ALTON, ILHISTORY Located at the corner of Third and Alby Streets, the First Unitarian Church was established in 1836. Interestingly, the formation of the church resulted from a series of talks given by William Greenleaf Eliot (r.), founder of the Eliot Seminary (now called Washington University) in St. Louis and grandfather of noted poet and dramatist T.S. Eliot. In those days Mr. Eliot traveled extensively in the area spreading the word of the Unitarian faith and philosophy. In Alton, these initial talks were hosted by local physician William Emerson at his office. Unitarian Christianity is the form of Christianity most closely following the direct teachings of Jesus. However, Unitarian Christians usually maintain respect for the beliefs of others and accept there are other ways to abide by God's will. This philosophy, as with any new belief system introduced into a morally rigid constituency, was considered by many as blasphemous and outright heretic. Acceptance was slow to come, and even today there are some in Alton who consider Unitarians to be "heathens". As interest grew in the Unitarian doctrine, followers would assemble wherever they could. By 1854, a permanent place of gathering and worship took root in the purchase of a piece of property on which stood the ruins of St. Matthew's Catholic Church, which caught fire some years earlier. The property had been abandoned in favor of construction of a new Catholic church on State Street in Alton. Utilizing the existing foundation, the Unitarians constructed a new building in its place. The current church sanctuary was constructed in 1905 after the original - in a startling bit of dark irony - caught fire. The first minister of the Unitarian church was named William D'Arcy Haley, a rather liberal thinker in a decidedly non-liberal town who rethought his dedication to the congregation (and his radical points of view) when he received threats of bodily harm. He subsequently offered his resignation with intentions of leaving for greater rewards somewhere else. This actually proved to be a crucial turning point in religious acceptance for the church when in reviewing Haley's resignation the church took a stand and chose not to accept it, citing Rev. Haley's right to speak his mind as well as the rights of those who listen to make up their own minds as to the validity of the content. Rev. Haley stayed and the church grew stronger for holding its ground.THE STRANGE CASE OF PHILLIP MERCER One of the more beloved and respected ministers in the church's history, Rev. Phillip Mercer was found dead inside the church - an apparent suicide victim - on November 20, 1934. He had been the minister of the the First Unitarian Church since 1928 and was 48 years old at the time of his death. He was found hanging in a doorway leading out to the church yard with a chair nearby, the telltale sign of his taking his own life. The exact spot where this occurred is said to be near the rectangular window on the right of the photo below. Rev. Mercer was born in England and came to America at age 18. He was the prototypical proper Brit and while no one knew much about him personally, he was quite apparently well-liked by all his congregation. Mercer was a voracious reader and held a job working the railroads in St. Louis. Captivated by the free-thinking philosophies of the Unitarian Church, we studied to become a minister and after a couple of stops along the way, found himself in Alton, Il. The body was found by Mercer's friend and landlord Dr. James McKinney who, concerned his tenant had not returned home from church by the next afternoon, called the church repeatedly - receiving no answer. On his way into town to run errands, the now-concerned Dr. McKinney stopped by the church to check on his friend. Noticing some lights on, McKinney opened a door at the rear of the building and horrified, saw Mercer hanging there. He immediately ran across the street to the Alton police station and returned with a patrolman, the coroner was called, and Mercer's body was removed from the church. Any clues left were spotty at best. There was rope and sash cord present, apparently bought shortly before Rev. Mercer's death and papers atop his desk gave the appearance they had been shuffled through by someone, but no definitive signs suggesting foul play were found. Mercer's body was placed in the Grandview Mausoleum (below) as his family in England was contacted. Sadly, no one ever got back to Alton authorities, so Mercer's body remains at eternal rest there.americanroads.net Rev. Mercer's actions and whereabouts remained a mystery. He had left his dwelling at 8 am to head to the church as he always did and was seen by a woman leaving the church at 1 pm, but beyond that no one seemed to know what happened to him after that until his body was found. A quiet but engaging sort - he was outgoing, articulate and a man of letters - he seemed certainly not the type to foster enemies. So what would a man with such a pleasant outlook on life and no real apparent problems take his own life without warning? Or perhaps there were problems. A bit of a hypochondriac, Mercer had returned from a trip out west complaining to McKinney about gaining too much weight and being in generally poor physical condition. Despite being assured his appearance was fine, he quickly lost 15 pounds despite warnings not too lose too much weight too fast. He soon complained of feeling weak and subsequently took a trip to a doctor who found nothing wrong with him and suggested some rest to regain his strength. Ignoring the doctor's advice, he continually complained of failing health. On the Sunday morning prior to his death, congregation members told of his rushing through the sermon and sweating profusely. While little was known of Rev. Mercer during his time in Alton, some facts showed up upon research. For one, he was found to be engaged to a woman named Dorothy Cole of Minneapolis, where he once ministered. Miss Cole mentioned to authorities that Rev. Mercer had seemed depressed for a while and she tried, through correspondence to cheer him up. This did not have much positive effect on him she said.THE HAUNTING OF FIRST UNITARIAN There is a cold feeling to the atmosphere inside the First Unitarian Church. Footsteps have been heard by many people when no one else could have made them. Strange odors are detected in various places throughout the building. Perhaps the main source of uneasy feelings is the basement area, the place on which the original Catholic church stood. People who walk through the entrance door describe what they feel as something or someone holding their shoulders or being on their backs. The pressure is similar as if one was wearing a back pack.Basement of the Unitarian Church Many people have experienced a strange phenomena involving the doors of the church. They are discovered to be unlocked at various times when they should not be with no one inside. Upon entering the church for a quick check or look-see and finding nothing out of sorts, they will leave the building and proceed to lock the doors which can only be done with a key. To their ultimate surprise, the doors seem to lock themselves when closed - without having to use the key. Two ministers who had never met have independently described the same experience they had in the church sanctuary - that of an unseen presence at the rear corner of the room. One minister said she actually caught a quick glimpse of a man wearing a white shirt and black trousers in that area. Both were quite unsettled by their experience, left the church and went home immediately after their encounters.Church sanctuary - including right rear foyer door where a presence is sometimes felt Tour groups have encountered many strange things on their visits to the church. Intense cold spots, silhouettes moving past the stained glass windows and being drawn to the exact location where Rev. Mercer took his own life without prior knowledge of its location are just some examples of what they have experienced. Be aware that these groups have also on occasion witnessed the same apparition as the aforementioned ministers did. Alton, IL is considered one of the most haunted towns in America. A tour we strongly recommend is the Alton Hauntings Tour created by renowned paranormal and historical author Troy Taylor.