"I was captured on the 13th of July, heavily ironed with log chain and ball, transported to this prison, thrown into a cell 6x3 feet with my iron fetters on, kicked, cuffed, taunted, jeered and maltreated in every conceivable form …. Oh! The horrors of this place, the cruelty of my persecutors, tongue cannot tell, neither hath it entered into the hearts of man to conceive. I have seen hundreds of my companions in arms consigned to a premature and untimely grave here by the cruelty and injustice of my enemies, murdered in cold blood in this house of disease and death."
CONFEDERATE OFFICER FROM CALLAWAY COUNTY,
When word reached the land where the Great Rivers meet that the United States was embroiled in a Civil War, many of the men from Alton and the surrounding area responded to Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers. One of the city’s greatest moments came only a few days after the proclamation of war, when the steamer City of Alton was used to remove military supplies from St. Louis to keep them from falling into the hands of the secessionists in that city.
St. Louis was a city that was sharply divided in 1861. However, when Claiborne Jackson took the oath of the governor’s office of Missouri, his inaugural address left no doubt that he intended to align the state with the rapidly forming Confederacy in the south. State conventions were suddenly being held to discuss secession from the Union. They met for the first time on February 28. In return, moderates began to call for meetings of a Constitutional Union party, hoping to preserve not only the Union, but also peace in the nation and in the state of Missouri.
The Constitutional Unionists and the Black Republicans watched closely the maneuverings of the Jackson men in St. Louis. Armed militiamen were stationed at the Berthold Mansion, where the Missouri secessionist banner with its single bar and crescent waved proudly. Meanwhile, Union men drilled openly and operated a headquarters at Turner Hall. Governor Yates of Illinois sent them 2,000 muskets in a load of beer barrels with which to prepare for trouble. Both groups had their eyes on the well-stocked St. Louis Arsenal near the river. Here, either side could easily capture more than 60,000 guns, along with 200 barrels of powder and other munitions.
Governor Jackson constantly warned that the secessionist men should take the Arsenal, but to no avail. However, he was reassured by General D.M. Frost, who reported that Major Bell at the Arsenal was loyal to the state of Missouri and would not allow the facility to fall into Unionist hands. Meanwhile, Isaac Sturgeon, federal assistant treasurer in St. Louis, was also concerned and not only about the Arsenal, but the funds in his charge as well. With very few United States regulars west of the Mississippi, he contacted Washington with his concerns. A short time later, a detachment was sent to strengthen the forces at Jefferson Barracks. Then, on the urgings of Mayor Oliver Filley, a loyal Union man, a group of soldiers marched into the city, took over the Customs House and removed the government’s money.
The chief military commander in Missouri at that time was General William Selby Harney, a close friend of Jefferson Davis. He was living in St. Louis at the time and saw no cause for alarm over the events that were being set into motion. However, Major David Hunter, who had conferred in the city with Isaac Sturgeon, was not so confident. Soon, Harney received a telegram from the War Department, asking whether or not it might be wise to bring soldiers from Jefferson Barracks to guard over the Arsenal. A few days later, Captain Nathaniel Lyon was sent from Fort Riley to St. Louis with a detachment of troops. Within a short time, he was placed in charge of the Arsenal and General Harney was called to Washington.
By the time that war broke out on April 12, talking had ended and the city was plunged into chaos. The first acts of aggression from the Confederacy sent ripples through the cautious peace in St. Louis and when President Lincoln called for four regiments of volunteers from Missouri, Governor Jackson denounced the call as “illegal, unconstitutional and revolutionary”. Meanwhile, a Committee of Public Safety was formed in St. Louis, headed by pro-Union Republicans and Democrats. They pledged “unalterable fidelity to the Union under all circumstances” and were determined to back the Union at all costs.
Four days after Jackson refused to obey the President’s orders, Captain Nathaniel Lyon was ordered to muster four regiments into public service. Before nightfall, he had them at the Arsenal, supplied with both arms and ammunition. On April 30, Lyon was informed that if he and the Committee of Public Safety deemed it necessary, he could proclaim martial law in the city of St. Louis. The military commanders feared for the safety of the arms that were secured at the St. Louis Arsenal and they ordered Captain James B. Stokes to use the City of Alton to salvage them and move them to Illinois.
Stokes proceeded downriver from Alton with a force of 700 men. They loaded weapons from the Arsenal onto the steamer but to divert the attention of a mob that was forming, he ordered 500 unusable muskets be placed on another vessel. A great show was made of this and while many in the crowd were distracted, others were taken into custody and locked up in the guard house.
Stokes and his men managed to remove 20,000 muskets, 500 pistols, 500 carbines, cannons and ammunition from the Arsenal. They secured them aboard the City of Alton and headed back up the river to Alton. They had not gone far before the steamer was in danger of running aground. It was dangerously overloaded and only by shifting the cargo back and forth were they able to stay afloat. The steamer arrived back in Alton during the early morning hours and when Stokes rang the fire bell, dozens of volunteers flocked to the river. The weapons and ammunition were quickly transferred to a waiting train and sent on to Springfield and into the hands of the forming Illinois regiments.
One of the men involved in the foray into St. Louis was Franklin B. Moore of Upper Alton. In July 1861, he would independently raise a company called the Madison County Rangers. The company became famous for their raids and their battles with Missouri guerilla troops. They were known for their bravery and captured over 1,200 prisoners and huge quantities of arms and supplies. Moore, who was known as “Fighting Frank” was the son of Abel Moore. His brothers, William and Joel, had been killed in the Wood River Massacre.
THE ALTON PENITENTIARY
It would not be for these fleeting moments of glory that Alton would become known in the annals of Civil War history however. Alton’s reputation would be a much darker one and the events that would take place here during the war years would leave a horrible, lingering reputation behind. It would be at a site that is now close to the corner of Broadway and William Streets where tragedy, despair and disease became commonplace. It was at this place where death came calling for hundreds of men during the war – and it is a place where, even today, it is said that the dead do not rest in peace.
Construction on the first penitentiary in the state of Illinois was completed in Alton in 1833. There was not another building like it in the state and in fact, at that time there were few structures like it anywhere in the United States. While one of the first institutions brought to this country by the early settlers was the jail, a place where lawbreakers could be held while they awaited trial and subsequent punishment, there existed no penitentiaries as we know then today. As it would happen, the penitentiary would be purely an American invention, which would have a profound effect on the country and the rest of the world.
In the early 1800’s, the Quakers in Pennsylvania began to search for a new method of incarceration for criminals in which "penitence" would become essential in the punishment of the lawbreaker. (Thus, we have the word "penitentiary") Around this same time, two prisons were built and would soon become models for the rest of the nation. Eastern Penitentiary was built in Philadelphia in 1829 to further the Quaker’s idea of prisoner isolation as a form of punishment. Prisoners were confined in windowless rooms with running water and toilets. They would come into contact with no one during their entire sentence. This extreme isolation caused many of the prisoners to go insane and it comes as no surprise that this prison is believed to be haunted today.
Also in 1829, a rival system, which gained wider acceptance, was started with the building of a prison in Auburn, New York. Here, the prisoners worked all day at hard labor and then were isolated at night, as they were at the Eastern Penitentiary. The prisoners labored together but were unable speak to one another in the early years of the institution. This system became more popular than the system devised at Eastern State because it was cheaper to operate and the buildings could house more prisoners.
The Alton Penitentiary was designed around 1830 and opened three years later as a loose interpretation of the Auburn system of prisons. The men incarcerated here would forced to work during the day, laboring mostly in the local quarries, and then were housed in their cells at night. Punishments for any sort of infraction could be brutal and mostly involved beatings and floggings. The prison had come about because the state legislature had amended the criminal code to favor confinement and hard labor, and to abolish the use of stocks and whippings, as a punishment for crimes. Apparently though, these punishments were allowed for those already in prison who broke the rules.
The first building of the penitentiary was completed in 1833 and held 24 cells. The prison was run under the lease system. As more prisoners were incarcerated, additional cells and buildings were added to the prison, along with a warden’s residence, which was located at the southwest corner of the site. In 1846, 96 new cells were added and more followed. By the time the prison closed down, there were 256 cells with an average of two convicts in each.
By the 1850’s, conditions were so bad here that Dorothea Dix, a social reformer and leader in the movement to improve conditions for prisoners, the insane and the mentally ill, led a crusade to stop the Alton prison from being used. After visiting Alton, she wrote that the penitentiary was “badly situated too near the river, undrained and ungraded and generally, unsanitary. It is not fit for human habitation.” This led to a heated controversy that eventually ended in a legislative investigation and the construction of a new prison near Joliet, Illinois. Cynics maintain that the closing of the Alton penitentiary had little to do with the conditions though and that the Joliet prison was only built because the center of Illinois population by 1859 had moved away from Alton to the Chicago area. Whatever the reason, the Joliet prison was completed in that year and by May 1859, prisoners were transferred to Joliet in batches of 40 to 50 and by June 1860, the Alton penitentiary was abandoned.
Early in the years of the Civil War, Alton became a military post, thanks to its location on the Missouri border and its access to the river. The first garrison stationed here consisted of three or four companies of the 13th US Regulars, under the command of General William T. Sherman. The local troops were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sydney Burbank.
It had become apparent by 1862 that the war was not going to come to a swift end and more space was needed for the growing numbers of Confederate prisoners of war. In an effort to relieve the overcrowding at the Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis, Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Department of the Missouri, asked for permission to take over the abandoned Alton penitentiary, provided that he could get consent from Illinois governor Richard Yates. Governor Yates granted his permission and at the end of January 1862, Halleck sent an agent to build fires in the penitentiary building to dry out the walls. By this time, the buildings had been empty for several years but were perfect for what was needed. The site was an extensive one, bordering Fourth Street on the north, Williams Street on the east, Second Street on the south and Mill Street on the west. The “unsanitary” facility had been empty for some time but under the present situation, it passed military inspection. A report by Augustus M. Clark, medical inspector of prisoners of war, contradicted the findings of Dorothea Dix and the Illinois legislative investigation by stating that the drainage for the prison was in “good order.”
The prison had a main, three story penitentiary building with 256 cells, each measuring 4 x 7 feet. There were also five long rooms, divided by partitions, that provided two enclosures each. There were also several stone buildings in the yard, which was surrounded by a high stone wall, as well as an old stable. Two buildings in the yard would be converted to be used for confining Union troops who were under court martial and civilian prisoners.
The first commander of the prison was also the commander of the Alton post, Lieutenant Colonel Sidney Burbank. He was an 1829 graduate of West Point and a veteran infantryman. The first prisoners arrived on February 9 by way of a river steamer. They were marched from the river landing to the prison and had to pass through a gauntlet of local residents, many of which shouted and spit on them. Not all of the prisoners were soldiers. They included spies, saboteurs, guerilla fighters and southern sympathizers. Even a few women were incarcerated there and two of them died in Alton. Dr. Thomas Hope, a local southern sympathizer and one of Alton’s leading doctors, refused to rent his property for the drilling of Union soldiers. His refusal to the Union army was so antagonistic that he was locked up in the prison for several days. He was soon released but served in the prison hospital during his stay.
Within three days of the arrival of the first prisoners, the penitentiary was already overcrowded. The maximum capacity of the institution was estimated at 800 but throughout most of the war, it held between 1,000 and 1,500 prisoners and often more. By the last year of the war, the prison was said to have held 1,900 prisoners.
Few of the newly arrived prisoners settled into the prison compliantly. In July, several prisoners escaped by tunneling under the west wall and among them was Colonel Ebenezer Magoffin, a Missouri Confederate and the brother of the governor of Kentucky. Colonel Magoffin had been imprisoned with a death sentence for killing a Union soldier. He had been a discipline problem at the Gratiot Street Prison, leading insurrections among the inmates and starting a number of fires. Magoffin was placed in a small room on an upper floor with a padlocked door and a guard stationed in front. However, many of the other Confederate officers were allowed within the city limits of Alton on parole during the daylight hours.
Most of the prisoners remained in their cells or had limited access to the yard, where the drinking water and the latrines could be found. The prison had no water supply. A well was located on the grounds but soon after the prisoners of war were transferred it, the water was found to be contaminated. The situation was remedied by hauling huge water kegs from the river, using a six mule team wagon. The drinking water was stored in a trench that was located just a short distance away from a similar container that was used as the latrine. “Imagine”, wrote Jacob Teeple, a soldier from the Missouri Infantry who was among the first grounds transferred to Alton, “twelve hundred men shut up in a prison with only Mississippi water direct from the river!”
There was little concern about these conditions by prison officials for life was perhaps even more brutal here than in the days when it was a state penitentiary. While the prison was under the command of the Army, it was still managed by the last of the prison wardens, Samuel Buckmaster. He was not a military man, but a businessman who had leased the prison from the state from 1838 to 1860, when it had closed down. He still held the lease when the military moved into it and the government paid Buckmaster a sum of $20,000 per year with which to maintain the prison and feed the prisoners. Any money left over was considered a salary for Buckmaster and it was said that he became a very rich man during the war. Not far from the prison, he constructed what was regarded as one of the finest homes in the area for the time, allegedly pocketing the money that was supposed to have been spent on the prison. He lived a life of luxury as the conditions in the penitentiary continued to deteriorate.
Augustus Clark, who had inspected the prison originally, found nothing wrong with this situation on a return visit and in fact wrote that “in this prison, more than any other, regard seems to be paid to the comfort of the as well as security of the prisoners. The military discipline maintained is not as strict as should be, yet every precaution seems to be taken to prevent escapes.”
But Clark was as wrong about this as he was about the sanitary conditions of the prison. During the early morning hours of July 25, 1862, sentries along the back wall of the prison heard noises outside and at dawn, discovered a hole in the ground that was about 18 inches in diameter. Further investigation revealed that a tunnel exited the prison from an entrance in the wash house, located in the prison yard. A roll call revealed that 36 prisoners were missing, including Colonel Magoffin and his two sons, who were also prisoners. The guard outside of Magoffin’s room had wandered off during the night and the creative officer had picked the lock and had slipped out.
The countryside was scoured but missing boats along the river suggested that the prisoners had escaped to Missouri. Only eight of them were ever recaptured and on August 9, General Halleck called for a court of inquiry into the matter. President Lincoln agreed that there seemed to be a problem in Alton and after the court obtained their sworn statements, Colonel Burbank and the 13th Regiment were transferred out.
The garrison was then taken over by the 77th Ohio Volunteer Regiment under the command of Colonel Jesse Hildebrand. After a disastrous rout of his men at Shiloh, Hildebrand had been transferred to Alton. He was ridiculed by his own men, local townspeople and the prisoners alike. He was not even settled into his new assignment before another escape occurred.
Heat was supplied to the prison by wood-burning stoves that had been set up in the corridors. In the yard buildings, stoves were located in the rooms, which used coal-oil lamps for light. The prison had been equipped with “modern” gas lighting. The prisoners used this to their advantage on Sunday, November 16, when a fire broke out in a straw storage room north of the prison hospital. The Alton fire brigade was summoned and soon extinguished the blaze. Then, during the early morning hours of the next day, the same room suddenly burst into flames again. It was again put out but as dawn broke in the sky, the guards noticed a ladder that was propped up against the south wall of the prison yard. A braided bed sheet was knotted at the top of the ladder and it dangled over the other side. A quick count revealed that four prisoners were missing.
The next day’s Alton Telegraph wrote a scathing piece: “There are stationed here not less than 1,300 U.S. Troops as guards… there is gross negligence somewhere; for prisoners to have or get ladders and climb over prison walls within ten steps of a sentinel certainly argues a laxity of discipline which demands instant reform.”
Officials in St. Louis sent off exasperated letters to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Colonel William Hoffman wrote: “I have urged for a more competent officer for the command than Colonel Hildebrand but have been told there is no one available... I therefore respectfully recommend that Captain H.W. Freedley, Third Infantry, be placed in command.”
Freedley arrived in Alton on November 27 and after only a cursory inspection of the prison, was shocked and disgusted by what he saw. “Inexcusable neglect,” he reported. “So incomplete and incorrect were the rolls that at this time, there are names found on the rolls that are not found in the prison, as well as three persons found in the prison whose names were not on the rolls… Many of the prisoners are sadly destitute of clothing… I have found the guard duties were performed in a loose and careless manner, arising from a relaxation of discipline…”
Hoffman then informed his superior, General Samuel R. Curtis, who was by then commander of the Department of the Missouri, that the Alton prison was in “such an utter state of confusion and disorder” that he had applied to the secretary of war to place Freedley in command. “Colonel Hildebrand,” Hoffman explained, “means well but he is wanting in many things essential to such a command.” In March 1863, Hildebrand was relieved of his command. He returned home to Ohio and died soon after.
As the war continued on, new prisoners arrived in Alton on a regular basis. The prison usually contained many times the number of prisoners that it was designed for. The prison also held as many as 200 U.S. military convicts in one of the buildings in the yard. According to reports, they were the most dangerous of those confined at the prison, sometimes attacking and robbing the prisoners of war, and many of them were often seen “bucked and gagged” in the yard for misbehavior. There were also at least seven women incarcerated at Alton during the war. They were confined in a “damp, cold portioned off room in the cellar” of the main prison building, far away from the other inmates.
In addition to constant health problems and continued overcrowding, the prison continued to be plagued with dangerous situations arising from disorganization, mismanagement and inadequate security. Plots to escape were constantly hatched and while most failed, there was an escape attempt worth noting in July 1864. There were 46 prisoners at labor in a nearby stone quarry who made a desperate effort against their guards. Acting at a given signal, the prisoners nearly overpowered the soldiers and seized a number of rifles before the guards could act. The weakened condition of the unhealthy prisoners allowed the guards to quickly recover and they killed seven of the men and wounded five others. All but two of the Confederates were quickly recaptured.
Many of the escape attempts failed because of the health of the prisoners themselves. Living conditions in the prison were sometimes unbearable and most of the men were badly clothed, food was often withheld as a punishment or was not edible when it was given, bathing facilities were not available, gnats and lice were common, as were rats and other vermin. The prevailing diseases at the Alton prison included malaria, pneumonia, dysentery, scurvy and anemia and they felled more men than gunshots ever could. Then, in 1863, several isolated cases of smallpox broke out among prisoners who had been transferred in from the Gratiot Street prison. The disease began to spread and quickly turned into an epidemic.
During the Civil War, of the 620,000 soldiers on both sides who died, two died of disease for every one in battle. Dysentery (i.e. chronic diaherrea) was the biggest killer, followed by diphtheria, typhoid, measles, pneumonia and various infections. Smallpox was especially feared because it is a disease that is spread by direct contact. The prisoners, at the time of the outbreak, probably numbered almost 2,000 in quarters that were designed for many less. They slept three in a bed, ate standing up and used a common latrine. Nothing was clean in the prison and the men were often unshaved and filthy. As mentioned before, they could not bathe, their sleeping mattresses were never changed or washed and the prison yard was filled with pools of stagnant water and urine.
The smallpox virus could live for hours on contaminated clothing and blankets and had an incubation period of two weeks. It was spread to others long before the carrier ever realized he was sick. And there was little that could be done for the disease, other than to let it run its course. Those with smallpox would be completely dehydrated and as it progressed, victims would develop oozing pustules on their legs, arms and faces. Survivors were often badly scarred.
During the war, smallpox inoculations were given at many prisons with mixed results. According to one source, prisoners given an “impure” smallpox vaccine at Andersonville, the notorious southern prison camp, ended up with such severe gangrene that “some arms almost rotted in two”.
Despite mandatory vaccinations for smallpox at the Alton prison, men began to get sick and soon, both prisoners and guards began to die. Before it was over, the disease also spread into the city of Alton itself, killing many residents. In the early days though, as the prison death toll first began to climb, Alton’s mayor, Edward T. Drummond, refused to have any of the prisoners treated away from the prison. There were no hospitals in the city of Alton in those days. The patients were quartered in hallways, storage rooms and stables as the prison hospital was woefully inadequate with only five beds. Before the outbreak, there had been about a half dozen deaths per week in the prison but soon, they were counting more than five a day. Once the disease started to spread, there was no way to stop it. The men were weakened by poor diets and filthy living conditions and were helpless against the disease.
In a journal kept by an Alton prisoner named Gavin Frost, a Missourian who was imprisoned there, the pages tell of the horrible conditions. He wrote that “It is almost impossible to sleep on account of the rats, which run over us all through the night... there is much sickness; the smallpox is prevailing and many are dying daily. It not infrequently happens that a man dies in his solitary bunk, and the fact is not discovered for several hours, and when it is found out, no one looks astonished or seems to care. The corpse is carried out like so much rubbish, thrown into a rough box, and literally tossed into a shallow grave”.
By the second month, prison guards also began to be infected with smallpox. It was said that those soldiers who were not sick had to be threatened with court-martial to get them to continue with their duties.
The sick and dying men were overflowing from the converted hospitals and sick rooms and there became a dire situation over what to do with the bodies of the dead. The prison “dead house” was simply a shed in the yard where bodies were kept until they could be buried. This soon became woefully inadequate for the needs of the prison, as did the former method of burial and disposal. Prior to the epidemic, the bodies of the men who died at the prison were floated by raft to the ferry landing upriver and then driven by wagon to an old goat pasture that had been converted to a cemetery in North Alton.
When news of an epidemic spread throughout the city though, the residents of Alton quite naturally began to panic and they demanded the bodies be taken elsewhere, along with the men who had become fatally ill with the disease. The failing men, and those who succumbed to the illness, were taken to a small island located on the Mississippi called Sunflower Island. It had been here where Abraham Lincoln and James Shields had gone to fight a duel two decades before and the island has been used for little else. Located on one end of the island however was a dilapidated summer cottage and it was commandeered and turned into a hospital pest house – a ward to quarantine those with deadly diseases – and it too became quickly overcrowded. A number of healthy prisoners were ordered to act as hospital attendants and stretcher bearers although few of them were well enough to work. Prisoners, guards and doctors feared going to the island, afraid they would never return. Prisoners and guards also transported wrapped bodies to the island, where they were placed in trenches that had been dug. Additionally, it is said that about 60 other Confederates were buried in unmarked graves on the nearby Missouri shore.
An unknown number of men died and were buried in various locations during the epidemic. According to reports, the bodies were secreted not only on the island and along the Missouri shoreline, but right on the prison grounds as well. Jacob Teeple, who was incarcerated at Alton with his father and cousin wrote that the men “died by the hundreds. My father died in [Alton] prison, and they would not let me see him buried, nor do I know whether he was buried or not.”
Gavin Frost, the Missouri soldier mentioned earlier, had already survived a smallpox epidemic and was immune to the disease as it spread through the Alton prison. In February 1864, he wrote that “the hospital is so crowded that it is impossible for a sick man to gain admittance; when one goes in the doctor tells him to ‘take a seat, there is no room now, but some fellow will die in a few minutes, and you can take his place...’”
The smallpox epidemic continued to rage at the prison throughout the winter of 1863 and into the following spring. Prison officials eventually gave up trying to keep an accurate account of the dead. Estimates made after the war ranged from 1,000 to over 5,000 deaths. Official numbers listed anywhere from 1,354 to 1,434. Based on the conditions here, none of the numbers seem to be an exaggeration.
Throughout the epidemic, officials had attempted to cope by using a number of makeshift accommodations to treat the disease, as they had no actual hospital facilities. In the summer of 1864, a group of St. Louis nuns from the Daughters of Charity arrived at the prison. They demanded better medical supplies, an actual hospital building and permission to conduct burial services for the men. The new hospital was authorized on the grounds and construction was completed by that autumn. They also opened the first hospital in the city as well, a short distance away from the prison in a former boarding house. By the end of the summer, new cases of smallpox were no longer reported and the pest house on Sunflower Island was closed down. Those who were buried there remain unknown today and their graves, and the island itself, have vanished.
Shortly after the war, the locations of the island graves were lost. A congressional report, which is dated in 1869, stated that “a number of Union soldiers and rebel prisoners of war, who died from small pox, were buried on an island in the Mississippi River. The island has several times been overflowed since their burial, and all traces of the graves have been swept away.” The graves may have vanished, but the dead remained. In 1874, a wing dike built downstream on Ellis Island caused the shore of “Smallpox Island” (as it was now being called) to erode, washing some of the bodies away. For years afterward, locals largely avoided the island and for this reason, failed to notice the continued erosion that took place, washing the island’s rocks, stone and sand downstream. The waters also carried away the remains of many of the soldiers whose bodies had been left behind here. The island was shunned by the residents, some believed, because of the chance that traces of smallpox might linger here. Others believed that it was avoided for another reason altogether – because the ghosts of the men buried here in unmarked graves still roamed the island.
And a number of these bodies still remained. In the summer of 1935, two young men from Alton rowed to island, which was then being dredged by the Corps of Engineers for a new lock and dam system. The boys discovered two human skulls buried in the sand. Shortly after the discovery, a young reporter for the Alton Telegraph named Will Brunner went out to the island to search for more skulls. He suspected they once belonged to soldiers from the Alton prison.
He headed out to the northeastern tip of the island, which had been excavated to build a temporary earthen dike for the construction of the Locks and Dam. The dike had been built so that the work area would remain dry. At the site, he found several skulls tangled into the roots of a tree and after some digging, found some skeletons as well. There were no caskets, Brunner said, although he found a flat stone that may have been a marker of some sort. Finally, Brunner gathered three skulls, three femurs and some vertebrae and placed them in a basket. He rowed back to Alton and wrote a story which appeared on the front page of the Alton Evening Telegraph on July 23, 1935 called “Island Yields Skeletons of Prison Dead”. A month later, Brunner returned to college, leaving the bones at home in his closet. His mother later found his gruesome discovery and threw them out.
As work continued on the Locks and Dam, much of the island’s sandy soil was used as fill around the southern leg of the dam and for a levee. Finally, in 1938 the Locks and Dam were completed and as the water level behind the dam was raised, the remainder of the island was obliterated. Over the years, the site of the island has been lost, vanished beneath the waters of the Mississippi River. All that remains of it is a sandy strip of land along the Missouri shoreline that is called the “Lincoln-Shields Recreation Area”. There is no trace remaining of what the island used to be – but those who walk here are left to ponder just what may be lying beneath their feet?
And what phantoms still walk here in the night?
While the pest house and the Sunflower Island burying ground many be gone, the small cemetery in North Alton does remain today. The land here was once a goat pasture that was purchased by the state of Illinois back in 1833 to use as a cemetery for those who died at the state penitentiary. There were thirty prisoners interred here between 1833 and 1858 and after the penitentiary became a military prison in 1862, it was put into use once more. Prisoners were buried in trenches and wooden stakes were used as markers to identify the individual remains. The numbers were kept on file by undertakers who were hired by the U.S. Government. After the Civil War ended though, the burial ground was allowed to deteriorate badly and the markers either rotted or were carried away for firewood. By 1893, the small plot was surrounded by barbed wire and used for pastureland.
Since that time, a large monument has been placed in memory of the men who died at Alton prison, thanks to the efforts of the Sam Davis Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy. They petitioned the government to erect a monument to the dead and it was completed in 1909.
The prison itself was closed down after the war and abandoned, despite a brief effort to once again have it used as a state facility. The walls around the prison yard were torn down between 1870 and 1875 and most of the stone was hauled off for other projects, including the Big Arch Railroad Bridge. A large number of stones from the walls were also crushed and used to pave the streets of Crystal City, Missouri for the first time. The area where the prison yard was located was turned into a public park and playground called “Uncle Remus Park” in honor of the character created by southern author Joel Chandler Harris.
During this time though, the walls of the main prison building remained standing and whenever Alton residents needed stone for any sort of minor construction, they would bring a wagon to the old prison and load up some of the already cut stones. This saved time and money, since this way they did not need to purchase stones from a local quarry.
Sadly, even a number of Confederate veterans, who once were incarcerated at the prison, returned to Alton after the war and took away stones to use for their own grave markers. One of these was a man who claimed to be a former prisoner at the penitentiary named Samuel Breckinridge. He returned to Alton from Tennessee in 1937 to carry away a piece of the building to serve as a tombstone. Many were dubious of this old man’s claims for the simple reason that “Samuel Breckinridge” was listed as being among the dead on a marker that now graces the Confederate Cemetery on Rozier Street in North Alton.
Breckinridge explained this by telling the story of how he pretended to be dead after a bout with a nasty illness in 1863. His body was loaded with several others and taken to the landing upriver from the prison. The bodies, including Breckinridge’s, were then hauled by wagon to the burial ground. He said that he waited until the wagon had left the cemetery and then he sprang up before he could be placed in a grave. Needless to say, the gravedigger was stunned. “He thought I was a ghost,” Breckinridge said, “and he ran faster than I did, only in the opposite direction.” Years later, he came back to the cemetery and found his own name listed on the plaque.
By the 1940’s, only scattered pieces of the prison building’s walls remained and the last section was finally moved in 1973 and reconstructed along nearby William Street as a monument to the past. The area where the prison was located is now a public parking lot. Today, only this small portion of the wall still remains on the site of the penitentiary, where visitors can find historical information and displays about the prison and the Civil War.
As the years have passed, the old Alton Penitentiary has become the source of a number of ghostly legends around the area. The reason for this is simple. As stated before, the events of the past are what create the hauntings of today and this is never truer than with sites associated with the war. Death came with many faces during the Civil War, from the brutality of battle to the horrific conditions of the prison camps. In many of these prisons, those incarcerated within died from disease, hunger and exposure to the elements. Why were such terrible conditions tolerated by commanders and citizens of the respective sides? Bitterness and revenge? Lack of food and a poor economy? Or simply the darker side of human nature? These questions will never be answered and even though the war has been over for nearly a century and a half, the devastating effects of what took place in the war’s prisons are still reverberating today – often as hauntings.
And the Alton prison is no exception to this. The area surrounding the former prison site is now a parking lot but it was once home to the large stone prison buildings, the hospital, the sheds, the death house and the yard itself. For years, this has been the scene of ghostly reports, both before it was turned into a parking lot and after.
When the war ended, the prison building had been returned to the state of Illinois but the city of Alton took charge of tearing down the other buildings on the site and removing them. The prison yard was turned into a public park in the 1870’s and people from all over the city came here to listen to music, play games and to picnic – perhaps never even considering the dark history beneath their feet. In those days, the old prison building remained on the back of the lot, slowly crumbling into ruin. As one might imagine, the temptation of the place proved too much for most visitors to resist and many of them engaged in their own explorations of the now empty corridors, abandoned cells and deserted staircases. However, these visitors were soon to learn that the old prison was not as “empty” as they first believed. Soon, tales began to filter out of the area about ghostly voices, strange sounds, screams and cries and eerie weeping and moaning that came from places where no one living could be found. On many occasions, curiosity-seekers told of looking through the prison in a search for injured people or lost children, believing that the weird noises had an earthly source. On every occasion, they found no one was there. The disturbing tales continued for decades, even up until the time that the remainder of the prison was finally demolished.
In addition to the sounds, people also spoke of seeing the spectral images of the former prisoners still wandering about on the property. These figures had the chilling habit of vanishing without a trace when approached or confronted. They would be there one moment and then be gone the next and turning the old prison yard into a parking lot seemed to have little effect on them.
Even in recent years, passersby have claimed to see the apparition of men and soldiers still lingering on these grounds. They are usually described as being very ragged and they will appear and then vanish with no warning. Many of these encounters have reportedly been quite unsettling.
One witness that I spoke with was an Alton resident that we’ll call “Bob Richards” for the purposes of this book. He was out walking his dog one night along Williams Street, which runs alongside the parking lot where the prison yard was located. He stopped for a moment to bend down and tie his shoe and when he looked up again, he saw a man standing not more than three feet away from him. The man was wearing a pair of heavy pants that ended near his shins. He was barefoot and was wearing a filthy shirt. He had cropped hair but a long, scraggly beard.
“To be honest, I thought he was like a homeless man or something,” Bob would later recall. “He was absolutely filthy – but I never thought for a moment that he wasn’t real.”
Suddenly, Bob’s dog began to bark and growl in the man’s direction and Bob leaned down to try and quiet the animal. When he looked up again, seconds later, the “homeless man” had vanished. The entire incident had lasted for only a matter of seconds and Richards was shocked when he realized the man was no longer there. He looked quickly around but realized, as he gazed across the mostly empty lot, that there was nowhere the man could have gone to.
Shaken by the sighting, Bob hurried home to tell his wife about it. It was she who suggested that perhaps the ragged man had been the ghost of a Confederate prisoner. “I’m still not convinced about that,” he later told me. “But then I don’t have any other explanation for it either.”
A GHOST STORY THAT WASN’T
Stories of eerie sounds and mysterious figures are not the only “haunted” tales that have been told about the former penitentiary, although in this case, the stories that have been told are just that – merely stories— that have no truth to them at all. When it comes to this facet of the old prison’s haunting, we have a television show to blame for a story that has spread across the country and has been told and re-told as the truth, even though “truth” was left out of the tale.
Back in 2001, I had the misfortune to work with what was then a popular television show about haunted places in America. Thankfully, the show is now defunct and even when they contacted me, they were already gaining a bad reputation for not exactly portraying their stories and locations with accuracy and also for hiring actors to pretend to be local folklorists or worse yet, eyewitnesses to hauntings. When I was first contacted by one of the producers, I declined to work with them. However, they informed me that they were going to do a story about Alton, Illinois, whether I was part of it or not, so I agreed to set a day aside for them in hopes that I could at least portray the town in an accurate light. Unfortunately though, anything accurate that ended up being filmed was apparently edited out of the final product.
One of the main things that they chose to focus on for the show were the bricks that were carried away from the old prison to be used for small building projects around town. Because the prison had been haunted, the producers of the show decided that they wanted to say that the bricks had been used to build other haunted locations in the city, including the McPike Mansion, the First Unitarian Church and the old Mineral Springs Hotel. Sadly, this is totally untrue, as the bricks were never used to build homes or buildings at all.
When I informed the producers that this was completely inaccurate, they replied that they didn’t care. This was the story that they were going with and I could be a part of it or not. I shot an introduction about Alton for them but I refused to say that this “story” they had concocted about the bricks was true. Because of this, I was relegated to the opening 30 seconds of the segment and did not make another appearance. Believe me, I was happy about this. The rest of the segment turned out to be one blatant misrepresentation after another with phony video footage, fake investigations and completely inaccurate history.
It turned out better for me to not be a part of this story but I still get calls and messages from people who believe the story that was done for the show was true. Even though I bowed out of the ridiculous segment, it’s now somehow become my responsibility to explain to people why it was not true!