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Haunted Travel: The Sweetin Mansion and Its Lost Treasure

03/17/2014 06:07 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2014

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For me, nothing is more thrilling than photographing a place that is haunted and a ruin. Exploring abandoned places where ghosts from the past still play out events that led to the place's downfall has such a rich history, I feel honored to be able to find, capture and explore such places before time eliminates their memory. One such place I found was deep in the Illinois country side.

Nearly engulfed by hundred years' worth of encroaching vines, trees and brush from the nearby woods, the ruins of the once stately Sweetin Mansion feels as if it's hiding a dark secret from the world. Built in 1848 by English immigrant Azariah Sweetin, the house is a shadow of its former glory that sits in a remote part of the countryside in western Illinois. The crumbed limestone walls and broken timbers slowly destroyed by time and weather only hint at its mysterious past.

Also known as Hartwell Ranch House and "the old stone house," the manor was constructed with three floors, walnut woodwork, a grand ballroom, three foot thick walls, and the unusual feature of a natural stream running through the basement for a water supply and to cool the house during Illinois' notorious humid weather. For some strange reason, the Sweetin family didn't move into the house until 14 years after construction began.

Legend has it that on July 4th, 1862, a party was held for two farmhands Henson and Isham who had recently enlisted in the Union army. The two began to quarrel. During the argument, Isham thought Henson was going to throw something at him so he pulled out a knife and stabbed Henson in the back. As Henson lay bleeding to death in front of the third floor fireplace, a large stain of blood seeped into the stone floor forming a shape of his body. Many years after the event the blood stain could never be removed. The ghost of the young Henson would often be seen in this area when the house was still intact. From what I have found It remains unclear who actually killed who. Other legends suggest the murder happened the other way around with Henson stabbing Isham. Either way the murder remains a mystery.

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With the country in the middle of the Civil War in the 1860s, many farmers suffered financial hardship but Sweetin prospered during this time trading cattle. Sweetin had a distrust of banks so he began stashing jars of gold coins throughout the property. After a horse riding accident in 1871, Sweetin's mind was so damaged from being thrown from the horse, he couldn't remember where he buried his treasure; his ghost is said to be still searching for it.

Family members had tried in vain to find the gold but were unsuccessful. Treasure hunters have also tried searching, but turned up nothing. There is another legend that two Sweetin farm hands had found the gold and disappeared shortly after Azariah Sweetin had died.

On my long journey to this location, the air was hot and muggy when I finally found the ruin off a main road. I almost drove past the mansion because the vines and trees had hidden much of the outer walls. As I walked through chest-high grass to reach the ruin, I found large pieces of the wall had fallen and the overgrown trees had made entering the heart of the structure very difficult and precarious. Inside the structure was the stream that still flows through the basement but large pieces of the walls had fallen and disrupted the natural flow, causing a large pool of water to form at the inside base of the structure. Parts of the thick wooden beams that once held the second floor were still set inside their footings. The site was incredible to see but difficult to photograph, with much of the outside structure covered over and mature trees growing on the inside made photographing an exterior and interior overview nearly impossible. I was only able to obtain portions of the overall impression that this house provided. After about an hour and covered in dust and sweat I left the mansion very satisfied. The house was well worth the long trip but I always feel a bit sad seeing a once grand home so destitute.

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