The history of the Manny Mansion
By Kathi Kresol
The distinctive limestone house that sits on the west bank of the Rock River is best known today for being a part of the Burpee Museum of Natural History. The museum is a gem itself and is a must see for visitors and locals alike. While many visitors may come to see the dinosaurs and other remnants of creatures that lived here long ago, few may realize that the home attached to the museum is quite haunted.
The house was built in 1852 by John Coleman, who moved his family here from New York. The family lived in the house all the way through 1864, when John Coleman became ill and the decision was made to sell the house to John Pels Manny.
John Pels Manny’s family came from New York. He met and married Eunice Hicks in 1848. By 1852, John had begun to work with his cousin John H. Manny to design reapers for wheat, and the decision was made to move to Rockford. John’s family had begun to grow, and though the number of children born to the family by 1864 is unclear, the fact that most of them passed away quite young stands out.
The family moved into the lovely home and improved the property. By 1867, Eunice had given birth to at least five children and lost all but the eldest boy, George. When their youngest daughter, Katie, was two, she contracted tuberculosis and died on February 16, 1867. It was said that Eunice’s heart broke with the death of yet another baby and she passed away a little over a month later, on March 23, 1867. John built a beautiful monument at Greenwood Cemetery to honor his family.
John P. continued to invent many different farm machines, and his contribution to the Manny reaper blades was monumental. He opened the John P. Manny Company with partners Elias Cosper and Melancthon Starr. John Pels eventually married a daughter of Melancthon, Florida Lucretia, in 1868.
The couple lived in the limestone house and had five children there. One of their little ones, Lucretia, also died young, only reaching one-year-old before she passed away in 1872. John P.’s reaper business ran into financial issues in the 1880s, and the family sold the house to the Nelson family (of the Nelson Knitting Company fame) in 1889.
John Pels died in 1897. He was elected president of the West Side Cemetery Association, which later become Greenwood Cemetery, in 1876 and served on the board until his death. His death was sudden and caused by typhoid, which came from drinking contaminated water at the cemetery one day while he was working there. His death struck the Rockford community hard, and the newspapers were filled with tributes from his fellow businessmen.
Some of the museum staff claim to hear old-time music playing, doors that open and close and lights that seem to go off and on without any reason. The most widespread claim is the small shadows seen that dart from room to room, especially on the second floor.
The Manny Mansion was one of the grandest homes in Rockford. The house was always very beautiful, but during the time the Manny family occupied it the house became the center of Rockford’s social scene. There were lavish parties thrown with orchestras on the lawn, carriages lining the lantern-lit driveway and the impressive guest lists. There were also beautiful weddings and several funerals conducted in the home through the years.
Psychics Paul Smith and Sara Bowker have worked with Haunted Rockford during these events and shared the impressions of the people that linger in the building. They have sensed the two Mrs. Manny’s. Each woman claims to be the true mistress of the house. The two wives are aware of each other but never communicate.
But it is the children who are the strongest presences in the home. According to Smith and Bowker, the children run up and down the stairs, and their shadows are the ones that have been seen going from room to room. They like to play tricks on the staff by turning on and off lights and shutting or opening doors.
During one of the paranormal investigations, the name Nelly was picked up on an EVP. This claim was validated by researching the census records. The family had an eighteen-year-old servant girl named Nelly living with them in 1880.
John Pels and both of his wives, Eunice and Florida, loved their distinctive home on North Main Street and were very proud of it and their contributions to the Rockford community. Some say the Manny family is still proud that the Burpee Museum of Natural History continues their legacy of serving families in Rockford and the surrounding area.
Haunted Rockford will be joined by Dale Kaczmarek of the Ghost Research Society to offer a Public Paranormal Investigation at two locations on Saturday, November 12 from 7-10 p.m. The investigation will begin in the Burpee Museum of Natural History and then rotate to the most haunted spots in the two houses: the Barnes and Manny Mansions. The price for the event is $40 per person and must be paid in advance. Please visit the website at hauntedrockford.com for more information.