Voices from the Grave: Carrie Spafford, a life of sorrow — the tragedy of one of Rockford’s founding families

Carrie Spafford
Carrie Spafford

By Kathi Kresol
Local historian, paranormal investigator and operator of Haunted Rockford Paranormal Events

Carrie Spafford’s family was well known in Rockford during the early days; in fact, they are often considered one of the founding families. Carrie was the oldest child of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Spafford. She was born Dec. 2, 1843. When she was a teenager, the Spafford home at 220 S. Madison was the “center of the social life of Rockford.” The Spaffords hosted lavish parties, and Carrie was considered a leader for her social set. It was at one of these gatherings that Carrie met the dashing Elmer Ellsworth. Ellsworth was a “professional soldier” who was quite taken with the 16-year-old Carrie. Her father demanded that Ellsworth find a more suitable profession if he wanted to pursue Carrie’s hand, and since Ellsworth wanted to be worthy of Carrie’s family, he went off to Springfield to become a lawyer.

While he was pursuing his new career, he met the young Abraham Lincoln. They became close friends, and when Lincoln won the election in 1861, Ellsworth followed him to Washington. Ellsworth became devoted to the entire Lincoln family.

Ellsworth was trained as an officer, and when the Civil War began, he raised the 11th New York Infantry Regiment. While he was away, he often wrote Carrie. One of Ellsworth’s letters to Carrie stated, “my own darling Kitty, the highest happiness I looked for on earth was a union with you. Your letters are the only stars in my night of loneliness and trouble.”

May 24, 1861, Ellsworth offered to assist Lincoln by removing a Confederate flag that was hanging in a tavern across the Potomac River. Ellsworth gathered up a few men and marched over and entered the tavern. They marched up the stairs, removed the flag, and were coming back down when the tavern owner, James Jackson, met them and shot Ellsworth dead. One of Ellsworth’s companions then shot Jackson dead. Ellsworth would be the first officer to die in the Civil War.

The news of Ellsworth’s death hit all of Rockford very hard, and Carrie was devastated. Newspaper headlines from the day mentioned that all of Rockford mourned the loss of Elmer Ellsworth. There was a special memorial service held to honor the fallen soldier at the Second Congregational Church.

Carrie mourned the loss of her beloved Ellsworth for years. She eventually met and married Frederick Brett. Their wedding in 1866 was a major event in that year’s social season. They moved to Boston for 10 years, and then to Chicago. They had a son, Charles (named after Carrie’s father). He graduated from Beloit College in 1892 and found a position as a teacher in St. Louis.

Carrie probably thought her life of sorrow was over, but she would suffer even greater losses than before. Within a six-month period, Carrie lost her father, her husband and her beloved son. He was only 22 and had contracted typhoid.

Carrie spent the rest of her life serving her community, taking a particular interest in the YWCA and in women’s issues. She devoted her life to making the lives of women better. The Spafford mansion on Madison Street would eventually be given to the YWCA by Carrie’s sister, Eugenia, who was the last Spafford to live in it.

Carrie’s work with the community couldn’t fill the void in her life completely. Frequently, she would dress in her mourning garb and visit the cemetery where all of her family was laid to rest. Carrie would be seen at the cemetery at all hours of the day and night, dressed in her black mourning dress with her face covered by a veil. Her sobs could be heard all throughout the area of the family plot.

Even after Carrie’s death on Oct. 10, 1911, people would still report seeing a woman, all dressed in black, in the area of the Brett family stone. These sightings continue even today. They also say that on certain nights, the sounds of a woman sobbing still echo there.

Hear stories like this one on the Haunted Rockford Bus Tours Oct. 11 and Oct. 25, from 7 to 10 p.m. Visit the website at www.hauntedrockford.com for reservations.

Kathi Kresol is a local historian, paranormal investigator and operator of Haunted Rockford Paranormal Events. Through Haunted Rockford, Kathi gives paranormal and haunted history tours and sponsors other paranormal events in and around Rockford throughout the year. For more of Kathi’s history articles, and for information about upcoming paranormal events, visit www.hauntedrockford.com.

From the Oct. 8-14, 2014, issue

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