From mysterious deaths to swamp monsters to UFOs, author Chad Lewis entertained audiences at the Oregon and Mt. Morris Public Libraries Nov. 2 with the results of his investigation into “The Bizarre History of Illinois.”
Although Lewis’ research has focused mainly on Illinois, he readily admitted that his home state of Wisconsin has had its share of strange occurrences as well, most notoriously serial killers Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer.
In the bizarre deaths category, Lewis recounted that a century ago, people were very concerned about being buried alive — and with good reason.
Lacking modern techniques for determining that death had indeed occurred, he cited instances of people being pronounced dead and sometimes coming back to life at their funerals — if they were lucky.
Consequently, escape mechanisms were invented, such as spring-loaded coffin lids with a latch on the inside and bells in cemeteries with a pull rope running into the newly buried coffin.
“On many nights the wind set these bells off, giving the caretaker, who spent the night at the cemetery, quite a scare,” Lewis said. “But they may be where the expression ‘saved by the bell’ comes from.”
He gave accounts of ghostly apparitions, mainly women who suffered violent deaths, and even a phantom house.
The house, Lewis said, is the site of where a woman who lost her mind killed her seven children and then burned the house down with their bodies inside, losing her own life, as well.
The phantom house reportedly appears from time to time.
“The dare is that if you go into that house you will never come out,” Lewis said.
He also recounted the story of Dora Meeks, of Centralia, who is said to have gone into a Sleeping Beauty-like trance for 108 days.
“Sadly, her Prince Charming couldn’t awaken her,” he said.
Under strange creatures, Lewis described reports of an eight-foot furry monster emerging from the Big Muddy River near Murphysboro and werewolves living in caves near Alton.
UFOs have also been spotted in the Prairie State, he said.
A mysterious airship reportedly raced a train crew near Peoria for 12 miles in 1909, and back in 1897 an airship is said to have landed near Springfield with its occupants making contact with local residents.
In his investigations, Lewis said he tries to sort fact from fiction. He said he is not really sure if the places he has visited are actually haunted but leave that up to his audiences to decide.
“The majority of times I’m there nothing happens but many unsuspecting people have seen things,” he said.
“The world is crazy today but the world was crazy 100 years,” Lewis summed up. “You live in one helluva weird state.”