By Kathi Kresol
Fairgrounds Park was formed on land purchased around 1858 and was used for a variety of activities including a place to host the annual fair.
During the summer of 1896, the Fairgrounds Park made the newspapers for something other than agriculture. The newspapers mentioned that the fairgrounds had become known for its ghostly encounters. At first the reports just trickled in, mostly told by the closest neighbors to the park. These included stories of mysterious lights, a high pitched scream that resembled “the screeching of a stabbed pig”, and loud cracks that sounded like revolver shots.
The stories soon expanded to include reports of wispy figures darting in and out of the cattle shed and the halls of the buildings on the grounds. As the stories started to spread through the city, the numbers of the nightly visitors grew. They were all anxious for a glimpse of the apparition.
Eventually a group of young boys banded together to investigate the claims of the supernatural sightings. The first night, just a handful of boys showed but soon the number had swelled to over 50. They were from neighborhoods from all over the city and differed in age, ethnicity and financial backgrounds.
These “ghost hunters” had little equipment except for lanterns. The local papers later stated that the boys did arm themselves with “everything from toothpicks to telegraph poles”. They hoped to use these items to protect themselves from whatever was lurking behind the high fence of the park.
Almost immediately the boys were startled by a sound much like a shot of a revolver and then the screeching that was described as an unearthly, inhuman sound. This excited the group and bolstered their courage enough to enter the shadowy recesses of the park itself.
Their search of the grounds was in vain, however, and the group quickly grew bored with the hunt. It was about this time that a trolley passed by the entrance and attracted the attention of the group.
The band of boys started to hoot and holler, sounding very much like the reported banshee from the park. This startled the trolley “occupants nearly half to death.” The noise from the group also roused the neighbors who then came to see what the hullabaloo was all about. Someone finally alerted the police to all this commotion and they arrived in short order. The police had no real idea what was happening but very quickly got the neighbors and the would be ghost hunters under control. They eventually arrested 28 boys from the group and marched them double file to the police station.
When they told their story to the judge, he and the spectators in the very crowded room weren’t sure what to think. It was the first time Judge Morrison had to make a decision on a case like this. He addressed the crowd of boys that aged from 12 to 30 years old. Judge Morrison decided to fine the older of the boys $5 and gave the younger boys a penance of delivering bouquets to the hospital two times a week.
The police took the ghost claim seriously and spent several nights in the fairgrounds to discover for themselves the cause of the reports. They experienced some of the same things as the claims. They eventually decided that these were the work of a real living being and rousted a semi-professional hobo by the unfortunate name of “Parrot Face” Tompkins. Apparently, the police made sure he would never repeat his performance because “Parrot Face” was heard to say that he had enough of ghosts (and the police) to last the rest of his days.
That wasn’t the end of the claims from the area though. People spoke of strange things happening well into the fall. One man, John Hunt, described as having a “smile like a basket of chips”, was quoted as knowing for a fact that the ghost was real. Hunt saw and smelled the phantom for himself and proclaimed that he wouldn’t go anywhere near the area after the sunset.
Kathi Kresol is a local historian and author. She is also the founder of Haunted Rockford Paranormal Events. Visit her website at hauntedrockford.com.