Have you seen the mischievous spirits of Tinker Swiss Cottage or met Galena’s Lady in Black? Perhaps you’ve had a run-in at DeKalb’s Egyptian Theatre? Whether or not you believe in ghosts, these stories still excite our curiosities and fill us with dread.
It was 1862, and Robert Hall Tinker was enthralled. The future Rockford mayor was visiting Switzerland and had fallen in love with the country’s architecture. Three years later he began to create a little piece of Switzerland of his own, on a bluff overlooking Kent Creek in Rockford.
The completed cottage, known today as the Tinker Swiss Cottage, is an architectural gem that combines Swiss, Gothic and Victorian styles. Tinker carried his first wife, Mary, over the threshold in April 1870, then mourned at her funeral in the parlor 31 years later. In 1904 he married Jessie and, four years after that, became a father at 71 to an adopted son. Tinker lived a long and prosperous life, serving as Rockford’s mayor, ushering in the city’s first public library, perfecting his sketches and paintings, and creating a lush landscape around his 27-acre estate. In 1924, at 88 years old, Robert Hall Tinker died in his beloved cottage.
Some say he never quite left.
Paranormal places abound in our region. They’re filled with fun stories of spectral sightings that continue to entice our curiosities. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, these spirits still like to make their stories known.
A Cottage Full of Caspers
The Tinker home, complete with the family’s furnishings and possessions, became a public museum in 1943. Samantha Hochmann, executive director of the Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum & Gardens, 411 Kent St., knows Tinker, his family and the home’s staff through entries he wrote in his diary. But she also says she’s met them personally.
“We see the ghosts regularly,” says Hochmann. “There are a lot of times when I’m here by myself and I’ll see somebody walk by the doorway or peek around the corner.”
More often than not, she thinks that somebody is Robert Tinker himself.
“Robert was a prankster in life, and he likes to continue being a prankster,” Hochmann says. “He’ll often move the silverware around on the dining table because he knows it drives me nuts.”
Hochmann and her team are good sports about the hijinks. Ghost tours, particularly during the Halloween season, bring the public together with paranormal experts and investigators.
Historian, librarian and author Kathi Kresol leads haunted tours around Rockford, including stops at Tinker Cottage. She even welcomed the ghosts as guests to her wedding, which was held in the cottage’s parlor.
“The former director was definitely open to letting people investigate, but Samantha has taken it to a whole new level,” says Kresol. “She’s been here to confirm things, like how Robert smoked a cigar when we smell cigar smoke. She’s right here, on hand, when things happen, and it really helps.”
Hochmann’s knowledge of Tinker’s diaries often comes in handy, like the time she and Kresol investigated frequent sightings of a ghostly little blond girl.
“There was an orphanage in what is now the parking lot, so we thought she came from there,” says Kresol. “The Tinkers, particularly Jessie, were really involved with the orphans and would invite them to ice cream socials on the lawn.”
A breakthrough happened when investigators used a ghost box, a device used by ghost hunters to record sounds and voices from beyond the grave. An electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) called out a name: Maddie.
Hochmann found the answer in Tinker’s diaries.
“Matilda Anderson used to come to work with her mother, Catherine Anderson, who was a laundress for the family,” says Hochmann. “She died from smallpox when she was around 7 years old.”
Maddie can usually be found downstairs, around the kitchen.
“It makes sense because that’s where her mom would be working,” says Hochmann.
To test their theory, investigators brought a ball into the hallway adjacent to the kitchen.
“The ball rolled the whole way down that hallway,” says Kresol.
Tinker’s library is another hot spot.
“This is where we get a ton of EVPs, disembodied voices, shadow figures or legitimate apparitions,” says Hochmann.
Kresol says visitors have spotted figures in the library’s upper level, leaning in to listen to her lecture. Hochmann has also had her fair share of encounters.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on a daytime tour when everyone’s eyes get big and they ask, ‘Who was that woman walking behind you?” says Hochmann. “There’s activity in every part of the house, but the library is definitely the hottest.”
Employees have also been startled by the library door when it slams unexpectedly and they’re alone in the house.
“The door doesn’t shut unless you really want it to,” says Kresol. “You have to pick it up and drag it across the carpet. It doesn’t close on its own.”
Sometimes Tinker and his pals like to rain pennies from heaven on their guests. Literally.
“I don’t know where they’re getting the pennies, but they throw them straight down from the ceiling,” says Hochmann.
She speculates the upstairs guest bedroom brings lots of sightings because it’s where several deaths occurred.
“Robert’s father-in-law moved in and lived here until the end of his life,” she says. “We also believe this is where Mary’s sister, Hannah, and Mary’s niece, Marcia, passed away. And we’re very certain that Jessie’s brother, Will, passed away here.”
Certain visitors feel vertigo or nausea when they enter the guest room. Disembodied voices are also common. Kresol recalls a time when she was alone in the house with the museum’s former director.
“We heard a woman call out, ‘Hello?’ during a talk, so he ran up here to investigate,” she says. “He came back down a lot slower than he went up. No one was there.”
Tinker’s father-in-law has been spotted in the sitting room.
“We were doing a paranormal tour, and a guy spotted a man sitting on the couch,” recalls Hochmann. “He said, ‘Dude, I don’t think you’re supposed to sit on the furniture,’ and the man leaned back, looked at him and said, ‘I live here.’”
Later, the visitor recognized the man from a portrait hanging on the wall.
In the bedroom belonging to Tinker’s first wife, men are often told to leave. Mary was a proper Victorian lady and still doesn’t appreciate men entering her domain.
“If you hear a lady whispering, ‘getoutgetoutgetoutgetout,’ that’s Mary,” laughs Hochmann.
Whatever is going on, Hochmann and her team are more than happy to work around Tinker and his merry band of banshees.
“We always tell people if they want to investigate ghosts to start here,” says Hochmann. “They’re a group of Caspers, here. They’re very friendly.”
Welcome to Ghoul-ina
Visitors to Galena, Ill., often feel like they’ve been whisked back in time when they stroll through downtown, with its rich 19th century architecture. With close to a million tourists each year, the town and its residents are accustomed to living guests, but Galena also beckons visitors from beyond the veil.
Ted Williams and Robyn Davis know all about the ghostly side of Galena. The husband-and-wife team founded Haunted Galena Tour Company, the city’s original haunted tour. Dressed for the part in dark, flowing Victorian costumes, Williams and Davis share a number of ghostly tales that are as meticulously researched as they are hair-raising.
“Everything that we share is fact-based and historically accurate,” says Williams.
In a city like Galena, with a history that includes presidents, Civil War heroes, mining rushes and a period where the population was bigger that Chicago’s, it would be easy to exaggerate their tales of terror. But Williams and Davis noticed long ago that hyperbole wasn’t needed. In Galena, ghostly history just keeps on repeating.
“Ghosts are, by their nature, speculative,” says Williams. “But the same stories keep popping up in the same locations.”
Adds Davis: “People don’t know these stories to copy them,” she says. “They’re stories from the 1800s and early 1900s. I don’t think they find these stories in the city’s archives and then tell us they had that experience.”
The first stop on the Haunted Galena tour is the DeSoto House Hotel, at 230 Main St. Recognized as one of the oldest operating hotels in Illinois, the DeSoto House opened in 1855 and quickly became Galena’s social hub. The hotel has hosted luminaries like Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington, while also serving as the political headquarters of Ulysses S. Grant during his presidential run and the sleeping spot for presidents like Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and William McKinley.
Some of its guests, however, have yet to check out. Like the Lady in Black, the hotel’s most famous ghost, who prowls the basement.
“She wears a black dress, black veil and black gloves, which is a Civil War-era outfit,” says Williams.
The Lady in Black’s true origins aren’t known, but Williams has a theory.
“When the war breaks out, Lincoln calls for volunteer troops in 1861,” he says. “Here in Galena, there are efforts to recruit young men to the cause.”
One of the recruits was not a young man at all. Bushrod Howard was a former state senator, an ex-harbor master and the acting postmaster in Galena. He had served alongside Gen. Grant during the Mexican-American War and was anxious to answer the call. His wife, Helen, was much less enthused.
“When she finds out, it doesn’t go well,” says Williams. “Helen is so angry at Bushrod that she won’t speak to him.”
Her anger simmers through Howard’s three months of basic training and is still white-hot when Bushrod and the rest of the first company of the 19th Illinois Regiment is called to Washington.
“She won’t speak to him,” says Williams. “She turns her back when he tries to say goodbye to her at the train station. Julia Grant [wife of Gen. Grant] witnesses this and writes about it in her diary.”
Their train never reached its destination. While they were crossing a ravine in southern Indiana, a trestle bridge collapsed and the men plunged to their deaths. After 10 days, the bodies were brought back to Galena and stored in the coldest spot in town – the basement of the DeSoto House.
“Shortly after this, the Lady in Black begins appearing in the basement,” says Williams.
Is the Lady in Black Bushrod’s heartbroken widow? Is she the wife, sweetheart, sister or mother to one of the other men killed in the crash? The answer remains unknown. She’s often spotted in one room in particular, where she drifts across the room, fogging up glassware with her chilling presence and then seemingly disappearing into a solid wall. In 2011, a massive rainstorm caused flooding in the hotel basement, leading to a major renovation. When workers tore down the Lady in Black’s favored wall, they discovered an ancient doorway that had been sealed in. The doorway is now on prominent display in what is now Generals’ Restaurant, with a decorative plaque to tell the story of the Lady in Black.
Haunted Galena Touring Company has other sinister tales about the DeSoto House.
“There are a number of rooms here that are consistently haunted,” says Williams. “There are a lot of different apparitions and forces here.”
Guests on the third floor will sometimes call the front desk complaining of loud parties going on above them.
“They’ll say, ‘There are people up there dancing, stomping their feet and playing a fiddle,” grins Williams.
Prior to 1880, the DeSoto House was a five-story building, but after a major renovation, the top two floors were removed.
“There was a ballroom on the fourth floor,” says Williams. “The residual energy of people partying and having fun is, apparently, happening in a spectral sense. I can assure you that, in February, there isn’t a hoedown happening on the roof.”
The next stop on the tour is the Old Market House, a two-story Greek Revival building that was a bustling commercial hub during Galena’s heyday. Completed in 1846, the building also served as the seat of local government and had two jail cells in its basement. After serving for a time as a visitor center, the building now sits abandoned … almost.
During the city’s river port days, Mary Ann Miller arrived by steamship with her escort, Jacob.
“The night she arrived, they were at the local taverns, drinking and dancing,” recounts Davis. “Then they started brawling. They were quickly arrested and taken to jail.”
The next morning, Mary Ann Miller and Jacob were escorted to the pier and told to leave town. Only Jacob complied. Mary Ann Miller stuck around Galena, drinking, carousing and causing all kinds of mayhem. She was arrested again. This time, however, she was tossed in one of the jail cells at the Old Market House.
“She was an unaccompanied woman, so the jailer wouldn’t throw her in prison with the other men,” says Davis. “Some time in the night there was a torrential rainstorm. The river jumped its banks, and the streets began to flood.”
Trapped in her jail cell, Mary Ann Miller drowned. She was found on the floor of her cell the next day and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Today, people still claim to see Mary Ann Miller walking the streets near the Old Market House and the cemetery. They also say they hear her in the basement, yelling and swearing at anyone who comes near. While the building was being refurbished as a welcome center, a worker was terrorized so badly that he ran from the site and never returned. Following the welcome center’s grand opening, a woman was trapped in the basement washroom and was mysteriously released after a terrifying few minutes. Later that night, she tearfully recounted her experience on a Haunted Galena Ghost Tour.
“She proceeded to tell everyone what happened to her in the basement of this building,” recalls Williams. “Mary Ann Miller is still here.”
Williams also has stories of knocking on the basement door at the back of the building, only to hear Mary Ann Miller knocking back. She is also known to park herself near one of the building’s air vents, using it to whisper sinister somethings in an unassuming visitor’s ear.
“It’s like she’s grabbed you and is whispering right in your ear,” says Williams. “It is extremely unsettling.”
If there is one happy ending to the tragic tale of Mary Ann Miller, it’s that the women of Galena took a stand to ensure the City of Galena no longer used the Old Market House jail cells to hold prisoners.
“Not one person was locked in the jail cells in the Market House again,” says Davis. “No one should die that way.”
Spirits On (and Off) the Stage
For almost a century, residents of DeKalb County, Ill., have been flocking to the Egyptian Theatre, 135 N. Second St. in DeKalb. When it opened in 1929, it was one of more than 100 theaters of its kind and a tribute to the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922, which sparked a nationwide fascination with Egypt. Today, only seven Egyptian-themed theaters remain, with DeKalb’s being the only one east of the Rocky Mountains. A member of the National Register of Historic Places, a Top 20 architectural treasure in Illinois and a fully modernized venue, it’s such a popular theater that some simply refuse to leave.
Just ask Jeanine Holcomb, communications and marketing director since 2017.
“We had a ghost tour last Friday and, when we were in the dressing room, we heard footsteps going across the stage,” she says. “It was perfection.”
The stage is one of the most haunted spots in the 1,400-seat theater, which means that acts like Cheap Trick, Ray Charles and Jay Leno, or visiting dignitaries like John F. Kennedy, might have shared the stage with a shadowy co-star.
“We have at least one ghost on the stage that we know about,” says Holcomb. “His name is Charles or Charlie or Chuck. That’s what a medium told us.”
Charles has been spotted on numerous separate occasions, including by the theater’s executive director, Alex Nerad.
“He was working here by himself late at night,” recalls Holcomb. “He turned around and there was a man in a navy blue or black mechanic’s jumpsuit. He was leaning on a broom or mop. They made eye contact, and the man disappeared.”
Charlie has also been known to shake the ropes that raise and lower lights and set pieces. He stalks across the stage and sometimes scatters the contents of garbage cans.
“There’s a lot of mischief, but the ghosts are very friendly,” says Holcomb.
The Egyptian Theatre, like Tinker Swiss Cottage, wears its ghostly activity on its sleeve. Holcomb frequently hosts haunted tours and welcomes paranormal investigators to sweep the venue with electronic equipment. Like Williams and Davis of Galena, Holcomb is struck with the oft-repeated tales.
“Some of our ghosts are on our Wikipedia page, but Charlie is not,” says Holcomb. “There’s just this repetition that is really interesting. I can’t explain it.”
What she can explain is the continuing connection with Irv Kummerfeldt, one of the co-founders of Preservation of the Egyptian Theatre, the group that was instrumental in the theater’s 1980s restoration. Kummerfeldt often stayed behind, after shows, to help clean the venue. It was during one of these cleanups that he suffered a fatal heart attack in Aisle One.
“He is very active,” says Holcomb. “We see a lot of shadow figures in Aisle One and we saw a video from one of the investigators of someone walking.”
According to a psychic, Kummerfeldt is still passionate about his beloved theater and does what he can to keep it ship-shape.
“He’s our guardian angel,” says Holcomb. “He’s making sure that all the work he put in is still going today.”
Also in the audience is the Woman in the Green Dress, who’s been spotted in the balcony.
“We think that she’s an actress,” says Holcomb. “We had a medium tell us that she knows she’s dead. This is just her happy place.”
Holcomb has also observed the ghosts seem more agitated when the theater experiences turbulence.
“When we were in the pandemic, they were very anxious,” she says. “When everything’s going well, they chill out. Sometimes we tell them, ‘It’s OK. We’re under control.’”
The most haunted part of the theater, however, is the dressing room. Holcomb, who has danced at the theater since she was a child, has always avoided one of the stalls in the women’s washroom.
“It gives me the heebie-jeebies,” she laughs. “The door has slammed shut and there have been bangs on the walls of the stall. There’s a lot of energy out of that stall.”
Holcomb has also experienced phantom touches on her back while in the dressing room. She also claims the spirit of a little boy roams the dressing room area – and it scared a group that had, ironically, set up a haunted attraction in the basement.
“We had a medium tell us that he likes to hang out in Dressing Room One,” says Holcomb.
Given the theater’s nearly century-long history, it’s little surprise to Holcomb that the Egyptian Theatre has attracted those who refuse to leave.
“It’s such an emotional space, whether you’re a performer or you just enjoy the arts,” says Holcomb. “It’s a place where your soul is fed, so to have that energy remain is pretty powerful.”