30 Oct 2011
Ghost experts dig into local folktale ... and the plot thickens
By Denise Crosby | firstname.lastname@example.org October 29, 2011 9:38PM
Local ghost hunters Kevin Frantz (left) and Chuck Kennedy pose near the recently uncovered grave markers of Charles Hillegas and his wife at the Naperville Cemetery.
The story out there is as controversial as it is ghoulish.
Back in 1912 — so the well-known plot goes — Charles W. Hillegas, son of a prominent Naperville family, dug up his wife, dead and buried for 18 years, because he believed he’d figured out a potion that would bring her back to life.
The grieving Charles obviously had issues. But the oft-repeated story also has some problems, according to Naperville ghost expert Kevin Frantz, who claims the tale can’t be true since there would be nothing but a few bones left after that many years in the cold hard ground.
Because the story of the grave-robbing widower is one of the Fox Valley’s more legendary ghost stories — and because we’re coming up on the 100th anniversary of the disinterment of the unfortunate Mrs. Hillegas — Frantz decided to do a little digging of his own.
And while doing so, he claims to have uncovered the real graves of this unfortunate couple — and the real story.
Frantz says knowing there were too many holes in the accepted version — after almost two decades in the ground, what could possible be left for the husband to unearth and try to bring back to life? — he and fellow ghost hunter Chuck Kennedy decided to start at the beginning.
Or, in this case, the end.
They took a trip to the Naperville Cemetery last November, where there stands a large monument at the burial site of Charles Hillegas.
But they wondered: Was that the Hillegas in question?
Going on a hunch, Frantz and Kennedy started pushing away the grass that was near the tombstone of Hillegas’ mother.
Four inches later, what popped up were simple grave markers for “Charles W. Hillegas” and “wife of Charles W. Hillegas.”
Buried with no monuments, the ghost experts surmised, these two graves went unadorned and neglected because the family — father William owned the Hillegas Hardware store on Chicago Avenue — had been so mortified by the actions of Charles.
Frantz described it as “an incredible moment,” driving the two ghost hunters to do more research. And what they discovered, says Frantz, paint the real story of this strange tale.
In the published account, “Haunted Naperville,” Charles and his wife — she’s always been identified as Sarah — were a happily married well-to-do Naperville couple with two sons and a daughters when Sarah fell ill and died.
Charles, an amateur chemist who loved mixing formulas he hoped would someday benefit mankind, vowed to create a formula that would bring his wife back from the dead. Over the years, he’d try them out on chickens that he’d hit over the head, then feed his formula. And when the chickens didn’t come back to life “he had Sunday dinner,” according to Aurora author and Frantz’s competitor, Diane Ladley.
But on one extraordinary day,” Ladley writes, “Charles had a formula that he felt really good about. So he caught a chicken in the backyard, bonked it on the head, fed it some smashed banana on which he dribbled the formula and he waited. One minute later, that chicken jumped back on its feet ... Charles Hillegas had found the secret of life.
So, he got out his wheelbarrow, his lantern and shovel, went to the cemetery and dug up his wife whom they had buried 18 years before. He put (what was left of) her in his wheelbarrow and brought her home to the house on Ellsworth Street (then Front Street) and started feeding her the life giving formula, dribbled on spoonfuls of smashed bananas.
According to this account, it took over two weeks before Charles was discovered with his long-dead wife in his house. She was reburied, and Charles was shipped back East to a mental institution, where he remained for 10 years.
Great ghoulish tale, Frantz insists, but it happens to be all wrong.
And he says his version is backed by research from newspaper articles, census reports and other official documents.
He believes Charles’ poor wife was really a woman named Jessie Robateene (Massey) Hillegas — and they may not have actually been married. Kane County documents show she was wed to another man around the time she and Charles appear to have left (run away?) for Seattle. Try as we could, says Frantz, “we could find no marriage certificate for the two of them.”
Frantz believes after Jessie’s death (probably from the flu) in 1912 — not 1898, as was earlier thought — he brought her back to Naperville to be buried. According to a news brief published May 8, 1912, in Naperville’s local paper, The Clarion, The remains of Mrs. Charles Hillegas were brought here from Seattle, Wash. on Monday and interment made in the Naperville cemetery..
Then came the bizarre headlines in that same paper a few days later: “Weird act of grief-crazed man.”
Naperville citizens were shocked yesterday morning when the report circulated that Charles Hillegas had disinterred the body of his dead wife in the Naperville cemetery and had taken it to the barn at the home of his mother on Front Street and was defying any interference with his plans.
Mr. Hillegas had brought the remains of his wife from Seattle, Wash. last week Monday for burial here. It was evident that his mind had become unbalanced from the strain of grief and the long journey alone from the west. And on the night of her burial, he claimed to have had a vision that his wife was still alive.
Since then he has been carefully watched, but on Monday night he again went to the cemetery and succeeded in removing the body of his dead wife from the grave and coffin and bringing it back to Naperville with him.
Tuesday afternoon Sheriff Kuhn came from Wheaton and took charge of the case. Shortly after one o’clock he, with his deputies, went to the Hillegas barn, where Charles was supposed to be armed and guarding the remains. Upon entering the building it was discovered that he had fled, but the remains were found unharmed. Later, Mr. Hillegas was found walking east on the Chicago road at Dutter’s hill. He was taken to Wheaton where he will be examined as to his sanity.
The original tale claimed Charles had been sent to a mental institution on the East Coast, where he stayed for 10 years before returning to Naperville. But Frantz and Kennedy insist that’s also unlikely. At that time, patients were taken to the nearest institution, which would have been what is now Elgin Mental Health Center. (It has its own share of hauntings: See related story.)
As far as the chicken-turned-guinea pig element of the story goes: Frantz says the only connection he and Kennedy could find is that in April of 1906, Charles’ brother Harvey was learning the art of artificial incubation of chickens on the Hillegas farm.
Ladley, also a local ghost hunter and unimpressed with her competitor’s research, says the information in her book comes from the Naperville Heritage Society. But after speaking with its curator, Bryan Ogg, it seems the story accepted as truth for so many years needs some serious revisions. After taking this new information and doing additional research, Ogg confirmed there was indeed a Jessie Hillegas, married to Charles, who died in 1912. he also was able to locate the marriage certificate for Jessie and Charles: Nov. 13, 1901, in Silver Bow, Montana.
“I love a good mystery,” he said.
So does Frantz, who points out this folklore — no matter how spooky — is more than just a mystery. It’s also history.
“I want to preserve the integrity of the story,” he said. “Naperville deserves to know what really happened.”