By Kathi Kresol
It seems that many people in Rockford knew of Elisha Dunn. But they differed in their opinions about him. Some saw him as a healer, a medical doctor who saved lives. Others labeled him an eccentric man who once thought himself a psychic. Many others, less kind, called him a fraud, swindler, and a liar.
Certain facts are known, of course. Elisha Dunn was born in New York state on July 27, 1840 to Hiram and Charlotte Dunn. His parents moved the family to Sandusky, Ohio when Elisha was three-years-old. The family stayed in Ohio for six years then they moved to Battle Creek, Michigan. It was while he was in Michigan that Elisha met Carrie Etts. The two fell in love and were married on July 27, 1859. They came to Rockford in 1863 and Elisha bought property around the Fairgrounds Park area on West State. The couple had two children that survived, one girl named Aeola and a boy, James.
Elisha Dunn traveled with Spiritualist, John Martin Peebles, described as a physician, author and philosopher. In the 1870s Elisha was thrilled when he obtained the role of secretary to Dr. Peebles who was appointed to a diplomatic post in the Far East. Dunn later credited Dr. Peebles for helping him develop his psychic powers.
Dunn and Peebles spent four years traveling the globe. On his return, Elisha was invited to give presentations where he displayed his remarkable collection of curious items to crowds varying in size from a handful to several thousand. These items, Dunn claimed, were ancient treasures that he had recovered from faraway lands.
Elisha would also claim that it was during this worldwide journey that he achieved the height of his psychic abilities. Much later some would state that Elisha contradicted himself by stating that during this tour he became a convert to the Methodist church.
Elisha’s wife, Carrie, passed away around 1893 and it was after the death of Carrie that Dunn seems to become a little unhinged. He bought one of the first motor cars in Rockford and would roar down the street waving his large hat at everyone. This car became even more unique when Dunn started to bring his beloved dog for rides. He designed a seat for the dog that he placed on the hood of his automobile. Dunn also decided to pierce his dog’s ears and decorated them with diamond studs.
Elisha served as a doctor, ran for Mayor twice and was elected to the City Council as an alderman. In 1905 he, along with the rest of the council, was charged with accepting bribes. They were given money as a bribe to grant a utility contract to a certain company instead of allowing another company to obtain theirs. Dunn, along with two other men, was found guilty and ordered to pay fines but then was allowed to return to politics.
When Dunn was a deputy grand commander with the Knights of Pythias, he weathered yet another scandal. Dunn was being considered for a national office within the organization when some of his opponents leaked information about Dunn’s former occupation as a psychic. They accused Dunn of swindling thousands of dollars from the unsuspecting townspeople for his readings.
Elisha Dunn passed away in his home on March 24, 1914. Newspaper articles from that day claimed that Elisha was one of the best-known men in Rockford, whether it was because of his habit of wearing his hair long or the scandals that seemed to follow him was unclear.
Elisha’s funeral was conducted by the Masons and took place in his grand home once located on West State Street. He was laid to rest next to Carrie under the elaborate tomb he built for her in Greenwood Cemetery.
After Dunn’s death the controversy concerning him grew when it was discovered that several of his claims were false. Some of his ancient items in his collections are found to be fakes, including ancient coins. He also had a collection of nooses allegedly used in different high-profile executions that proved to be all cut from the same piece of rope.
Whether or not Elisha Dunn was a psychic, a healer or a scoundrel does not really matter anymore. He attracted attention when he was alive and still has people discussing him over 100 years after he died. That definitely earns him a place in Rockford’s history.
Kathi Kresol is a local historian and author. She will be presenting stories from Rockford’s Past on a Walking Tour this Friday. The event is called City by Starlight: Haunted Rockford Walking Tour and will be offered at two different times: one from 7-9 p.m. and again from 9:30-11:30p.m. These events are fundraisers for the Rockford Historical Society and the Veterans Memorial Hall. Tickets are $15 and must be bought in advance at hauntedrockford.com.