“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.
For decades after the murder, travelers reported being chased by a headless horseman that rode out of the woods along Lakey’s Creek. “Always the rider, on a large black horse, joined travelers approaching the stream from the east, and always on the downstream side,” John Allen wrote. “Each time and just before reaching the center of the creek, the mistlike figure would turn downstream and disappear.” The headless rider descended upon travelers heading west toward McLeansboro and silently escorted them until they reached the creek. The phantom never gave any indication of a motivation for the pursuit, nor displayed any aggressiveness towards those who encountered him.
For many years, folklorists, genealogists, and local historians alike have tried to determine who gave his name to LaKey Creek, and whether this person might have also inspired the headless horseman legend. As it turns out, there is good evidence to suggest the story of the murder is true, and that the legend might be older than the town of McLeansboro or Hamilton County itself.
In 1973, Ralph S. Harrelson published research in which he claimed to have learned the historical personage behind the Lakey legend. In a history of Hamilton County, he discovered a single sentence revealing that a man named Lakey―the same man who gave his name to the creek―had indeed lived near the ford, but more tellingly, that he had been murdered by his son-in-law. The entry read, “Mr. Lakey, who lived on the Jones Tract, after whom Lakey’s Creek was named, and who was killed by his son-in-law.” After further research, Harrelson discovered that a man named Joel Leaky had owned a tract of land in that vicinity prior to 1824. “Leaky,” apparently, was a variation in the spelling of “Lakey.” “Joel could be, and probably is, the person for whom the creek is named,” he concluded.
The descendants of Leaky or Leakey (their surname is now spelled Lakey) have also poured through papers and documents, trying to get to the bottom of the grisly affair. They discovered that a Simon Leakey, born June 8, 1778 in Surry County, North Carolina, joined many of his Southern brethren in leaving his home and traveling north in search of cheap and profitable land. He wound up in Ohio in 1807 and then moved to Illinois in 1816. He took with him his wife Ruth and three children; Anna, Jacob, and Elizabeth. Two other daughters, Mary and Sarah, both died before the family reached Illinois.
Simon also had a brother named Joel, who was married to a woman named Nancy Calloway. On February 7, 1817, when Illinois was still a territory and Hamilton County had not yet been created out of White County, Joel purchased a plot of land along a creek in Township 5 Range 6 NE quarter of Section 23 (Range 5 according to Ralph Harrelson). On February 18, 1817, Michael Jones, the land agent for White County, bought that same property. What happened in the twelve days between the two purchases? Was that, perhaps, just enough time for Joel to erect a cabin before being brutally murdered? History tells a different story.
We know from probate records that Michael Jones took Simon Leakey to court in 1819 for trespassing on his land. The case never went to trial because, according to a Bible record (births and deaths at that time were often recorded in the family Bible), Simon died in 1819 and was buried near LaKey Creek. According to the RootsWeb entry for Joel Leakey, Simon was murdered. If the Hamilton County history book is correct, and Simon was murdered by his son-in-law, it had to have been at the hands of the husband of one of his two surviving daughters, Ann or Elizabeth.
Records show that Elizabeth married in 1826, so her husband could not have done the terrible deed. Ann, however, married a man named Hiram Long in White County in either 1818 or 1819. They moved to St. Clair County, on the opposite site of the state, soon after. But if Hiram Long murdered Simon Leakey, there are no official records to prove it. Simon’s wife Ruth moved to Lawrence County, Indiana in 1820. It was for those reasons that Gilbert M. Lakey, a descendant of the Leakeys, believed that Simon, and not Joel, was the one for whom the creek was named. Joel moved to Texas, where he died on February 25, 1837. By 1820 there was no one living in White County named Leaky or Lakey.
Hamilton County split from White in 1821, and McLeansboro was platted in that same year.
The tale of the headless horseman of southern Illinois has graced the pages of many monographs on Illinois ghostlore since its first printing in 1963. Among others, Lakey’s ghost has appeared in Beth Scott and Michael Norman’s Haunted Heartland (1985), Jo-Anne Christensen’s Ghost Stories of Illinois (2000), Troy Taylor’s Haunted Illinois (1999, 2004), and Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk’s Illinois Road Guide to Haunted Locations (2007).
Since it is an old ghost story without many repeat sightings, the accounts given in the aforementioned books do not show much variation. However, a few of the authors have added some of their own details to John Allen’s original telling. In Troy Taylor’s account, the man who discovered Lakey’s body was a neighbor who stopped by to drop off a batch of eggs. “He knew that his friend planned to purchase some laying hens soon, but with the cabin nearly completed, there had simply not been time,” he wrote. “Rounding the back of the house, he discovered Lakey’s bloody and headless body beside a tree stump.” Jo-Anne Christensen added that Lakey, at least in legend, “had no family that anyone knew of.” A little creative license is rarely uncalled for in the business of ghostlore.
Although both Taylor and Christensen implied that the headless horseman has been seen in modern times, even after the concrete bridge was constructed over the creek in 1952, only Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk’s work contained a contemporary encounter with the phantom. A local woman, who was familiar with the Lakey legend and who the authors kept anonymous, told them about the incident. The woman passed over the bridge every day on her way to and from work. One evening, she saw something strange in the woods. “As the woman slowed down to get a better look at what she had seen, she almost crashed her car because of what was staring back at her,” Lewis and Fisk related. “Perched on top of a large horse was a man with no head.”
Today, a grassy field and a small wooded area cover the land where Lakey’s cabin once stood. LaKey Creek still trickles and winds its way on an inexorable course south through Hamilton County. Only it and its mysterious headless rider will ever know what really happened along its muddy banks over 190 years ago.
John W. Allen, Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1963, 1973).
Ralph S. Harrelson, “History and Legend of Lakey,” Goshen Trails (October 1973): 13.
Troy Taylor, Haunted Illinois: The Travel Guide to the History & Hauntings of the Prairie State (Alton: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2004).
Jo-Anne Christensen, Ghost Stories of Illinois (Edmonton: Lone Pine, 2000).
Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk, The Illinois Road Guide to Haunted Locations (Eau Claire: Unexplained Research Publishing Company, 2007).