• Editor’s note: The Illinois bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers created stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the bicentennial, which was celebrated Monday.
Illinois boasts a hair-raising history rife with spine-tingling stories – and that’s just with politics.
Otherwise, the state’s heritage brims with tall tales of mythical beasts, spooky legends and ghost stories. Here are a few of the highlights:
In the earliest years of the 20th century, the Peoria State Hospital in Bartonville was home to a dear, mute man known only as A. Bookbinder. Strong and steady, he would dig graves for asylum funerals, ending each by sobbing hysterically and leaning on a tree that became famously known as the Graveyard Elm. In June 1910, Old Book went the way of all men, and the entire asylum came out for his farewell. Near the end, an apparition appeared at the Graveyard Elm.
It was Old Book, weeping and moaning as always. But as soon as startled officials cracked open his casket to double-check on the dead man’s whereabouts, the crying ceased, and Old Book’s form vanished from the tree. Inside the coffin, onlookers spotted Old Book’s peaceful face.
The Piasa bird – actually more like a dragon, with red eyes, a menacing beard, scales and lengthy tail – preyed on Native Americans, eating them alive until a local chief, Chief Ouatoga, lured it out of its cave, using himself as bait.
When the creature flew out, an ambush of warriors slayed it with a volley of poisoned arrows. A mural was said to have been painted (possibly more than 3,000 years ago) as a commemoration of the event.
Although the original mural is gone, a new one has taken its place.
Cole Hollow Road monster
In July 1972, an East Peoria teen reported that he and friends had spotted a white, hairy, foul-smelling, 12-foot monster around Cole Hollow Road.
“It lets out a long screech – like an old steam engine whistle, only more humany,” the teen said.
As many as 200 armed men combed the area but found nothing. During the search, one man accidentally shot himself trying to bag a deer. The hoopla died down before anyone else got hurt.
In 1991, the same teen said the report was a hoax. However, that same year, East Peoria police got a call from an anonymous local woman. She said she’d been driving on Cole Hollow Road when an “8-foot-tall hairy beast” grabbed the back of her pickup truck and refused to let go. The “beast” finally relented and let her speed off. That sighting never has been explained.
The Enfield horror
In the 1940s, a leaping, monkey-like creature was spotted in Mount Vernon. Thirty years later, a similar beast – although now with three legs and eyes as bright as flashlights – was seen several times in nearby Enfield, including one report from a local radio newsman.
What was it? Guesses ranged from an alien to a deformed kangaroo to a chemistry experiment gone bad.
Legend says that in the 1930s, a young woman got into a fight with her boyfriend and left a ballroom on Archer Avenue in Chicago. Down the road, she was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver who was never caught.
Distraught, Mary’s parents laid her body to rest in Resurrection Cemetery, in the same outfit from the night of the dance. Since 1939, people have reported seeing a woman wearing a white dress on the side of the road. Sometimes, she is picked up from the side of the road or given a ride home from a neighborhood dance, but she invariably vanishes when a car passes the cemetery.
In July 1973, in the Logan County village of Lawndale, two massive birds swooped down; one carried off a child, only to drop the lad within seconds. Around that time, other sightings of oversized fowl were reported in central Illinois.
Farmer City monster
The 1970s teemed with monster sightings, but this one – hulking shape, bright yellow eyes – was witnessed by a Farmer City cop. Reports began one July, when three teens encountered it at their campsite in a field near Salt Creek, and spread to Bloomington, Heyworth and Waynesville.
Everyone who saw it noted its glowing eyes, but it was not an aggressive creature. At each encounter, the Farmer City monster fled as soon as it had been spotted.
Lake Michigan serpent
Between 1867 and 1890, Chicago newspapers raved over sightings of a scaled serpent 40 to 50 feet in length, very dark blue, with a grayish-white belly.
In 1867, a fisherman gave a very detailed description of the creature, claiming it had come within 20 feet of his boat. It was swimming about a mile and a half off the shore of the South Side of Chicago.
This hairy, smelly biped (known as “Big Muddy”) was seen several times in the summer of 1973 lurking near Murphysboro along the banks of the Big Muddy River.
Like Peoria’s Cole Hollow Road monster, the Murphysboro creature was described as being 7 feet tall and covered in matted, white fur. Police officers found several tracks at the scene of the first sighting, and even heard its “inhuman” cry.
After a few weeks of intense scrutiny, the Murphysboro mud monster disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived.
Stump Pond serpent
Between 1879 and 1968, fishermen in Perry County spun yarns about a serpent that dwelled in the murky waters of Stump Pond. The creature was described as having a thick, green body with black fins. It was large enough to rock boats.
When the lake was partially drained in 1968, local residents discovered catfish that weighed more than 30 pounds, so it is possible that the Stump Pond serpent was a giant catfish.
Sources: Peoria Journal Star, The Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, roadtrippers.com, Mysterious Heartland and thecryptocrew.com.