If you’ve ever taken a ghost tour in Chicago, there’s a good chance you’ve already met Ursula Bielski. As the founder of Chicago Hauntings, a widely praised supernatural tour group, she’s led countless curious folks through the city’s cemeteries, back alleys, theaters, and murder sites, and collected ghost stories and personal experiences through her own interviews and investigations.
Her latest project is a book on Midlothian’s Bachelors Grove Cemetery, reputedly one of the most haunted locales in the country. With Haunted Bachelors Grove out earlier this month on the History Press, we sat down with Bielski to talk about the cemetery’s rich paranormal (and normal) history.
I understand you grew up in a haunted house—what was that like?
I did! My mom still lives there, up in North Center. It actually plays into a lot of my earliest memories. Almost every night, my brother and I would hear someone walking up the stairs, after everyone else had gone to sleep. It woke us up a lot of the time. My brother could hear other things too, like pianos being played and knocking sounds. He’s a little more sensitive to the paranormal than I am, but decided to become a cop instead of a ghost hunter. We like to say our family is a lifelong experiment in parapsychology—the psychological effects of supernatural.
It’s sounds like Bachelors Grove also contains some of your earliest ghostly experiences.
Yeah, when I was in getting my masters at Northeastern University, I met a psychology major who was experimenting in parapsychology on the side. We would go to places like Bachelors Grove in the 1980s—it was actually one of the first paranormal sites I ever visited. I didn’t realize though, at the time, the level of phenomena there. It’s got quite a reputation, and the history there goes way back, through the different cultures that have inhabited the area.
When was the last time you went?
A few summers ago, I went with a friend of mine who’s a steward there. Bachelors Grove doesn’t have any official caretakers, but he volunteers his time marking trails and researching the history of the place. It ended up being one of the most astounding nights of my career. We got lost for almost four hours on trails he knew like the back of his hand. He’d been thousands of times, but it seemed like we were just going in circles. The whole time we tried to find our way out, we kept seeing lights—like the lights of houses or cars, but in places where there were no roads or houses. Whenever we got close to the lights, they would just switch off like a TV. It happened over and over and over again, like something was manipulating them.
Is that a feeling you get often at haunted sites?
No, it’s not at all normal. Typically, when you talk about a haunting, we consider it something residual, like an energy that’s been left behind. It’s almost like a scar from something that’s happened there, but it’s not intelligent—it’s just a videotape of whatever happened before. Bachelors Grove has hauntings like that, sure: people who lived crazy frontier lives are buried there. But also, more than any place I’ve ever been, it seems like the more you go, the more whatever’s there warms up to you. People who have spent the most time there tend to get the best EVPs [electronic voice phenomena] and have the most profound experiences. Getting to know it is almost like getting to know a person.
Do you have any idea why Bachelors Grove is so different?
There are a lot of theories. There’s a big concentration of limestone there—there’s actually a pond that used to be a quarry. A lot of people say that limestone can contribute to paranormal phenomenon, because it puts off an energy that’s conducive to haunting. My personal favorite theory is that the mining operation released some kind of gas there that causes people to hallucinate. If you look at Delphi in Greece, famous for its oracle in ancient times, a lot of people report feeling euphoric after breathing the fumes that come from underground there. People often feel euphoric, as opposed to frightened, in Bachelors Grove, so I wonder if something similar isn’t going on.
Are there any places in Bachelors Grove that are especially good for spotting ghosts?
A lot of the phenomena are focused around the old quarry pond—ghosts often seem to like water. Also, while it’s a little lighter on the hauntings, the artery of Tinley Creek that runs through the grove is a great place to look for old artifacts. It’s been there since the area was farmland, and you’ll find things there that date back to 1900—pistols, china, old car parts. That’s another thing I love about Bachelors Grove: beyond all the paranormal activity there, it’s just a beautiful place to visit.
But it’s the hauntings, it seems, that draw most people there.
Yes, and it’s a fine line we have to walk when encouraging people to go there. When I used to go in the ‘80s, the graves were really badly defaced. Almost every single [head] stone had been moved or spray-painted. It’s been a place that kids sneak off to and fool around, or drink and do drugs, all the way back to the 1920s. [Once] I got a really nasty letter from a local historian saying that the [ghost] stories bring nothing but bad luck and vandalism. It seems like the more people go do nice things there, like cleaning the place up or just peacefully enjoying the scenery, the more positive paranormal phenomena we, as investigators, see.
Since it’s Halloween, do you have any other favorite haunted spots in Chicago for amateur ghost hunters to check out?
I always recommend the site of the Eastland Disaster [the tour boat that claimed over 800 lives when it capsized in 1915 in the Chicago River downtown]. First off, it’s a really powerful place—haunting in more ways than one. People often feel a sense of dread there, and some are even compelled to jump into the water. Something about the scale of that tragedy, plus the abundance of water there makes for lots of experiences and lots of EVPs.