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The mansion has been empty since the late '50s, when its owner, Paul A. Laichinger, a superintendent at Schariff & Koken Corrugated Co. in St. Louis, died of lung cancer in the dining room. Since then, sightings of Paul's ghost have been reported on a fairly regular basis. Antoinette is particularly close with the mansion's present owner, and she promises a visit there on some other night.
All of the ghosts in Alton have stories, and except perhaps for Bernie, Antoinette knows them all. She's particularly taken with the history of the Confederate prison site, now a paved parking lot, one block east of the Mississippi River. As Marlene maneuvers the SUV to the middle of a steep, brick-lined road, its remains come into view. She parks under a streetlight.
"That is where the prison once stood," Antoinette says, pointing up to an acre slab of concrete. In one corner of the lot, a small wall of limestone brick still stands, all that's left of the original prison. From 1862-65, 11,764 Confederate prisoners passed through its gates, and almost 2,000 of them died of smallpox, typhoid and dysentery.
Antoinette stares quietly at the wall. "I think this site is haunted, but it's so paved over, there's not much of an impression. There definitely seems to be some unrest here."
Then she looks out over the river to a dark mass of land stranded on all sides by swampy residue. That, she says, is Small Pox Island, where soldiers stricken with the disease were taken once the cemetery on Hopp Hollow Road filled up. It is the newest addition to the tour this year, because the horror of its history evokes entities of all kinds.
"When these people were dying, they set up a tent hospital on Small Pox Island. But the guys knew when they were sent over there that they probably wouldn't be coming back, and there were so many people dying, they just buried them in mass graves. There aren't any memorials or tombstones or anything. I kind of feel like they're the forgotten ones."
As she again slips into silence, the streetlight blinks off and the SUV suddenly is shrouded in darkness. Antoinette laughs. "That sort of thing happens to me all the time," she chuckles.
Troy Taylor, president of the American Ghost Society, moved to Alton last year from Decatur, Ill., because of his lifelong obsession with "the unexplained." He is the author of 13 books about ghosts and history, and after exploring the haunted hills of Alton, Taylor found the town irresistible.
In his bookstore, River Boat Molly's, up on East Third Street, Taylor sits in a sweatshirt and jeans, surrounded by history books, worn saddles and metal-strapped trunks from the Civil War. He says the American Ghost Society focuses on proving to the general public that ghosts do exist and does so by collecting evidence -- photographs, videotapes, anecdotal material -- from places that members feel are truly haunted.
"We do investigations, but we're not ghostbusters. We don't go into people's homes and get rid of ghosts or anything like that," Taylor says. "What we're doing is collecting evidence of the supernatural. I do investigations not as a psychic but as a detective. I am looking for actual evidence. Then I present the evidence to the public without reaching conclusions and let them decide for themselves.
"People ask me all the time if I believe in ghosts. My answer is that I don't believe in ghosts -- I want to know that there are ghosts," Taylor continues. "Can I tell you for a fact that there are ghosts? I believe that there are, we've gotten at least to that point, but it's not for a fact just yet. I do believe there is something going on out there that we really don't understand. There are things that I don't have explanations for, but I do believe they were ghosts."
Like Antoinette, Taylor runs haunted tours of Alton during October. Unlike Antoinette, he's a newcomer to the town, but he has definite opinions about why it's so haunted. "Anywhere that you find a lot of history, you can find ghosts and ghost stories," Taylor says. "Alton has a really great background as far as history, with a lot of unusual things, including floods, disease, tornadoes, the Civil War, the Underground Railroad. Anytime there's bloodshed of any kind, there can be a haunting."
As for Antoinette, she believes the porous limestone above and below Alton works like a sponge that soaks up excess emotional energy put out by intense experiences. One evening, sitting in the kitchen of Marlene's large Victorian house, Antoinette explains that if a horrible murder takes place, like the shooting of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy on the waterfront in 1837, all of that spent emotion seeps into the very foundation of the town and stays there in the form of psychic residue.
"Everybody is constantly putting off psychic energy," Antoinette says above jazz music playing softly in the background. "This energy gets stored in the denser material around you, and limestone is very good at holding this kind of energy. If someone comes along and is psychically sensitive, they pick up on it, they sense it."
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