peoria and the Peoria area it's wealth. Whiskey barons built many of the elaborate mansions that still line Moss Ave and High St to this day. Of course, unsavory characters soon found a comfortable place to set up in town as well. Gambling joints and bars dotted the downtown area, as well as many brothels.
Unfortunately, when the Prohibition ended, the majority of the wealth and prosperity the whiskey era had brought us ended as well, until Caterpillar; Keystone and Altorfer came along, in addition to our various theaters in which many Vaudeville stars and movie actors preformed . In fact, the infamous phrase "Will it play in Peoria" was coined during the Vaudeville era. This was due to Peoria being universally acknowledged in the theater world and if a production did well here, then it would certainly be a success elsewhere. Even today, that remains true as Peoria is a popular testing ground for new products. Through the efforts of our ancestors, this city has grown into the bustling metropolis it is today.
Reasonably, with all of the whiskey; drugs, gambling, and women, there were disputes. Some were settled legally while others resulted in lives being lost. Bernie Shelton, of the Shelton Gang, was a victim of such foul play. Of course, this city has seen its share of sorrow besides the occasional murder or domestic dispute. Lydia Moss Bradley founded Bradley University after the loss of all of her children, and then her husband. Entire families from the Peoria area were lost when the steamboat Columbia, sank just south of Pekin. We buried the majority of the deceased who had died in the Chatsworth train accident.
When serial rapist Gerald Thompson killed Mildred Hallmark in Springdale Cemetary, citizens demanded justice and weren't disappointed. St. Francis is the oldest hospital in our city, and some of Peoria's residents believe that former nuns still faithfully go about their duties. Rumors still abound regarding ill-treated patients and questionable medical procedures at the Peoria State Hospital in Bartonville. Many residents are familiar with the Pere Marquette's recent renovation, although they may not know what may linger in the hallways of the hotel. Most locals will recall the eight unfortunate victims of Larry Bright. What is truth and what is simply a tall tale will be at your discretion, of course. I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into Peoria's past, and will join me next time for "Counting our Losses."