By Troy Taylor
Galesburg has left its mark on Illinois history. Not only is it the birthplace of author Carl Sandburg, but it is also the home of George Ferris, the man who invented the "Ferris Wheel" for the Columbian Exposition in 1893. The city is also home to a number of ghosts!
Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, birthplace of the famed Illinois author Carl Sandburg, was founded in 1837 as a manual arts college on the untamed Illinois prairie. It has also made its dent in Illinois history.... the Old Main Building on campus is the only remaining site of one of the seven Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates that took place throughout the state in 1858. The location of the debate was on a platform constructed above the doors in the center of the building. Balcony doors were supposed to open onto the stage, but because of the platform's construction, Lincoln and Douglas were forced to crawl onto it through open windows.
With a history that dates back so many years, the college is bound to have its share of macabre stories that include haunted dorm rooms, sorority house and apartments, but a few stories stand out above the rest!
For the last several years, I have traveled annually to Galesburg to meet with Professor Tim Kasser and to speak for his class on "Death and Dying" at Knox College. While were there, Tim always arranges for us to visit several spots in Galesburg (some related to Knox College... some not) that are purportedly haunted. While a number of the locations have not worked out quite the way that we had hoped... several of them have certainly been worth the trip!
THE OLD KNOX COUNTY JAIL
The Old Knox County Jail
The old Knox County Jail is now the property of the college and a portion of it is used for office space for the university. Another portion of it looks just as it did before the prisoners left. But is there no escape from here... even after death?
The Knox County Jail building is located just across the street from the university campus and was built in 1874 to house those incarcerated by the county. The building continued in this operation until 1976 when it was then turned into a private residence. The county sheriff's home had previously been inside the building, so it was easily adapted into living quarters. The cell block and the solitary confinement cells were left untouched until Knox College purchased the building a few years ago. It has since been turned into office space for the college and is used daily by staff members... some of whom report having some uncomfortable encounters in the building. Several of them admit to feeling uncomfortable while inside and even claim to have heard and seen things that they can't quite explain.
One of these staff members is John Steller, who met us at the old jail on the evening of our visit. Shortly after the college took the building over, John was in the rear part of the building where the cell block is located. He was on the north side of the building and had climbed up to the second tier of cells. He had just passed the second cell from the right when he was overcome by a horrible sensation. "It was so strong, I just had to back out of there and get away from it," he said. A short time later, a reception was held in the building and one of the attendees was a former guard at the jail. John asked him, in conversation, if there had ever been any escapes from the jail. "Just one, " the retired guard told him, "and I can show you where."
He led John into the north section of the cell block and pointed to a window that was high off the floor. He explained that a prisoner had cut through a bar in the window and escaped. He was caught a couple of days later and brought back to jail. A short time after his escaped attempt, the man committed suicide..... in the second cell from the right, on the second tier of cells!
Had John encountered the lingering spirit of this luckless prisoner? Possibly... because other people have also complained about strange sensations, especially in the solitary confinement room known as the "hole". This narrow cell was located in the basement and anyone placed inside of it would have been cramped into a long, narrow room that was perhaps two feet wide.... and in total darkness! It is likely that the terror felt by the men placed in this cell has left an impression behind..... During our investigation, I climbed into the "hole" and was amazed to find that all of my equipment immediately went dead... something that had never happened to me before! Then, at another spot in the basement, my video camera failed... only to work again in a different part of the room. Could some of the prisoners of the old Knox County Jail still be waiting for their parole?
Our investigations with Professor Tim Kasser and his students at Knox College also led us to a house which is located on West Street, very near to the Knox campus. In fact, the house and the college have connections that even go beyond death itself.....
The house belongs to the Godsil's, a large Catholic family who made us welcome in their home. If you have ever wondered how it could be possible for someone to make a ghost a part of their family... then you have to meet the Godsil family, and you will understand. This happy, busy and loving family has enough room for ten children, more than two dozen grandchildren, a great-grandchild and..... one very hard-to-miss ghost.
The after-life story of Orval Cobb actually begins in 1943, but let's jump ahead a few years to when the Godsil's first moved into the house on December 31, 1964. The dwelling had previously been used as an apartment house, so with its many rooms, it was just right for the large family to move into. Shortly after they took up residence, they began to notice they were not in the house alone. The older children seemed to notice things first, planning to keep the ghostly activity a secret from their younger siblings. But before long, everyone had story to tell... even their father, who had been skeptical about anything strange going on for some time. One afternoon, while he was in the house alone, he went down to the basement to do some work. He heard the sound of someone walking through the house above his head and assuming one of the kids had come home, he went upstairs to look. He found that no one else was there. Thinking the sound must have just been the old house settling, he went back downstairs..... and that's when the footsteps started again! He searched the house again and found no one.... he was now a believer.
The footsteps weren't the only thing the family noticed, but they were the most frequent. They describe them as "heavy" and they should know.... they have heard them tromping about all over the house on many occasions... through the hallway, into the rooms, up and down the stairs....everywhere! They also sensed the presence of someone standing inside the rooms on many occasions and had that feeling that someone might be just over their shoulder. The girls in the family also reported never feeling alone while taking a shower.... as if they had caught the interest of a healthy young man! The ghost also had the habit of knocking on doors and doing other things to get attention, like causing items to disappear and then putting them in strange places later on. Several members of the family have also caught glimpses of a shadowy figure around corners, in reflections, just past doorways and out of the corner of the eye. He has been frequently seen in a small parlor that is located just off the dining room.
The ghost had never done anything destructive or mean to anyone in the house and in fact, seems to like the family and enjoys being part of the hustle and bustle of daily life with the large group. But sometimes he is still frightening.... and this, I believe, is one of the main reasons that the Godsil's chose to try and discover just who this ghost might be.... and why he was haunting the house on West Street.
They started out by searching the old files of the library and the archives of the college, following one single lead.... someone told them that a Knox student had died at the house many years ago. The boy's name had been Orval Cobb and he had been a freshman at Knox College in 1943. He was from St. Charles, Illinois near Chicago and most remembered him as a bright, fun-loving youth who had been an honor student and well-liked by his classmates. When Orval came to Knox, he enrolled as an chemistry major and soon found that he was in over his head. His grades plunged and despair began to set in. He felt overwhelmed by his classes and some say he may have feared being drafted into the military too. Finally, on the eve of a big chemistry test, Orval committed suicide, leaving a poem and a long letter behind, detailing why he felt that he was a failure and why he felt that he had no reason to go on. Ironically, Orval stole a mixture of potassium cyanide from the chemistry lab with which to do the deed. He was found dead by a friend the next morning in the front upstairs room of the house, now used as a bedroom by the Godsil family.
By this time, the Godsil's were sure they had discovered the identity of the ghost and it appears they are right. The haunting has continued to go on for many years since and the family has come to accept him as their own, even visiting Orval's former home, and his grave, in St. Charles.
You have to admit... it is ironic the way that it has all turned out. Orval Cobb took his own life because he believed that he was a failure, a loser and an outsider.... it wasn't until he was dead for more than fifty years before his seemed to find his place.... in life.
THE MYSTERIOUS FIRES...
On a recent trip to the Galesburg area, Professor Kasser got us in touch with the owners of a remote and secluded piece of farmland that was also said to be haunted. In addition, it was believed to have been the site of either a Native American village or burial ground, or perhaps both. As you can imagine, such alleged sites are plentiful, but this one also boasted some rather unique phenomena. According to historical records and eyewitness accounts, five different homes and structures that had been located on this land had mysterious burned down over a 100 year period. While this many not seem like many over this period of time, you have to remember this is a farm that is located some distance from town. No explanation was ever discovered for any of the fires.
On the night of our investigation, the last owner of a home on the property was supposed to meet us there. He declined to come and explained later, via a telephone interview, that he was just "too unnerved by the place." He told us that he had spent a lot of time trying to forget what he had seen there and didn't want to bring it all back again. In the course of the interview, he recounted sightings of strange lights and balls of "fire" on the ground around the house and in the woods, an apparition sighting of an old man, and of course, the inexplicable fire that burned down his home and barn.
The strangest event involved a photo that he had taken one afternoon of a new cattle lot that he had constructed near the barn. After the photo was developed, he discovered the image of a woman who looked as though she was "wearing Native American-type clothing" , he told me. Dozens of people saw this photo, some of whom I have spoken with, but unfortunately it was destroyed in the fire that claimed the house.
Shortly after arriving at the location, two investigators independently witnessed glowing lights on the edge of an open field near the woods. In the course of walking through the field, I was able to record one of the "lights" or objects with an IR video camera. I ended up with only seconds of very grainy and hard to identify footage, but it was enough to convince me that the location was worthy of continued investigations in the future. We'll keep you updated!
© Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
For more information about Troy Taylor, visit his website: