In this Harvest edition of the Archives blog we will be taking a look a case of “Paranormal Activity”, a tale of Atomic Age Terror. Events that to this day remain enshrouded in a mystery so vexing that an urban legend about this story serving as the basis for a novel by famed horror novelist, Stephen King developed.
The Willey Farm, located 12 miles South of Macomb (Mysterious Fire and Lights by Vincent H. Gaddis), played host to a set of events that continue to defy explanation. The farm’s owner Charles and his wife decided to take in their recently divorced brother in law Arthur McNeil and his two children Arthur Jr. and Wonet (early reports called her Juanita) ages 8 and 13 respectively. August 7, 1948 heralded the end of their bucolic life. Small brown spots, 2-3 inches in diameter, began to appear on the walls. When the heat in these spots, reportedly, reached temperatures of 450 degrees they burst into pale blue flames. (“Some Person Set Fires, Says Chicago Expert” Macomb Daily Journal August 23, 1948 p.2,7) The spontaneous, phantom blazes soon escalated becoming a daily occurrence. This turn attracted the attention of the Willey’s neighbors who volunteered to assist with the vexing vigil.
Over the coming days, the rate of incidences increased. Macomb Fire Chief Fred Wilson and Deputy State Fire Marshal John Burgard, were called in and conceded that they could not identify the cause of the fires. In order to combat the fires the Willey Family stripped the wallpaper from their home. The family began to station water strategically throughout the house. Fires continued to develop.
Making the case more confounding is the fact the house featured little in the way of modern amenities.
“The house does not have electricity which eliminates defective wiring as a possible cause. Some of the fires have been in parts of the house so far away from stoves that they cannot be suspected.” (“’Mystery Fire’ Burns Willey Farm House Macomb Daily Journal p.2 August 13, 1948”)
During the two week period in the middle of August, more than 100 blazes of varying size appeared throughout the Willey Farm. Things quickly devolved from there,
“Repeated outbreaks of small blue flames in the walls of the Willey home caused the Willey’s to move out of the house a few days after the Aug 8th fire.
On the following Friday the house burned to the ground. On the following Monday the first barn burned, on Wednesday fires occurred in the milk house and chicken house and the next day, Thursday, the second barn burned down,” (“Suspect Arson in Farm Fires; Plan Hearing” Macomb Daily Journal August 23, 1948 p.2).
After the loss of their home, the Willeys moved into a tent on their property. Occurring at the start of the Cold War, it was floated that these fires could be caused by secret weapons tests. This theory was later refuted.
“‘Suppose you has some material that could be ignited by radio and you wanted to test it for possible sabotage value,’ said [Lewis C.]Gust [A technician from Wright Field] ‘Would you pick a city?’
‘No. You’d pick some out-of-the -way place, like the Willey farm.'”
(“Second Willey Barn Burns; Sabotage Test by Foreign Power Suspected by Expert” Macomb Daily Journal August 20, 1948 p.2)
As they continued to lose structures on their property a neighbor allowed them to rent their vacant farm house.
“Mr. and Mrs. Willey today rented the Jim Thompson farm house about a mile and one half north of the Willey farm and moved their household goods there.” (“Willeys Worried By Fires but ‘Not Afraid’” Macomb Daily Journal August 20, 1948).
By September the story finally reached its finale, Wonet “confessed” to the fires. The confession arrived not long after small fires began to occur in the rented Thompson house. The confession was printed in full in the Macomb Daily Journal (Available in the Western Illinois Archives for viewing “Wonet’s Confession” Macomb Daily Journal August 31, 1948).
It is not outside the realm of speculation that Wonet set the fires. She had the means and motive (matches and a desire to live with her mother). However, given the age of the subject and the increasingly hectic nature of the publicity the family was receiving, hundreds of visitors and reporters questioning the family and gawking attempting to get a glimpse of their bizarre tragedy, Wonet could also have been coached to confess. The push to confess either came from a family seeking to put a dark chapter in their history to rest, or from beleaguered authorities hoping to put to rest a particularly difficult case.
Wonet would be ordered to move in with her maternal grandparents, John and Daisy Johnson, whom she had lived with previously. The Willeys would eventually move into Macomb and sell off their stock. Thus came to a close the Willey Family Saga. No definitive conclusions were ever uncovered as to the source of the pale blue flames, raising this story from oddity to local lore.