Madison County Records Center holds history and hauntings

By Amelia Flood | Nov 12, 2009

Files abound in the Madison County Records Center.

Record keeper Janet Carril works among dusty leather bound volumes and thousands of files detailing the trials and tribulations of Madison County residents from before Illinois was even a state.

She may also work among a few laughing ghosts in the halls of the Wood River Records Center she oversees. The center is located in the former Wood River Township Hospital, which closed in 2000.

Despite the dust and the possible spirits, she says she wouldn't trade her job of 11 years for anything.

"I love what I do," Carril said in an interview Tuesday. "There's a surprise every day."

Carril is charged by the county's Circuit Clerk's office with overseeing thousands of legal records the office stores.
There is no official count of how many records the office holds, as the sheer number of book pages and papers stored in the center's file folders make it impossible, she explained. There are more than 4,000 wills in storage alone.

The clerk's office holds on to old records from traffic incidents to the county's so-called "Slave Books" that were recently preserved.

"There's stuff out there that I don't even know what it is until I get into it," Carril, a Troy native, explained. "You couldn't fathom how many documents are out there."

Efforts are currently under way to microfilm and scan all of the records at the site, including the oldest that are often contained in books with hand-marbled front pages or heavy leather covers. Some of the record books dating to the 19th Century are over six inches thick and over a foot long.

Illinois law requires that counties keep certain documents for set periods of time. For example, a traffic violation file must only be kept a year.

Documents from years pre-dating the statutes governing their retention fall into a kind of limbo, Carril said. They can either be kept or discarded.

Madison County has chosen to keep older documents for their historical value, she said.

Among the files that reside in the former hospital rooms of the center is the case of Emil Fricker, perhaps Madison County's first hanging trial.

Other records include early lawsuits and an 1815 assault trial that may have involved Zachary Taylor, who was elected 12th President of the United States in 1848. The Taylor case is one of Carril's favorites, she said.

Three letters chronicle the hearings in the 1815 assault case with a defendant "Zachariah Taylor," who assaulted one "Simon Bartram," in August 1814. Taylor is referenced in the letters as a "Major" residing in St. Louis.

The future president was in the area at the time, having withdrawn after his defeat at Fort Johnson near Warsaw, Ill. (in the War of 1812) to Fort Cap au Gris in Troy, Mo. Taylor was a major in the U.S. Army in 1815 and could have been in the area at a military installation in the St. Louis area. According to, "Old Rough and Ready," as President Taylor was nicknamed, was once charged with assault.

Carril believes Zachariah and Zachary are one and the same man.

Prior to moving the records to the Wood River site, old court records had been kept at the former Nike missile site in Marine, Ill.

Although employees at the Marine facility had to drive onto a lift to be lowered down to the records, they didn't have to contend with ghosts.

A number of workers at the Wood River facility have told tales of ghostly encounters, Carril said. She recalls when she encountered something strange while working with another employee.

"Both the hairs on my neck and his neck stood up," Carril remembers, when the two workers heard the sound of little girls laughing coming from above them.

According to Chief Deputy Circuit Clerk Judy Nelson other workers have reported radios that were off turning on by themselves. One was so frightened by what he encountered that he went running down the hallway in fear.

Even now, Carril said she doesn't like to work alone at the Wood River center.

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