Across town, in a decidedly poorer neighborhood, sits a home even more impressive than the Olin mansion — at least in Huber's opinion. "See that house over there?" he says, pointing to a weathered green home with its curtains drawn. "That's where Miles Davis was born — not that anyone seems to give a damn anymore."

Perhaps there'd be more interest in the jazz master's birth home if Miles Davis' ghost were to suddenly materialize in Alton. In the past decade reports of hauntings and supernatural phenomena have earned Alton the distinction of being "one of the most haunted small towns in America." The city has a haunted theater, haunted hotel, haunted cracker factory, haunted dessert shop, haunted bookstore, several haunted houses and even a haunted Masonic lodge — the latter of which is said to be inhabited by "Mr. Butt Print," a phantom who leaves cheek marks as his calling card.

In recent years, the ghost tales have sprouted a cottage industry with several different companies offering tours of Alton homes and buildings that are reportedly haunted. Competition is so fierce the Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau reports that it's common for tour operators to call the tourism board and complain that other guides are invading their turf.

Monument to murdered abolitionist, Elijah Lovejoy.
Jennifer Silverberg
Monument to murdered abolitionist, Elijah Lovejoy.
Who you gonna call?: Barber by day, ghost hunter by night, Wayne Hensley.
Jennifer Silverberg
Who you gonna call?: Barber by day, ghost hunter by night, Wayne Hensley.

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"This ghost business does bring people to Alton, I'll give them that," agrees Huber. "But personally, I think all this haunting stuff is a bunch of hocus-pocus bullshit."

But don't tell that to Wayne Hensley, a barber at the Mineral Springs Mall, located in the heart of downtown Alton. At the age of 66, Hensley says he's the oldest living human being to work in the building that opened as a hotel in 1914. The first thing Hensley wants to know when we stop by his small barbershop inside the building is: "Are you a believer?"

"It's all right if you're not," says Hensley as he finishes giving a client a flattop. "On a scale of one to ten, I'd say I used to be a two. I didn't put much stock in ghosts. Now I'd say I'm definitely a ten. There's just no way to explain some of this stuff."

Since moving his business into the building in the early 1980s, Hensley says he's heard voices when no one is around, had his hands slapped by invisible specters, and smelled the perfume and pipe tobacco of the ghosts who haunt the building.

"Back when this hotel opened, Alton was a very violent place," recounts Hensley. "It's incredible the number of murders that happened here. It stands to reason that one or more people were killed in this hotel. Others probably died of suicides or drowned in the mineral pool. Their spirits still haunt this place."

A few years ago, Hensley and a business partner began offering ghost hunts inside the old hotel. Customers pay $30 for the tour and $50 if they elect to eat dinner in the old hotel. For $100, Hensley will even let you sleep on the floor of the swimming pool located in the building's dank basement.

"Business has been good," he boasts, "even through the recession."

Theories differ as to why Alton is haunted. Some say the Mississippi River serves as a channel of sorts to the spiritual world. Others argue that the mystery lies in the Indian legend of the Piasa bird, a winged monster that used to terrify Native American villagers. Others, like 72-year-old Antoinette Eason, believe the answer can be found in the local limestone rock used to build Alton.

"Limestone is a great receptor for psychic residue," explains Eason, who moved to Alton from St. Louis in 1975 and soon set up shop as the city's first licensed psychic. "When something catastrophic happens, it creates an energy that hangs in the air."

Eason believes the assassination of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy still resonates in the spiritual world that haunts Alton. "I don't think the city ever recovered from his murder," she says. "It changed our history. We could have been the state capital instead of Springfield. Now we're not as prosperous as we might have been."

In her 30-plus years in Alton, Eason says she's watched as the town has grown "dirtier," and seen many of the town's treasured buildings disappear due to decay. In 1992, Eason started "Antoinette's Haunted History Tours" which showcases many of Alton's remaining landmarks and their supposed connection to the supernatural.

While her tour initially raised eyebrows, Eason says it continues to sell out month after month. "I'll say this about Alton," she says. "People are more open-minded than they used to be, and not just about metaphysics, either."


Breast Struck
It is safe to say that Alton officials are not likely to ever fully embrace topless bartending.

Last month, city attorney Jim Schrempf introduced a change to the Alton ordinance that currently makes it unlawful to expose "any portion of the female breast at or below the areola" in a bar or tavern. The amended ordinance, which might be approved by the Alton City Council on December 17, also makes it unlawful for men to expose their breasts in bars. Violators face fines up to $750.

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