Spook Central on the banks of the Mississippi
Alton, Ill., is billed as one of the most haunted small towns in America. Of course, its reputation owes a good deal to local entrepreneurs who've promoted the Mississippi River town's ghostly legacy for years. Around Halloween, Alton becomes Spook Central for visitors from all over the region. Many go on the Haunted Alton Tour, advertised as the town's oldest ghost tour. Right Brain Activities, which has offered the tour for 12 years, is run by Marlene Lewis, whose day job is in public relations, and Antoinette, whose jobs include performing psychic readings and conducting paranormal investigations. Their combined skills, along with a small staff, help acquaint customers with dead-but-not-gone people such as Lucy, the Captain, and Mr. Buttprint.
It's working -- financially and, they say, spiritually. A recent Friday-night outing was near the tour's capacity of 60 tourists, each paying $40 a pop. The women also tell the damnedest tales, all with straight faces and in dead earnestness, of their personal encounters with ghosts. They make their expedition sound exciting, and for some of the four-hour, 13-site tour, it is.
The Alton Cemetery is a highlight. The monument to martyred newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy guards the entrance. The towering column capped by the archangel Gabriel silently blowing his trumpet sets an otherworldly tone at night. The monument's floodlights dapple the surrounding sloping cemetery with sharp shadows across the jumble of tombstones. The guide stops the group for a ghost-calling ceremony that features burning candles and an incantation.
The Enos Apartments, a building rich in history and in ghosts, is also on the tour. Built in 1847 as a way station for the Underground Railroad, it had a cupola above for signaling cohorts and a warren of tunnels below for hiding fugitive slaves. Some of the tunnels still exist. They are not much more than brick-lined shafts about head-high, but below the streets and late at night, they are tomb-quiet and deeply dark -- kinda spooky. The building has also been used a tuberculosis ward. The current, living tenants are, the guide tells us, roused at night by the voices and shufflings that emanate from the former sickrooms. The apartments also feature the Captain. A former tenant, the Captain was lost in a storm. His despondent wife moved away and then took her own life. But the Captain returns, walking through the apartments and staring intently at the tenants' faces, looking for the one he lost.
It's a good story, one of many. But no ghosts showed themselves on my tour, other than the ones in tales.
The Haunted Alton Tour, prices $40 ($52 with dinner); 618-462-4009, www.hauntedalton.com. Hours: 6 p.m.-10:30 p.m., 10:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Most tours are held on Fridays and Saturdays. The last tour of the year will take place on Nov. 20.