- HISTORY & HAUNTINGS OF ILLINOIS -
DINNER & SPIRITS
Located a short distance from the downtown area of Salem, Illinois is a grand old mansion that was once home to the McMackin clan, known as Salem’s “first family”. The house has been the birthplace of leaders and over the years has welcomed prominent visitors, celebrities, Illinois governors and an assortment of figures both famous and infamous. It continued its transition from family home to funeral parlor to now, a stylish restaurant. Throughout all of this though, one thing about the house has never changed and this is the presence of the McMackin family themselves. Although none of the present members of the family reside within these walls today - past generations of the McMackin’s have never left.
For if there is a single place in the city of Salem that qualifies as “most haunted”, it is, without a doubt, the McMackin House.
THE MCMACKIN FAMILY
The McMackin family came to Salem back in 1850. The patriarch of the family, Warren E. McMackin, was born in Morganfield, Kentucky in 1817 and enlisted in the Third Illinois Volunteer Infantry during the Mexican War. After the fighting ended, Warren became the minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and part of his duties included riding a circuit to surrounding areas for churches that had no pastors. His journey often took him from Fairfield to Salem and in 1850, he decided to make the small town his home. He settled down and became the minister of the Salem Presbyterian Church, marrying Delilah Jane Cruise a short time later. Together, the two of them raised seven children; May, Emma, Charles, Fred, Edwin, John and William.
Around this same time, Warren and his brother Thomas opened a tavern near the Old Park Hotel. This was their first business venture in the area and it became the foundation of the family’s later political and business successes. The tavern became a stopping point for westward bound travelers and gained a reputation for its food, drink and warm beds. It also helped Warren to become more widely known in the area and his prominence soon got him appointed to the position of Marion County Justice of the Peace.
In 1860, the brothers expanded their holdings and Thomas began speculating in land while Warren opened a furniture store and a funeral home. This was a common combination in those days as the proprietors who made the furniture usually built the caskets for the local dead as well. This time period marked the early days of the embalming trade and “undertaking” was just coming into fashion.
When the Civil War broke out the following year, Warren left his growing business in the hands of his children and family members and enlisted in the 21st Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry under the command of Ulysses S. Grant. As the war continued on, Grant became President Lincoln’s choice for the head of the entire Union army and so Warren McMackin was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and replaced him as the commander of the regiment. He fought through one bloody battle after another for two years and then was wounded and captured at the Battle of Chickamauga. He was eventually released during a prisoner exchange near the end of the war.
Warren returned home to his family and to the gratitude of the people of Salem. In 1865, the same year that the city was officially chartered, they elected him the mayor of the city and in addition, he served as Salem’s postmaster and as the region’s Civil War Pension Disbursement Officer. He remained in these positions until 1870, when he also handed over the ownership of his furniture and funeral business to his son, Charles L. McMackin, Sr. Warren passed away in 1884, still suffering from complications from the wounds he had suffered in Tennessee during the war.
Charles Lincoln McMackin, Sr. carried on his father’s business interests and followed in his footsteps by serving as the city’s mayor and also as a four term state representative. In 1886, Charles married the refined and beautiful Eugenia Aline Drake, heiress to the prominent Merryfield Plantation in Virginia. Together, they had two children, Omar James (OJ) McMackin, born in 1888 and Helen May McMackin, who was born in 1895. During this period, the family hosted many elegant parties and gatherings for important guests from across the country.
The present day mansion was constructed during this time when Charles moved the family’s existing home to erect the house that now stands in its place. The house was designed after the style of a southern mansion so that Charles could provide his bride, Eugenia, with all of the comforts that she was accustomed to. He had made a pledge to his wife’s parents that in exchange for their permission to marry their daughter, he would build her a grand home that suited the heiress of the well-known Merryfield Plantation. So, in 1910, he had the family home moved to North College Street and the present mansion was built on the site.
Omar McMackin grew up working alongside his father in the family business. He married Mary Belle Wells in 1910 and they had two sons, Charles Lincoln McMackin II and Matthew Wells McMackin. They resided on North College Street, not far from the McMackin mansion, until tragedy struck in 1915. During that year, Matthew fell ill during a deadly influenza outbreak. Mary Belle, unsure of what else to do, brought the little boy to her in-law’s home and everyone worked to nurse him back to health. Unfortunately, they did so without success and he died a short time later.
Mary Belle was distraught over the loss of her son and her depression may have contributed to her own death a short time later, when tragedy struck the McMackin’s again. Just six months later, Mary Belle was at home and was attempting to adjust a kerosene stove when her hair caught on fire. OJ tried in vain to extinguish the fire, and to save his wife, and sustained serious burns in the process. Young Charles, only three years-old at the time, watched as his mother burned to death. It’s likely that he never forgot it…
OJ then returned to his family home to live and stayed there with his son, his parents and his sister Helen until the outbreak of World War I. Omar decided to enlist in the military and leaving his son in the care of his family, he left for Europe. Thankfully, he returned safely and in 1920, he married again to a woman named Anna Bessie Cope. Together, they had two more children, Lorin and Martha Jean. In 1921, he organized Company I, 130th Infantry and 33rd Division of the Salem National Guard, of which he became a captain and later retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
In 1941, death came calling again for the McMackin family. Charles Sr. died in a fatal automobile crash on his way home from a furniture-buying trip to Chicago. Ironically, his funeral was the second to be held in the family’s newly built funeral home, which still operates today in Salem as the Rankin Funeral Home.
After his father’s death, OJ took over the funeral business and Helen operated the furniture store. OJ went on to serve four terms as the Salem Commissioner and played an important role in formulating the G.I. Bill of Rights. He served as the mayor of the city for three consecutive terms between 1935 and 1948 and was credited with the building of the Kaskaskia River Water Line in Salem. The city also enjoyed the prestige of being the only city in Illinois in those days to own, and operate at a profit, its own water, sewer, gas and electric utilities. OJ and Anna divorced after his final term as mayor and he later married Ruth Allen in 1949 and remained with her until his death in 1963.
Helen McMackin never married, although she was engaged at one time. Her fiancée died during World War I and so she dedicated her life to the family business, along with many civic and patriotic organizations. She became the only occupant of the McMackin home after her mother Eugenia died from a heart attack in 1949 and she became very passionate about preserving the place. She remained alone until 1950, when her close friend Beth Dunham was severely injured in a train wreck. Helen resolved to be her guardian and she added private living quarters to the home and employed nurses to care for her friend. She also made provisions in her will to insure that Beth would be cared for in her last days. She passed away just one year after Helen’s death in 1965.
Charles Lincoln McMackin II became the last owner of the family funeral business after inheriting from his father and his Aunt Helen. Like his ancestors, Charles always had an affinity for military service and as a boy attended the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois, where he joined the Western Military Drum and Bugle Corps.
Recently, a megaphone was discovered during some renovations at the house that had belonged to Charles while he was at the military academy. He along with his roommate, Paul Tibbetts, (the pilot of the “Enola Gay”, which dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan) played “taps” with their bugles over the megaphone each evening.
After his graduation from the academy, Charles joined the Salem Fire Department and eventually served as the Fire Marshall and the Assistant Fire Chief. He also enlisted, in 1933, in the 113th Infantry of the Illinois National Guard and married Flora Jane Gibson of Sandoval in 1935. Together, they raised three daughters, Merry Gay, Ellen Aline and Mary Belle. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Charles was called into active military duty and he served as the company commander of the 113th, 339th and 411th infantry regiments. He fought in the European Theater Campaign, in Germany and Northern France. He was decorated many times during the war and was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, three Oak Leaf Clusters, the Army Commendation Medal, the Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre. In 1948, he retired from the service as a Lieutenant Colonel.
After the death of Aunt Helen in 1965, Charles and Flora Jane became the last of the McMackin’s to reside in the family home. In addition to all of his earlier accomplishments, Charles remained active in local politics as well. A great many social and political events were held in the family home and Charles chaired the Marion County Republican Party for years. He also served as the Mayor of Salem from three terms between 1975 and 1983.
Flora Jane was the last of the McMackin’s to reside in the mansion. In her later years, she became the National Vice-President of the Am Vets Auxiliary and president of the 23rd District of the American Legion Auxiliary. In 1998, she was elected to a four-year term on the Salem City Council. She remained an active member of the community until she passed away in 1995 and according to reports, she remained active for a brief time after her death as well…
According to her daughter, Ellen, no less than four members of the McMackin family were visited by Flora Jane shortly after she died. Around 4:00 am on the night that she died, Ellen told me that she was awakened in the darkness by a figure standing next to her bed. She roused herself from her sleep and realized that it was her mother. Before she could speak, or even think about what was taking place, the figure turned and then vanished. The following morning, Ellen learned that her mother has passed away at almost the exact same time that she had seen her in the bedroom. She was a little startled to hear that three other family members had experienced the same thing.
Despite this unnerving visitation though, Flora Jane is not believed to linger behind in the old family home. However, there is certainly no shortage of McMackin’s here!
MCMACKIN HOUSE HAUNTINGSBuilt in 1910, the McMackin House has managed to weather several generations of the family, use as a funeral home and finally, service as the restaurant that it is today. Hal Harrison, and his son Justin Harrison, purchased the business in July 2002 but theirs was not the first eating establishment to be based in the house. The place had originally been converted into use as a restaurant not long after the death of Flora Jane. However, neither this business nor the one that followed it, managed to last. The new McMackin House appears to be thriving however and one has to wonder if it might be the affinity of the spirits toward the current owner that has given the place its success. The ghosts of the place seem to wish Hal the best and are not above offering some not so subtle suggestions when they want him to do things their way!
||Not long after the Harrison’s opened the place, members of the McMackin family gave him portraits of their Virginia ancestors to hang inside. Too busy with getting the restaurant open though, the portraits were set aside and Hal didn’t get around to hanging them. He was startled shortly after to discover that other pictures that were hanging on the walls were falling. Once the portraits were hung though, nothing else out of the ordinary happened - until a similar event occurred a short time later. Not long after, two more pictures were given to Hal by the family and once again, they were set aside until time could be found to put them in place. This time, it was not just falling pictures that plagued the restaurant though. In the room where the pictures had been placed, two tables with glass tops mysteriously shattered without explanation. Hal quickly hung the pictures and nothing else strange occurred.|
“Now, whenever the family gives me anything to hang,” Hal told me during an interview in November 2002, “I always hang it up right away.”
Who the ghost might be that so bedeviled Hal over his failure to immediately hang the portraits in anybody’s guess but family members believe that it might be that of Aunt Helen McMackin. She was fiercely devoted to the house during her life and she had other attributes that lead some to believe that it might be her ghost who lingers behind. “Aunt Helen was always mischievous,” her great-niece Merry Gay informed me during an interview. “She was a prankster and loved practical jokes. That runs in the family too because we all love to play jokes on one another, but they’re never malicious or mean.”
And that seems to fit right along with some of the reported incidents in the house. During the renovations of the place, many of the workmen scoffed at the reputation the house had gained for being haunted, until their keys, tools and other items began disappearing and turning up again in various places. It’s common for small items, especially keys, to vanish, as if someone is having a good laugh at the expense of the beleaguered property owner. And even the McMackin family members are not immune.
“Shortly after my mother died,” Merry Gay recalled, “I came to clean her belongings out of the house and left a bag of things in the hallway outside of her room.” After much of the work had been done, she returned to the hallway to retrieve the bag. To her surprise, it was missing. But rather than be upset or unnerved, she called out loud to her late aunt. “I yelled at Aunt Helen to bring the bag back and you know what, she did.” Merry Gay left and came back the next morning to discover that the bag was now back exactly where she had left it. There had been no one else in the house during the intervening hours and besides that, she knew that no earthly hands had replaced the parcel. It was simply Aunt Helen, playing another practical joke!
Today, staff members and customers alike have odd encounters here that are not easily explained. Many patrons come from out of town and are unaware of the reputation of the place, only to discover that they have experienced a ghost. Several customers have spoken to me of feeling inexplicable cold chills throughout the restaurant, feeling as though they are being watched and catching glimpses of vanishing figures out of the corner of their eye.
One of the most reportedly haunted spots, at least for the customers, is the women’s restroom. A number of ladies who have been in the bathroom have stated that they were in the room alone when they were joined by another woman, who comes in the door, opens the stall next door and then proceeds to well, use the toilet. The toilet will then flush but the lady never leaves the stall. Curious, the original customer checks to see what happened to the other woman when she prepares to leave - only to discover that the other stall is empty! This has happened numerous times to witnesses who have no idea that someone else has already reported the exact same thing!
And staff members have more encounters here than they would care to admit! Manager Russ Dalton told me of an occasion when he was closing down the restaurant one night and was in the building alone. He was working in the bar area, counting down a cash drawer, and left to go take care of something else. When he returned, he found that someone had taken three pages of adhesive note paper and had stuck them on the bar in a straight line. Thinking that he must have done it himself, Russ dismissed the happening and placed all of the pages back on the pad that they had come from. He then left to shut off some lights and to prepare to leave the building but when he returned to the bar to retrieve the cash bag and deposit; he found the sticky notes had again been placed in a line on the bar! He quickly left the building - leaving the ghosts to fend for themselves!
Another staff member told me about the strange happenings that have occurred in the basement. This area of the house, which was formerly the living quarters for the McMackin family servants, has been plagued with odd events. At one point, a security camera that was set up in the area spotted a dark figure as it moved across a lighted doorway. There was no one present in that part of the basement at that time. Another employee also spotted a man’s face appearing in a window next to this doorway on another occasion.
Perhaps the strangest basement occurrence happened during the summer the Harrison’s took over the restaurant. At that time, the former coal room (which still has a sealed coal chute in it leading in from outside) was being converted into a locked room where liquor could be stored. The coal door was sealed and locked one night when shelving was being placed in the room. The staff members left and returned the next door to find that the formerly sealed door was now standing open. No one had been in the room since the night before and security tapes revealed that the door to the room had never been opened. The coal door opened several more times on its own in the weeks that followed but has been silent ever since.
But not everyone who works here was convinced the place was haunted - at least not at first. The once skeptical Justin Harrison told me of the event that occurred that convinced him that there might be something to the reputed haunting in the house after all. He was working one day and had a roll of paper towel sitting nearby on a table. He left the room and came back in by way of a swinging door. As he did so, the paper towel roll suddenly spun around and began unraveling the towel from the roll, spinning off onto the floor. Justin was startled at first and then began to suspect that something other than a ghost was at work.
With this in mind, he rolled the towel back onto the roll and placed it on the table in the same spot that it had been in. It was the swinging door, he realized, that had caused the towel roll to spin. So, he took hold of the door and swung it open at the same speed that he had entered through it a few moments before - and nothing happened! He began to swing the door back and forth, easy at first and then violently, trying as hard as he could to make the paper towels move. But nothing he did caused more than a flutter from the loose end of the roll. At that point, Justin explained to me later, he began to consider the idea that there was more to the house that first meets the eye…
A GHOSTLY TOUR OF THE MCMACKIN HOUSETo tour the McMackin House today is like taking a trip back into the past. There are a number of unusual and unique aspects to the house, many apparent to the unknowing visitor and many as hidden as the spirits who still linger here.
Perhaps the most eccentric of the strange additions to the house is the fence that is located in the back yard. If you walk around to the rear of the house, you’ll see a crumbling stone wall that crosses the yard and extends to the alley. The fence runs near to the original carriage house of the estate. Once surrounded by stables, it was used to house the hearses that were used in the funeral business and it was later converted to living quarters for the old groundskeeper who once tended the place. However, the fence draws the most attention to the remaining grounds of the mansion. Even the most casual visitor will admit the fence is odd, but look closely and you’ll see that most of it is made up of old tombstones that have been cemented into place. The grave markers are joined by a corner stone from a building and even a tablet from the altar of the original St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Salem.
The tour of the interior of the house must begin inside of the front doors. Directly ahead of you, the visitor will see the McMackin House lounge, which was once a garage during the days when this was still a funeral home. Doors were once located at either end, since the hearse often had to be moved in a hurry. In the early days, it was also the town ambulance.
Entering the main section of the house, you’ll notice a pair of portraits on the right side of the stairway. These portraits portray ancestors of Eugenia Aline Drake and were the same portraits that caused other pictures in the house to behave erratically before Hal Harrison could get them placed where they belonged. A picture of George Washington that hangs just beyond near the hostess stand once graced the fireplace mantle in the original McMackin House.
To the left is what has been dubbed the “Adventurer’s Room” because no one ever knows for sure what will happened here next. And this goes for the ghosts, as well as for the changing displays and decorations that constantly surprise the patrons. Originally, this room was two bedrooms in the house, one of which belonged to Flora Jane McMackin. Her daughter, Ellen, told me that she once saw her mother reflected in a mirror in this room, long after her death.
Next door to this room is the Great Hall. This entryway from the front veranda still holds the history and charm of the original home, opening up into another dining area. Glass cases that are located here once held political and military memorabilia that was collected by Charles McMackin. The Great Hall is also noted for its eerie ghost sightings, as well as its history. It is here that McMackin family members, restaurant staffers and customers have often glimpsed the small figure of little Matthew McMackin, who died here from influenza in 1915. The small boy is seen walking and playing in this area and then he disappears around the corner into the McMackin Room, which was the original parlor of the house.
Strangely, it’s around this corner where another ghostly sighting takes place as well. On a number of occasions, staff members have seen what appears to be a glowing white light that skirts the edge of the corner and then also disappears into the parlor. Could this also be Matthew’s ghost? Perhaps it is but it still remains a mystery - and a mystery that was not solved by an investigation of the house by American Ghost Society members that took place in November 2002.
During a tour of the house that was given to us by several staff members, Hal Harrison and two of the McMackin family members, investigator Luke Naliborski filmed a strange image using an infrared video camera. Just as we rounded the corner and entered the parlor (following the same path as the light and the ghost of the boy), the video camera picked up the image of a white, shimmering light that was roughly the size of a human fist. It shot into the room at high speed, moving back and forth erratically, and it curved to the right, then to the left to circle the head of Ellen McMackin. It then shot upward to the right and vanished into the wall. Analysis of the image has shown no natural or artificial explanation for what this bizarre light could be.
Beyond the former bedrooms and the parlor, and facing the street, is the old veranda of the house. This area was once the perfect place for the family to sit and watch the world go by on busy Broadway Street. In the summer months, it was used as a place for entertaining and as a sleeping room for the children. In those days before air conditioning, the sleeping porch would have offered a welcome respite during hot weather. It is in this area of the house, where the most famous ghost of the McMackin place appears.
This phantom appears to be an ordinary customer and she comes into the house and requests a table for one from the hostess. She then either stands near the door or seats herself on a bench that is next to the door.
When the hostess returns, or even looks up from her seating chart, she always finds that the woman has vanished. Staff members here believe that this lovely young spirit may be the ghost of Mary Belle Wells, the wife of Omar McMackin, who died after her hair caught fire in 1915.
The former parlor is now the formal dining room of the McMackin House and it has both history and hauntings of its own. It was in this room that the family and their often important guests would gather to discuss business and politics. A couch that was once located in this room is now on display at the Abraham Lincoln home in Springfield, Illinois. It was in this room where pictures flew from the walls and glass table tops shattered after portraits that were brought into the house that the apparently ghosts felt were ignored for too long. But that’s not the only mark the haunting has left on it…
Cold, eerie chills often come over people who dine in this room and there is also another strange happening linked to the room’s past. One corner of the room, near the front window, was once a favorite resting place for Uncle Merryfield McMackin. He liked to sit here and smoke his pipe, gazing out the window and taking part in discussions with others in the room. He liked the spot so much that some have pondered the idea that he had never left it! It is common for visitors in this room to actually hear the sound of a man’s deep laughter, followed by the fragrant wafting of pipe smoke through the room. There is no smoking allowed in this part of the building and yet the smell seems to come from somewhere - perhaps from the other side?
Just beyond the old parlor is the Governor’s Library, which now offers intimate seating for about 15 people. The room has been so-named due to the fact that every governor from the state of Illinois between 1905 and 1990 visited this house. It was originally a sitting room and offered access (now closed off behind a secret, turning bookcase) to the living quarters of Helen McMackin’s dear friend, Beth Dunham. Like much of the rest of the house, memories of the past still haunt this room as well. It is here where visitors and guests have reported mysterious cold chills that they have been unable to explain. One guest described the cold air that washed over him as being like “air from a cave”.
As the reader can see, the McMackin House is a place that is literally filled with the past, in both its history and its haunts. Should you get the chance to visit Salem, Illinois some day, I encourage you to stop in for a drink or a bite to eat. There is much to see here and yes, much to experience - for the dinner and “spirits” in this restaurant are unlike anything that you may have experienced before!
Update: The McMackin House Restaurant is now closed and according to a recent newspaper article from February 2005, the city of Salem has given the current owners the permission to turn the house into apartments. It is no longer open to the public.
© Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
Special Thanks for Information & History goes to:
McMackin House Staff