Death Becomes Her: Alton’s Mistress of the Macabre

In the 1940s, when other little girls were playing house, Janet Kolar was playing funeral home.

“Whenever I’d find a dead bird or squirrel I’d plan an elaborate funeral where I’d wrap the animal in lace and have the neighborhood children march in the procession,” Kolar begins. “Our family lived in the West End, in a big old house that was cut up into apartments, and I turned the backyard into a cemetery. One day the landlord came over because of complaints about the smell and demanded I dig it all up. I literally threw myself on the ground, arms and legs outstretched, to protect my little graves,” she laughs. “But it turns out the odor wasn’t from my cemetery. They’d rented the garage to someone who parked a car and never returned, and there was a body in the trunk.”

Today, Kolar owns, drives, and even drag races two hearses, one which carried her husband, her best friend’s husband and finally her best friend before she inherited it. She’s famous for her ghost tours, and she’s the proprietor of the Museum of Historic Torture Devices in Alton’s notoriously haunted Mineral Springs Mall.

The Mineral Springs Hotel

Cemetary-0446 (2)In 1914 the lavish Mineral Springs Hotel opened boasting the largest swimming pool in the state of Illinois in its basement, which was filled with spring water from beneath the property. The water, with its high sulfur content, was purported to have curative properties, and guests flocked from all over to reap the benefits. Alton was also a popular destination for St. Louisans having affairs. Forbidden lovers could take a riverboat to the scenic and bustling town, enjoying relative anonymity.

The hotel slowly declined after its heyday in the teens and twenties, closing in 1971, but the building was reopened as an antique mall in 1978.

Soon, the property became better known for its ghost than its antiques, and over time it’s become the epicenter of the region’s paranormal community, hosting meetings, events, and drawing tour groups from around the nation along with notables including a famed voodoo priestess from New Orleans.

After I didn’t receive a response from my email asking for an interview, I arrived unannounced one Sunday afternoon to ask Kolar if she’d speak with me.

“Is this a good time?” I asked.

“I’m here and you’re here, so it’s a good time,” she replied, making her way down a long, dimly-lit corridor to the foreboding gates of the torture museum.

Cemetary-0408 (2)We sat in the cluttered lounge of the deserted gallery and began discussing her history, the property, the folklore, the other tenants and, of course, the ghosts.

Before we began, though, a woman called Kolar to the door. “I just wanted to let you know I found a candle burning in the Crystal Ballroom this morning.”

“I’m sure I blew them all out when I left a two the other night, and I don’t see how any could still be burning this morning,” Kolar responded, puzzled.

The Tenants

Four tenants occupy the massive, largely empty building. There’s the museum, a boat restoration company, a barber and an antique shop.

“Wayne Hensley’s the barber and didn’t believe in ghosts when he rented the space,” Kolar begins, “but he arrived early one morning, he was the first one here, and all the wind chimes in one of the shops began jangling. When he looked at them they stopped, but not gradually, like you’d expect. They stopped like someone grabbed them. He decided to go get breakfast and come back later. He’s a firm believer now, and has often smelled the Jasmine Lady,” she said in reference to one of the most well known spirits who envelopes visitors in her lavender perfume.

“Charlie has the antique store in the front and sells a lot of Tupperware. He has stacks of it, but for some reason the spirits always knock it over.”

The Ghosts
Cemetary-0468Kolar began rattling off the numerous spirits known to haunt the building, beginning with “the Drunken Ghost” who manifests as the smell of old beer or whisky. Pearl is a ghost who committed suicide in a corner hotel room by overdosing on pills. William was one of several who died in the basement swimming pools, and is said to be an unpleasant spirit caught on recordings cursing and telling people to “get out.” A little girl drowned at her own birthday party in the late twenties or early thirties, and is often active during the ghost tours, where she can be heard with the naked ear during séances. Some have caught her on film, and one such picture is displayed in the lobby.

The Jasmine Lady’s the most famed spirit at Mineral Springs. Legend has it she was having an affair and was caught by her husband. When she ran from the confrontation she fell down the marble staircase and broke her neck.

When discussing the Jasmine Lady, the K2 meter resting on the coffee table lit up, so I held it and asked, “Is the Jasmine Lady with us right now? Can you give us a sign?” At that very moment a chain attached to a marquee easel crashed to the floor, which startled even a pro like Kolar.

“I overheard you mention you were here at 2 a.m. Are you ever here all alone, and do the spirits get too active for you? Are you ever uncomfortable or scared?” I asked.

“Ghosts are like people, there are good ones and bad ones. We have shadow people here, and I’m not sure if they’re nice or not. We’ve had ghosts slap and scratch people, and there’ve been times it sounds like horses are walking across the floor upstairs. I’ve been here by myself at all hours, and there have been times things have gotten to be too unsettling. When that happens, I pack up and go home.”

Walking tours of the Mineral Springs Mall can be scheduled at Overnight ghost hunting is also available. V

Written by Chris Andoe

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About the Author

Chris Andoe

  • Columnist

In the preface of his critically acclaimed book Delusions of Grandeur: A Few Hundred Tales From the Emperor of St. Louis, Metrosource NYC editor Paul Hagen writes, "Chris's writing - in particular his chronicles of the goings on in around St. Louis - had the urgency of a journalist embedded in a war zone...He opened doors to a world of people with multiple aliases and secret identities, sinister perpetrators of long cons, and drag performers who embody every aspect of the world legendary." Andoe's long-running "Tales From the Emperor" column in Vital VOICE attracts an international following. When he's not writing or touring, his interests include politics, climbing through abandoned buildings and knocking wigs back.

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