The Hauntings of McHenry County

23 October 2014
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Published in History

McHenry County’s legendary ghost stories — fact or fiction — always make for a spine-tingling Halloween season.

Everybody likes a good ghost story at Halloween time. It’s that time of year when even the great skeptics among us will bend an ear or two to local tales of terror.

Mysterious orbs of light near a settler’s grave, ghostly voices echoing down a darkened hallway, or footfalls coming from the second floor of a 19th century mansion, when we know nobody is upstairs — McHenry County certainly has its share of the unexplained. But are there really supernatural forces at work?

The truth is that the historical accuracy behind such tales is often lacking. Crystal Lake’s Palmer House is a good case in point. Legend has it that the ghosts of young orphans who had been tortured while living there can be heard crying out at midnight. Problem is, the Palmer House has never — not once in its 150-plus-year history — served as an orphanage. Nevertheless, such stories live on. And there is probably no better example of this phenomenon (an urban legend that will not die, so to speak) than McHenry County’s most celebrated ghost: Elvira.

Blonde Apparition or ‘Improbable Farce’?
The story of Elvira, resident specter of the Woodstock Opera House, usually takes one of two forms.  Most popular is that of the lovely young actress who leapt to her death from atop the building’s bell tower, sometime in the distant past, evidently in despair over losing the leading role in an upcoming ballet.

Version two is similar, holding only that a broken heart had caused the woman’s despair, not a director’s whim, and rather than leaping to her death, she hanged herself, again, from the iconic belfry. According to both tales, Elvira now occupies seat number 113 in the balcony as a permanent member of the audience.  

“The story changes, depending on who’s telling it,” explained John Scharres, managing director at the Opera House. “And how much they’ve had to drink.”

Witnesses to Elvira’s antics over the years claim to have seen and heard some strange things, indeed — the unnatural lowering of seat 113, props being knocked off stage, the apparition of a blonde-haired beauty. At times, feint sings of approval or displeasure are said to emanate from the balcony during rehearsals, as Elvira, the ghost, appears to have become quite the theater critic, too. And yes, these witnesses include many actors — admittedly a superstitious lot.  

It was famous actor Shelley Berman, well before his Carnegie Hall days and stints on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Twilight Zone,” who invented the legend of Elvira. While performing with the Woodstock Players in the late 1940s, Berman first claimed to have seen seat 113 mysteriously rise up unattended one night while he was alone, working on a stage set. The Players were at that time putting on the English comedy, “Blithe Spirit,” billed appropriately as an “improbable farce.” Another future celebrity, Paul Newman, starred opposite the lead female role in that play — a ghost named Elvira. And so the urban legend was born.

“Old creaky theaters are supposed to have ghosts,” Scharres said. “We have fun with it. We performed a parody of the Elvira legend once, and we joke about how our ghost light — a safety light that all theaters have — helps guide Elvira at night. But there are those out there who think everything on TV is real. So we do get a lot of ghost hunters. They always leave disappointed.”

The fact (sadly, for ghost hunters) is that the Elvira tale is without merit. The suicide? It never happened. “You’d think such a sordid event at city hall would have made the headlines, wouldn’t you?” added Scharres, who after 33 years at the opera house has thoroughly researched the building’s 120-year history.  “The National Inquirer once did a story on Elvira — without talking to anyone in Woodstock! It got us some publicity, sure, and also caused a security issue as we’ve definitely had our share of nutcases come around. Vandals, too. It’s an old legend, and it’s my challenge to counter it before it comes back to haunt us.”

Rounded Corners … Save but One
Elvira is, of course, not alone. Other tales of the supernatural — some with substantially more history to back them up, and some as plainly fictional as the Palmer House orphanage — are told around McHenry County campfires on these chilly autumn nights.

For pure spookiness, it’d be hard to beat the Stickney House in Bull Valley. For years a favorite haunt of local teens — until, that is, the mid-1980s when the Bull Valley City Hall (i.e., the neighborhood cops) moved in — this unique home does invite some curiosity.

George Stickney was the first white man to settle in Nunda Township. He arrived in 1835, three years ahead of government surveyors, and staked a claim in frontier land then occupied only by American Indians. His first home was a typical log cabin. Other settlers followed from the East and a small township (originally called Brooklyn) was formed.

George and his wife Sylvia became its leading citizens and, by all accounts, suffered great tragedies in life. Only three of their 10 children reached adulthood. No doubt owing in part to these personal losses, they became devout practitioners of Spiritualism, attending séances and attempting through mediums to communicate with the spirit world.

So deeply did the couple embrace this fashionable new religion that they built a home designed specifically for its practice. And so it was that the Stickney House came to have no corners; for, adherents of 19th century Spiritualism like the Stickneys believed that corners prevented ghosts from roaming freely and might well lead to a séance gone terribly wrong, perhaps unintentionally trapping the souls of their lost progeny in this world.  

Here is where the urban legend comes in: George Stickney died an old man, and, as the story goes, his final breath came in the one room in the house where the architect had inexplicably erred and built a 90-degree corner. Stickney’s corpse was found with a look of terror upon its face; his ghost said to be ensnared to this day in that room.

Generations of curious trespassers have explored the old rounded house and swear by uneasy feelings of being followed, of sudden cold spots and of threatening voices warning them to “go away.”

Unfortunately, owing to more recent renovations — the large upstairs ballroom once used for séances has been converted to storage rooms by the Bull Valley Police Department — the existence of an isolated corner in the interior of the Stickney House cannot be validated.

Disturbance at the Dole
Century-and-a-half-old sites like the Stickney House and Woodstock Opera House provide the perfect canvas for such colorful ghost stories. Similar odd occurrences are told, for example, about the Dole Mansion in Crystal Lake.

This sprawling 1860s mansion with its 1920s addition is now home to the Lakeside Legacy Arts Park, and some of McHenry County’s most creative artists.  
One popular vision is that of a woman in white (sometimes it’s a child) looking out from an attic window, silhouetted by a soft glowing light. Yet, once again, any historical record — a murder, a suicide, a family tragedy — that might provide an explanation for this spectral vision proves to be very elusive.

Harmless Fun
Still, ghost stories abound. The skeptic will point to pigeons in the loft, an old furnace kicking in at night or nocturnal critters making their way through the walls to explain the supposed presence of the supernatural.

Indeed, old homes make noises and the moonlight at times plays tricks on our eyes. But there is no harm, especially as we approach Halloween, in suspending disbelief for an evening and sharing a scary story or two.

You just might realize that the legend of Elvira, in its inimitable way, is real (if not true), and that she will long remain a part of our local heritage.