Location: The Old Stoddard House is in a wooded area of Stoddard Park in Pickford, Illinois. It is accessible by a driveway barred at a gate behind City Hall or by Collins Boulevard where the rear of the mansion is clearly visible from Interstate 55. Pickford is roughly thirty miles northeast of St. Louis, Missouri.
Description of Place: Abandoned yet preserved, Stoddard House is a two hundred year old wood Federal-style edifice rising two stories with twelve rooms and an adjoined three story structure on an incline which was added forty years after it was first built. Imposing in its construction, the stone and brick mansion includes a first floor ballroom replete with turn of the century furnishings, attic garrets, bay windows as well as lost personal family belongings within trunks and armoires. Adjacent from a gated wall behind city hall, it is closed off to the public and separated from the public park by a chain link fence. A much older driveway obscured and blocked by brush and foliage connects the property to Collins Boulevard.
Ghostly Manifestations: From a distance, it looks like a grand family home nestled among the trees of Stoddard Park. The property is neat and trimmed, and the canopy of trees partially obscuring it gives the old hundred year old house the image of hiding away from the world. However, when one gets closer, it becomes obvious the house has seen better days. The shutters are loose and the exterior is coming apart. Peeking into a window, the spectacle of old fashioned furniture left abandoned in deserted rooms and a deserted dining table appear as though they are waiting for a wayward family to return. But no family ever returns, and the groundskeepers who meticulously trim the grounds try to avoid looking inside for fear they might see something looking back at them. Other park employees have whispered seeing glimpses of a petite blonde woman wafting from room to room in the once grandiose mansion as if she lives there, but that is impossible. According to Pickford's Town Council, that woman does not exist.
The Stoddard House is unusual as it was only reported haunted until well after 1965, long after the last member of the Stoddard family lived there. Since then, odd, disconnected and often exaggerated stories of ghosts come from the house which once served as home to former elected officials. Often repeated, yet unsubstantiated tales of ghosts are happenstance here. The earliest account of supernatural dealings here begins in summer of 1972 when a group of five boys managed to break open a back entrance and slipped inside looking for what young men do. There is a faded police report of this break-in and the vandalism done to the house. Names were spray-painted on walls, furniture was shattered under the weight of human figures and a mahogany banister was shattered by someone trying to slide down the railing. Yet, the damage ends there as if the young men were scared off the property by someone, or something, they did not expect. The report doesn't confirm this, but later Halloween articles in the newspaper, articles that have been repeated several times since, claim the boys were scared away by screams of someone in the cellar. When the young vandals dared to investigate, they were surprised by a headless woman in a full length dress carrying her head by her long blonde tresses.
A few years later, another more interesting story came from a couple of sailors hitchhiking through town. They didn't have any money for a hotel, but as they started wandering through town looking for a place to stay, they just happened to notice Stoddard House and thought they could get away with staying the night inside if they didn't do any damage. Somehow getting in though a loose window, they found themselves inside, started upstairs looking for a comfortable bedroom and made themselves to home. Sometime during the night, they were awakened by the sound of breathing filling the house and decided to investigate. Coming down the back stairs behind the ballroom, they came under what seemed to be a massive female phantom covering the ballroom ceiling above them. With her gigantic arms slowly reaching down around them, they fled the house screaming into the dark night hysterically and rambling in nonsensical gibberish.
The "Phantom Blonde of Pickford" is Pickford's own paranormal legend and addition to the scores of haunted house legends in Illinois history. Every Halloween, the Pickford Chamber of Commerce gathers in the shadow of Stoddard House to tell ghost stories and then take children on a hay ride through Pickford's wooded back trails northeast of town toward Yaeger Lake and towns like Butler and Hillsboro. There is always a participant wearing a long dark dress with her face whitened out and a shaky red and spattered wound painted to their throat to honor the ghost's legend. Just how the ghost accepts her local stardom is unknown, but Allison Buckner, Director of the Pickford Historical Society, believes in the ghost.
"It's just not Halloween if someone doesn't see her." She confesses. "Every Halloween, we set up overnight camp behind the house to tell ghost stories, and sometime during the fun, there's always some scream from the crowd, usually from a teenager tempting the patience of people round them. The claim is usually the same; the ghost has been seen staring down from an upstairs window. Everyone turns and looks, flashlights rear up bouncing from window to window, but no ghost is ever seen."
That is not to suggest that the ghost does not exist. Since the vandalism in 1972, pedestrians, motorists and neighbors have noticed what seems to be a beautiful but petite blonde woman in old fashioned dress in the house roaming the grounds or pulling back the curtains to watch people in the park. Over the years, lights have been seen bobbing through empty upstairs windows and officers investigate. After they discover the house is sealed up tight and no one can get in, they depart believing that the lights were from reflections off the dirty windows.
In 1978, police officer Rick Michalka, now retired, was doing his rounds through town. It was not quite midnight, but it was overcast and the sound of faint thunder was in the air. As he came round city hall, he saw what appeared to be a blonde woman in antedated dress leaving the city hall property and walking up matter-of-factly to the house. He never saw her face, but he later said her hair was straight and long and hung down her back. She was petite, maybe only five foot two in height. Departing his patrol car, Michalka followed her up to the house while only twenty or so steps behind her. He wanted to call out to her, but he didn't; something in his head warned him not to. The woman went up to the house, stepped lightly up to the front veranda ten feet off the ground, pulled open the door and vanished inside. As Michalka pulled on that same door a mere few seconds later, it didn't want to open. It was locked. It's been locked for over fifty years, and no one except the odd vandal through the window has been through it. Mrs. Buckner of the Pickford Historical Society has never even been inside herself despite requests to the city council.
"The city council won't allow it." She says. "The house is on public property belonging to the park department, but since it is connected to city hall and was once home to two mayors and several council members in the Stoddard Family, it's been labeled a historic home and sealed off to the public. Yet, every time someone breaks in to see the ghost, police quickly fix the damage and lock up the house once again."
The reason city hall officials and the police department restrict access to the house may have something to do with the more sinister nature of the house. There is a legend that the Phantom Blonde of Pickford likes to befriend and entice people into the house and keep them there. Over fifty-five years, there have been as many as thirty or more vanishings of teenagers near the house dismissed as teenage runaways. Some female, mostly male, and almost always within a three block radius of the park and Stoddard House.
"As recent as Halloween 2005," Buckner describes. "Police once again headed to the house to bust up an authorized party in the ballroom in back of the house. A local under-achieving student named Owen Proctor opened the house up to a party of something like a hundred high school students and nearly got away with it. Just before midnight, police arrived to break it up and make somewhere around twenty arrests. However, some more conscientious and more law-abiding students decided to leave early. Maybe it wasn't just about guilt, I think they saw things they made them uncomfortable. I talked to one young lady named Keely Teslow who confessed that while with her best friend Phil Diffy to having seen a strange blonde woman sitting in a chair alone in a darkened room and watching them."
"She did not want us in that house." Teslow adds.
"I thought she looked kind of hot." Phil reflects with a crooked grin.
History: Stoddard House was built in 1832 by land owner and future mayor Desmond Stoddard on the foundation of an older structure from 1808 with an additional wing added in 1863. The wealthy owner of a St. Louis shipping firm, the house was built on what was then the remotest part of St. Louis for Stoddard's wife, Daphne, the daughter of town founder Charles Grant. At one point, Pickford was originally going to called Stoddard, but it was instead named after Thomas Pickford, who was mayor when the city charter was established. Desmond and Daphne meanwhile had several children. Their eldest daughter, Millicent Stoddard, was romantically linked with Quentin Danbury, the son of one of Desmond's political rivals. According to whatever legend one reads, Millicent ran away to marry her lover, or jumped to her death from the top floor balcony to her death. Sometimes, this story involves the youngest daughter, Charity, but no there are no records to support either legend.
Several generations of Stoddard's were born and raised in the mansion until 1901 when the last family member moved out. It served as the mayoral home up until 1947 and then used as a records depository for city hall. A caretaker occupied the property up until 1958. While technically in the custody of the city, the original deed to the house is missing and possibly rests somewhere buried in the local records or in the custody of a distant Stoddard family descendant.
Identity of Ghosts: Traditional legend claims that the lovelorn ghost is that of Millicent Stoddard pining for the love of a man she was not allowed to marry. There is an alternate story not as published as this one about a family member named Angelica Stoddard who came to Pickford in 1953 and tried to unsuccessfully lobby for regaining custody of the house. When she was prevented from reclaiming the house, she tried to burn it down so the city couldn't have it and ended up arrested. While the police was trying to figure out what to do next, Angelica contacted tuberculosis and died in her sleep while still in jail. According to this rumor, Angelica returns to claim the house she so wanted in life. However, there is no Angelica Stoddard in the descendants of Desmond Stoddard for this period and according to rumor, an embarrassed city council possibly destroyed her arrest records to conceal the incident. Whether she was a con-artist or a disposed family member is unrevealed. Some published accounts have tried to validate the chance for two ghosts at Stoddard House to allow for Angelica, but the accepted local legend usually only mentions Millicent as the identity of the "Phantom Blonde of Pickford."
Comments: Phil of the Future, Episode: Ghosts, Loosely based on Ocean Born Mary House in Henniker, New Jersey, Berkley Square House in London, England and Octagon House in Washington, DC.