Coles County full of hauntings

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Article published in the Oct. 24, 2013, issue of The Daily Eastern News.

The legend of the ghost of Pemberton Hall is the most well known in the area, but Michael Kleen, author of “The Tales of Coles County,” has many more to share.

And he did, to an audience of about 50 students and community members at an event hosted by the Eastern’s Creative Writing Club Thursday.

Most people in the audience raised their hands when asked if they believe in ghosts, and Kleen said he was surprised that the few who did not would come to such an event.

“Maybe we’ll make believers out of you,” he said.

He grew up reading ghost stories, went to Eastern, and realized not much had been written about the legends percolating around the area. So he did it himself.

“I wanted to know a lot more about these places,” Kleen said.

He said a legend is a non-historical story passed down through generations. And that is what most of these stories are: each has numerous versions, and none are really nailed down as truth.

When the TV show “Ghost Adventures” did an episode on Ashmore Estates, Kleen was involved. But he said not to believe anything from the episode, which claimed the place was haunted by demons.

Back when he went to Eastern, Kleen knew it as just an old abandoned asylum.

“It was a peaceful and quiet place,” he said. “I never felt unsafe or threatened there.”

Tons of stories get passed around about it, like a patient who took an axe to every person in the building, or a person who locked all the doors and windows, leaving everyone to “bedlam,” Kleen said.

The story of the ghost of Pemberton Hall hits closest to home — literally, for a few members of the audience.

“Have a good night tonight,” he said, laughing, to the few women who said they live there.

The legend is that an unnamed resident was left behind over a break and went up to the fourth floor to play piano. A janitor snuck up behind her and brutally beat her, then fled. The woman crawled down to the door of Mary Hawkins, the “matron” of the residence hall, for help, but to no avail. Hawkins ignored the whines of pain and the scratches at the door.

The woman died in the hall, and the legend is that Hawkins was distraught by not saving her and was sent to a mental hospital in Kankakee, Ill.

The ironic part of her story, Kleen said, is that Hawkins’ diagnosis was syphilis, so she apparently did not follow the rules she had for the women she watched over in her residence hall.

Stories that bounce around the hall are about furniture moving around mysteriously, footprints appearing on the floor, and a woman walking toward the door to the fourth floor and disappearing.

“These are the stories,” Kleen said. “But what is the truth?”

He said these kinds of stories make their way around every college campus across the country.

Karen Edwards, of Sullivan, said she lived in Pemberton in the ’70s, but never saw the ghost. She grew up in the area and her grandparents live in Ashmore, about three miles from the Airtight Bridge.

“This is my family’s history,” Edwards said.

The Airtight Bridge is a spooky place to begin with — it is quiet and accumulates dense fog because of the bowl-like shape it covers over the Embarras River.

“It was a hangout for biker gangs,” Kleen said. “It was known as a party spot, a drinking spot.”

Its claim to infamy was a murder on Oct. 19, 1980. A woman’s body was found on the edge of the river — but the head, hands, and feet were cut clean off. She was nude and the only real identifier was that she had auburn hair. Detectives presumed her body was transported 24 to 48 hours after her death.

One suspect, Henry Lee Lucas, known as “The Confession Killer,” admitted to the murder, and even came up with a map of where he murdered the woman and the route he took to bring her to the river.

“A lot of locals don’t know how to get to this bridge without a map,” Kleen said, so for someone not from the area to do it made him believable.

But later it was found that he wasn’t the killer.

The bridge is ripe with stories people tell of strange things happening, like phantom cars appearing, or men simply standing on the bridge, Kleen said.

The second most known story in the area is of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon. In 1944, people claimed to smell a sweet scent before becoming paralyzed and dying.

One woman found a rag on her porch and smelled it, and newspaper report said her throat and mouth burned from the fumes, and she started bleeding from the mouth.

“I don’t know, my first reaction when I find a rag on my porch isn’t to smell it,” Kleen said.

Most people at the time did not believe in the gasser, though. Kleen said people just thought they were spooked, “maybe by news of the war or the weapons the Nazis were using.”

“But I don’t buy it,” Kleen said. The evidence is too strong, he said.

The legend is that the “gasser” grew up in Mattoon and was bullied throughout school. He went on to study chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and after that, the attacks started, only lasting a few weeks. It is thought that he attacked his former bullies.

A little less known is the story of the “Ragdoll Cemetery,” which was met with mumblings in the audience by people racking their brains for the story.

The legend is about Bethel Cemetery, south of the Coles County Airport. The small cemetery is said to be haunted by a young girl’s ragdoll; the girl wanted to be buried with the doll but was not, and the legend is that the doll wanders the cemetery looking for her grave.

Sometimes people come to the cemetery and hang dolls from trees that “attack” unsuspecting trespassers.

Kleen said the cemetery has been suspect to a lot of vandalism, and urged the audience that if they visit these places, to respect the property.

Another cemetery is St. Omer, about two miles north of Ashmore. It is said to house the grave of a witch, Caroline Barnes. The date of death: the impossible Feb. 31.

Kleen said the legend is that the date etched on the grave was picked so the woman could not rise from her grave on the anniversary of her death.

According to legend, the grave also glows at night.

“It’s like an orb on a pyre,” Kleen said.

Even the old Will Rogers Theater is said to be haunted, Kleen said, either by someone killed in the Charleston Riot of 1864, or by an old projection monitor. People claim to hear footsteps or see an old man wearing a suit in the hallways.

“Maybe we’ll hear some new stories when it opens back up,” Kleen said.

Diane Bridges, a junior clinical laboratory science major, said she is unsure about ghosts.

“I’m kind of skeptical,” Bridges said. “I’ve never had a personal experience with one.”

Her family went to Eastern, so she heard the Pemberton story growing up, and thinks it as nothing more than a story told to scare freshmen.

Morgan Gardner, a senior biological sciences major, does believe in ghosts, though — and even said one lives in her house.

She said she first realized it when she was 8 years old. She was home alone, in the basement at about 10 p.m. She heard footsteps upstairs and assumed it was her parents coming home, but as soon as she yelled to see if it was them, the footsteps stopped.

“It’s OK,” Gardner said. “He’s a nice ghost.”

She said she is sure it is a man because she can tell by the sound of the footsteps on the hardwood floor, and said they are fancy men’s dress shoes.

Gardner said she does not mind the ghost, though.

“He’s never done anything to scare me,” she said.

She said the Pemberton story is her favorite, since it relates to campus. She never got the chance to live in the hall, though.

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