Within easy (pre-hip-fracture) walking distance of my current location [at time of original posting] in Bull Valley, IL, Stickney House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, is associated with ghostly goings-on by several web sites dedicated to paranormal phenomena.
On the above aerial view (immediately above), Stickney House is located to the right of the green arrow; our Bull Valley, IL home is at the tip of the red arrow
Built in 1836 as the residence of George and Sylvia Stickney,1 Stickney House (aka Stickney Mansion) is known for its rounded corners,2 a structural detail resulting, in this case, from the sacrifice of architectural efficiency to the precepts of spiritualism.
Corners were forbidden the architect by the Stickneys, who were followers of a form of Spiritualism which held that evil spirits could be trapped in square corners or even be attracted to them with catastrophic consequences.3 Both Mr. and Mrs. Stickney officiated as mediums at séances attended by socialites who would travel from Chicago and other cities to the isolated mansion for sessions with the dead.
The obligatory macabre kicker to the story of the house without corners is that George Stickney died of unknown causes in a square corner of his house with a terrified expression on his face.
In addition, some sources hold that a child of the couple who built the house hanged himself in one of the upstairs rooms.4
Since then, rumors of supernatural activity taking place at Stickney House have proliferated; three of the most frequently reported incidents follow:
- Several individuals entering the house alone claimed to have seen figures moving about and heard sounds of steps.
- “Persistent disembodied sounds and strange occurrences night or day, have caused more recent owners to abruptly vacate the house and give it back to the Stickneys.”5
- “A local antique dealer would claim that he saw a real estate ad for the place in which a woman in a wedding gown could be seen pulling aside a curtain and peering out. The photographer who took the picture said that no one was in the house at the time. He also stated that he had seen no one at the window when he was snapping photos of the house.”6
From Stickney House To Precinct House
In 2005 Bull Valley Police Chief Norbert Sauers described his experiences with possible paranormal events in the Stickney Mansion. Sauers said that village employees have heard numerous sounds that seem to defy explanation. He described hearing footsteps in the second floor ballroom, a room that today is used only as storage for village records but was used for séances when the Stickneys owned the mansion. The footstep sounds have extended out onto the stairwell at times. Other occurrences include hearing human sounding noises or voices. They sometimes even hear the toilets flushing when they are alone in the house. The Chief said he has also personally experienced objects moving around on his desk, lights turning off and, door knobs turning and a door opening, seemingly by themselves, and voices from thin air, having once heard a shout in his ear when no one was around him. Another police officer in Bull Valley claims to have come face to face with an apparition of Stickney’s father-in-law. According to a local news report, “[over the years, two men who carry a badge and gun” have quit their jobs over the supernatural events.
Stickney House Ghost Story: Unfulfilled Potential
While I hold no credentials as a medium, paranormal investigator, or Ghostbuster, I have experienced and survived The Spooklight (more about that adventure at another time), which seems to me an altogether more impressive sort of weirdness.
The Stickney House legend consists of an architectural oddity (the absence of right angled corners), a history of séances, the owner’s death from unknown causes, and some nonspecific sightings of ghosts. Even the report from the police, who currently inhabit The Stickney Mansion, is ambiguous. And the story of the photo, taken when the house was empty, that shows a woman in the wedding dress, which seems to me to be far and away the most impressive spectral emanation attributed to the place, has no apparent link to the rest of the saga. As a ghost story, this inconsistent, sometimes internally conflicted, unorganized collection of factoids and deserves no better than a “C-” grade.
Let’s face it – if a local municipality threw a StickneyHouseFest, no one would show up. The back story just isn’t there.
A solid basis for a legend should fit together and presage the supernatural activity to continues into the future. Something along the lines of the following fake history would work:
George Stickney had a mansion built in anticipation of his marriage to his beautiful fiancé, who, like him, was a medium and follower of Spiritualism. In keeping with the principles of that movement, their new home was constructed without corners to protect against malignant spirits who favored such areas as hiding places and portals. After the well attended and joyful marriage, the wedding party and guests gathered in the second story ballroom for photographs and dancing. After completing the arduous task of posing for pictures with her groom and alone, the bride waited for her new husband to join her for their first dance after the final photographs of him were taken. She grew impatient and then worried as the minutes passed. Friends sent to fetch him searched first the room and then the house and grounds, but George Stickney had vanished forever without a trace. His bride lived alone in what was to be their happy home for many years and was never seen wearing anything than the wedding dress she wore the day they married. It was the architect responsible for the design of the house who first noticed, when friends and family were able to view the pictures taken that day, that the final photographs of George Stickney showed him standing with his back against a right-angled corner – a corner the architect knew was never planned or built and which, on repeated inspections, did not exist.
Now, that’s a spooky story, to which one only needs add sightings of the bride in full regalia appearing to others many years after her death.
Lending some poignancy and connecting the key issues of the plot are, indeed, the essential changes necessary.
Other efforts that would be helpful in transforming the Stickney House into the focal point of a spooky, disturbing, give-the-local-kids-bad-dreams sort of tale include
- A consistent accounting of the corners and an explanation for the existence of any 90 degree corners despite the owners’ decree to the architect: Perhaps the house was constructed while the Stickneys were in Europe and the tragic construction error was discovered only when they returned, at which time, George keeled over. Or perhaps the square corner was part of a nefarious scheme put in motion by one of the Stickneys or someone involved in the construction. Or maybe George was a secret disbeliever in Spiritualism who intentionally put in the corner to demonstrate to his more dedicated wife that he could flaunt the spirits with impunity.
- Better use of the Stickney House history to further the story: Stickney House, for example, served as quarters for Federal soldiers in the Civil War and was home to the first piano in McHenry County.7The mythology should at least hold that the Stickneys paid an outrageous sum to have a grand, curvilinear piano installed to avoid the square corners of a spinet. The Civil War segment would be an ideal stage for a corner-related prophecy; what if a loyal Union Army Commander spending the night at Stickney House had a dream that presaged the danger to Lincoln from a corner (of the President’s box at Ford’s Theater)?
- A more gripping motivation for the involvement of Bull Valley’s village government: One example would be the innuendo that the presence of the Bull Valley Police is a cover for a surreptitious Federal agency charged with guarding a mysterious mechanism found in a secret room of the Stickney House that throws off death rays that are rendered ineffective only when transmuted by a round corner.
- An symbol that ties in the major story elements: A ghostly protractor probably isn’t just right, but you get the idea.
- A present-day connection: This could be something on the lines of a revelation that monies George Stickney invested in the 1800s eventually funded Lake Point Tower – with the stipulation that no corners were allowed. Throw in a few of these plot elements; invest a few city tax dollars in some special effects to provide the apparitions, creaky noises, and perpetually foggy atmosphere traditionally associated with spooky stuff; and salt a few inexplicably weird anecdotes in the local papers, and you’ve got yourself a dandy new and improved legend fully capable of scaring the crap out of the young’uns.
Note: Originally posted Aug 15, 2007 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com The Stickney House photos have been updated.
- Wikipedia [↩]
- Depending upon the source, there are no right angle corners anywhere in the house (http://www.ghosts.org.uk/index2599.html), the entire second story has 90 degree corners (http://www.angelfire.com/theforce/haunted/hauntedplacesofillinois.htm), only one room on the upper floor was built with a 90-degree corner (http://www.zuko.com/weird_n_spooky_america.htm), or only one corner of one second-story room “accidentally ended up with a 90-degree measurement” (http:///www.prairieghosts.com/stickney.html). In addition, one source reports that the entire second story was used as a ballroom, in effect making the second floor a single room that ran the entire length and width of the building (http://www.prairieghosts.com/stickney.html). [↩]
- http://www.prairieghosts.com/stickney.html [↩]
- http://www.angelfire.com/theforce/haunted/hauntedplacesofillinois.htm [↩]
- http://www.zuko.com/weird_n_spooky_america.htm [↩]
- http://www.prairieghosts.com/stickney.html [↩]
- http://www.prairieghosts.com/stickney.html [↩]