Scary Story Week #3: The Mice of Andersonville
One of the comforts of scary stories is that they’re not true. Or at least, as the saying has it, “every story is true — and then every teller makes it a little truer along the way.”
This is a story that is true. You can go to the place it happened and see the evidence for yourself. We’ve even got pictures for you.
The Mice of Andersonville
There are a lot of cemeteries in Chicago, and for every one of them there’s some old local who will cheerfully tell you that it’s haunted.
But on the near northeast side, just off of Clark St. at Lawrence, the local cemetery is among the sleepiest and plainest of the lot. There are no particularly famous tombs, nor any grand monuments, apart from a rather tasteful obelisk dedicated originally to Civil War veterans, and now to Chicago veterans of all wars.
It is hard to imagine a haunting among the simple rows of tombstones, many of them carved with faded Swedish, Polish, and Armenian names, however misty and dim the grounds can sometimes be when the fog rolls off the lake.
But the cemetery lies on the south end of Andersonville, a neighborhood that has seen quite a revival in the last few decades. Housing prices have gone up (and, not coincidentally, the cemetery has fallen into private ownership, with quite a few more frills available for your burial than those Swedes and Armenians ever had).
Among the houses to enter the upswinging market was the old caretaker’s house, made obsolete by a trim new office building on Clark St. put in by the cemetery’s owners.
And with that house comes an odd pair of statues, and an odd story.
It was first sold in the spring of 1987, to a middle-class family with three children. The house itself is a pleasant two-story with big windows and aluminum siding — comfortable, suburban; forgettable. In front is a wrought-iron fence made, presumably by the old groundskeeper, with sawed-down leftovers from the iron spikes that line the top of the cemetery walls.
At the time of the house’s sale, there was no gate to the fence. One had been made, but it still leaned against a side wall of the house, never used. Instead, a pair of Mickey and Minnie Mouse statues stood on either side of the walkway to greet guests.
The new owners left the mice in place. They had belonged to the caretaker’s wife, according to the real estate agent, and were something in the way of collectibles — a rarely-seen style from the mid-1950s or early 1960s; not valuable, but unique.
On Halloween 1987, they went missing.
The owner of the house filed a vandalism report, which promptly vanished into the bowels of the Chicago Police Department, never to be seen again. The mice stayed missing for a day, and then on Monday (Halloween had been a Saturday that year, so no one had come in to clean the cemetery the day after) one of the grounds workers from the cemetery knocked on the door to say they’d found the mouse statues in the graveyard.
Chalking it up as a prank by kids breaking into the graveyard, the owners put the statues back where they were and forgot all about it. But the next year, the mice went missing on Halloween again, and the next year they were found by the cleaning staff in the cemetery just like before.
Had the family stayed another year they might have taken precautions to prevent a third pranking — we’ll never know. They moved out in the winter of 1988, and the house was sold to a single elderly gentleman who did not trouble himself to keep the yard in much shape. For five years, the mouse statues turned more and more ragged around the edges, and every Halloween the maintenance staff at the cemetery would find them stuck in the grass by one of the old graves when they came in the next morning.
Finally, in 1994, a new couple moved into the house, and someone at the cemetery had the forethought to warn them about a week before Halloween that the mouse statues were a practical joke target. They did the sensible thing and threw a bike chain around the statues, locking them loosely to the wrought-iron fence.
Imagine, then, the irritation when the statues were gone in the morning! The chain was where it has been put, still looped in careless knots, but someone had troubled themselves to painstakingly wriggle the statues free. It was doable, of course — there were no actual rings or bolts on the statues to thread the chain through, so they had only been bound down, and not very tightly at that — but someone had still taken real time and effort for what seemed like a very silly prank.
That year the new owners put the fence gate up for the first time. They used the old one that had always leaned against the house (there is still a rust stain on the siding to this day from where it sat so long), and on Halloween of 1995 they locked the gate, chained the mice to the fence, and left the porch light on to scare away any would-be vandals.
The next morning, the mice were gone.
This was probably when people started to pay real attention. Oh, the cemetery staff had known about the prank for years, but cleaning cemeteries is a short-term employment for most people. There was no fixed institutional memory to say that this problem was constant, old, and just a little bit eerie.
But young suburban couples get competitive about strange things, and this particular couple was determined to thwart the pranksters on their own terms. They sank rebar through the statues that year, and anchored them beneath the sod with concrete blocks, so that the mice looked free-standing, but were in fact pinned where they stood. Then, for show, they draped them with loose, ineffective chains the day before Halloween, and turned the porch light off to let the vandals try their best.
The next day, the mice were gone. The rebar was still there, sticking up from the bare grass, but the statues had been painstakingly pried off it and moved to the cemetery. The owners went and retrieved them themselves, and found them standing on the grass facing one of the old, flat tombstones that lay face-up in the grass.
Exasperated, the owners simply moved the mice inside the next year. The game was over. And, as is the way of these things, both of them forgot to put the mice back out the next day, leaving them in the closet where we can safely assume they would have gathered dust for a good long while before returning to their proper place.
But Halloween of 1997 fell on a Friday night. It would be two full days before any caretaker staff looked at the cemetery. And on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 2, the young couple left their house in the morning to find the two mice standing on their rebar posts, as if someone had carefully replaced them.
Now, it’s hard to guess what perverse instinct made the husband of this young couple think, at once, of the gravestone where they had found the mice the year before. But he went then and there to look, before he left for work, and sure enough there were two sets of rounded, clean-edged footprints in the dirt at the gravestone, as if a pair of hefty statues had stood there all night long.
These are the kinds of story that it’s fun to tell about your house, right up until it stops being fun. They had reached that point. The house was sold, the mice put away in the basement, and the story, by some unspoken agreement between the husband and wife, never mentioned to the new owner.
But here is the strange thing. The new owner — who has not been seen much in the nearly twenty years he’s lived there — put the mice back out on the lawn. And a few years later they moved to concrete pillars, neatly installed framing the old wrought-iron gate. You can still see the mice there today, with their feet sunk deeply in the poured concrete.
No one knows if they still wander the cemetery on Halloween night. If they do, no one is telling — not the owner of the house, nor the groundskeepers that work for the cemetery’s private owners.
But the eerie story of the mice that moved lives on in Andersonville, and there are a few points of provable historical record that bear it out:
- First, of course, that the mice and the house and the graveyard are all still there, along with the pleasant one-story office suite that replaced the need for a caretaker’s house. You can see them all just off Clark St. at the southern end of Andersonville.
- Second, the fence gate itself is still original. Its material matches that used in places on the cemetery walls, though the metal frame around it and the concrete pillars are both obviously newer. And the side of the house still has a stain from the top of the iron gate where it leaned for years, unused as the mouse statues greeted visitors and passers-by.
- Third, the old vandalism report from 1987 is still on file with the Chicago Police Department — never investigated, never acted upon. No one even bothered to follow up with a note that the statues had been found. And the calenders all match up with the dates in the story — Halloween did in fact fall on a Saturday in 1987, and a Friday in 1997, the year they seemed to return themselves.
And lastly, and perhaps most oddly of all, the grave where the statues were always found is said to have read “Sorrell.” Some people hold that this must be an ancestor of the animator Herbert Sorrell, who quarreled fiercely during his life with Walt Disney and was branded a Communist during the Red Scare. Others say there was an “Old Man Sorrell” of the neighborhood whose relationship with young girls was not entirely wholesome, and who lived nearby when the caretaker’s wife was still young and unmarried. Still others maintain that the gravestone itself is a fake, and that the statues were only ever found standing about random patches of grass.
Are the mice a relic of some Disney storeroom, haunting the blood family of one of Walt Disney’s enemies? Are they a punishment wrought on some forgotten old man for his sins with an innocent girl? Or are they nothing more than an elaborate prank, two parts urban legend to one part youthful shenanigans?
Tonight is Halloween. The statues still stand there, stuck in concrete at the border of the cemetery in Andersonville. Go see them and decide for yourself — if you dare.