Interest in the paranormal and paranormal research has been documented since the 19th century. And the advent of such shows as “Ghost Hunters” and “Destination Fear,” among others, in the past 15 years has brought the realm of the paranormal into the mainstream and into the world of tourism.
Whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, the intrigue of what might (or might not) be on “the other side” has been a boon to places with a storied history of hauntings.
Haunted history in Galena
Amelia Wilson has operated her business, Amelia’s Galena (Ill.) Ghost Tours, for 10 years. Her shuttle bus tours are popular and run year-round.
“We have small buses for our tours that carry 12 people or less,” she said. “We stop at Old City Cemetery and tour the first floor of the Ryan Mansion.”
Wilson said the tours also include a big dose of local history.
“Our tours are really about telling the history of the location,” she said. “We like to tell the story of who used to live there and what their life was like.”
The tour includes a guide and a driver and covers approximately 8 miles through downtown Galena. Ghost hunting equipment is provided for those who want to give it a try.
“We use a REM pod and spirit box,” Wilson said. “It’s the same things you see on ghost hunting shows. We don’t guarantee anything, but we have plenty of experiences.”
Classic storytelling and haunted locations are also the hallmarks of Haunted Galena Tour Company, operated by husband-and-wife team Ted Williams and Robyn Davis.
The couple focuses on history rather than hauntings, but sometimes the two intersect.
“It’s a way to learn the history of Galena from a different perspective,” Davis said. “Everything that we talk about is historic fact. So it’s a really fun way to learn about Galena’s past.”
Focusing on their storytelling talents and their knowledge of Galena history, the couple didn’t really expect anything paranormal when they began the tours, although there were plenty of stories about haunted locations.
“At first we thought this would be great,” Williams said. “We’ll be right in front of places like the DeSoto House and the Dowling House, which is the oldest house in Galena, and we can share history. What we didn’t expect was that people would start capturing paranormal phenomena on their cameras.”
“It doesn’t always happen,” Davis said. “The main focus of our tour is historic. We talk about the paranormal, but we’re not ghost hunters. We’re not looking for it, but sometimes it does break through.”
A paranormal destination for TV shows
In 1911, Jones County tore down its old farmhouse-style poor farm residence in what is today Monticello, Iowa, and built a 12,000-square-foot modern structure.
Edinburgh Manor housed the indigent, the homeless and the insane.
In the early 20th century, the insane moniker was attached to anyone who didn’t conform to societal norms either emotionally or physically. Those with epilepsy, depression or compulsive disorders, or people who had no mental issues at all, shared space with people who were seriously mentally ill.
As long as individuals were physically mobile and could work on the 200-acre farm, they could live there regardless of their emotional stability.
There were no doctors or nurses on staff, and residents didn’t receive any kind of treatment. They were housed and fed as long as they could work.
Jones County leased the space for a time to a nonprofit that provided mental health services, but the building shut down for good in 2010.
Cindy Anderson, Edinburgh’s manor coordinator, said the owners simply wanted to save the historic property and had no knowledge of the stories that had circulated for years about the property being haunted.
“That was never on the radar,” she said. “This is just a really, really cool building. It’s been here for a long time. It has a lot of history.”
Paranormal stories aside, the haste in which the residents left is evident.
“Everything that is here was pretty much here when (the owners) took possession,” she said. “Beds, toys, dressers. The dressers still have clothes in them.”
Stories include that of Susie, a little girl who sings in the halls and moves toys in the bedrooms.
“I’ve actually heard her sing,” Anderson said. “And that was yet another scenario — she was dropped off here and left. If you believe that someone else could take better care of your child, would you do that? It did happen here.”
In the basement, an entity known as “The Joker” enjoys scaring and touching people. Anderson doesn’t believe he’s evil, but rather is just trying to intimidate people. It’s something she said probably happened often as residents just tried to survive.
“That was the time they lived in, and that was the best they could do,” she said.
Paranormal groups have investigated Edinburgh Manor, and the building has been featured on shows such as “Destination Fear” and “Ghost Adventures.”
“I’ve not felt anything malevolent here,” Anderson said. “I’ve personally been pushed, had my hair pulled, seen people scratched. But I don’t believe that’s malevolent. I always keep in mind the type of people that lived here. Many had some mental illness. Their communication skills were different.”
The sign in front of Edinburgh Manor reads, “Country Living at its Best.” Anderson knows that wasn’t the case for many who passed through its doors, and she has empathy for the souls who might or might not still be there.
“When it was the poor farm, a husband and wife would run it. They lived here, got some stipend from the government, and it was their job to take care of the farm and the residents,” she said. “We don’t know how good a job they did. They may have been horrible people who didn’t take care of it. Bad things may have happened here. Even today, we know that those in charge will sometimes take advantage of those who can’t help themselves. It’s just a fact of human nature. So there is that kind of feeling here.”
Frightfully fine food, spirits and fun
For those who prefer their October celebrations more on the sedate side, Amelia’s Ghost Tours and Haunted Galena Tour Company both offer food and drink with a side of haunted fun.
At Amelia’s Under the Lamplight Dinner Theater, guests enjoy chef-prepared fine dining specialties while taking in a show.
“This year, we’re doing a different show every weekend,” Wilson said. “We have different theater groups that come in, some from Chicago. This summer we did an old-time séance show. We’re really mixing it up right now.”
The October show is a murder mystery dinner, and all the shows have a mystery or magic theme.
Haunted Galena’s Spirits and Spirits Tour takes guests on a walking tour of local bars. Each stop includes a specialty drink.
“You’ll have a warm glow by the end of the tour,” Williams said.
At the Grand Opera House in Dubuque, you can choose your level of fright during “Terror at the Grand Opera House.”
While stories of paranormal activity at the Grand have been investigated, it is the annual haunted house that tech director Tracey Richardson relishes spending his time on.
“I’m a skeptic and don’t believe in the ghosts myself,” he said.
“Terror at the Grand Opera House” offers a “light fright” and “full fright,” depending on how much high your tolerance is for terror.
Wilson said she strives to give all of her guests the experience they’re seeking.
“Hearing stories and going on walks is perfectly fine, but to have that personal experience yourself is what we really strive for,” she said. “About 80% of the people who go on our tours are skeptics, but I would say only about 30% leave the tour that way.”
Even after a decade in business, she is fascinated when something unexplained occurs on a tour.
“It still blows my mind every day when I hear someone say their name on the equipment,” she said. “You ask who’s there, and they say ‘Edward.’ It’s incredible. The stuff I have seen over the years, I can’t discredit it. I’ve tried.”
Interest in the paranormal has grown over the past several years, leading to towns with a haunted history, including Galena, to embrace it. Williams and Davis will be hosting the first Haunted Galena Conference in April.
“Paranormal tourism has really become a national fascination,” Williams said.
The pair are confident the conference will become an annual event, and one that will draw more people to town for tourism activities.
“Galena is an old town with old infrastructure, which is fascinating in itself,” Williams said. “If you’re interested in the paranormal or ghostly phenomena at all, this (conference) will be great.”