On August 27, 1922 the legend of Peabody’s Tomb began. Many people may not know the legend by name but if you grew up on the west side of Chicago or in the near west suburbs you might have heard about the old mansion and estate that high school kids would sneak into late at night. The story was always the same. A group of adventurous kids would sneak onto the property in an effort to locate the final resting place of a rich old guy who was buried on the property. Some say that the old guy was buried with his gold. Others say that if you find the chapel that housed his body you would see the guy in a see-through casket floating in oil. The trick was you had to avoid the “monks” who were patrolling the estate looking for trespassers. If the monks caught you, you would be given the choice of having the police called and being arrested for trespassing or you could kneel on rice or broomsticks while saying prayers for forgiveness until the monks released you.
The legendary estate did and still does exist as the Mayslake Peabody Estate and the “old rich guy” refers to Chicago coal baron, Francis Stuyvesant Peabody.
Francis Stuyvesant Peabody was born in Chicago to Francis B. Peabody and his wife Harriet in July of 1859 in the family home at Rush and Erie Streets. His father Francis B., an attorney, had just settled in Chicago from Maine two years earlier.
Francis S. eventually graduated from Yale in the class of 1881 and made his way back to Chicago where he worked as a messenger boy in the Merchants’ Loan and Trust Company. He became interested in the coal business and 2 years later he formed Peabody, Daniels & Co. Daniels later disposed of his interest in the company and it became Peabody & Co. and was later incorporated.
By 1894, Francis S. had grown his business to gross sales of $10,000,000 annually. Francis S. married May Henderson on November 23, 1887. May was the step daughter of John H. McAvoy, Board of Trade operator and founder and president of the McAvoy Brewing Company.
Francis and May had two children; Stuyvesant “Jack” Peabody born on August 7, 1888 and May, born April 28, 1891.
Mrs. Peabody died of Typhoid fever while travelling in the company of one of her best friends, Mrs. Florence Clark. She died on November 27, 1906 in Nice, France approximately one week after contracting the disease. Her daughter May was 15 ½ and her son Jack was 18. Both of the children were away at school at the time.
In 1908, Francis met Ms. Marian Bryant while on a trip in Europe and married her in 1909.
F.S. Peabody was a great businessman, an avid sportsman, and active in politics and humanitarian causes. He lost a campaign for Cook County Sheriff in 1894 and had to remove himself from consideration as the democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate because of business concerns. He was a strong supporter of the Salvation Army during World War I and was awarded the degree of L.H.D. doctor of humane letters by the Temple University of Philadelphia as well as being decorated by the King of Italy.
From 1919 on, he concentrated on what was to be his retirement estate in Hinsdale (now Oak Brook) IL. He acquired 848 acres of land from various land owners in the area and hired the architect, Benjamin Marshall to design what would eventually become a 39 room Tudor-Style Mansion at a cost of about $750,000. This country estate, which he named “Mayslake Farm”, became the premier show farm in the nation. It included two lakes, one of which he named Mayslake after his first wife and daughter, 60 buildings, elaborate stables and an outdoor arena.
He would invite many socialites to join him on drag hunts on the property. A drag hunt was a more humane way of fox hunting whereby a carcass or pelt of an animal was drug behind a horse and the dogs set loose to catch the scent of the drag rather than a live animal.
After one particular hunt on August 27, 1922, Mr. Peabody was missing. A search started immediately and the body of Mr. Peabody was found by the superintendent of the estate, Albert E. Cox. Mr. Peabody was lying beside his favorite horse, Dunbar, about 200 yards from the residence. Mr. Peabody was taken to the residence and physicians were summoned. Later it was determined that Mr. Peabody did not fall from the horse but dismounted and collapsed of an apparent heart attack. He had no history of heart disease and was in very good health.
The family did not wish to reside there any longer and the property was sold to the Franciscan Province of the Sacred Heart, Order of Friars Minor in 1924 at a highly discounted price of $450,000. The family commissioned the Friars to build a monument to Francis Peabody. It would be a replica of the Portiuncula Chapel in Assisi, Italy, which takes its name from the “little portion” of land where St. Francis of Assisi received his call to serve the poor. The monument was originally located on the south side of May’s lake near the spot where Francis Peabody had died. The Franciscans converted to mansion to a retreat home and it became a popular spiritual respite from 1925 to 1991 with over 250,000 people spending weekends reflecting on biblical applications to life’s difficulties.
Eventually the friars sold off portions of the land to local real estate developers and the chapel, along with Mr. Peabody’s remains, had to be relocated to the northeast side of the estate.
In 1990, the Franciscans announced that they were going to sell their remaining acreage, which included Mayslake Hall, to a real estate developer who planned to raze the buildings and replace them with luxury homes. A massive campaign was undertaken which resulted in a referendum that enabled the Du Page County Forest Preserve District to purchase the property in 1992.
I had the opportunity to speak to both people who swear they have been chased by the monks and a monk (more correctly Franciscan Brother of the Order of Friars Minor) who used to reside on the grounds in the early 1970s. The brother told me that they were not usually allowed on the grounds at night because they didn’t want to be responsible for the legend’s longevity. There was one incident, however, that still brings a smile to his face.
On October 4, 1971, the Feast of St. Francis, they were preparing the chapel for a midnight mass by lighting candles because there was no electricity in the chapel. It was about 11:00pm and they turned to leave. Just then they were confronted by a group of teenagers who immediately turned and ran screaming, “We’re sorry! We just wanted to see it! Please don’t hurt us!” He said they laugh about it to this day.
The grave of Mr. Peabody no longer exists on the property and was transferred to Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside but his estate house is alive and well. In fact the house is going through a great restoration and the Forest Preserve District is always looking for donors. There are tours at the house every Wednesday and Saturday. There is also an exhibit called “Unrest and Relaxation: A Look into 1915” in honor of it being the 100th Anniversary of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.
You can find more history of Mayslake as well as a detailed list of events and tours on their website.
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