October 29, 2003
'No one was ever there'
So what is behind the footsteps
and other strange noises at the Stephenson House in
By Julie Belschner
The best scientific minds declare that space and time are
flexible, that they fold over on each other, and that time is a river with
corkscrew bends. So maybe it's not so surprising that a 180-year-old house
has occasional problems staying grounded in the 21st century. Benjamin
Stephenson, an affluent statesman, built himself a country estate outside
of Edwardsville in 1820. The house is on its way to becoming a tourist
attraction today - but it might already be a tourist attraction in the
misty world of yesterday's memories.
Jackie Burnside moved into the house in 1975, only to
soon realize that she shared her home with haunting, nagging . . .
somethings. "There were odd noises in the house that were not made by
anybody," she said. "Our bedroom was at the top of the staircase and we'd
hear footsteps coming up the stairs - but everybody was in bed." "I told
my kids about what we heard, but they were teenagers and just said, 'Ahh,
mom.' There was a big back porch that has been torn off now (the original
1820 porch as been reconstructed). We were sitting at the dinner table one
night eating. Somebody walked across the porch. My son got up to see who
it was - and there was nobody there." Burnside said the noises or
presences never worried her. "I raised five kids," she said. "I'm not
scared of too much of anything."
In 1982, the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity bought the
house - and bought the members a lot of spooky moments. Whether because of
the residents' age or imaginations, the odd occurrences increased.
Conoyer had brothers living in the house at the time. He's heard the
stories over and over; servants looking out of mirrors, glimpses of people
in military uniforms. The boys' bedroom were upstairs. "One of my brothers
was by himself in his room," Conoyer said. "He'd hear footsteps coming up
the stairs. Except they were going the other way."
Today's staircase, and the staircase at the time the
fraternity owned the house, heads up from the front door. In Stephenson's
time, the staircase was built at a reverse angle. Steps going up at a
wrong angle to today's staircase make sense - for an 1820s
"He's hear someone knock on the door, but when he's look, no
one was ever there," Conoyer said. "Then it would happen again. Finally
he's just duck under the covers and go to sleep."
So are ghosts real? Most of the fraternity guys would
probably say yes. There are a lot of theories, though, to explain what
people see, hear and feel. "High electromagnetic fields can cause
hallucinogenic experiences, " said James Pinkston, a real-life paranormal
researcher and ghost explainer. "One thing researchers find is large
amounts of EM energy in instances like this. There are usually power
stations nearby or high-power wires."
Pinkston is a member of Tripar, a
volunteer scientific group that will check out a reported haunting when
requested to do so (visit www.triparinvestigations.org for more
information). Pinkston has several years of criminal investigative
training and has been chasing ghost sighting for 12 years. "We go in and
try to find a rational explanation for what is going on," he explained.
"We try to prove the house is not active. There is no documented proof
that ghosts exist. We do pick up unusual readings sometimes, but there is
no data, no proof."
Unusual readings - high energy bursts, temperature
fluctuations, sounds, unexplained large amounts of static electricity that
weren't there moments before, changes in the air. "We'll find spikes in
our equipment recordings that we can't explain, like maybe a electrical
charge that moved around the room," he said "Rationally, there is no
explanation for that. Unless electric fields are influenced by outside
forces, which is rare, there is no reason an electrical field should move
about the room."
The fraternity boys probably wouldn't buy rational
explanations - their experiences didn't end with footsteps." A man in a
general's uniform was seen a lot reading in the library," Conoyer said.
"One bedroom faced toward the back of the house and one brother lived in
that room. He heard a knock on the window - on the second-floor window.
When he finally went and looked, he saw a woman in white, standing out in
the little field (where the privy was) and she was screaming. It happened
three times one night.
"The next morning he went down to breakfast, and
the other guy who was (sleeping) upstairs was there. My brother started to
tell him, but before he could, the other guy told him the exact thing that
my brother had seen." The lights flickered on and off. The televisions
changed channels. "You just got the general feeling that you were never
alone," said Conoyer, who is now a Sigma Phi Epsilon member himself. The
fraternity is now in another old building in town - one not quite as
So who - or what - might these specters be? According
to the Stephenson House history, Daniel D. Smith was stabbed to death in the house in 1825. Palemon
Winchester, James W. Stephenson and James D. Henry were indicted for the
murder. Smith had stopped at the Stephenson House on Jan. 29 for a party
on his way home from Vandalia. An argument ensued. "Smith was an
entrepreneur, a charlatan," said Sid Denny, Southern Illinois University
Edwardsville professor and archeologist at the Stephenson House site.
"Sometime that evening, he came into the dining room. He was found lying
on the floor with a knife wound. As they were picking him up, he said,
'Winchester' and died." "Winchester was Stephenson's son-in-law. Only
Winchester was put on trial. The trail lawyer accused Smith of verbal
assault and Winchester was found not guilty because of that - in other
words, Smith deserved to die."
Col. Benjamin Stephenson died in the house on Oct. 12,
1822. He may be the footsteps on the staircase. He commanded a battalion
during the way, so he could also be the military figure.
have not seen a (ghost) person, but I have had experiences I can't
explain," Pinkston said. "I've been touched, felt cold spots, seen someone
walking out of the corner of my eye. We pick up on little balls of what
seem to be light moving across the room - and some of our sensors will
react. Is this just a natural phenomenon? Are we just now finding this
kind of thing because of our equipment?
Pinkston said that every since
he could read, he's had a steady supply of books on things like
"Things you can't understand,' he said. "I wanted answers for
questions there are no answers for. I would tell my mother I wanted to be
a paranormal investigator. It's always fascinated me.
"I don't like to
venture into something where I don't know what will happen. I don't want
to go into death without knowing if there's life on the other side or not.
This is partly to prove to myself that there's something after
If the investigators find unexplainable occurrences,
they don't tell the house owners that they have a ghost.
"We just say
there's some things we can't explain." Pinkston said, "If they want to
tell people they have a ghost, that's fine. I'll never be able to prove it
one way or another to anybody but myself"
Burnside doesn't need solid
proof. "There are bound to be spirits in a house that old," she said.
"When a house has seen that many years, thing will just