A city rich in history and scarred with strife, Peoria is a hot spot for supernatural activity.
Whether a bump in the night or a whisper in the wind, our minds are quick to shrug off startling sounds and happenings. We blame creaky floorboards, drafty windows, raucous pets, even our own forgetfulness. But what about that noise you can’t explain? Or that strange feeling you just can’t shake? Is there a logical explanation… or could it be a ghost?
A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll found that nearly half of Americans (45 percent) believe in ghosts, and close to a third profess to have personally been in the presence of one. Among the believers are a number of area residents who claim to have had a brush with the supernatural right here in their hometown. Inspired by these tales and local author Stephanie McCarthy’s book Peoria’s Haunted Memories, the Peoria Historical Society’s “Haunted Peoria” trolley tour offers passengers a rich account of Peoria’s tortured past and stories of strange phenomena that persist into the present.
Downtown’s Dark Past
Departing from the corner of State and Water streets, the tour begins mere feet from the banks of the Illinois River, an area inhabited by Native Americans for close to 12,000 years, settled by French missionaries nearly four centuries ago, and developed into a bustling downtown by citizens who lived—and died—on its streets.
One of several alleged paranormal hot spots covered on the tour, the Associated Bank branch at 240 Southwest Jefferson was the site of a notorious murder during its time as the former State Trust and Savings Bank. On December 23, 1917, Bank President Edgar Strause shot and killed cashier Berne Mead in what he claimed to be self-defense. However, as the men had been involved in an ongoing feud, many believed the death was premeditated. The case initially resulted in a murder conviction, but after an appeal was filed, subsequent trials produced two hung juries. In the end, Strause walked away a free man.
Some local residents, like Janet Ozuna and her stepdaughter, Teresa Ozuna, believe the injustice done to Mead has trapped his spirit, and perhaps that of Strause, in this building on the corner of Jefferson and Liberty. Both longtime employees of Midstate College, Janet and Teresa claim to have had several bizarre experiences while the school operated out of the location.
As Teresa often worked alone in the evenings with only the night-shift guard in the building, she claims to have regularly heard footsteps behind her when no one was there, doors slamming by themselves, receiving phone calls from the basement after it had been locked for the night, and, once, being touched by something she couldn’t see. “I felt, as clear as day, a hand touch my arm,” she asserts. “Kind of like [someone about to say,] ‘Excuse me.’ That’s what I thought it was… I was even saying, ‘I’m sorry!’ and I turned and looked, and there was absolutely no one there.”
While she had always jokingly blamed a ghost for missing files and strange noises in the building, Janet, whose office was the sole access point to a trap door leading down to the original bank vault, says one incident in particular converted her into a believer. “I went in on a Sunday morning, and of course, no one else was in there,” she remembers. “I know there’s noises when buildings settle and that type of thing—we were used to that. But literally, I could have sworn I heard somebody coming up those stairs under the trap door—just a thump thump thump thump—like heavy shoes coming up those stairs.”
“The hair on the back of my neck stood up, I got goose bumps all over me. I literally grabbed my purse and ran,” she describes. “I know what fright is now. I don’t think a lot of people know what a really frightening experience is until you’re there… I had a whole different sense being alone in the building after that.
A few miles from the bank, a similar eerie vibe emanates from two historic Peoria homes. Among the many distinguished residences sitting atop the city’s east bluff is the Judge John C. Flanagan House, the oldest standing house in Peoria, at 942 NE Glen Oak Avenue. Maintained by the Peoria Historical Society, the American Federalist-style home has been converted into a museum and houses a collection of local antiques, as well as the reputed ghosts of its former tenants. Among the odd events reported in the 176-year-old structure are an apparition of a woman reading in the library and that of man, presumably Judge Flanagan, walking the grounds wearing his signature overcoat and silk hat.
According to Carin Caras, former Flanagan House chair, volunteers often find objects have been moved around when no one has been in the building. Once, she even found one of the museum’s prized artifacts, a more than century-old shirt collar, carelessly strewn on the master bedroom floor. “It really spooked me, and it actually gives me goose bumps right now,” she says. “There were only a few people that had the keys to that house… None of them would ever have taken that out and thrown it in the middle of the floor.”
Located at 1212 West Moss Avenue in Peoria’s High Wine District, the Pettengill-Morron House is yet another converted home-museum allegedly haunted by its former owners. Built in 1868, the house is also maintained by the Peoria Historical Society, and remains almost exactly as its last owner, Jean Morron, left it before her death in 1966. Volunteers say Miss Morron’s odds and ends are frequently discovered out of their normal places. Tour guides have gone upstairs to find a water faucet running on its own, and report seeing the reflection of a shadowy figure in the mirror. Neighbors claim to have seen figures walking around the attic while no one was inside, as well as being awoken by the sounds of a cocktail party next door, only to find no such soiree.
If a spirit is responsible for these odd occurrences, Pettengill-Morron House Chair Kathy Dallinger feels confident it means no harm. “Any ghosts we have are friendly ghosts,” she asserts. “We feel we have a good rapport with them, that they’re helping us tell the story… We’re on good terms with our ghost, because we’re taking care of the home.”
Exploring Peoria’s Paranormal Past
While the stories of Peoria’s spirits, specters and strange happenings are too numerous to fit on these pages, the city possesses countless secrets and sordid tales waiting to be heard. From the streets of downtown, beneath which lie the graves of the region’s earliest settlers, to historic Springdale Cemetery, the final resting place of nearly 70,000 citizens, to hotels, restaurants, theaters and schools scattered across town, the Haunted Peoria tour illuminates a more spirited side of the River City.
For a detailed account of Peoria’s paranormal hot spots, check out Stephanie McCarthy’s book Peoria’s Haunted Memories. Preview it online at arcadiapublishing.com. a&s