“There lie hundreds of records of crime that would startle the world.
The secrets which the hundreds of grinning skulls that are huddled In this unsanctified burial place, could they speak,
Could tell a terrible story of bloody deeds, shattered lives, ruined hopes, blasted reputations. shame and disgrace.”
The Singing Ghost of Joliet
In the summer of 1932 thousands of residents from Joliet and surrounding areas as far as Chicago flocked to the old Joliet Prison Convict Cemetery in search of a “singing ghost” said have been seen wandering among the graves crooning hymns in a dreamy, ethereal voice. As was typical at the time, many of these early ghost hunters came armed with shotguns, knives and other weapons. The search became a sensation, drawing as many as 5,000 people a night to the area . . . until the ghost was revealed to be—or so they claimed—a very much alive inmate at the prison, William Chrysler, who reportedly enjoyed singing on the way to and from his duties working the pumps at the nearby prison quarry.
Author Dylan Clearfield, however, was not and is not convinced that the explanation was quite that simple. Clearfield grew up in Joliet on Edgehill, a street which runs along the bluff overlooking the old prison farm, just south of the steep hill where the Old Convict Cemetery sits. This area is part of a vast natural preserve area today, which includes wooded, steep hillsides, small caverns, hills and prairie land. Clearfield’s family passed down to him vivid memories of the summer the Singing Ghost came to their sleepy subdivision on the Hill, rambling past their house night after night towards the old graveyard. In his book, A Ghost Thrills America, Clearfield carefully dissects the prison trusty explanation for the singing ghost phenomenon, putting forth many reasons why it could not have been the true one. He also discusses some fascinating evidence backing up the idea that police created the trusty explanation to break up the huge crowds which had been gathering each night and, further, causing destruction of the grave markers in the cemetery.
History of Joliet’s Singing Ghost
It all started on the hot night of July 14, 1932, when the sound of singing began wafting through the neighborhood late in the evening, long after the radio broadcasts of the time would have ended. Besides the late hour, the song didn’t sound like a pop tune of the time but like something you might hear in church. Some said the voice was even singing in Latin.
The first to report the singing were members of the Dudek family. The Dudeks lived on Juniper Street, with their backyard abutting the prison field where the Old Convict Cemetery sits. Though the father and son of the house were out that first night, when the singing began again the following night, the two went out with a flashlight in search of the source. Their exploring took them into the prison cemetery, but they found no one there.
The singing continued night after night, usually between 11:30 and midnight, and the voice began to draw crowds. At first, neighbors came out of curiosity, drawn by the sound itself, carrying through the streets of Fairmont Hill. Soon, however, the story spread through the city, drawing people from all over Joliet and, later, from the neighboring towns of Lockport, Crest Hill and others. It wasn’t long before cars full of ghost hunters were rolling into town from all over the state and, then, the nation. As the demographic changed, the atmosphere changed, too.
Whereas the first nightly gatherings were cheerful and fun, with Joliet families coming to the graveyard with picnic blankets and ghost stories to share, the later, swelling crowds, made up of outsiders, tramped through people’s backyards, broke the already crumbling and few headstones in the cemetery, and spread a general feeling of disrespect and disregard for the community and the prisoners interred in the cemetery. One of the most outrageous developments was that a group of local swindlers had started an illegal car parking scheme, catering to the visiting ghost hunters. For fifteen cents, you could park your car in the prison field while you investigated the ghost. But if you didn’t hand over another fifteen cents on the way out, the valets broke your windshield.
The disturbing issues that arose around the Singing Ghost of Joliet Prison caused much upset among prison officials and local law enforcement. It is Clearfield’s theory—and I back him up—that the prison “trusty” was used as an explanation to end the sensation, turn the crowds back, and restore peace and quiet to the neighborhood.
The trusty in question was an inmate by the name of William Lalon Chrysler. He had been held in Chicago’s Cook County Jail before being sent down to Joliet on a conviction of grand larceny. Though he was a trusty, meaning the warden trusted him with greater freedom and mobility than most, Chrysler was still under the guard of a corrections officer at all times. He wasn’t allowed to come and go between the prison and the quarry at will. Yet, Chrysler claimed that he was scared during his lonely nightly forays to check the sump pumps at the prison quarry, and that he had started singing to keep himself company.
In addition, it wasn’t until almost two weeks after the singing began that Chrysler was claimed to be the source of the ghostly singing at the Old Convict Cemetery. Over that time, scores of newspaper articles had appeared in papers all over the country. Suffice it to say that the story of the ghost was the biggest thing to happen in Joliet in many years. Nightly searches of the cemetery, the prison field, the hillside, the prison farm and the quarry itself were made by the bands of ghost hunters who had come to the prison in search of the mystery singer. Why, then, was Chrysler never found? Why didn’t his guard realize it was his charge doing the singing? In addition, the inmate was due to be released in just three weeks at the time the singing began. Why would he cause any kind of trouble like this when he was so close to freedom? Clearfield asks all of these legitimate questions, and I am compelled to echo him.
One of the most fascinating parts of Clearfield’s research his assessment of the way sound travels in the areas of the Old Convict Cemetery, the old prison farmlands and the quarry. From early on in the Singing Ghost phenomenon, critics of the haunting’s authenticity charged that the voice was of someone working in the prison quarry, with the walls of the quarry creating a sounding board for the singing, carrying it up to the The Hill where the Old Convict Cemetery sits. Clearfield offers more than one piece of experiential evidence to disclaim this, as well as scientific evidence: the limestone walls of the quarry would trap sound inside, not amplify it. Further, he himself had more than one experience where he experienced sound from The Hill carried down from the area, not up into it.
The Story of the “Who” Behind the Ghost of the Joliet Prison
So who was the Singing Ghost of Old Joliet Prison? Clearfield also offers a variety of alternative theories, including wondering whether the singing ghost may have been Odette Allen, the warden’s wife who was so brutally murdered. Indeed, Odette was so close to her “boys” wouldn’t it be in character for her to visit their graves at night? Moreover, since they loved her singing in life, wouldn’t it be fitting for her to sing the dead a tune or two?
Of course, we also have to look at the hundreds of inmates interred at the prison cemetery over many years, most of whom led very dark, unsettled lives. Some were killed in Joliet Prison—or did the killing. Other’s committed suicide. Some were executed, like the three murderers and escapees who were executed in Joliet on July 15, 1927, after killing Deputy Warden Peter Klein. Perhaps the ghost was one of these men, Clearfield wonders, as the date the singing began matches up to the date of the executions?
Of course, a quick scan over the list of burials compiled in this book offers a number of other such possibilities as well—even from the fractional number of burials I’ve been able to catalog. The list includes numerous troubled souls: murderers, rapists and thieves. What about our George Chase, the first execution in Joliet? His death by hanging occurred in late July 1866 and, as we’ll soon see, some believed his head wandered—wanders?—the old cemetery in search of his head, which was removed after his hanging so that phrenologists could study his brain.
Dylan Clearfield’s Ghost Research
In his examination of the Singing Ghost sensation, Dylan Clearfield offers something else extraordinary: a vintage photograph of what appears to be a ghostly figure, standing in his family’s backyard, which skirted the prison cemetery field. Though Clearfield was thrilled to find this photo, which is indeed quite interesting, he theorizes from its appearance that it is no prisoner but—quite differently—a French spirit from the days of the bustling fur trade along the nearby Des Plaines River.
Incidentally, 1932 wasn’t the first time Joliet citizens had formed a ghost-seeking mob—or the first time a ghost had been associated with the Old Convict Cemetery. Earlier, in 1909, a ghost panic had erupted in Joliet when a ghost was seen in the city’s Third Ward. Parties of ghost hunters formed to hunt the phantom, including a gang of children, who claimed to see a filmy, feminine form sitting in the weeds by the side of a neighborhood farm road. One child claimed to see the ghost moving “towards the cemetery near the A.M.E. Church.” This was likely a church on Fairmont Hill and the cemetery likely the Old Convict Cemetery.
Hundreds of residents came out in search of the spirit, many heavily-armed with various weapons. Around the same time, a buzz erupted over the possible haunting of the clock tower in nearby St. John’s Catholic Church on Hickory street. Alas, a very real woman was found to be probably, behind the tale. As one reporter reckoned:
Those who have made a study of the case are firmly convinced that a woman of questionable mental capacity is responsible for the scare. But whatever the facts may be that the case is the most peculiar In the recent, history of the city has been firmly fixed. There was a time when spooks and haunted houses were common, but the day has long since passed.
The Old Convict Cemetery
That original Old Joliet Prison cemetery, known as the “Old Convict Cemetery” or as “Monkey Hill,” (more properly called Fairmont Hill) still remains on the wooded bluff overlooking the Prison and the old (now water-filled) quarries and prison farmlands, shrouded by overgrowth, its old wooden markers long gone to time. Burials from Old Joliet Prison were done here over many generations, and ghost stories of the site hearken back to the earliest days of the cemetery founding, long before the Singing Ghost created its local sensation, of which more shortly.
During my research of the Prison and cemeteries, I had a difficult time discovering the origins of the old graveyard’s nickname, “Monkey Hill,” but thought I had cracked the case when I found an old article about a cemetery in Panama called Monkey Hill. That Panamanian burial ground had come to be utilized for the burials of canal workers who perished during the building of the Panama Canal. That engineering project, like the building of the I&M Canal, was fraught with death through disease, accidents, infighting and misery. The canal, and the cemetery which took in its victims, were known the world over as foreboding—especially by men who had built other canals. From this discovery, I theorized that the men of Joliet Prison—or of the Joliet area–some of whom had been workers on the I&M Canal or had fathers who had been canalers–had passed on the Panama nickname to the Joliet Prison cemetery.
Then, while talking at length about the oldest cemeteries in Will County with one of the preservationists at the Will County Poor Farm Cemetery, I found out the truth behind the name. Because the Joliet Prison cemetery is located up on the wooded bluff overlooking the Prison and the old quarry and farm grounds, it wasn’t an easy task to take the coffins up to the graveyard for burial. As convicts were assigned for graveyard duty, it was African American inmates who were chosen for this task, as they were believed to be more agile and able to scale the bluff. Thus, the name of “Monkey Hill” was sadly assigned to the burying ground from its early days: a racial slur which is still carried on by the newer cemeteries nearer to Stateville Penitentiary. Because of the revelation, I will generally refer to the burial site as the “Old Convict Cemetery” except when referring to the name in particular, such as in the following section.
The Stateville Cemeteries
If you do an internet search for “Monkey Hill Cemetery” today, it will take you to an Illinois State Penitentiary cemetery on Caton Farm Road in nearby Crest Hill. That cemetery, clearly visible from the road, with its rows of simple, uniform headstones, sits directly across from St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery. Nearby the neat rows is a large red stone monument with the inscription:
They Paid Their Debt to Society. May God Remit Their Debt to Him.
This cemetery is not properly called Monkey Hill Cemetery and, to my knowledge, was never called that by inmates. This is one of two new cemeteries–or burial areas—which came after Stateville was erected and the older Old Convict Cemetery became full. I will call these the “Stateville Cemeteries,” because of where there are situated. However, there are, in fact, some burials from Old Joliet Prison at the Stateville cemeteries.
In total, there are 437 inmates from Stateville and the Old Joliet Prison buried at the two Stateville cemeteries. The Stateville burials were done between 1925 and 1974. After that year, unclaimed prisoners have been buried at private cemeteries by private funeral directors.
The older of the two Stateville cemeteries is not visible from Caton Farm Road. It is a distance from the newer section and is on Stateville Prison property, not open to the public. Special permission from the warden is needed to visit. (Don’t let the lack of “No Trespassing” signs on the road fool you. There is no indication of it, but this is Stateville Prison Property. I made the mistake of thinking the older cemetery was on public land. I saw the map and the farms flanking the road and, with no signs saying otherwise, set out to find the older cemetery and take some photos of it. I was nearly arrested, heavily questioned by numerous DOC officers and barely let go. My exit was blocked at three different points as I was trying to peacefully leave. Even after I got back to Caton Farm Road, a DOC officer came after me, pulled me over, and took my license plate number.)
An Escape Goes Awry
In addition to the “singing ghost” sensation in 1932, the Old Convict Cemetery on Fairmont Hill was the center of a number of thrilling events during its working days. During more than one escape, inmates hid out in the cemetery or in the surrounding woods, and residents of Fairmont Hill were regularly on the lookout for escaped convicts, such as when papers reported that a “maniacal ex-convict, armed with a shotgun, was trapped today in the woods around Monkey Hill.”
On one occasion, a convict funeral was “hijacked” as part of a brilliant but ill-fated escape plan. A prisoner had been very ill with consumption and finally perished in the prison hospital. The dead man was prepared for burial and his body placed pine coffin, which was taken to the prison bathhouse, which at the time was used also as a “dead house” for storing corpses before the funeral.
During the noon dinner hour, an inmate named Kennedy snuck into the bathhouse, opened the coffin, and removed the dead body, which he hid in a pile of blankets in a corner of the room. He used a gimlet to make air holes in the bottom of the coffin, then climbed in and waited. After dinnertime, convicts arrived to carry the coffin to the chapel for the funeral service. Not long after, several prisoners and the chaplain arrived, completed the prayer service and sang a hymn, then picked up the coffin to carry to the hearse wagon outside. The hearse driver, also an inmate, was ready to depart for the cemetery. Inside the coffin, however, things weren’t going very well.
Kennedy had not made sufficient air holes in the wood, and he was struggling for breath. In addition, it was swelteringly hot, and rivulets of sweat ran down his face. In a moment of desperation, he tried to push the lid of the coffin open just a hair, in order to get just a little breath or two. Just at that instant, however, the hearse drive stood up, causing the lid of the coffin to suddenly fly open and bang shut again. The driver, in terror, ran screaming into the prison, crying that the dead inmate had come back to life. Kennedy leapt out of the coffin and ran back onto the prison grounds to disappear among the other inmates, but his scheme was, nonetheless, discovered. The poor dead man was returned to his rightful coffin and buried on the hill. A year later Kennedy joined him, at last very much dead himself.
Just before Christmas in 1877 two medical students, Edward Woodruff and Byron Elms, were arrested in Joliet for body snatching. They were picked up at the Chicago Rock Island Pacific railroad depot and held at the Will County Jail after a porter discovered a dismembered and decapitated African American inmate from Joliet Prison inside it, accompanied by the whitewashed headboard that had marked his erstwhile resting place at the Old Convict Cemetery.
When questioned, the pair explained that they were students at a medical school in Chicago and had come out to the prison graveyard by train to dig up a corpse to work on over the Christmas school break. Apparently, though the young men were very ruffled and surprised by their arrests, they were let go without further trouble after the situation was “cleared up” by their professor. The body parts were returned to the inmate’s resting place on the bluff, with reportedly no harm considered to have been done.
Though these men were not charged, numerous inmates at Old Joliet Prison had, in fact, been incarcerated for body snatching. One of them was an African American man by the name of Charles Shackleford, was believed to have stolen bodies from the Joliet prison cemetery before his incarceration. He was—ironically—buried at the Old Convict Cemetery after his own death at Joliet Prison.
The inmate targeted by body snatchers isn’t the only convict whose remains are not quite intact here at Joliet Prison’s Old Convict Cemetery.
One of the most famous burials at the Old Convict Cemetery was that of a man by the name of George Chase—at least that’s who they thought he was when they hanged him in July of 1866 at the first execution in the City of Joliet.
Chase was a horse thief who was incarcerated at Old Joliet Prison and later charged with murder for clubbing the deputy warden. It took a while but Chase (or whoever he was) was finally hanged on makeshift gallows in the Will County jail in Joliet. After his death, the man’s head was removed to be studied by phrenologists, in hopes of finding some criminally-motivating anomaly. Discovering, alas, nothing amiss, the head was then interred as well. Not long after the interment, a Prison guard reported seeing a misty form and strange lights in the Monkey Hill Cemetery as he searched the area for an escapee. Several other reports of the paranormal variety came to light in the ensuring decades, including reports of either a “headless spook” seen wandering about the headboards in the moonlight, or of a floating, disembodied head in the graveyard: presumably Chase’s head looking for the rest of his body. And so from very early on, the Old Convicts Cemetery was established as “haunted” in the eyes of neighboring farmers and other residents.
Chase’s is not the only headless body interred at the cemetery. We must remember the corpse of the unfortunate John Anderson, hacked to death by his cellmate, Mike Mooney, whose head was removed to be used as evidence at trial, and which later vanished. In addition to Chase’s head numerous other body parts are also interred at the Old Convict Cemetery, as when an accident led to the loss of an inmate’s limb, finger, foot or hand, that body was, by prison ordinance, compelled to be buried.
The extreme example of this was inmate Lafayette Shepherd. In Joliet for murdering his mother, Shepherd was apparently so averse to work, he cut off both of his arms by laying them on a rapidly revolving buzz saw while working in a prison shop. His arms were buried here, along with the rest of him. Toby Allen, the inmate who accused Joliet Prison staff of witchcraft, also had two of his fingers interred here after cutting them off himself to avoid work.
A Most Motley Crew
It has been suggested that there were around five hundred interments at the Old Convict Cemetery in Joliet; however, an original photograph of the cemetery was found with the inscription “over a thousand lost souls” handwritten on the back. An old newspaper article claims there were “probably 1,500” graves at the cemetery by 1884.
In the course of my research, I discovered an article about tuberculosis deaths at Old Joliet Prison. Between 1888 and 1905 alone there had been 448 deaths at Old Joliet Prison. This number does not account for the deaths between the opening of the prison in 1858 and the year of 1888 or the deaths after 1905 until the cemetery was “full” in the mid-1920s. It is uncertain how many of these total bodies were unclaimed by family and, thus, interred at the prison cemetery.
Newspaper reports say the cemetery was between two and three acres in size, and that the graves were placed close together—an estimated 10 feet by 4 feet each, side to side and end to end. Doing the math, if the cemetery is two acres and the graves are this size and with no space between, and the cemetery is full, that comes out to about 500 graves. If it is three acres with the same considerations, there are around 800 graves.
Though they are long gone, the wooden, whitewashed headboards, many shaped like old coffins, were spaced about eighteen inches apart, and marked with the name and convict number of each prisoner. There seem to have been a few actual stones here, too, as one or two are pictured in newspaper photographs from the 1932 Singing Ghost frenzy, but they too are long gone.
The cemetery predates the opening year of the prison by about five years and is believed to have seen its first burials in 1853. These must have been burials of paupers or of nearby farm families who chose the bluff for its beautiful vista overlooking the burgeoning city and surrounding prairies, with the Des Plaines River flowing through it. There seem to have been a handful of old stones as well, but they too are long vanished to time.
When Prisoners Passed On
When a prisoner died in the Old Joliet Prison, he or she was taken out of the prison stripes and dressed in a plain suit of civilian clothing and fitted into a pine coffin made by his fellow inmates. A service was held in the prison chapel, led by the prison chaplain and attended by the close “gang” or friends of the inmate and those with whom he had worked, whether in the quarry or mattress factory or kitchen. After a farewell hymn, the coffin was taken in a ramshackle hearse cart up the stony hill to the graveyard on the bluff for burial.
We will likely never know the identities of all of the men and women who made this trip. I have, however, begun to piece together a running list from newspaper articles, prison records and a collection of names which were transcribed by Jason Hill from the markers in that old photograph.
As of this writing I have compiled a little over one hundred burial listings for the Old Convict Cemetery, some including death or death and birth dates, and some with information about the inmate’s origins, incarceration or death. What follows is this running list, beginning with several notable personalities. I will be updating the prison’s listing on FindAGrave as well as on our website, JolietHauntings.Please check with those locations in the future for the latest and most complete burial list.
Old Convict Cemetary Burial List
FRANK “The Terrible” RAND
(aka Charles Clouse Scott)
d. March 12, 1884
He was known as the “The Brilliant Bandit of the: Wabash” –an infamous character in the waning years of the American Old West. He was charged with the murders of more than a dozen people and crushed the skull of a deputy warden with a stove poker in the prison harness shop. He was shot in the head by the deputy’s brother during the fight that ensued, and then placed in solitary confinement. Rather than wait for certain execution, Rande hanged himself in his cell. But while Rande’s headboard remained here for many years, there are questions about whether his body did the same. Soon after his burial in the Old Convict Cemetery, a newspaper reporter commented that Rande’s body had been stolen by body snatchers. Years later, Rande’s head was reported to be in the possession of a prominent physician, Dr. Fouser of Kankakee.
In light of the other unfortunate inmates who literally lost their heads at Joliet Prison after death, it is likely that Rande’s head was also removed to be studied by phrenologists. Rande, in fact, was a popular subject for neurologists and alienists (psychologists) long before his death, and numerous articles were written about what could be wrong with Rande’s brain. His death would certainly have had such professionals lining up for a chance to examine that brain at last.
d. July 27, 1866
First convict to be executed in Will County, after being convicted of horse thieving and then attacking the deputy warden with a rock during his early incarceration.
CORNELIUS “PUGGY” O’LEARY
Dates of birth and death unknown.
One of the most surprising burials here is that of a member of the famed O’Leary family of Chicago: the family which kept the cow erroneously reported to have kicked over the lantern which started the Great Fire of 1871. Cornelius, known as “Puggy” O’Leary, was just a baby when the great conflagration broke out on the night of October 8th. Puggy and family escaped, but Puggy grew to have many problems. He was a “great big broth of a boy, with heavy sullen features and a bad disposition.” Observers of his behavior and disposition often blamed the shame of his family name. In 1885, at the age of 23, O’Leary killed his mistress. Because his own sister had watched, he killed her, too. He ran from police but was captured and taken to trial back in Chicago, where he was sentenced to forty years in Joliet Prison. In 1889 he was taken out of prison and put into an insane asylum. Although I have not found a record of his death year, a reporter observed his headboard in the Old Convict Cemetery.
d. May 7, 1878
One of the most infamous events at Old Joliet Prison was the 1878 death of African American inmate Gus Reed, which made national headlines. Reed had broken some prison rule and, confined alone in solitary for punishment, had apparently been “noisy.” Two of the corrections officers, under orders from a superior, gagged him with a piece of broken broomstick and chained him to his cell with his wrists outside the bars. Thirty minutes later, hearing a sound from Reed’s cell, guards investigated and found Reed convulsing from strangulation. For the last several minutes of his life, Reed chillingly cried out his own name over and over.
d. December 20, 1873
Infamously punished to death by “ducking” in an ice-bath. Williams’ death spurred a great public outcry, and great efforts were made to have Deputy Warden. Capt. Hall indicted for the inmate’s murder. Williams was doing four years for larcenv, having been sent to Joliet from Madison County. He had been at the prison only a few weeks before his death. The warden was exonerated, but Williams’ was the last “ice bath death” in an Illinois prison.
Another suicide lies near Frank Rande’s empty grave: that of this inmate who committed suicide while working in the prison wire factory. He grabbed a feed of wire that was being drawn by rapidly revolving rollers, formed a loop in the wire, and slipped it around his neck. The man was drawn swiftly into the machinery and killed by it.
d. May 22, 1927
A 94-year-old Galesburg man serving a life sentence for murder. Died of old age in his cell. He had been eligible for parole but declined it, saying he had no friends or family and nowhere to go.
A “common shoplifter.”
b.1871 d. November 11, 1890
d. early June 1879
Murdered a man named William Gumbleton in 1870. Died of tuberculosis, asserting his innocence of the crime.
A petty thief from Chicago.
1865 d. October 28, 1890
A shoplifter who committed suicide by eating soap.
d. August 1, 1892
A fourth-timer, with many an alias, “whose only home was the prison
and whose only friends were the prison rats.”
d. July 18, 1885, Aged 34
A notorious desperado who died during his second term at Joliet. The first term was for six years from McDonough County for robbery. His brother, Charles, did time with him, and both were regarded as desperate men. John was alleged to have been connected with the notorious Maxwell Brothers, a notorious name in the world of desperadoes.
d. July 2, 1885. Aged 36
An African American “habitual criminal” and noted burglar, Ewing was one of the first convicts sent to prison under the Habitual Criminal Act and was sentenced to twenty years for his part in a Brinks express train robbery.
JOHN H. CONTNER
d. July 1, 1884. Aged 32
Convicted for twenty one years for the murder of William Feliderman of Danville, he had previously done two years in the Michigan City Prison for assault with intent to kill.
ANDREW P. HIGGINS
d. August 1, 1882. Aged 48.
A noted counterfeiter caught by federal authorities in Wisconsin.
(aka GEORGE CARROLL)
d. November 18, 1883. Aged 38
A sixth-term African American burglar and body-snatcher, who “supplied Chicago medical students with stiffs” and spent nearly half his life in prison. There were rumors that he had stolen bodies from this very cemetery before his incarceration.
d. April 19, 1880
A Sicilian who fled from his native country because he “was too expert with his stiletto.” Died while nerving a ten-year sentence from Chicago for “killing a dago.”
d. May 15, 1880. Aged 35.
A noted pickpocket and partner of Harry Mc Clure of Oklahoma. The two followed General Grant eastward on the General’s return trip from around the world. While working the crowds that thronged to greet the General at Galena, Grant’s hometown, Abrams and Mc Clure were caught and sent to Joliet.
Birth and death dates unknown
d. April 21, 1879. Aged 76
A lifer convicted at Freeport.
d. August 25, 1892
d. May 17, 1893
JOHN Mc CAFFERY
d. November 8, 1891
d. November 20, 1890
CHARLES H. DYER
d. June 2, 1874
d. April 1876
A noted Springfield thief and third-termer
d. July 20, 1873. Aged 20
A “handsome youth” who died while serving a sentence for manslaughter.
JOSEPH MC CARTHY
d. June 1871
“One of the most scholarly and classically educated men who ever did time in the Joliet Penitentiary.” He was a former professor in Indiana, a linguist, and a Lt. Colonel in the Union Army. Convicted of forgery
d. January 27, 1879. Aged 48 years.
A Chicago rapist.
d. September 18, 1872
A prison trusty who drowned in the canal west of the prison while working. O’Neil had been serving a one-year sentence from Chicago for larceny.
d. April 18, 1873
“An old man” doing a life sentence for murder.
d. July 28, 1873
A noted Chicago burglar from Chicago. Died of syphilis.
d. December 22, 1873
A murderer serving twenty-one years.
d. June 3, 1893
d. June 7, 1873
Died while serving a sentence for murder. His brother, Isaac Berry, was at the time of Emmanuel’s death serving a life sentence for the same crime in the Chester Penitentiary. They were both noted outlaws in their time and “terror in the part of the state where they lived. “One of their other brothers was lynched by vigilantes.
d. September 21, 1873
A noted St. Louis burglar who escaped from the warden’s house with four other inmates in 1871. They were recaptured by St. Louis police and returned to Joliet.
d. February 16, 1873
Murdered a Braidwood miner. Died in a freak accident after the bursting of an emery wheel in the prison shop where he was working.
d. June 27, 1892
d. April 19, 1890
d. December 17, 1890
d. March 26, 1894
d. February 13, 1893
d. June 13, 1874
A well-known St. Louis, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia diamond thief. Sent to Joliet for five years and escaped from the prison quarry. He was recaptured and returned and died in prison. He had previously done time in Sing-Sing, Cherry Hill and Baton Rouge penitentiaries.
d. April 23, 1894
d. December 1879
Murdered his man in a Bridgeport saloon with a billiard cue and was sentenced for life
d. June 2, 1874
A second-term burglar and brother of big John Dyer (alias “Jumbo” and “The Incorrigible”) who was at the time of Charles’ death doing twenty years himself.
d. May 19, 1893
1867 d. March 12, 1890
(alias “Oscar True”)
d. May 12, 1874
A St. Louis safe-cracker and second-termer.
d. September 5, 1874
A French tailor from Kankakee, serving one year. He “fretted himself to death and died broken-hearted.” It was written that the “grief from the time of his incarceration to his death was intense and uncontrollable.”
d. April 18, 1894
d. February 13, 1876
d. June 13, 1874
A noted Chicago crook, who was sent to Joliet with–and buried with—his” pal” . . .
d. August 1, 1875
. . . both of whom had been serving ten year sentences.
1841 d. August 22, 1892
Fatally struck by a cable car in the prison quarry.
d. January 9, 1876
The Warden House barber and a second-term burglar. Committed suicide in his cell one night by severing the femoral artery in his left leg,
1861 d. January 7, 1892
d. July 25, 1892
WILLIAM S. MERCER
(alias “William T. Bradford”)
d. September 26, 1878
Journalist-turned-swindler. Well known In St. Louis, Omaha and Pittsburg, Mercer forsook his writing career and turned to crime. He was pardoned from the Nebraska Penitentiary through newspaper influence, drifted to Illinois and was sent up to Jolliet from Decatur for one year in 1875. Mercer committed suicide in solitary confinement, while undergoing punishment, by hanging himself with his suspenders.
“OLD” JOHN SATER
d. January 19, 1875. Aged 64
A Poisoner who murdered his wife and was sent to Joliet for life
1860 d. August 25, 1891
1855 d. January 9, 1892
d. April 18, 1873
GEORGE W. FOSTER
1855 d. January 9, 1892
d. April 11, 1894
d. March 16, ?
d. April 29, 1896
d. May 25, 1892
ISHAM “BUNK” MC KENZIE
January 25, 1855 d. March 24, 1878
d. February 13, 1876
A Mississippi River gambler and thief from Cairo, Illinois.
d. January 26, 1876
A second-term murderer serving a life sentence, from Kane County. West was an Australian “ticket-of-leave man” before coming to America.
d. May 25, 1879
Murdered a Dublin banker at Chicago, was followed to Germany, extradited and brought back by to Chicago for trial. Sentenced to life at Joliet.
d. July 20, 1876
A noted burglar incarcerated for robbery and murder. Sent from Chicago for thirty years and “wore himself out eating soup and planning escapes.”
d. November 6, 1882
Boy murderer from Decatur, serving a twenty-year sentence.
d. February 1, 1883
A second-term desperado and rapist sent to Joliet from Springfield to serve a twenty-year sentence.
d. June 20, 1876
A “little, sawed-off. demented crook,” serving a fourteen-year sentence for “general cussedness.”
DANIEL DE LASCHLE
d. December 23, 1876
a French creole from Cairo, Illinois, doing fifteen years for murder.
d. June 1, 1873
A noted Chicago robber who died of smallpox.
A murderer stabbed to death in the dining-room by a fellow convict.
Stabbed to death in Joliet Prison by–and buried near–the notorious criminal . . .
…. who stabbed Thomas Cochrane in Joliet Prison.
d. March 29, 1892
d. July 8, 1892
ROBERT J. LEWIS
d. September 13, 1892
d. December 25, 1891
1867 d. February 13, 1892
COLONEL ABSOLOM CRABTREE
A venerable Kentucky mountain counterfeiter.
JAMES C. SMIDDY
d. May 6, 1995
A lifer, who spent twenty years behind bars before committing suicide by stealing a bottle of morphine from the prison hospital and swallowing the contents.
A second- term lifer.
(Alias “Jack Orr”)
A Chicago murderer.
1826 d. February 14, 1891
1831 d. April 13, 1890
1828 d. March 3, 1890
JOHN H. HALL
d. February 21, 1887
Died in the prison hospital, claiming his innocence of murdering a man for $3.
A Chicago man who had been a prisoner for just a few months when he hurled himself off a second-floor cell tier in the west wing. He died instantly on the stone floor, his head “mashed to a pulp and almost beyond recognition.”
An octogenarian who died of old age.
“JOLLY” JAMES BLUE
d. November 12, 1932
Eligible for parole but stayed in prison because he had “no friends.”
“King of the Cabbies” who served over twenty years in prison on a life sentence before he died. Walsh was convicted of murdering his mistress but escaped hanging at the last minute when the governor commuted his sentence.
d. December 9, 1892
A “County Mayo man” and “one of the red-handed murderers of the ill-fated Dr. Cronin”
(Alias “Walter Steven”)
d. October 29, 1887
A noted burglar and habitual criminal hangs himself with his suspenders in prison while serving his fourth-term. It is his second attempt.
d. May 13, 1890
d. May 19, 1895
d. August 22, 1892
d. May 13, 1893
d. April 13, 1893
d. December 26, 1887
The murderer of a Dr. Allen at Sandwich, Illinois.
d. September 17, 1889
Convicted for four murders, including the poisoning of his stepdaughter, Lucy Heldenmeyer and the murders of three wives, who he “disposed of . . . in a most grievous manner.” Survived in prison only two years before dying of consumption (tuberculosis).
An ex-convict convicted again in October 1890 for horse stealing.
Ghosts of the Joliet Prison Cemeteries
The list above is only probably one fifth to one eighth of the full, true internment list of Joliet Prison’s Old Convict Cemetery. With such a roster, it can be no wonder that ghost stories have been told about this old burying ground—and the burials at the Stateville cemeteries—for many generations.
The Old Convict Cemetery hosted numerous ghost stories from the start. One very old tale dating back to the 1860s made its way into family folklore when a Joliet man was walking home through the prison cemetery after work and saw a convict in prison stripes digging a grave. He was alarmed because the inmate was the only person in the graveyard. No fellow convicts and (most importantly) no guard could be seen overseeing his labor. The man turned to walk toward the prison to report the inmate, but it was discovered that none of the inmates were missing. Moreover, no one had recently died at the prison. When the man returned to the cemetery the next day, he found no fresh graves at all.
On another occasion, two men passing near the cemetery reported seeing a ghost sitting on a grave marker.
After the death and burial of the horse thief George Chase, whose head was removed after his execution, locals turned in reports of a headless spirit seen wandering the prison burial grounds at night. Some claimed that, despite the lack of a pair of lips, the apparition produced a tuneless and eerie whistle (keeping in mind that this was more than sixty years before the Singing Ghost appeared). Others flipped the story completely, saying it was Chase’s body-less head that haunted site. You could see his phantom face, they claimed, floating over the graves at night in search of its body.
Very few neighbors of the prison cemetery today are even aware that the Old Convict Cemetery exists. Long gone are the days when local children played in the cemetery—and were cautioned to avoid it when a convict burial was going on. (129) Still, a handful of residents of the adjoining subdivision on The Hill remember the tale of the Singing Ghost, and some believe that ghost still walks through the old prison farmlands below the neighborhood and over the wooded hillside. They don’t, however, think it is a phantom convict, but the ghost of Odette Allen, the warden’s wife who was so brutally murdered those many long years ago.
Does Odette still haunt the prison, and could she make occasionally midnight visits to the graves of her “boys? On The Hill? We’ll look into Odette’s ghost at the warden’s quarters later in this book, but as for the prison cemetery, one of the stories which survives from long ago is that of a classic apparition of a “woman in white” seen around the old prison field. Old accounts wondered if this was the ghost of one of the women who had died in the Women’s Prison, possibly by suicide. Others contended that it was the apparition of a wife or lover who had been killed by one of the inmates buried in the cemetery—but who was apparently so forgiving that she still felt moved to visit, in death, her killer’s grave.
I have also collected some fascinating tales from locals who still fish at an old fishing hole which was sometimes connected to the original reports of the Singing Ghost. They have shared reports of strange lights in the woods which they claim to have seen in broad daylight on the forested hillside along the old road flanking the bluff. They also tell of a black dog that has been seen by people walking that old path, and that dogs being walked along that path will often howl and growl at the hillside for no apparent reason. (130)
One local historian told me that the dead bodies of murder victims have been found in this area in recent years, however; so it’s certainly equally possible that any ghosts inciting such canine reactions are not the ghosts of old convicts but of modern unfortunates.
Almost no one knows about the existence of this cemetery. And so almost no paranormal investigators have visited it. I found one notable exception: a longtime friend of mine who went to college in the Joliet area and got interested in ghost hunting more than two decades ago. He had read the story of the Singing Ghost in Dylan Clearfield’s book and went in search of the location, taking with him his aunt who was a genealogist and skilled at finding unmarked graves. Though this was back in the day, long before “ghost hunting equipment,” or even the ready availability of EMF meters and such, he did take some Polaroid photographs at the site, several of which came out completely overexposed—what investigators used to refer to as “whities”—possibly indicating the presence of some paranormal energy. He and his aunt didn’t stay long, however. My friend tells me a bat flew right into his aunt’s head, which broke up the ghost hunting party pretty quickly.
As for myself, while I am usually very lucky in collecting samples of EVP or electronic voice phenomenon, I got zero results in my recordings over a huge portion of the steep hillside and the old prison cemetery field when I began my prison cemetery research. This both surprised and disappointed me in the extreme. I’m not giving up, however. I hope to visit the prison cemetery grounds in the coming winter—when the overgrowth has died back—and to take along my now-extensive list of burials. Perhaps if called by name, some of these vanquished inmates will answer.
As for the older Stateville Cemetery—where some of the Old Joliet Prison inmates were interred after the original Old Convict Cemetery became full–, there are ghost stories here, too.
One Crest Hill man told me of his old classmate, a former Statesville guard who retired in the 1990s, who spent time overseeing inmates on landscaping duties. He told him of one visit to the old cemetery with the crew when he saw what looked like a man in his ‘20s in old prison blues walking along one edge of the cemetery enclosure as the crew approached. Alarmed at seeing an inmate alone and unsupervised, he called out, “Hey!” but the “prisoner” did not respond. Instead, the figure walked right through a hedge and vanished. The officer was reportedly shocked but also amused, because inmates had formerly shunned work at the cemetery, saying it “gave them the creeps.” Now, he said, he knew why.
One inmate who was incarcerated at Stateville for a decade was a psychic medium and told me he was visited in his cell by two inmates from the cemetery, who asked him for help. They were confused about where they were, he said, and could not find their way back to the old prison. He told them they needed to go to the light instead, but they were only interested in returning to their old cells on Collins Street. He claims that he was finally successful, however, in getting them to move on.
Though not really part of our subject matter, I will also just mention briefly the newer of the Stateville cemeteries; the one on Caton Farm Road, across from St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery.
One investigation team, known as Graveyard Paranormal, picked up many words on an Ovilus device, some of which seemed like they could refer to the prison and prisoners, such as “burning”—possibly referring to a fire—and words like “gouge” and similar words that may have referred to a crime. The word “maximum” was also spoken by the Ovilus—interesting at this site within view of the maximum security prison of Stateville.
At one point, the Ovilus instructs the investigator to walk slower to find the right grave. A few seconds later, the Ovilus displayed the surprising phrase, “LMAO,” prompting the investigator to also laugh, saying, “I’ve never had a ghost laugh at me before!”
Many thanks to the Chicago History Museum Archives, which holds the fascinating collection of original glass slides and photograph prints cataloged as “The Joliet Prison Photograph Collection, ca. 1889-1895”
For more on Old Joliet Prison history and ghost stories, please visit www.JolietHauntings.com