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Mysterious America

Lakey’s Creek and the Headless Horseman of Illinois

“I almost wept as the spectra placed
The head back into the sack;
Clop, clop… the headless rider
moved on.” –Neil Tracy “The Legend of Lakey”

LaKey Creek drains the farmland northwest of McLeansboro, Illinois and heads south, eventually joining the north fork of the Saline River in rural Hamilton County. From there, the Saline River grows more robust, until it ultimately empties into the Ohio River on the eastern side of the Shawnee National Forest. The creek would have been a strategic place for any early setter of McLeansboro Township. Unfortunately for Mr. Lakey, who would lend his name to the creek, the picturesque tract of land he picked for a homestead was also his place of death. For it was with his life that he purchased the immortality of having both a creek and a local legend associated with his name.

Not long after the death of Lakey, two travelers reportedly were chased by a fearsome black steed, upon which sat a headless rider. The horseman menaced them until they crossed the creek, at which point the phantom turned downstream and disappeared. The headless horseman of Lakey’s Creek is quite possibly one of the oldest ghost stories in Illinois.

Passed down as an oral tradition until John W. Allen put the story on paper in 1963, the mysterious man named Lakey, as well as his untimely end, has been immortalized in the folklore of Southern Illinois. Like Jonesboro’s legend of Dug Hill and Provost Marshal Welch, this story may also be preserving the memory of an unsettling event in local history.

Long before a concrete bridge spanned the shallow creek 1.5 miles east of McLeansboro along Route 14, folklorists say, a frontiersman named Lakey attempted to erect his log cabin near a ford along the wagon trail to Mt. Vernon. His task was nearly completed when he felled an oak tree to make boards for his roof. The next morning, a lone traveler stumbled upon Lakey’s bloody body. Lakey’s head had been severed by his own ax, which was left embedded in the stump of the oak. According to legend, his murderer was never found.

But the story doesn’t end there.

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