First Unitarian Church of Alton

First Unitarian Church of Alton Church in Alton, Illinois, haunted by the APPARITION of a previous minister who committed SUICIDE.


The First Unitarian Church, located at 110 East Third Street, was built in the 1850s on land once occupied by a Catholic church that had been destroyed by fire. The Unitarian Society formed in Alton in 1836 and met in private homes and various buildings. When St. Matthews Church was gutted by fire, the Catholics decided to build on a new site rather than rebuild on the site of the ruins. The land was sold to the Unitarians in 1854. The Unitarians kept the foundations and remaining stones and built their own church.

The new Catholic church, Sts. Peter and Paul, was located on a hill that the locals dubbed “Christian Hill.” The church of the Unitarians, who were frowned upon by many locals, was called “Heathen Hill.” Despite local attitudes, the Unitarian church grew and prospered.

In 1928, Philip Mercer became pastor of the church. Mercer was an Englishman who came to America at age 18 in 1886. He lived in St. Louis for a time and worked for the railroad. Then he decided to become a minister and took posts in Minnesota and North and South Dakota before arriving in Alton.

Church members and others in Alton knew little about Mercer’s personal life. He never spoke of family. He spent long hours at the church in study. But he was friendly and outgoing and well liked. He enjoyed social events, concerts, and conversation and often told others that coming to Alton marked the happiest days of his life.

In 1934, Mercer went on vacation and came back a strangely changed man, who went into a sudden health decline. First he complained about his weight, and he lost pounds rapidly. Then he complained about feeling weak. He consulted a doctor, who told him nothing was wrong but advised him to get some rest. He became moody.

One Sunday in November of 1934, Mercer exhibited odd behavior as he delivered his sermon. He seemed agitated and in a hurry to get the service finished. He was sweating profusely.

The next day he was seen around 1 P.M. leaving the church by a woman who lived next door. He did not return home by evening, which worried his friend James MacKinney. Mercer was known to spend the night in St. Louis occasionally when he took in a play or concert, but he had mentioned no such plans to anyone.

On Tuesday morning, MacKinney telephoned the church repeatedly but no one answered. He went to the church and saw lights on inside. MacKinney entered, and to his horror, he saw Mercer’s body hanged by a cord in a doorway of the church. A kicked over chair was beneath him.

Mercer’s death was ruled a suicide, committed on Monday, November 20. He left behind no note or clues as to why he was driven to take his own life, and his death remains unsolved to the present day. His body was taken to the Klunk Funeral Home where funeral services were held. No one knew where to bury the minister, and so the body was removed to the local mausoleum pending instructions from England. But no instructions or acknowledgment ever arrived. Mercer’s body remains at the mausoleum.

Was he really murdered? There is no evidence to support that rumor. Papers in Mercer’s church study appeared to have been rifled through, as though someone were looking for something, but he could have done that himself.

Though Mercer had never mentioned family to anyone in Alton, his personal papers showed that he was in fact engaged to be married to a woman named Dorothy Cole, who lived in Minneapolis. At the time of his death, they had been engaged for six months. According to Cole, Mercer had slipped into depression, and she had been unable to help him.

The First Unitarian Church remains a place of worship today and is a featured stop on local ghost tours. Investigations of its interior have been conducted by paranormal researchers.

Haunting Activity

Mercer’s ghost is said to haunt the upstairs premises of the church, which have undergone extensive renovations over the years. The doorway where his body was hanged led from the Sunday school room at the rear of the church into a hallway that had a door leading to the backyard. The Sunday school room is now part of a larger room, the Wuerker Room. The original transom from which Mercer’s body was hanged is gone, but many visitors can pinpoint the exact spot.

Various phenomena have been experienced in and near the Wuerker Room: odd smells and sounds, footsteps, cold spots, and a male presence who conveys the feeling that he wishes visitors to leave. A shadowy silhouette of a man has been seen through the stained glass door that separates the room from the sanctuary (see Shadow People). An APPARITION of a man dressed in a white shirt and black pants has been sensed. The exterior doors of the church mysteriously lock and unlock on their own. Interior doors that are shut have blown open by themselves, as though pushed by a violent wind.

Phenomena also have been experienced in the basement: ghostly voices, footsteps, and odd sensations. Paranormal investigator Troy Taylor believes the phenomena in the basement belong to another, or other, ghosts and not to Mercer. It is possible that the original basement of the church once served as an Underground Railroad haven for runaway slaves. In 2003, Taylor discovered a small room that might have been used as a hiding place.


  • Taylor, Troy. Haunted Alton. Alton, Ill.: Whitechapel Press, 2003.

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007