Haunts from Peoria's Past

by Amy Groh

Like many other cities, Peoria is home to numerous legends of resident ghosts and haunted buildings. Adults, rebellious teens and fearful children alike spend hours investigating supposed hauntings, trying more than anything to satisfy their curiosity. Some of these explorers are a bit more involved in the paranormal and have made careers out of trying to prove or disprove the tales. Our own curiosity prompted us to do some research on the subject as well—here’s a look at some of what we dug up.

When it comes to the haunts of central Illinois, there’s none more famous than the Peoria State Hospital for the Incurable Insane located in Bartonville. When it opened in 1902 under the direction of Dr. George A. Zeller, the hospital was a revolutionary mental institution. Under Zeller’s direction, the facility utilized innovative therapies and treated patients with dignity and respect, unlike many other facilities of its time.

And, perhaps there’s no living person more familiar with the Bartonville hospital than Pekin’s Rob Conover of Conover Paranormal Investigations. In his years as a paranormal investigator, Conover has taken many people through the old hospital. He claims to have helped 28 of its spirits cross over to the other side, and says there are still two who refuse to leave.

Local Legend Debunked

Many central Illinoisans have heard of the haunted “Old Stone Church” in Limestone. Maybe you’ve heard the story about the church caretaker who shoots at nighttime visitors in search of the rumored ghost. Perhaps you know the one about the guy who died in a car accident on Old Stone Church Road long ago. The legend goes that you can sometimes see his ghost near his truck by the church as you drive past. Most who claim to have seen them say that, by the time they get close enough to determine if the man and vehicle are real, they’re gone.

Father Bill Swatos, priest-in-charge at the church since the fall of 2006, gave me insight on both of the legends associated with Old Stone Church, now properly called Christ Church Limestone. The former story “is absolutely true,” Swatos said, “but it is inaccurate to refer to him as a caretaker. He was the lay leader of the congregation, and he and his wife would sit out there to protect the church and cemetery from vandals.” He emphasized that the church and cemetery are private property, and those who ventured out there at night to catch a glimpse of the ghost were trespassing. What most people don’t know—what the legend doesn’t say—is that the man himself was shot at by trespassers.

Because there were so many instances of trespassing and vandalism at “Old Stone Church,” an electronic security system was installed some years ago. After the system was triggered by vandals in 2005 or ’06, and they were successfully prosecuted, the occurrence of criminal activities at the church has died down a bit, though not altogether.

As for the latter story, Swatos suggests, “Since the one is not in any sense a haunting story, but an accurate account of protective methods employed by the church to prevent vandalism, and whatever the truth about the accident, I think the car lights may equally well be associated with other security measures that the church has taken in the past, especially before the advent of contemporary electronic systems.”

The clergy and congregation take illegal activity on their property very seriously. A significant amount of money is spent on security measures, and all who go out seeking spirits or demons will not only be disappointed, but prosecuted. “The only demon there seems to be ‘demon rum,’” said Swatos.

Peoria Plays Paranormal

The Peoria Players Theatre is said to be haunted by the ghost of Norman Endean, a former actor and director at the theatre who died at the young age of 3434. The stories say he lingers backstage and in the women’s dressing room, often flushing toilets.

John B. Kachuba’s book, Ghosthunting Illinois, tells the tale of the haunted Myer Jacobs Theatre at Bradley University. Students and faculty alike say the “Lady in Brown” has been seen on numerous occasions throughout the years, especially in the dark tunnel under the stage that runs to the orchestra pit.

Jim Langley, a former associate professor in the theatre department, has said footprints appeared in the middle of a freshly painted set one night when he was alone in the building. From the shape of the prints, as well as the location, Langley said he didn’t see how they could have been from anyone other than a ghost.

The Lady in Brown is said to be a student who drowned in the pool decades ago when the building was a gymnasium called Hewitt Hall. A second presence is also rumored to be present in the Meyer Jacobs Theatre—something, or someone, that messes with the electricity, causing stage lights and sound equipment to go haywire.

Investigating the Other Side

Conover describes what he does as “clearing spirits,” or “helping them through the light.” In essence, he believes that, for whatever reason, the spirits of some people don’t leave earth after they die like they’re supposed to. Typically, after just a few hours of conversation with the spirits, Conover can help them understand what it is they need to do to move on. Some of them, he said, need help gathering the courage to go into the light and experience the uncertainties of life after death.

A former marine and a private detective for 18 years, Conover was pushed into the paranormal investigative business after a traumatic accident. “I think that sometimes when people experience emotional or physical traumas, a part of the brain they never used before gets opened up, and I think that’s what happened to me,” he recounted. “It took me a year to deal with it, and another year to decide if I wanted to do anything with [my gift] or not.” He eventually embraced it and now focuses his time and energy on helping others by using the abilities he has been given.

Conover doesn’t claim any of the credit for the work he does clearing spirits. Calling himself a tool of God, he explained, “When I get called to these houses or businesses to help these people, I think that it’s because it’s time. I give God credit for everything I do.” Conover explained that he had very little faith before his accident, but through this work he has been called to do, he has come to believe with certainty that there is more to life after death.

A Cool, Electric Feeling

When he begins a case, Conover first talks with the family about their situation and reassures them that they will soon have their house back. He then does a walk-through of the house, during which he locates the presence of any spirits and determines how many there are. “If I walk into an area and they’re there, I know it immediately,” he said. “The feeling I get is kind of like sticking your finger in a light socket. There’s no pain, but there’s this cool, electric feeling from head to toe that lets me know I’m in the presence of a spirit. That’s when I start talking to them—letting them know who I am and that I’m not there to harm them, but to help them.”

Part of Conover’s gift is his ability to converse with spirits. While others around him are unable to understand what the spirits say, Conover says he hears them very clearly, as if he was talking to a living person.

When asked if spirits usually want to leave or if they fight to stay, Conover explained that the most reluctant ones are those who lived evil lives. “I always give God the credit because, for some reason, I always find the right thing to say that helps them move through that light.” He said they usually stay only if they have unfinished business, want to tell someone something, feel guilty or are afraid of what will happen when they cross over.

Through the Light

Through the light is a phrase Conover uses often when discussing how he helps clear spirits from homes. He describes it as “the most beautiful light-blue with white streaks in a doorway that you’ve ever seen.” No one he has taken with him on a case has seen the light as Conover does, but he credits it with helping him do his job from the very beginning. The feeling he gets when he sees it is just awesome, he said—it’s what has kept him in the paranormal business.

Conover said it takes about two hours, on an average case, to help a spirit through the light. When he finally clears the house of the spirit, everyone in the building knows it right away. “The entire atmosphere of the house immediately changes. It gets calmer, it gets more normal.”

He recounts the tale of one house in which the spirit was so cold that the homeowners had turned up the thermostat to compensate for it. After Conover helped the spirit leave, they had to turn it back down because there was such a drastic change that everyone began sweating from the heat.

Paranormal Peoria

Rob Conover isn’t the only paranormal investigator in town. There are a number of loose-knit groups who investigate the possible haunts of Peoria, including the Central Illinois Paranormal Investigative Team, Central Illinois Paranormal Association and Central Illinois Paranormal Investigators. Each of these organizations takes people on tours of local haunts, trying to determine whether the sites are actually haunted or if the story is just that—a story. Whether true or not, we can’t say. All we know is what we’ve been told. a&s