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  • Wendy Moxley Roe

The Singing Ghost of Joliet Penitentiary Cemetery

Updated: Apr 12, 2019


Monkey Hill Cemetery/ Old Convict Cemetery 1891 Joliet, IL photo courtesy of Jason Rice and Joliet Historical Society

The photo above of Monkey Hill Cemetery is one of the only two known existing. When mentioned it is often mistaken for the Illinois State Prison Cemetery or Stateville Prison Cemetery that was established in 1937. Monkey Hill is a much older cemetery that basically had no records and was referred to mostly as " the convict cemetery on the hill". Of course these are the types of cemeteries that always seem to draw my attention the most. Especially when there is great mystery attached to it!


Photo by Wendy Moxley Roe


Monkey Hill is the very first Joliet Prison convict cemetery, long abandoned and forgotten now, the only known burials identified from the photo above. A potter's field where any prisoner who died in the prison and whose body went unclaimed was buried here, a simple wooden panel to mark their grave.

We all know the crowd that was sent to Joliet. Its reputation was already notorious. Making headlines many times for housing some of the worst and most famous criminals in our history. The men buried in this cemetery were the complete opposite of famous, but they were some of the most violent criminals in the state.

In July of 1932, Joliet Prison once again made the headlines in newspapers across the country. Word was spreading like wildfire that a singing ghost was giving a nightly performance worthy of the finest opera house in the prison's convict cemetery a short distance from the old prison . What began with a local fisherman's encounter with a disembodied voice asking him if he "had any luck?" , eventually turned into crowds of thousands of people gathering to hear a ghost sing.

The cemetery was just outside the back yards of a local neighborhood. Ghost stories had circulated around the cemetery for years before, as two men give an account of walking together past the cemetery one day to see a man in a soldiers uniform sitting on top of one of the graves and disappear. Several reports from the neighborhood also tell of a white mist form being seen in the cemetery, floating among the headstones.

Every night for nearly a month in the summer of 1932 , just around midnight, a "ghost" would start to sing and continue for over an hour. It was described by those having heard it as sounding like a church hymn in another language. Word began to spread and people started traveling from miles around to hear the ghost sing. Despite the hundreds of people flocking to the cemetery, none could find the source of the enchanting voice. At one point a crowd had dug up a corner of the cemetery where they thought the voice was coming from. Two gentleman involved in the massive posse gathered to try to get to the bottom of the mystery, described their experience with the phantom singer in a newspaper interview:



"Anthony Grohar, neighborhood Grocer and George Penmar, were members of the posse. They said they had heard the ghost many times.

"Once while the voice was issuing from the graveyard," said Grohar," I turned my automobile headlights upon the graves. The song kept on but it came from a different part of the cemetery. As I'd move my lights the ghost would jump one flight ahead of them."


Fayetteville Daily Democrat, July 27, 1932


Once the story made national news there was no containing it. As usual when crowds start gathering in an out of the way spot, trouble always finds its way into the mix. A once rarely used dirt road now had lines of cars driving and parking for miles. Thousands of feet trample once overgrown weeds and grass, people leaving trash behind and a gang of delinquent teenagers who had realized they could block off certain areas of the road close to the cemetery to intimidate people into paying to park and or enter. As the crowd started getting out of hand and no explanation seemed to be forthcoming despite all efforts to figure it out, officials were getting frustrated and tired of the chaos that was ensuing. The sheriff and a posse of 75 men, armed with clubs ,knives and god knows what else gathered at the cemetery after dark and waited. Nothing happened, no one was found and no explanation discovered. Two of those men gave there experience with the ghost to the newspaper in the quote above.


Photo by Wendy Moxley Roe



A few days later officials at the prison announced that they had solved the mystery and the singing ghost was none other than an inmate who was in charge of the maintenance of the not so near sub pumps in the prison quarries at midnight. This seemed a logical explanation for most and the phenomena stopped as abruptly as it started. Sounds like a cut and dry case right?

But was it really just as simple as that? I couldn't imagine how that many people could be fooled for so long by such a simple explanation. I decided that there had to be more to this story. So I started looking to see what I could dig up about this cemetery and its singing ghost.


The first thing I set out to do was visit this cemetery. I quickly found out that it has long ago been abandoned and was taken over by nature. A few of the Newspaper articles I found described the cemetery as being old with only one remaining headstone at the time of the singing ghost sensation in 1932. The cemetery was all but forgotten by the time our singing spectral made his brief appearance and now is unrecognizable, lost in a forest of trees like so many others.

While searching through old newspapers for information about the cemetery or singing ghost I found the story of Joliets first execution.

He was a horse thief doing time for his crime in Old Joliet. He gave his name as George Chase, although records state that he had no one to collaborate that information. In the spring of 1864 ,during an attempt to escape, Chase hit a Deputy Warden over the head with a club. The warden died a few weeks later. Chase was convicted of his murder and subsequently received the death sentence. Chase heartily proclaimed his innocence even in the end. As they lowered the hood on his head to prepare him for his execution he was quoted by the newspaper as saying-

“I’m not ready for that yet,” he said. “I’m as innocent a man as any of you. I am as innocent a man as any in the United States. I admit that hanging is justice. But hanging for a thing a man ain’t guilty of and can’t prove I am guilty of is another thing. It ain’t justice.”

His last words: “Gentlemen, I am to be slaughtered.”

Being the first execution in Joliet, the "gallows" were make shift and erected in the hallway of the county jail. Chase was seated in a chair with the noose around his neck. When the call was given, sandbags were dropped to the floor below and Chase was rocketed 5 ft into the air to towards the ceiling and "eternity" as a present guard was quoted as saying. For some reason this struck me as having added horror to an already violent way to die.

It is a dark enough story without the horror of what happened next. It is why the story sticks out in my mind after reading it and eventually led to making some connections of our singing ghost to George Chase.

Chase was pronounced dead and taken down approximately 20 minutes later. First, a phrenologist* made a plaster cast of his head. Next doctors REMOVED his head to study it for any indication of criminal behavior. When they found nothing out of the ordinary or to indicate insanity they gave the head back to the Phrenologist who wanted it to use for his lectures. What has this to do with our ghost? Well, George Chases headless body was buried in Monkey Hill Cemetery, the convict cemetery on the hill and home of the singing ghost. He is the earliest documented burial.

When I started listing dates and info for my bibliography I noticed that the date of July 27 is when George Chase was executed in 1866. The date stood out as it is the same date on several of the newspaper articles I had located about our cemetery crooner. It is also when the singing ghost was at the height of its popularity.

My research only turned up more questions as I was not one to be satisfied with such a simple explanation. And if it was this convict, how could his singing be heard but not the very large and very loud sub pumps?


Joliet Prison numbered map from the Joliet Historical Society. #31 is the quarry where the sub pumps would be, and where the supposed singing came from. The cemetery is located out of the picture in a north east direction from the upper right corner of photo.


Dylan Clearfield brings up these topics and more in his book Chicagoland Ghosts published in 1997. I was flipping through a tub of ghost books given to us by a friend recently when I came across Dylan's book and a whole chapter about the singing ghost! What was more exciting is that the back yard of the home he grew up in bordered the field where the convict cemetery was. His mother and friends mothers/relatives that had also grown up in the neighborhood gave him first hand accounts of the craze that brought so much attention to the cemetery in 1932. They were able to give details about events that were not reported in the newspapers and or common knowledge.



Evidently at the very end, just before officials came forward with the singing quarry worker explanation, a Catholic Priest was brought in to bless the cemetery and perform an exorcism. This is usually not something that is done but on top of the chaos caused by the thrill seekers and delinquents, many in the neighborhood were hysterically frightened by the goings on. A local reverend, whose church was close by is quoted as saying he was at a loss as to how to console those coming to him seeking solace.



Dylan also states in his book that the convict William Chrysler was due for parole a few weeks after he made his claim that he was the ghostly Singer. I have read much about Old Joliet prison and its horrid reputation. At the time of the singing ghost hype, Warden Frank Whipp was in charge. My thoughts upon reading that this is who "figured out" the mystery, turned to a recently read book written about his successor Joseph Ragen who took over as warden in the fall of 1935. In the book Ragen is quoted from his diary on the state of the prison during his first walk through after taking over for Whipp. He described it as its own little world with no structure or authority by guards at all. Prisoners were allowed to roam freely and at will. The prison yard was filled with makeshift shacks that housed obvious moonshine stills and marijuana plants growing. Some were bold enough to display signs saying "No Officers". The convicts had run and control over the prison except the prison wall. Is it too far of a stretch to think that a Warden that allowed all of this to go on in plain sight would fabricate a fathomable story to satisfy the press and thus deflecting unwanted attention away from a prison that was not just poorly run but blatantly allowing the actions described above?


With all of this to consider I still sit and wonder whether this was just an old inmate singing church hymns or was it truly a disgruntled convict spirit ? I probably will never know, but that will never stop me from searching for answers and sharing them with you!!


Thank you all for reading!

Until next time, Peace love and light to you all, and Happy Headstone Hunting!!


Wendy

If you have any information on this cemetery or the stories above please feel free to contact me at tombstonetravels@outlook.com or thepathtobachelorsgrove@hotmail.com





*{Phrenologist: one who studies the shape and protuberances of the skull}






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