Haunted New Salem

History & Hauntings of this Lost Illinois Town by John Winterbauer

When the poet Edgar Lee Masters wrote of Menard County, "…it is magic in that soil, in the plains, the borders of forest, the oak trees on the hills…" there is a good chance he had a mental picture of New Salem in his head.

Growing up in Menard I was surrounded by stories of a bygone era where the pioneers were treated with an uncommon degree of reverence. These were the men and women that tamed the prairie and whose legacy was kept alive for prosperity in the stories of the old-timers.

As long as I can remember people have spoken of ghosts in the village of New Salem. Many of these tales claim Lincoln himself haunts the park but I've found that's probably wishful thinking. However, as I revisited some of the tales I'd heard as a boy, I began to realize some of the stories might be true after all…

Although today the reconstructed village of New Salem lies within the boundaries of Menard County during its short lifetime the town was part of the much larger Sangamon County. New Salem began as the dream of two entrepreneurs with visions of a river town made prosperous by the meandering Sangamon River. To understand the climate that would influence Lincoln one needs to have some background information.

There is speculation as to the identity of Menard's first white settler. Traditionally John Clary is given the distinction. He and his family came to the area in May 1819 and settled in the grove that would go down in history bearing his name; Clary's Grove (now gone, Clary's Grove was located about a mile and a half northeast of modern Tallula). Here the family established a camp and set about making a life for themselves in the new territory.

The following year Clary's Grove saw the arrival of the Armstrong's, Greene's, and Spears families-all would play major roles in the community as time went on. Quickly some of the rowdier elements of the community were dubbed "the Clary's Grove Boys" and earned the reputation of hell-raisers throughout the area.

The Boys became known for their love of drink and violent fun. Their leader, Jack Armstrong, quickly became the wrestling champion of the entire area. Jack's son, William (known as "Duff") would, in 1858, be charged with murder. At the famous trial that ensued Duff's attorney, Abraham Lincoln, successfully secured acquittal by using an Almanac to prove the moon cast insufficient light for a witness to have clearly seen the crime.

James Rutledge and his nephew, John Cameron, brought their large families to Sangamon County in 1825 or 26 and established themselves along Concord Creek with the hope of building a mill on the little tributary of the Sangamon. Both men were experienced millwrights and they quickly realized Concord would not be able to produce the water volume necessary to power their venture. The search was on for a new, more promising location.

On July 19, 1828 Cameron entered a tract of land along the Sangamon and applied to the State Legislature for permission to build a dam across the river. The spot was know locally as "Fish Trap Ford" and was the point where the road from Beardstown to Springfield crossed the river, the only major road in the area. By this time Cameron also owned most of the bluff above their proposed mill site, which lends validity to the argument that the two speculators had visions of a town on the hill from the time they realized Concord Creek would fail them and their mill.

There is an almost mythological aspect applied by many writers to New Salem's origins. The notion of the town springing into existence right before Lincoln's arrival and dying off shortly after he left is one that has been emphasized time and time again. Cameron's possession of the bluff debunks that romantic notion and indicates that the men were shrewd businessmen who realized the significance of the site. Locating the mill at the crucial crossing on the main overland route thru the area supports the claim.

By 1828 the population was abuzz with riverboat talk. The dream that the Sangamon River would bring traffic & more settlers to the area led many to suggest that soon river commerce would make them all wealthy. Cameron and Rutledge jumped early buying critical land and placing the mill at a spot guaranteed to see traffic. The venture couldn't help but be successful if the whims of the river were in their favor.

With the anticipation of favorable action by the Legislature, the men moved their families to new homes built on the bluff above the mill. A short time later Rutledge converted his large house into an inn (or tavern in the vernacular of the day) for travelers along the road, another strong argument supporting a well developed business plan.

Permission from the state legislature to dam the Sangamon came on January 22, 1829 and work began immediately. Wooden bins were built in the river and local farmers provided wagons and teams to haul nearly a thousand wagonloads of rock from nearby streams to fill the bins. When the dam was finished combination grist and saw mill was constructed on a platform over the river.

From the beginning the venture was a success and drew customers from miles around. At any given time, it was recalled by one pioneer, it was not unusual to see forty horses tethered to the trees on the steep hillside, "their heads forty-five degrees above their hams" as their owners waited for their grain down at the mill.

In the fall off 1829 Samuel Hill and John McNeil (a gruff Scotsman who figures again later) constructed a store on the hilltop along the Springfield Road. About the same time William Clary opened a saloon, commonly referred to as a "grocery" in those days, just above the mill and began dispensing alcohol to the thirsty customers waiting at the mill. Clary's grocery soon became home away from home to the Clary's Grove Boys who brought their form of rough frontier fun to the hillside.

The ridge above the mill extends west, widening as it goes. In 1828 it eventually merged with a lush prairie and was surrounded by thick forests fed by numerous tributaries of the greater Sangamon. It was on the flat top of the hill that Cameron and Rutledge planned to lay out their town.

With the mill, grocery and store, as well as Rutledge's tavern, the area had already become a center of trade. On October 29, 1829 surveyor Reuben Harrison drew up the lot plans for the town the founders now planned to call New Salem. The first lot was sold on December 24 to James Pantier for the princely sum of $12.50 and New Salem was underway. On Christmas day a post office was established in the Hill/McNeil store with Sam Hill being named postmaster.

The years 1830 and 1831 saw the most growth in the fledgling town. Significant among the influx of settlers was Henry Onstot, a cooper, the Herndon brothers and Dr. John Allen, a graduate of Dartmouth College and founder of the area's Temperance Society. All in all, the first two years were an auspicious start to the fledgling village.

Lincoln Comes to New Salem

In April 1831 the inhabitants of the village were treated to the entertaining sight of a flatboat hung over the dam at the mill below the village. From the shore, most of the townsfolk watched as the boat's crew fought to save the craft from sinking.

Accounts vary as to what exactly took place that day but the stories agree that it was the quick thinking of one of the young men that save the day for the crew. He was an ungainly youth dressed in, "a pair of blue jeans trousers indefinitely rolled up, a cotton shirt, striped white and blue…and a buckeye-chip hat for which a demand of twelve and a half cents would have been exorbitant" and, regardless of the exact details, he quickly took charge of the situation.

Most accounts agree the young man ordered most of the cargo unloaded and that that remained shifted to the stern of the boat. After wading ashore to borrow an auger from the town cooper, he returned to his vessel, bored a hole in the bow and let the water out. When the craft was free of water he plugged the hole and the boat slipped effortlessly over the dam.

In late July 1831 the young man returned to New Salem to run a store for Denton Offutt, the man behind the flatboat run to New Orleans and an entrepreneur with grand designs for a mercantile empire on the vast, Illinois prairie. The new store clerk introduced himself to his new neighbors as Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln quickly made friends in and around New Salem. Oddly his earliest friendships, and ultimately, most steadfast, came in the form of the Clary's Grove Boys, those ruffians who seem to have very little in common with Lincoln.

The Boys, as alluded to earlier, had a fondness for drink and a tendency to loose havoc among the more genteel of the town's inhabitants. William Herndon wrote, "A stranger's introduction was likely to be the most unpleasant part of his acquaintance with them." They were fond of horse racing and rowdy games and often-disrupted baptisms in the river by tossing logs, rocks and sometimes even bewildered dogs in amongst the proceedings. One incident recalls the Boys rolling a drunken man down the steep bluff in a barrel. The unfortunate victim was saved from plunging into the river by a tree that brought his inglorious ride to a sudden halt.

Above all, though, the Boys were fond of wrestling. On the frontier a man's merit was often judged by his physical abilities. Newcomers to the town were soon introduced to the champion of them all, Jack Armstrong. Soon after Lincoln's arrival his boss, Offutt, began to brag about his young clerk's astounding physical prowess. Offutt's bravado quickly earned a challenge from Armstrong.

The Boys conceded Lincoln's mental superiority but were certain the new upstart couldn't take their leader, "a formidable opponent, experienced, hard, and heavy-set", Lincoln accepted the challenge and the opponents met between Offutt's store and Clary's grocery to do battle.

This, like the flatboat incident, is an event in Lincoln's life where the true facts will never be known. Again accounts vary depending on the teller but the basic premise remains essentially the same in most tellings.

Lincoln at 6'4" and about 185 pounds had the height/weight advantage but Armstrong had the benefit of strength in numbers. As the two men circled and grappled to feel each other out, the Boys crowded around and cheered their leader while bets were made on the outcome.

For a time the men attempted to throw each other and neither was able to gain the upper hand but finally Lincoln got a hold of his man and Armstrong began to get the worst of it. As their leader struggled the Boys, unwilling to see the mighty Armstrong fall, rushed to his defense.

Lincoln broke his hold and backed against Offutt's store. From this vantage point he denounced the Boys for their cowardice and treachery and offered to whip them all one at a time. Armstrong, dusting himself off, intervened and ruled the contest a draw. From that day on Abe Lincoln and the Clary's Grove Boys were the best of friends and the young Kentuckian had no stronger support than Jack Armstrong and his wife, Hannah for the remainder of his days in New Salem and well into his Presidency.

As was the case with many ventures on the frontier, Offutt's store failed quickly and Lincoln turned to other means to support him. He enlisted in the militia and served as captain of a company during the Black Hawk War. Following the war he helped clear the Sangamon to allow passage of the steamboat Talisman and began to consider careers in law and politics.

Realizing his educational shortcomings, Lincoln undertook what can only be described as a remarkable period of self-education. With the assistance of New Salem schoolmaster, Mentor Graham, Lincoln's ambitious studying became the stuff of legend to his neighbors.

Ann Rutledge Legend

One of the most discussed elements of Lincoln's days at New Salem is the ill-fated romance between the future president and the daughter of James Rutledge, an auburn haired beauty named Anna Mayes.

While Ann Rutledge isn't significant to our story as a ghost she is, most assuredly, important to our timeline. You see if the legends are to be believed, it was Ann Rutledge's death that turned Lincoln from the rowdy, fun-loving frontiersman to the more inward thinking intellectual seeped in melancholy.

When Abraham Lincoln first met Ann Rutledge the pretty young girl was being courted by the storekeepers, Sam Hill and John McNeil. It was McNeil that ultimately won the fair maiden's hand and soon the couple was engaged to be married.

In 1832 McNeil sold his interest in the store to his partner as he intended to be away from New Salem for some time and would need all his available capital. As the time drew near for his departure he made a startling confession to his fiancé.

John McNeil was not his real name, he told Ann. His real name was McNamar; he had changed it after leaving home to make his fortune. At the time he believed his family would find him and financially burden him.

Now that his future was assured he intended to return to New York to retrieve his family and return with them to New Salem and Ann. While the gossips talked, Ann accepted the story and sent McNamar away with a promise to write. For a time McNamar did write frequently but eventually the correspondence stopped.

When sufficient time had passed young Lincoln made his move on Ann and, many say, a love affair quickly bloomed between the two. By this point Lincoln had undertaken his legal studies and turned his mind to politics and Ann had decided to attend the Female Academy in Jacksonville. Following her graduation and Lincoln setting himself up as a lawyer the two would be married.

It was Lincoln's law partner William Herndon who first brought Ann Rutledge's name to the public forefront in a lecture delivered November 16, 1866 to a large audience at a local Springfield business college. The talk was a sensation in which Herndon claimed that Rutledge was the one and only love of Lincoln's life and, in essence, his marriage to Mary Todd was a loveless sham.

As indicated elsewhere, the debate set in motion by Herndon's speech that evening still has repercussions today in the field of Lincoln studies. It is beyond the scope of this essay to examine the issue in great detail, I direct the interested reader to the Shadows Rise: Abraham Lincoln and the Ann Rutledge Legend by John Evangelist Walsh which discusses the evidence for and against in great detail.

Herndon, supported by statements given by many who knew Lincoln and Miss Rutledge personally, went on to report that, in early 1835 Ann, now understood to be engaged to Lincoln, received word from the long absent McNamar. John, it seemed, had met with unavoidable delays, including his own serious illness and the death of his father and two brothers in New York. Now, with all finally well, he was returning to New Salem for their wedding!

Ann was distraught by the news. She loved Lincoln but was honor bound to marry McNamar and saw no honorable way out of the situation. She continued her preparation for college during tutorial sessions at the Athens home of Arminda Rankin and, as summer came on, was nearly finished with her studies.

Late that summer Ann fell ill with a fever that eventually drove her to her bed. Day after day her illness grew worse until the doctor announced there was no hope for her recovery. Although the doctor had ordered strict silence and rest and had forbidden any visitors, Ann repeatedly called for Lincoln who was eventually summoned to the Rutledge farm.

Lincoln entered the sickroom and the door was shut behind him. What was said during that final interview will never be known but the Rutledge's remember Lincoln leaving the house and then sobbing beneath a tree in the yard for some time after.

A day or so after this visit Ann slipped into unconsciousness and never recovered. Her death came quietly on August 25, 1835. The family listed the cause of death as "brain fever" (typhoid) but many claimed the young girl had died of a broken heart. The same epidemic incidentally claimed the life of James Rutledge just three months after his daughter's death. Both were buried in Goodpasture Cemetery, known today as Old Concord. Ann's death drove Lincoln to despair. It is said he became so distraught his friends, fearing he would take his own life, took his pocketknife away from him and watched him continuously for weeks. Eventually Lincoln recovered, at least outwardly, but, according to Herndon, the crushing blow of Ann's death stayed with Lincoln the rest of his life and was the cause of the oft-mentioned melancholy that seemed to drip "…from him as he walked."

Two years after Ann's death Lincoln, now a successful member of the Illinois Legislature, packed his meager belongings and moved to the new capital, Springfield to establish his legal career. Within three years New Salem was dead, victim of the river that was too unpredictable for steamboats and a mass relocation to the new town of Petersburg two miles to the north.

That the village, like so many other frontier towns of the era, was to have a short life was evident by as early as 1832 when the Talisman, while ultimately successful in it's run down the river, proved the enormous difficulty of navigating the river. Matthew Marsh, in a letter to his brother in 1835 wrote, "You ask is there a prospect of my place growing rapidly. I suppose you mean New Salem-No; that stopped two years since." In the end the village held it's own until about 1837 or so then quickly faded away. It likely would have been forgotten all together but for its ties to Lincoln. Today New Salem has been faithfully reconstructed as a tribute not only to Lincoln but also to the men and women of the frontier. Certainly Lincoln is the main draw at the park, now a designated state historic site, but a stroll thru the village makes it abundantly clear that Lincoln was only part of the picture during his short stay on the hill. All the others have left their mark here on what feels like sanctified ground. In New Salem today it's very difficult to separate the past and the present.

Spirits of New Salem

I've maintained for years that if anywhere in Menard County has ghosts, it's New Salem. There is something electric in the very air of the place. On a crisp fall morning go there and close your eyes. The smoke from the hearths mingles with the chilly air, the Sangamon gurgles along below the hill and maybe, just maybe you'll hear the hearty laugh of Jack Kelso as he comes to the punch line of a joke over at Josh Miller's blacksmith shop. Yes, this place has ghosts and the magic spoken of by Masters seeps from the soil here in excess.

The staff responds in equal amounts of amusement and irritation if the subject of ghosts on the hillside is breeched but the stories are well founded with even Herndon commenting on the feel of the place during his visit to the abandoned hill shortly after Lincoln's death.

"As I sat on the verge of the town in the presence of it's ruins…" Herndon wrote, "In my imagination, the little village perched on the hill is astir with the hum of busy men and the sharp, quick buzz of women." He concluded, in reference to Lincoln and Rutledge, "May the spirits of the loved and loving dead here meet and embrace, as was denied them on earth." Herndon said it was his imagination but his feelings were indicative of those that thousands, perhaps millions, of visitors since have felt as they've strolled across Salem Hill since that day.

While visitors experience the energy of New Salem, the visitor's center shows an excellent film that makes good use of the sentiment that there's something different about New Salem. The narrator, in hushed tones, confirms for many what they already know. It's like there's something still there, something tangible that has charged the air within the confines of the park. For those of us who have lived in the area the question of what makes the village different has been an ongoing source of speculation…and ghost stories.

There was a story passed around when I was young about the carding mill in the village. The story said that if you went out there at night you could see a light burning in the upper window of the mill. I spoke to Gene McKee, formerly a site security officer at the park, about the story. To my surprise he admitted that, yes, sometimes a light could be seen on the upper floor and, he added, he'd seen it himself!

Gene quickly squashed my excitement by explaining that under certain conditions the moon hit that window just right and the reflected light appeared as candlelight emitting from the window.

I attended a candlelight walk in the village and sure enough, the upper window of the mill was lit, apparently from within. Turning from the building I saw the moon in almost a straight line from the affected window. It appeared there was no truth to the story of a ghostly mill light.

Another story I asked Gene about (which he denied) concerned the reconstructed cabin of storekeeper, Samuel Hill. I was told that on occasion a woman can be seen peering thru a window on the east side of the house. This is said to occur even when no one's in the building. Could this be the nosy ghost of Parthena Nance Hill keeping tabs on place for her next juicy tidbit of gossip?

There are other spectral villagers said to haunt their old homesteads as well. One man told me that on occasion the form of a man could be seen outside of the cabin of the Burner family. Isaac Burner and his family came to New Salem in 1832 and his son, Daniel, worked for a while at the second Berry-Lincoln store. Lincoln boarded with the family for a time as well. The Burner's left New Salem in 1835 but as the unidentified spirit at their home attests, one may have been reluctant to leave after all!

A reproduction of the Herndon cabin, where Elizabeth met her untimely end.

One reported ghost of New Salem is easier to identify and has a very good reason to still be wandering about the hill. If, as many theorize, a traumatic death can lead to a haunting then it is no wonder Elizabeth Herndon is still sometimes seen in New Salem.

TERRIBLE ACCIDENT.-We learn that on Wednesday last, while Mr. R. Herndon of New Salem was preparing his rifle for hunting excursion it went off, and the ball, striking his wife in the neck, separated one of the principal arteries, and in a few moments she was a corpse. It is hardly possible to conceive the anguish of the husband on this melancholy catastrophe. The community in which he lives deeply sympathize with him in this afflicting event.
-Sangamo Journal, January 25, 1833-

As modern visitors stroll along the road that runs thru the reconstructed village, the last home they encounter is the cabin of John Rowan Herndon and his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who was a sister of New Salem teacher, Mentor Graham, married John in Kentucky in 1827 and by the spring of 1831 the couple had moved to New Salem.

Rowan, or "Row", as he was commonly known and his brother James opened a store in the village in the fall of 1832 but the venture turned out to be short-lived. By that summer James had moved on and sold his half of the business to William Berry. Finding the new partnership not to his liking, Row sold his share to Abe Lincoln.

Herndon stayed in New Salem until a tragic accident gave him reason to leave. The incident occurred on January 18, 1833, as Row cleaned his gun. That morning, at the nearby Rutledge Tavern Lincoln was helping to repair a broken bed and found he needed a certain tool to finish the job.

Lincoln sent ten-year-old Nancy Rutledge down the road to Herndon's to borrow the tool. Nancy recalled later, "When I arrived there Mr. Herndon was loading his gun to go hunting, and in getting ready to go out his gun was accidentally discharged, and his wife, who was sitting near, talking to me, was shot right through the neck. I saw blood spurt out of each side of her neck, her hands flutter for a moment; then I flew out of the house and hurried home and told Annie and Mr. Lincoln what had happened."

Elizabeth Herndon died instantly and, soon after, Row moved away, forced to forever deal with the whispers that his wife's death was anything but accidental. Recalling the incident for William Herndon years later, New Salem cooper Henry Onstot said…"[w]hether accidental or on purpose the people were about equally divided in their opinions. He was fooling with a loaded gun and it went off and killed her."

Row may have left New Salem but, as it seems, Elizabeth has stayed behind. "My daughter and I were walking through the town," one man wrote, "and [she] said, 'I like her dress' and pointed at the cabin to our right."

"I didn't see anyone and I asked her who she was talking about. She said, 'that lady there on that step' but I still didn't see who she meant."

The father and daughter walked up to the door of the cabin only to find it locked. Reading the sign above the door the man learned this was the cabin of John Rowan Herndon but, at the time, that had no significant meaning to him. Further reading revealed the unfortunate fate of Mrs. Herndon.

"I asked a park ranger (author's note: there are no "rangers" at New Salem but one may assume he asked an interpreter which are abundant) about it later and she told me the guy shot his wife in their house."

Did the little girl see the ghost of Elizabeth Herndon? There are those who say children are more prone to see spirits than adults. This, some speculate, is because their minds have not been molded only to accept what we, as adults, deem "real". Was the woman in the pretty dress an illusion or the fanciful imaginings of a child…or a ghost? Maybe this next account will make you pause to consider before you answer.

"I volunteered at New Salem for three summers," Barb Anderson told me, "and I saw the ghost of a woman near the far end of the village twice. The first time I was alone and walking down the path from the second Berry-Lincoln Store when I saw the form of a woman appear on the path in front of me, walk along for a few steps and disappear."

"Her back was toward me so I didn't see her face at all. At first I was surprised but thought she had just stepped out of the woods but then I'm positive she vanished-it was early afternoon and sunny, I'm sure I saw her."

The next time Barb saw the woman, or at least a woman she wasn't alone, she and another volunteer were walking down a path together. Again, the day was bright and the scene recalled was seen with perfect clarity. "Jim and I were leaving the museum, heading toward the Herndon cabin and Jim asked, 'Who's working there today?' and pointed toward Herndon's."

"A lady was standing out back in costume and it looked like she had a broom. As we got closer we both realized she was someone we didn't recognize and we were wondering who she was. We were going to talk to her but before we got close enough she turned and, I swear, walked right thru the shut door!"

Jim tried both doors to the cabin and found them locked. Peering thru the windows, he could see no trace of the mysterious woman. Barb, too frightened to approach the cabin, stayed on the path. "I know it sounds crazy," she told me, "but there's a lot of other people who have seen weird things out there." Jim, when contacted, added little to Barb's story one way or another and claimed he really didn't recall much about it. He did, however, remember, "one day we tried to talk to a woman but she got away from us."

Another former volunteer recalled an evening when he, along with several others of New Salem's militia company, camped out in the village. As Chris and three others walked along the road through the village they spied a figure approaching them. As it was dark they were unable, at first, to determine who the person was and figured it was a fellow militiaman.

As they drew nearer one man commented that, whoever it was, it wouldn't be one of their own as the person was obviously wearing a pure white dress. The men approached to a point where they were sure it was a woman walking toward them but then she simply vanished. Chris told me, "one second she was there, the next she was gone; just that quick." Another man whom Chris identified confirmed the story to me later.

It was in February 1997 when Roberta Van Huss and her sister, Rhonda, decided to visit the park to see it when snow was on the ground. It was an uncommonly warm day and the women had the village to themselves.

"We sat down on the bench about the middle of the village facing the side where the stores are…" the stores in question are the Hill/McNeil store and, next to it, the Second Berry/Lincoln store. While sitting there Rhonda told her sister she was having an eerie feeling, like she was being watched…Roberta agreed.

Suddenly both women spied movement to their right and were just in time to see a woman, shrouded in white, turn and vanish down the path near the side of the Berry/Lincoln store. As the woman disappeared the feeling of being watched dissipated.

Another story concerns the cabin of Dr. Francis Regnier. Regnier was from Ohio and came to the village in 1832; paying $20.00 to Henry Sinco for the cabin Sinco had previously used as a saloon. The one room reconstruction now houses two original wooden benches from Regnier's New Salem home.

"The man I saw," Beth told me, "was standing in front of Regnier's cabin. He wore period clothes and had his foot propped up in midair, almost as if it was resting on something that wasn't there anymore."

At first Beth didn't think of a ghost, "he seemed real enough" but found his posture odd. As she approached the man turned his head away from her, "as if he noticed something up the street" then put his foot down and turned as if to walk up the road. Beth continues, "he took two or three steps in that direction and disappeared!"

It's folly to speculate as to the identity of this particular man. Regnier or Sinco? Perhaps he was a patron of Sinco's saloon or a patient of the doctor? Maybe he was just a villager taking a break from his days routine.

I've received other reports of a wide variety of oddities at New Salem. The sound of disembodied footsteps seems to be the most prevalent. Unexplained cold spots and the feeling of being watched are not uncommon throughout the village as well. But are these reports merely the imaginings of the people who report them or is there something more going on in the park?

As all but one of the cabins is a reconstruction (albeit built on the original foundations) I find it hard to believe the buildings themselves have anything to do with any haunting in the park. If there are truly ghosts at New Salem they are a part of the landscape. The spirits of the villagers cling to the hilltop that once held so much promise for them.

Although Lincoln has been reported at the park it seems unlikely that the specter of a man some visitors claim to have seen is actually him. Romantic legend points out that Lincoln arrived shortly after the village was established and left just as it was dying. The impression is noted that it seems the village sprung up solely to nurture this great man in the making and vanished after its destiny was complete and Lincoln had moved on. The fact is the village was doomed shortly after the riverboat Talisman made its one successful journey up the Sangamon in 1832.

Though some residents held tenaciously to the dreams of New Salem becoming a river town, many read the writing on the wall after the river dropped. A letter from Matthew Marsh to his brother in 1835 bears this out, "You ask is there a prospect of my place growing rapidly. I suppose you mean New Salem-No; that stopped two years since."

Over the course of it's short lifetime the village was home to perhaps 300 people many of which bolted to other locales as soon as the river proved unnavigatable. It seems apparent that Elizabeth Herndon still resides on the hill but who is the man who has chosen to join her? Many people have told stories of a spectral man appearing and vanishing before their startled eyes. The choices as to his identity are many but I have a favorite candidate-he is one man who stayed longer than almost any of his neighbors. As the town died he continued to roam the woods and fish the Sangamon.

It was only after his brother-in-law declared the dreams of a prosperous future in the village were over and decided to move to greener pastures that Jack Kelso reluctantly left behind his beloved home.

The thought that Jack Kelso may haunt New Salem is substantiated by a couple of reports that have occurred over the years. Site Director, David Hedrick, who lives on site, denies knowledge of any ghostly encounters on the hill but visitors continue to pass on stories.

One that lends credence to the Kelso theory comes from a former Menard County teacher who regularly jogged thru the village in the early morning hours each day. "It was early morning," Robin recently told me, "maybe seven. I was running past the 'dogtrot' cabin and I glanced to my left. Standing in front of the cabin, just off the porch, stood a man in dark clothes and a tall hat. He was only there for a few seconds then he was gone."

The cabin in question is unique in the village of New Salem. It is essentially two cabins joined together by a shared porch. It is a representation of the home of Jack Kelso and his brother-in-law, Joshua Miller, the town blacksmith. The men had married sisters and, upon arriving in New Salem, constructed their home thus maintaining their close-knit status. They would remain together the rest of their lives, moving to Missouri after New Salem dried up.

Robin joked that the man she saw was Abe Lincoln but, as she admits, "that was only because of the tall hat." Tall hat notwithstanding (and they were a fashion item in the 1830's so fairly often part of a man's attire), there is nothing to suggest her ghost was Lincoln. It is likely, I suggest, to be the lingering spirit of Jack Kelso.

The other story that seems to indicate Jack haunts New Salem is from another man who worked at the park for a number of years. He claimed to have often seen a man roaming around the Kelso-Miller cabin. He described the man as muscular but not very tall. The man wore the clothing associated with the 1830's and never appeared to be doing anything in particular.

The homestead of Jack Kelso and blacksmith Joshua Miller. Miller’s shop has been reproduced on the right.

One other account came to me in the summer of 2004 and again, I believe, involves the restless spirit of Jack Kelso. A retired couple from Jacksonville, IL had decided to spend a week at New Salem's campground and had taken to strolling through the park just before dusk closed the grounds.

"It was the fourth night we were there," Jan recalled, "and we were making our way out of the village. There were people around in costume so when we saw the man standing there we didn't think…at least I didn't think…anything about it."

The couple approached the man who stood near the road not five feet from where they were walking, "He looked just like one of the people who worked there. He had dark pants and a long, white shirt. I could see his boots and he wore suspenders but no coat," said Jan.

Her husband Rex interjected, "He also had on this strange, floppy looking hat. I thought it was unusual but other than that he seemed perfectly normal."

Jan continued, "We got right up on him and Rex nodded and said 'good evening' then this man opened his mouth as if to answer but then was just gone. He didn't fade out or anything like that, he just wasn't there anymore."

The couple hurried back to their camper and didn't discuss what had happened with anyone else, "…we were afraid they'd just laugh it off," Rex said, "but as sure as I'm sitting here, that man was standing by the road."

Needless to say, the couple's walks stopped for the duration of their stay in the park despite the fact neither of them felt threatened by the ghost, "No, he seemed alright but it just scared me. I think Rex was bothered less by it than I was, it was just a shock," said Jan.

Finally I asked them to point out the location of their encounter on a map of the park. Both agreed they witnessed the apparition just down the road from the blacksmith's shop…just a few feet away from the Kelso/Miller dogtrot cabin.

What makes these sightings stand out, in my mind, is the fact that they occurred over a period of about three years and often at times when there where no costumed interpreters in the park. Many times the figure would simply vanish without a trace. Of course the proximity to the dogtrot cabin cannot be overlooked!

Not much is known about Kelso. He was a man of many skills and no fixed trade. He hunted, fished, helped his neighbors and genuinely enjoyed life. It was Jack Kelso who introduced Lincoln to Shakespeare and the poetry of Robert Burns. Jack was a good-natured man who is fondly remembered in all the accounts that mention him. Thomas Reep wrote of Kelso, "No one at New Salem lived better than he, nor was any family more forehanded. He led a happy and contented life."

By 1840 the village of New Salem had all but faded away. Kelso, along with his brother-in-law Miller moved from New Salem in 1841 to Jasper County, Missouri near Joplin. They moved again in 1850 to Atchison County, Missouri where the last record of Kelso is April 12, 1868 when he acknowledged a deed for some land he had sold.

If, as one would assume, Jack and his wife were buried on their farm along the Mississippi their graves would now be impossible to locate due to shifting of the river. The area is approximately where the Langdon Bend Public Fishing Area is located today.

This is only my theory but I believe that if anyone loved New Salem more than Jack Kelso you'd be hard pressed to find them. He stayed long after the rest of his neighbors had abandoned the hill and reluctantly left when Miller decided to pull up stakes and seek brighter days in Missouri. I believe if anyone still wanders the hills around New Salem its Jack Kelso; perhaps still reciting Burns as he ambles along.

One evening after a meeting at New Salem's visitors center my friend John, a vocal "nonbeliever", and I took a stroll through the village. It was a crisp, dry November night and as we walked along the darkened path John said, "It almost feels like there's someone watching you here." I agreed, then again I've often said that about New Salem.

Whether or not New Salem is home to one or more active spirits or whether the energy of the past still somehow remains it quickly becomes evident that there's something different about the place. The park is closed at dusk and trespassing after hours will result in prosecution. As most of the reports I've ever heard have taken place during daylight hours there is really no need to be there after dark anyway. I do, however, encourage everyone to visit the village.

Don't go looking for ghosts. Don't ask the staff about the stories, they'll deny them anyway. Stroll the grounds and let yourself be transported to a different era. The veil that separates the 19th and 21st centuries is thin at New Salem and after a time you may find yourself wondering if that man over by the tree is one of the village's many volunteers or the spectral vision of Jack Kelso or some other villager as their world mingles with ours.


Masters, Edgar Lee, The Sangamon, Prairie State Books, University of Illinois Press, 1998
Thomas, Benjamin P., Lincoln's New Salem, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987
Walsh, John Evangelist, The Shadows Rise: Abraham Lincoln and the Ann Rutledge Legend, University of Illinois Press, 1993
New Salem interpretive guide to the Miller-Kelso residence
Personal interviews and correspondence

Return to the Springfield Hauntings Home Page

© Copyright 2007 by John Winterbauer. All Rights Reserved.