'Weird Illinois'

Sunday, January 8, 2006

DECATUR, Ill. -- Why spend cash on a trip to Italy when you can drive to Niles, Ill., home to a half-scale replica of the Tower of Pisa? Or plan a day trip to Gays, Ill., home of the state's only two-story outhouse?

Sure, a trip to the top of the Sears Tower is fun and a visit to the new Abraham Lincoln library in Springfield, Ill., can be an educational treat. But for off-the-beaten-path thrills in the Prairie State, there may be no better source than a new book by a former Alton resident appropriately titled "Weird Illinois."

The ersatz leaning tower and multitiered outhouse are among dozens of oddball attractions and strange tales collected by Troy Taylor, 38, in the 249-page book, which was released in April and sells for $19.95. Taylor, who moved to Decatur, Ill., from Alton in 1998, is the author of 37 books, most of them about ghosts, published through his own imprint, Whitechapel Press.

"Weird Illinois" evolved from "Weird New Jersey," which began in 1990 as a twice-yearly magazine published by Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman, former musicians from West Orange, N.J. A coffee table compendium of weird New Jersey attractions was published in 2003. "Weird U.S." followed in 2004.

"Weird Illinois" was the third book in a series that since has grown to include volumes on Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin. "Weird California" and "Weird Georgia" are in the works, Moran said.

Taylor said he was first exposed to the "Weird New Jersey" newsletter several years ago during a visit to Philadelphia. He contacted Moran and Sceurman, who saw in Taylor a kindred spirit. They hired Taylor as a contributor to "Weird U.S." Later, when the pair began planning a series of "Weird" books about other states, their first phone call was to Taylor.

"He has such a vast wealth of knowledge and material under his belt," Moran said. "He has a wonderful Web site (www.prairieghosts.com) and he's such a great storyteller. He was just an obvious choice. He's like an encyclopedia."

Taylor's company, History and Hauntings, offers guided ghost tours in Decatur, Alton and Chicago. He said that Illinois was the logical second stop on the "Weird" tour of the United States.

His favorite story is the legend of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the mysterious figure responsible for a series of bizarre and unsolved gas attacks in that city in the summer and early fall of 1944.

Closer to home, the book makes obligatory pit stops at Cahokia Mounds and the Collinsville Catsup Bottle. Less predictably, Taylor offers a chapter on the giant rock painting of a menacing winged creature -- the Piasa Bird -- that adorns a bluff along the Great River Road north of Alton.

Of course Popeye makes a cameo, thanks to the 900-pound bronze statue of the famous cartoon sailor in Chester, Ill., the hometown of his creator, Elzie Crisler Segar.

Finally there are the so-called Seven Gates to Hell. Located along Lebanon Road east of downtown Collinsville, the gates actually are a series of aging railroad trestles that according to lore were once used by members of the Ku Klux Klan for lynchings. Legend has it that it is possible to reach hell by driving through all seven gates. Taylor says he tried.

"As you can surmise by the fact that this book has been written," Taylor writes, "we did not get sucked into the pit of hell from the back roads of Illinois that night."

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