Tales of ghosts and spooks have long haunted Oak Brook’s Peabody Estate. A popular high school rite-of-passage involved poking around the estate after dark, incurring the ire of the monks who lived there.
This fall the search for Francis Peabody’s tomb—a source of local legend and countless ghost stories—is resurrected. And while the monks have long-vacated premises now managed by the DuPage County Forest Preserve, those looking for a ghoulish night out will find out in the 39-room mansion thanks to First Folio Theatre’s eerie new production.
Opening Oct. 16, “The Search for Peabody’s Tomb” will take audiences deep into the dark recesses of the Mayslake mansion Peabody built in 1921. Authored by local historian Chrissie Howorth, the half-hour excursion through the reportedly haunted house offers a reality-based, thoughtful alternative to the seasonal onslaught of horror filled prisons and asylums.
“We’re not going to have anybody jumping out at you with chainsaws,” said Howorth. “It’s not that kind of haunted house. Creeping through this place at night, it’s spooky enough. We will be bringing you into a place where it’s very easy to let your imagination wander. It’s not so much a play as it is a haunted tour.”
Howorth spent 12 years as the site manager for Mayslake Estate, the name Peabody gave his home. She’s well-versed in both the history and the myth that surrounds acreage purchased by the Franciscans in the 1922 and managed by the religious order until the Forest Preserve took ownership in 1992.
“When I was site manager, I’d have all these meetings with our board members—very distinguished, grey-haired ladies and gentlemen. We’d get to the end of the meeting and they’d kind of sidle up to me and whisper, ‘You’ll never guess what I used to do out here.’ There were all these stories of high school kids getting chased by monks, having to kneel on rice or broomsticks to pray when the monks caught them. It’s impossible to know how much got exaggerated over the years, but one thing is true: So many people have stories about Mayslake.”
Many of those stories involve thrill seekers looking a martyred child reportedly kept by the monks in a glass case or for Peabody’s tomb—which ironically, hasn’t been at Mayslake for decades.
“When Peabody died, he was originally buried on the grounds of the estate,” explains director Alison Vesely. “They say he died of a heart attack—he’d been out hunting, and his favorite horse was found standing over the body protecting him. There was a chapel built right on the site where he was buried, but eventually he was disinterred and buried in Queen of Heaven Cemetery. The monks de-sanctified the chapel, but that didn’t stop kids from looking for Peabody there. If you grew up in the area in the 1970s or ‘80s, you either heard the stories or you went out there looking yourself, usually on a dare.”
Francis Peabody is not a character in the piece, Vesely adds. Instead, audiences will meet his children, May and Jack, as well as a somber butler who will serve as a tour guide and a laborer who toiled in Peabody’s mines. But the house itself is the central character.
“We’re going to enhance it with lighting and sound effects, but it doesn’t need much,” she said, “We don’t want to fight with what’s already there.” And does “what’s already there” include ghosts?
“We’ve heard weird things on occasion,” she says, “Which I suppose you could attribute to the heating or the house settling or whatever. But sometimes you hear things in here and you’re like, what in the world could have made that noise?
“There’s also this story about one of the maid’s children who supposedly fell down the back stairs and died, so there’s always been this idea that there’s a child haunting the place,” Vesely adds, “Me, I’ve never felt anything threatening.”