The first Unitarian Society was started in Alton back in 1836. At the time, Dr. William Emerson, Alton’s first physician, invited an eminent speaker named William Greenleaf Eliot to speak at private meetings that were held in Dr. Emerson’s offices. Eliot was the founder of Eliot Seminary in St. Louis, which later became Washington University, and the grandfather of poet T.S. Eliot. In those days, he traveled widely in the area, speaking in small meetings, homes and buildings and trying to create interest in the Unitarian faith. He succeeded in Alton and that same year, the "First Unitarian Society" of Alton was organized.
To many people, this way of thinking sounded pretty good but in a rough, frontier town like Alton, it sounded very radical and it would be many years before the Unitarians would be widely accepted. In those times, Alton could be a dangerous place for free-thinkers and abolitionists. Reverend Farley was a friend of another local minister named Elijah P. Lovejoy and strongly supported his anti-slavery views. Shortly after Lovejoy was murdered, Farley was reportedly approached by two men who informed him that his support of Lovejoy had placed his name on a very short list of those who might consider leaving town. He took their advice and soon returned back east.
In the following years, the society members continued to meet in private homes and various buildings in Alton. Then, in 1854, they purchased a plot of land where St. Matthew’s, Alton’s original Catholic Church, had been located. The church had been gutted by fire and rather than re-build, a new cathedral was constructed along State Street. The land, and the ruins of the church, was then sold to the Unitarian Society. Using the stone and the foundation from the Catholic church, a new building was constructed on site. Today, in the lower levels of the church you can still see the remnants of the earlier building, including rock walls and an early staircase that now comes to an end at the basement ceiling.
For years, the twisting passages in the old foundation hinted at the idea that the church was once used as a station on the Underground Railroad. Legend had it that this was the case but no real exploration of the dirt-floored passages had been done until the spring of 2003, when I had the chance to go under the church with a crew from The Learning Channel. Our search revealed a small room where slaves may have been hidden during the daylight hours, fearing discovery but hoping for salvation when nightfall came.
Shortly after the new Unitarian Church was built, and the new Catholic Church was constructed on another hill, local wags provided the two areas with nicknames that are still sometimes used today. The Catholic cathedral was now located on "Christian Hill", while the Unitarian Church could be found on "Heathen Hill".
The minister at the time the new Unitarian church was built was named William D’Arcy Haley and he became known as a local crusader for social and political change. His sermons soon found an interest among people outside of the church and in a city which was infamous for lynching liberals, he quickly realized that most were not in full accord with his views. After a couple of threatening encounters, he submitted his resignation to the church.
The Unitarian Church has certainly had its share of
memorable pastors over the years, but one of them has left a greater
mark on the church than any of the others. His name was Phillip Mercer
and not only did he gain a reputation as a kind and caring man, but he
also left a lasting impression on the church because, according to some
– Phillip Mercer has never left.
The body of Rev. Phillip Mercer, 48, a suicide, was found at 5:15 Tuesday afternoon in the First Unitarian Church of which he had been minister for the last six years and in which his study was located. The church is located at 110 East Third Street.
A piece of sash cord about the neck, his body was found suspended from the transom of a door leading from the Sunday School room at the rear of the church edifice into a hallway from which there is a door leading into the yard of the church.
It is the belief of Deputy Coroner Klunk that the minister had been dead at least 24 hours when his body was found. His neck had apparently been broken, and a chair, standing near the body, indicated that he had stepped from the chair after the sash cord had been affixed.
- From the Alton Telegraph (November 21, 1934)
Reverend Phillip Mercer had been born and raised in England and came to America when he was just 18 years old. At the time of this death, he had been in this country for 30 years, but had never lost his slight accent and proper character. No one ever really knew him well and he always had a rather strict sense of propriety, never revealing much about his personal life. However, everyone he met liked him very much and he was always described as a friendly and caring man, although a bit of worrier when it came to his health.
Mercer lived in St. Louis for a time and often spoke of the great amount of reading that he had done at the library. Aside from his steady job working for the railroad, he spent all of his spare time among his beloved books. At some point during this period, his interest turned to religious matters and the Unitarian Church. He then attended a Congregational preparatory school and became a Unitarian minister. After several postings in small towns in Minnesota and the Dakotas, he came to Alton in 1928. He always stated that his service in the Alton church had been the happiest time that he had ever known. Then, in the early morning hours of November 20, 1934, he committed suicide. The reason for his death remains a mystery to this day
Mercer’s body was discovered by his friend James D. MaKinney, from whom the minister had rented a room in MaKinney home at 319 East Fourth Street for nearly five years. MaKinney had been concerned when Mercer had not returned home on Monday evening but as the minister often attended concerts and musical events in St. Louis, he thought perhaps he had spent the night in the city. However by early afternoon, he began to get concerned. Normally, Mercer mentioned to someone at the MaKinney house when he would be gone for the night and this time, he never said anything about it.
As the day wore on, MaKinney grew worried. He began making telephone calls to the church, hoping to get in touch with Mercer, but there was no answer. Finally, just as it was getting dark, he decided to stop by the church and see if anyone was there. He needed to run an errand in the business district anyway and figured that he would go to the church on the way. He was now concerned that Mercer may have had an accident, or had fallen, while working in his office and was not able to answer the repeated telephone calls.
MaKinney walked to the church and as he got close, he noticed that the lights were on in the rear rooms. Going to the door at the west rear of the building, he opened it and started inside, then looked up and saw Mercer, hanging lifeless at the end of a rope. Rather than go inside, he instead ran across the street to the Alton police station. There, he informed Desk Sergeant Scott of what he had seen and a Patrolman Waller was assigned to accompany him back to the church. Once MaKinney had determined that the body hanging from the transom was his missing friend, the police officer contacted Deputy Coroner Klunk and some of the trustees of the church were notified of the situation.
Phillip Mercer was most definitely dead and there was a not a single clue to explain why he would have taken his own life. A search of the premises revealed two packages of rope, one of hemp and the other the sash cord that had been used, and both had been recently purchased. The desk table in the minister’s study was littered with papers and it appeared as though Mercer (or someone else?) had rummaged through them shortly before his death. The search discovered no note to shed light on the apparent suicide.
Mercer’s body was then taken down and removed to the Klunk Funeral Home, where visitations and a funeral service were held. His body was then placed in the Grandview Mausoleum to await instructions from his family in England. No instructions ever came though and the body remains in the mausoleum to this day.
The investigation into the circumstances of Mercer’s death continued. MaKinney explained to the coroner that Mercer had left home at around 8:00 am on Monday morning, as he normally did. He took all of his meals out and he may have been going to breakfast. There are no records to say where Mercer spent the next five hours, but at 1:00 pm that afternoon, a woman residing next door to the church, said that she saw Reverend Mercer outside of the building. However, she said that he appeared to be leaving the church at the time, not going in. No one could be found who saw him returning. What happened to the minister after that remains a mystery. He was reportedly not seen again until his body was discovered on Tuesday afternoon.
Why Phillip Mercer would have taken his own life remains as great a mystery as to where, and how, he spent the last hours of his life. He was described as a man of keen intellect and studious habits and spent much of his time at the church. He spoke little of personal or family matters but was an eager conversationalist and a happy and outgoing person who engaged his friends on current events, books, music and entertainment. So, what then would have caused his friends and congregation to believe that he was the victim of a "nervous breakdown"?
According to James MaKinney, Mercer began to act rather strange few months before. He had just returned from a vacation out west and began to talk of going on a diet. Although filled with enthusiasm over the good time he had on his trip, he soon started expressing a belief that he was too heavy. Soon, these concerns turned into worries about his general health as well and Mercer slipped into odd moods. He told one friend that he had lost about 15 pounds over a several week period. His friend warned him about losing weight too quickly, but Mercer ignored the advice. Although his health had always been good, he suddenly began complaining about feeling weak and seemed to be, according to MaKinney, obsessed with the idea that he was in bad physical condition. Records state that he did see a doctor about the problem on one occasion, when he was told there was nothing wrong with him that rest couldn’t cure. This didn’t seem to ease Mercer’s mind and, according to the minister, his health continued to fail.
On Sunday morning, Mercer conducted services at the church as usual. There was no indication that anything was troubling him, other than the fact that some members of the congregation reported that he read through his sermon as if he was in a great hurry to get through with it. They also said that he appeared to be sweating profusely, as if her were either sick or mentally agitated.
Two days later, he would be discovered dead but what could have driven him to take his own life? Was Phillip Mercer really ill – or was he mentally unbalanced? What could have happened on his trip out west to bother him in such a way? He claimed to have had a wonderful time upon his return, but then a short time later began to obsess about his heath and diet?
Another question that has been asked was whether or not Phillip Mercer may have led some sort of secret life? Could the stress of such a life have destroyed his health? Perhaps, for we do know that Mercer rarely ever discussed his personal life with anyone. In fact, after his death, a search through his personal papers revealed that Mercer was engaged to be married to a woman named Dorothy Cole of Minneapolis. In the six years that Mercer had been in Alton, he had never once mentioned her, nor did anyone in the congregation, or among Mercer’s friends, have any idea that she existed. When contacted by telegram, Miss Cole stated that Mercer had seemed depressed for some time and she had been trying to cheer him up with her letters, but her efforts had apparently failed.
What really happened to Phillip Mercer? As you can see from the preceding pages, there are many more questions about his death, and his life, than there are answers. There are a number of mysteries that surround his death and suicide but are riddles that will most likely never be solved. Could these mysteries be the reason why Phillip Mercer is believed to still be lingering behind at the First Unitarian Church?
One of the most widely accepted theories of ghosts involve the personalities of those who once lived and who have stayed behind in our world because of a connection to people or a place on this side. These spirit sometimes refuse to cross over because of a murder, a suicide, a traumatic event or some unfinished business that took place in the person’s life. The spirits often linger because of emotions that tie them to the earth. In other cases, there is the chance the spirit did not even realize he was dead. This can occur when the death involved is sudden or unexpected.
If Phillip Mercer had some sort of unfinished business connecting him to the earth, whether it is a continuation of his good works or even the mysterious circumstances of his death, it is possible that his ghost has remained behind. And it might be this ghost that explains some the strange things that have occurred at Alton’s First Unitarian Church.
The Haunted Church
I met Peg Flach from the First Unitarian Church because she knew of my interest in local hauntings. Peg has the job of being what she called the "spiritual historian" of the church, collecting other people’s accounts of strange encounters they have had there. She got interested because of her own ghostly experiences – weird events for which she had no reasonable explanation.
I met Peg one evening at the church and she was kind enough to give me a tour of the place and a full accounting of unexplained happenings there. The church was bustling with activity when I got there, as they were in the midst of some renovations at the time, so I offered to come back when they weren’t so busy. I suggested perhaps later that evening, but Peg said that she had picked that time on purpose because after I left, there would still be plenty of other people there. "I never come into the church by myself at night anymore," she informed me, and that was my first clue that the story she was about to tell me would be a good one!
Peg and I met in the Wuerker Room of the church, a long meeting room which was once divided into three smaller rooms, a Sunday School room, a Ladies Parlor and a kitchen. It had been at the entrance to the hallway next to the kitchen where Phillip Mercer had committed suicide. There had been a doorway there with an overhead transom and he had tied the rope around the bottom of the open window.
"I always try, when I hear these stories from people," Peg told me, "to gather the same incidents from at least two independent sources before I pass them on. I figure that if the same thing has happened to two independent witnesses, it’s very hard to discount."
There have been a number of strange happenings with odd sounds, smells and even feelings reported that have not made it into Peg’s "official" chronicles. I have spoken to a few people who have told me of ghostly footsteps in the building, mysterious odors that come and go without explanation and about a strange sensation that sometimes occurs in the basement. A few people have walked through a doorway into the original basement and have felt something on their back and shoulders which can only be described as an invisible backpack. Strangely, I have come to believe that many of the events that have been reported actually involve two very different hauntings. It is very likely that while the ghost of Phillip Mercer lingers upstairs, I believe that another presence altogether lurks in the basement.
"I got interested in this because of something that happened to me," Peg explained. "I didn’t tell anyone about it for awhile and kind of let is sit in the back of mind before I decided to pursue it any further. Once I did, I found out that I wasn’t the only one it had happened to."
The incident occurred at dusk on a Friday evening in the late Fall of 1997. Peg had stopped at the church to drop off a few items, even though she had no key. She was hoping that the church administrator was working late and would be there to let her in. As she pulled up outside, she noticed that the church was dark, although to her relief, the door was unlocked. "I went in the double doors on the Alby Street side and called out," she said, " but apparently there was no one in the building."
A quick search revealed that her first instincts were correct. There was no one else in the building, so Peg went into the minister’s study and dropped off the items and then went into the kitchen. From here, she called the church administrator’s number, to tell him the church was unlocked, but only got his answering machine.
"I was at the kitchen sink when I experienced this overpowering sensation emanating from the other room," Peg continued. "I peered out into the dark Wuerker Room and realized the source of the feeling was coming from the sanctuary."
Peg cautiously approached the door to the sanctuary and although she couldn’t see anything, somehow knew the uncomfortable sensation was coming from the right-hand aisle, toward the back of the room. She felt very strongly that this was a male spirit – and that he wanted her to leave the building.
"I was happy to do just that," Peg said and began to quickly finish her tasks so that she could leave. "Just then, I heard the sound of a large group of people talking at the bottom of the steps to the basement. I was relieved to think that I was not alone and had friends in the building, so I went over to the top of the steps and called down to them – that’s when the sounds abruptly stopped."
Peg called again, but was met only with silence. With that, she rapidly finished her business and ran downstairs and out the door. Suddenly, as she was leaving the church, she realized that, without a key, she was unable to lock the doors behind her.
"I was very stressed out with the thought that I now had to re-enter the building, go back upstairs and use the telephone to try and contact someone to come lock up the building," she told me. "But as the Alby Street double doors closed behind me, I turned and pulled on both doors – they were locked."
Later, as Peg would start to gather other people’s unexplained experiences in the building, she would learn what a common occurrence this was. Apparently, many people had discovered, in much the same way that Peg had, that the doors to the church are often unlocked when they need to be and somehow, mysteriously lock on their own too. And that was not the only strange event that has been repeated...
In the Spring of 1998, and shortly after Peg announced that she was collecting ghost stories about the building, her minister came to her with her own strange tale. She related that she had been working in the church late one evening and that she had walked into the sanctuary of the building and had been overwhelmed by the sensation of a presence in one corner of the room. She had the fleeting impression of a man in a white shirt and black pants standing near the far corner of the large room. She quickly backed out of the sanctuary and even went as far as to leave the building for the night. This incident was unusual in and of itself but then a short time later, she received a letter from one of the church’s former ministers. She had served the church about five years before. She wrote:
I was at the church late one night doing some kind of paperwork - possibly studying for a sermon. I went out in the kitchen for a drink of water and felt strange - not scared, but not alone. I followed my intuition and went into the sanctuary. The sense of presence almost overwhelmed me. I could tell it was male, sorrowful and not dangerous yet I felt uneasy and anxious. I did walk down one of the aisles and my sense became stronger as I neared the right foyer door.
I said "Look, I’ll leave you alone and go back to my study. You stay here and leave me alone." Then I left, shutting the doors to the Wuerker Room tight. I planned to work later, but decided to go home.
Several other times when I was alone I had a strange feeling of not being alone though all of the doors were locked and the church was empty.
Peg couldn’t help but notice the marked and eerie similarities between the story of the minister and the story that was related to her by the previous church pastor. They could have been the same tale! But how could this be when the two ministers did not know one another and could not have compared stories? As far as historical evidence goes, these two stories (as well as Peg’s own impression of a presence in the sanctuary) actually prove the church is haunted. Ghost writers and paranormal investigators are always searching for locations where independent witnesses – who don’t know one another, have not compared notes and who lived or worked in the spot during different time periods – have unexplained experiences. For that to be nothing more than coincidence stretches all limits of the imagination and it also destroys the claims of debunkers who would have us think that all ghost sightings are nothing more than mental illness, wild imaginations or too much alcohol.
Other reports have been just as explicable – and ongoing. Many have occurred during the Alton Hauntings Tours. During the tours, the First Unitarian Church has been one of the favorite locations that tour groups have visited. During the tour, the small groups in attendance visit many reportedly haunted spots and I always let everyone know in advance that I can never guarantee that anything supernatural will happen in the course of a tour – but that strange things have happened on tours in the past. One of the places where strange things have frequently occurred has been at the church. On many nights, attendees have claimed odd experiences (in advance of me recounting any past tales of the place) that include cold spots, odd sounds and eerie sensations. One of the most frequently occurring oddities is for tour-goers to be able to almost pinpoint the exact location where Phillip Mercer committed suicide. Even though the area has been completely changed and renovated over the years, some attendees seem drawn to the spot and can pick it out before I ever get a chance to show anyone where it is.
On a recent tour, a friend of mine named Len Adams was present with his wife and they, along with about 30 other attendees, were gathered in the church sanctuary as I described the mysterious life and death of Phillip Mercer. It was a warm summer night and since the air conditioning had not been running in the church, it was very stuffy in the open room. That was why what happened next was so eerie to Len and his wife. Just as I was starting to speak about the two ministers who encountered the male presence in the room, Len, who happened to be standing right next to the spot where the ministers sensed the presence, suddenly felt an ice-cold chill sweep against his body. He later told me that it was so strong that he actually took a couple of steps backward from the shock of it. Puzzled, he looked to his wife to see if she had felt the same thing and he saw that her eyes were opened wide and she was staring at him in surprise. She had also felt the intense cold as it moved past them.
Another tour attendee had a different, and perhaps even more unnerving encounter, while standing in the Wuerker room one evening. We had just finished talking in the sanctuary and I moved the group into the next room so that I could talk about some of the other eerie happenings. The lights were left on in the sanctuary but one of the sliding pocket doors between that room and the Wuerker room was closed. The lights beyond it could be seen shining through the stain glass panels in the door. As I was recounting the last story for the location, I heard a woman gasp in surprise and then fall silent. A little later, she told me what had happened.
She and her sister had been standing in front of the door and when the story was completed, she glanced back toward the stained glass window. As she did, she saw the silhouette of a man pass by, only a shadow being visible through the thick, colored glass. When she let out a startled sound, her sister glanced back and saw the shadow as well. Moments later, they pulled the sliding door aside to find that no one was in the sanctuary – it was completely empty!
What causes the strange events that occur in the First Unitarian Church? Is it really the ghost of Phillip Mercer, still making his presence known from the other side? It seems very possible that it is but I do not believe that he is the only presence that remains here. The haunting that occurs seems to be made up of distinctly different types of phenomena, from the unsettling pressure and the sounds heard in the basement and the more interactive happenings of the upper floor. Perhaps there is something about the location itself that seems to attract activity like moths are drawn to an open flame. Could it be just the sheer amount of history that has taken place on this site over the last two centuries – or something else?
© Copyright 2007 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.