Ghost hunters await the funeral procession of 1889
Location: Prairie du Rocher, Illinois (Mapped)
File Under: Ghost Stories, Unsolved Mysteries, Haunted Places
One of the best-kept secrets in Illinois Forteana is the little town of Prairie du Rocher (population 613), located on Highway 155 about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of St. Louis.
Every year, on the Fourth of July, parapsychologists, ghost-hunters, Forteans, mystics and skeptics park their cars on the old river road between 11 p.m. and midnight in the hopes of witnessing "what no mortal has seen for (over) one hundred years--a phantom funeral procession making its way from ancient Fort de Chartres, near the Mississippi River, to a nearby cemetery."
Actually, this whole stretch of Illinois' Mississippi River shoreline has an unusual history. In 1718, an enterprising Scotsman named John Law organized the Western Company in Paris to develop France's new Louisiana Territory. From King Louis XV, Law "obtained a charter that granted complete jurisdiction over Louisiana Territory. The charter provided that 6,000 whites and 3,000 Negroes should be brought to the territory within 25 years."
"On the Fourth of July, 1889, a woman named Mrs. Chris and a neighbor lady were keeping vigil over the body of Mrs. Chris's dead baby. It was nearly midnight, the air stifling hot as they rocked on the front porch of the house."
"Suddenly, the neighbor noticed in the distance a shadowy procession of people and wagons coming down the road. Wagons rolled into view, silhouetted against the full moon, their drivers unseen in the darkness. No driver or wagon carried a light or any other visible indication of their origin or intended destination. The only clue to their purpose was a casket that was being transported in a low wagon."
"As the entourage drew closer, Mrs. Chris and her friend became certain that it was indeed a funeral procession."
"The women were astonished--although they counted nearly forty wagons, followed by thirteen pairs of horsemen, the enormous cavalcade did not make a single sound! The horses' hooves were battering against the earth, clouds of dust rolled out from under the wagon wheels and the riders seemed to be talking to each other. Yet, not a sound reached the ears of the witnesses, save the soft rustling of nearby trees, a few night frogs and the barking of the family dog."
"'Oh, my God!' Mrs. Chris cried to her friend, 'If I wasn't sitting here with you seeing this, I'd swear I was dreaming.'"
"But the women were not dreaming. The neighbor woman's father had been awakened by the agitated dog and looked out the window to see the same unearthly formation rolling by. He verified the women's account of the scene early the next morning."
"Other than those three people, no one else saw the phantom funeral."
"Mrs. Chris and her friend decided to remain on the porch to see if anyone returned from the cortege's obvious destination, the old cemetery down the road. But no one came back--not one of the forty wagons or twenty-six horsemen!"
"What had the women witnessed? And who was being buried by the ghostly mourners?"
"An apparent answer came in a few days from a friend of Mrs. Chris' neighbor who was visiting from DuQuoin (population 6,448). The two women told her about the strange events of a few nights before, and the visitor recalled that her daughter had just read an account of the early days of Fort de Chartres, built in 1756 by King Louis XV, in which a prominent man had been killed in an ambush by a disgruntled resident of the fort. The specific cause of the murder was unclear, and the murderer was never apprehended."
"The people at the fort were unsure what to do with the body. A delegation made a small trek to Kaskaskia, (then) the seat of the regional (French) government, to ask how the death should be handled. They were told to bury the dead man at midnight in an obscure cemetery with only the light of the full moon to lead the way."
"Mrs. Chris and her neighbor realized that the procession they had witnessed was the ghostly re-enactment of the original event," over a century after the original had taken place.
"The current legend surrounding the ghostly funeral procession claims that only three people will be able to see the caravan in the hour before midnight on the evening of July 4. A full moon must be hanging in the night sky."
Some researchers reject the ghost theory and maintain that what the two women saw in 1889 was a time-warp. The warp opened a momentary hole in the fourth dimension, allowing Mrs. Chris and her friend to see--but not hear-- the actual midnight funeral procession that took place during July of 1756.
These Forteans visit the site every year, hoping that the time-warp will open and...if they're brave enough...they might step through and into the middle of the Eighteenth Century.
Others stick with the legend, noting that the procession didn't appear the last few times there was a full moon on the Fourth of July, namely, in 1986, 1997 and 2003. But there'll be a full moon on the Fourth again in 2014, 2025, 2031 and 2042. You just never know!
First to arrive was Phillipe-Francois Renaud, "who left France in 1719 with 200 miners to search for precious stones and metals" along the Mississippi River. "En route, he stopped in Santo Domingo and bought 500 (black) slaves, a number of which were brought to Illinois."
In 1722, Renaud and his men founded a town at the base of the Mississippi River bluffs, which they called Prairie du Rocher (French for Rocky Meadow --J.T.). But the reputed rubies, sapphires, diamonds and emeralds eluded him, and Renaud "returned to France in 1742, and his slaves were sold to French colonists in this region."
Four miles (6 kilometers) to the west, on the shore of the Mississippi, Pierre Duque, Sieur de Boisbriant, began work on what became "the most formidable of all French fortresses in the Mississippi Valley. Boisbriant built the fort between 1718 and 1720 and, when it was finished, it was named Fort de Chartres, for the Duke de Chartres, the son of the French regent."
"The first fort was built of timber and soon fell into disrepair...In 1751, the French decided to erect a fortification that would be both permanent and impregnable." The French army worked on the new stone fort from 1753 to 1756. "Its massive walls were 18 feet (5.8 meters) in height and enclosed four acres of ground. Each of the four bastions had 8 embrasures, 48 loopholes (for snipers--J.T.) and a sentry box." There was even a chapel, with a rectory for Roman Catholic clergy on the second floor.
Fort de Chartres proved its worth during the Seven Years War (1754-1761). It was from here that French troops sallied forth to capture UK's Fort Necessity--and its commander, a 22-year-old officer from Virginia named George Washington--and to destroy Gen. Braddock's army in western Pennsylvania in 1755. But UK won the war, and the 1763 Treaty of Paris ceded the Illinois country to Britain.
In 1765, Col. Louis St. Ange de Belleville surrendered the fort to a British army column commanded by Captain Thomas Stirling. The Illinois Indians wept as the Union Jack was run up the flagpole. Seven years later, in 1772, the British, finding Fort de Chartres too expensive to maintain, destroyed the outpost and returned to Canada.
But the French influence died hard in the area. "As late as 1900, French was still spoken extensively in Prairie du Rocher." And they were still talking about Mrs. Chris' strange experience in 1889.
(See the books Haunted Heartland by Beth Scott and Michael Norman, Barnes & Noble Books, 1992, pages 45, 46 and 47; and Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide, A.C. McClurg and Co., Chicago, Ill., 1939, pages 495 and 496.)
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