The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. In this chapter, I discuss popular legends involving witches and “witch graves” that sprang up in the later half of the nineteenth century. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com
No exploration of witchcraft in Illinois would be complete without discussing various witch legends in local folklore. A legend is a nonhistorical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition and popularly accepted as historical. This can include popular stories about certain individuals with purported magical powers. Many witch legends are centered on “witch graves,” which have became objects of legend tripping.
Legend tripping is the act of traveling to a site that is alleged to have been the scene of some tragic, horrific, and possibly supernatural event or haunting. Often performed at night, visitors go to test the validity of the legend—as well as their courage. Witch graves can also be places of veneration. Visitors take pictures and leave coins and other tokens of their sympathy.
According to local legend, witches are buried in at least four Illinois cemeteries, including Baker Cemetery in Crawford County, St. Omer Cemetery in Coles County, Chesterville Cemetery in Douglas County, and Whitaker/Methodist Church Cemetery in St. Clair County.
As legends, the backstories behind these burials are pseudohistorical, meaning it is likely the subjects were never suspected of being witches or may never have existed. In some cases, legends may have developed around certain graves simply because they were unusual or appeared “strange” or “creepy.”
An unusual family monument in St. Omer Cemetery, outside the small town of Ashmore in Coles County, for example, has spawned a legend that Caroline Barnes, one of four people buried under the large stone, was put to death in the 1800s for practicing witchcraft. It is said that no pictures can be taken of her monument, and that it glows on moonless nights. Made of granite, the Barnes family monument is shaped like a large orb resting atop a base of crisscrossed logs. Some visitors describe it as a crystal ball atop a pyre.
Though unique, similar monuments can be found in several central Illinois cemeteries, including Union Cemetery in northeastern Coles County. Orbs in cemetery art represent faith, and logs, or tree trunks, are common imagery representing growth and enduring life. As if to ward off any similar misconceptions, the nearly identical monument in Union Cemetery features the inscription, “He lived as he died: A Christian.”
Most explanations for the witch legend revolve around Caroline Barnes’ impossible date of death etched into the stone: February 31, 1882. The monument is also oriented north-south, while most headstones face east. Of course, these two things can be explained without appealing to the supernatural. Being such a large monument, it is likely that if a mistake had been made in the date it would be difficult and expensive to correct.
As for the unconventional orientation of the stone, cemetery trustees have had to hoist it upright several times after vandals knocked it down, and it was reoriented in the process. Still, the witch story is popular among young people in the community.
In 2003, Maria Kelley, then a Lake Land College student, told the Coles County Leader, “They tried to kill [Caroline] by hanging her but that didn’t kill her so they buried her alive… When they went back to see if she was dead, they said she was gone. That’s why people say she was a witch.”
They changed the date on her tombstone to prevent her from rising from the grave and taking revenge on the anniversary of her death. Despite the rumors, there is no historical or documentary evidence supporting the notion that Caroline Barnes was accused of witchcraft, let alone put to death for it.
Historically, the fate of the Barnes family was less dramatic. According to local historian Carolyn Stephens, Marcus Barnes (Caroline’s husband) died in a sawmill accident in December 1881. Caroline, only twenty-four years old, died two months later of “double pneumonia” on either February 26 or 28 (the Coles County death record reads February 28).
The cemetery in which they are buried is all that remains of the once thriving community of St. Omer. St. Omer was officially founded in 1852, although it was previously called Cutler’s Settlement. According to The History of Coles County, the village was a collection of around six houses, a store, post office, and a blacksmith’s shop, but the Coles County Map & Tour Guide says that forty to fifty families once lived there. St. Omer disappeared in the 1880s, around the same time both Caroline and Marcus Barnes died.
Families living in the village packed up and moved to nearby Ashmore when the railroad was built. In 1893, a schoolhouse and Presbyterian church still stood on the Barnes family land, but nothing remains of either of the buildings. The church burned down in the 1950s.
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