The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.
St. Omer Cemetery and the defunct village of the same name probably would have been forgotten a century ago had it not been for one unusual family monument and a misprinted date. As is often the case in Coles County, these peculiar circumstances gave birth to an obscure but enduring legend. According to local lore, Caroline Barnes, one of four people buried under the massive stone, was put to death for practicing witchcraft. It is said no pictures can be taken of her monument, and that it glows on moonless nights.
The Barnes family monument is difficult to describe. Some say it looks like a crystal ball mounted on a pyre. Conventionally, orbs in cemetery art represent faith, and logs, or tree trunks, are fairly common imagery representing growth and enduring life. This particular gravestone is rare, but similar monuments can be found in several central Illinois cemeteries, including Union Cemetery in northeastern Coles County.
Why do some people believe a witch is buried here? The only evidence for the legend seems to be the gravestone’s dramatic design, the way local citizens grow nervous whenever the story is mentioned, and most strikingly, Caroline’s impossible date of death chiseled in the granite: February 31. The monument also faces north-south, while most headstones are oriented east-west.
Of course, these things can be explained without appealing to the supernatural. A mistaken date would have been difficult and expensive to correct on such a large monument. As for the reaction of locals: vandalism as a result of the legend has been a very real and present danger. The cemetery trustees have had to hoist the stone upright several times after vandals knocked it down. Perhaps the last time it was righted, no one checked which direction it faced.
Still, theories abound. 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.”
Historically, the Barnes family suffered a tragic fate. According to local historian Carolyn Stephens, Marcus Barnes (Caroline’s husband) died in a sawmill accident in December 1881. Caroline Prather Barnes, only twenty-four years old, died two months later of pneumonia on either February 26or 28, depending on which document is consulted.
The couple had two children: one was a girl named Minnie Olive, who married Charles William Kearns and died in 1971 at the age of 89. She was born on August 9, 1881, just a few months before her mother and father died.
There is no documentary evidence supporting the notion that Caroline Barnes was accused of witchcraft, let alone put to death for it. In the harsh world of rural life in the nineteenth century, many people died at an early age of a wide variety of what are now easily treatable illnesses. Such a death might be less fantastic, but it is more likely what actually happened.
Whatever you believe, few can deny that the fascinating story of St. Omer Cemetery has captured the imaginations of generations of Coles County residents. Offerings in the form of flowers or coins make regular appearances at the grave, and the tiny cemetery has found its way into nationally-published books and local newspapers.
If nothing else, Caroline Barnes and her family’s unique monument has kept their memory alive for future generations.
- Lewis, Chad and Terry Fisk. The Illinois Road Guide to Haunted Locations. Eau Claire: Unexplained Research Publishing, 2007.
- “Cemetery in Ashmore desecrated by vandals.” Herald and Review (Decatur) 07 August 1990.
- “Witch’s Grave in Coles County?” Coles County Leader (Tuscola) 31 October 2003.
- “Mattoon, Ashmore cemeteries part of book of haunted places in Illinois.” Journal Gazette (Mattoon) 09 January 2008.