Alton: Hauntings on the River

By Landon Cole, Contributing Writer

Pictures and facts provided by Kaylan Schardan, Luke Naliborski, Alton Hauntings, and Visit Alton

Gracing many “top ten” lists of America’s most haunted towns is the not-so-scenic Alton, Illinois. If you’re aware of our creepy neighbor’s notoriety, your mind has likely drifted to the Old McPike Mansion – an abandoned and highly-supernatural locale where people can pay to spend the night. However, there are dozens of thoroughly haunted spots in the town beside the mansion. Tour company Alton Hauntings offers bus and walking tours to show small groups around these places late at night. As a non-believer, I tagged along with a small group of friends, hoping to at least learn a bit about the history of Alton.

I got more than I bargained for.

The first stop on the tour was the Enos Sanitorium. Built in 1857, this brick house that now serves as an apartment building was constructed by the abolitionist Nathaniel Hanson. The building served its first life as a stop on the underground railroad. Former slaves on their long journey to freedom would cross the Mississippi river under cover of night and Hanson would pick them up in a covered wagon and shuttle them to his home.

The freed men, women, and children hid silent and terrified for days in the long, narrow, and pitch-black tunnel constructed in the basement as a hiding spot. The Alton Hauntings tours provide tourists the unique experience of standing in this very tunnel – lights out – where countless stories of supernatural experiences have originated.

The Alton Hauntings – the tunnel

The Enos Sanitorium gained its name sake from its purchase and repurposing as a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1911 by Dr. W.H. Enos. Tuberculosis was uncurable at this time, and though we don’t have any accurate current estimates, this building saw many deaths.

Numerous residents of the apartments have reported hearing footsteps and loud noises from the floors above them only to realize nobody was up there. Objects turn up missing in the apartment only to appear later, adding to the unexplained occurrences in the building. “Oddly enough,” quipped our tour guide Sandy, “the residents never seem to stay long.”

Another notable visit is the burial site of the Old Alton Prison. This 256 cell state prison opened in 1833 and closed in 1857 after a new facility was built in Joliet. In 1862, the US government reopened the prison to house confederate POWs during the Civil War. Over the course of the war, the prison housed over 11,000 inmates, often running far beyond capacity. Deaths at the prison were commonplace, and prisoners faced harsh conditions and regular outbreaks of diseases such as smallpox and rubella. These outbreaks caused the self-appointed warden to quarantine the entire prison, including guards, staff, and officers. Bodies were stacked in the halls until the rat infestation grew out of control and a mass grave was dug in the prison yard. 1,534 Confederate soldiers and many Union soldiers and civilians are known to have died there.

Old Alton Prison

100 years later in the 1960s, the city of Alton is expanding. Most of the limestone prison is demolished and ground into gravel to pave the roads of the town. However, when bones are found near the unmarked mass grave, construction on the land is halted, and a memorial is erected out of the remaining limestone blocks.

Now, in the middle of downtown Alton, little more than a stack of limestone bricks and a small gravel pit mark the mass grave. Stories of dark figures standing guard are shared by the local bar-goers as they stagger past the impromptu tomb.

The final stop of the tour is the First Unitarian Church. On the top of the hill on Third Street stands the ominous building, constructed in 1905 upon the foundation of a Catholic church that burnt down just years before.

In 1928, Reverend Phillip Mercer, a British immigrant, moved to Alton and was accepted by the Unitarians, eventually becoming their pastor. Mercer was well liked by the community and did not have a home of his own, instead choosing to stay with the families in the church, moving from home to home. Despite this, little is known of Mercer’s personal life, of which he shared very little. Mercer was a skilled orator and was considered the gem of the community; people would travel miles from surrounding towns to hear him preach.

One Sunday morning in 1934, Mercer preached his sermon, more nervous and gaunter than usual, and immediately left town claiming he was to see a concert performance in St. Louis. Sometime that week, Mercer’s body was found hanging lifeless from the transom of his office in the First Unitarian Church. The absence of a note, as well as the reverend’s disheveled clothes, caused many to suspect murder, but the death was ultimately ruled a suicide.

Since then, the figure of a man in formal attire has been photographed and sighted countless times in the old church. EMF’s and “ghost box” recordings of the phrase “get out” are also common. Tour guide Luke Naliborski presented dozens of photos of the same figure with a clearly defined suit and tie standing at the pulpit and down the hall where Mercer’s office once was.

Overall, the Alton Hauntings tour was a fascinating and genuinely creepy experience. Its culmination at the First Unitarian Church was especially bone-chilling as we watched EMF devices blink rapidly in response to questions regarding the late reverend. I would suggest this tour to any local history nerd or paranormal nut looking for a fun October activity.

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