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.
Quaint and unassuming Bethel Cemetery sits nestled among rolling hills, picturesque farms, and new housing developments at the junction of E County Road 1020E and E County Road 600N south of the Coles County Airport. Its legend is little known even to locals, and many merely pass by on their way home or on a Sunday drive through the wooded hills unaware of the strange tale.
Even if they were aware of the legend, they might not recognize this particular cemetery as being home to such a gruesome story. At first glance, much of the cemetery has the same carefully trimmed lawn and identical rows of granite headstones as hundreds of other modern rural cemeteries. But a careful examination of the grounds reveals some interesting features.
Off to the right of the main gate, just outside the tree line, lies the old section of the cemetery. Two large oak trees stand guard over the faded or fallen headstones. Many of the remaining markers, as well as an assortment of items left there over the years, lay inside the woods among overgrown weeds. A large collection of stones, having been previously knocked down, is propped up haphazardly against one of the large oaks.
The origin of Bethel Cemetery’s folk-name, “Ragdoll Cemetery,” varies from person to person. Depending on the storyteller, it will either be simply strange or downright macabre. There once was a little girl of about eight or nine years of age (the year in which the story takes place changes) who loved her rag doll, the typical version goes. The girl died, some say of an illness, others say murder. In the case of illness, she asked to be buried with her doll. In the case of murder, her dying wish went unknown or was ignored.
In all versions, the girl, who was never separated from her favorite toy in life, was eternally separated from it in death. In some adaptations, the doll forever searches for the girl’s grave. In others, the girl’s ghost forever searches for the doll, which was lost in the cemetery. In a third version, the doll appears every night to look for the girl’s killer. The doll is also said to hang from the oak tree near her grave, where it waits to drop down on unsuspecting trespassers.
Elements of the “Ragdoll Cemetery” story do reflect harsh realities. Many children died in the nineteenth century, and local cemeteries are scattered with the graves of those who passed on before their time.
The Coles County Leader once suggested Sallie T. Hill as a possible candidate for the girl in the story. She died in 1873, when she was only eight years and three months old. Prior to the 1950s, many children perished of diseases like Cholera and tuberculosis, an element in one version of the legend.
Several years ago, Michael Savisky and Joe Lucarelli, an independent filmmaker and former Mattoon resident, chose Bethel Cemetery as the setting for their thriller Rag Doll. The movie was filmed at various locations around Mattoon and incorporated elements of the “ragdoll” legend, but it was never released.
- “Mattoon, Ashmore cemeteries part of book of haunted places in Illinois.” Journal Gazette (Mattoon) 09 January 2008.
- “Mattoon-based thriller gets a name.” Journal Gazette (Mattoon) 14 May 2010.
- “Emergency crews to make some noise for film crew.” Journal Gazette (Mattoon) 3 September 2010.
- “Murder mystery filmed in Pemberton.” Daily Eastern News (Charleston) 7 September 2010.