Categories
Mysterious America

The St. Omer “Witch’s Grave”

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.

Categories
Mysterious America

Who Murdered John Mason?

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.

In 1880, the cold-blooded murder of an elderly German-American farmer and shopkeeper named John Mason shocked Coles County residents. Though two suspects were arrested, they were acquitted at trial. To this day, the person or persons responsible for Mason’s death remain a mystery. 

John Mason was born in 1807 in Württemberg, Germany and came to the United States sometime prior to 1840. He married Christena Fogle (1815–1870) and the couple had four children. They lived in Ohio before coming to Coles County sometime in the late 1850s. There his son Henry married Theressa Louisa Raser (spelled Theresa Reasser in the marriage record), daughter of Frederick and Johanna Henryette C. (Henrietta) Raser, recent immigrants from Saxony, Germany, on January 18, 1870.

John’s wife, Christena, died at the age of 54 on February 26, 1870. Three months later, John and 45-year-old Henrietta were wed.

For the next ten years, the couple were prosperous farmers in Seven Hickory Township and owned a grocery store eight miles north of Charleston along the plank road. His property stretched outward from the northwest corner of the intersection of what is today State Highway 130 and County Road 1600N to County Road 1700N.

Categories
Historic America

The Great Tornado of 1917

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.

In late spring 1917, more than a month after the United States formally entered the First World War, the Midwestern United States was hit by the largest and longest sequence of tornadoes on record. The storms appeared for seven consecutive days and ranged over eleven states. For seven hours on May 26, a series of tornadoes tore a path through central Illinois, from the Mississippi River to the Embarras River. Coles County was hardest hit, suffering close to 100 deaths, hundreds injured, 800 families homeless, and over $2 million in damages.

On the afternoon of Saturday, May 26 around 3:15 p.m., the sky grew dark, the wind howled, and the air filled with a greenish hue. “I thought the end of the world had come,” said D.S. May of 701 DeWitt Avenue in Mattoon. The storms moved west to east, so Mattoon was hit first. A funnel cloud appeared suddenly, hardly giving those in its path time to flee. It struck a lumber yard, hurling wooden boards and planks through the air like missiles.

Reporters compared the limbless trees and flattened buildings to a scene in war-torn Europe. Invoking images of the desolate, cratered Argonne Forest in France, S.A. Tucker of the Decatur Herald said Mattoon’s swath of destruction looked like a “shell-swept plain.”

Categories
Historic America

A Dog Named Napoleon

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.

Officially, Eastern Illinois University’s mascot is a black panther nicknamed Billy, but in the 1950s, a golden retriever named Napoleon came close to claiming the title. An etching of the nappy brown and tan dog even graced the cover of the 1959 yearbook. Though thousands of students stroll past his grave marker in the north quad behind Old Main each semester, few know his story.

In 1946, a large golden retriever wandered onto campus. He was a young male, approximately two-to-three years of age, and quickly captured the attention of students at what was then Eastern Illinois State College. They called him Napoleon, or “Nap” for short.

As campus evolved with growing enrollment and a new library and dorms, this wandering dog was a reassuring and constant companion for Post-War students, many of whom were veterans attending college thanks to the GI Bill.

For fourteen years, Napoleon reigned over campus and was given free range by students and faculty. He strolled into classrooms, on stage at plays, and was said to attend football games. Napoleon even ran on and off the field with every substitution.

Categories
Mysterious America

The Strange Death of Cora Stallman

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.

Cora Stallman stood out. She was approximately six feet tall and 175 pounds, physically larger than average. She was a 45-year-old unmarried former schoolteacher, a college-educated woman from Cincinnati, Ohio who routinely rode a horse into town. Some neighbors described her as eccentric, odd, and even “stuck up” or “demented.”

Others that she was kind and benevolent, especially toward children. When Cora’s brother-in-law discovered her body mostly submerged in a cistern on his wife’s farm in Humboldt Township, it ignited a mystery that remains unsolved.

It was 1925, the year F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby and the battle between evolution and creationism was waged in the “Scopes Monkey Trial”. On a 600-acre farm two miles southeast of Humboldt, Illinois, a village of approximately 330, in the early morning hours of Saturday, August 1, 49-year-old Tom Seaman went to check on his sister-in-law, Cora, but she was not at home.

He sought out Boston Martin “Bos” Lilley (1886-1972), a tenant farmer on his wife’s land, and together they searched the property, including a small cottage where Cora kept her belongings. Tom’s wife, Anna, was away on a Mississippi River cruise.

Categories
Mysterious America

Who Killed Shirley Ann Rardin?

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.

At around 12:30 a.m. Monday morning, July 3, 1973, Shirley Ann Rardin, a 20-year-old sophomore art major at Eastern Illinois University, finished her shift at Hardee’s at the corner of 4th Street and Lincoln Avenue in Charleston, changed clothes, and said goodbye to her coworkers. She was 5 feet 7 inches tall, 125 pounds, with shoulder-length blonde hair and blue-green eyes. She was wearing wide flare jeans, a black halter top, and blue tennis shoes, with $5 in her pocket.

Shirley was a local girl, having graduated from Charleston High School in 1971, and a young divorcee. She had been previously married to a former manager at Hardee’s named Rich DeWitt.

Shirley was renting Apt. 203 in the Lincolnwood building at 2210 9th Street, exactly one mile from the Hardee’s, and was believed to be heading there after work. She usually rode her bike to and from work, but that night she walked. If she ever arrived, no one knew. Medication she needed to take four times daily for a serious medical condition was later found in her apartment.

Her boyfriend, David Thomas, a fellow EIU student, reported her missing to Charleston police at 1:14 a.m Tuesday. The search dragged on for almost a week, but police were hampered by the fact that Shirley was a legal adult and could do as she pleased. As the days passed without any leads, however, they began to assume the worst.

Categories
Mysterious America

Does ‘Will’ Put the ‘Woooo’ in Will Rogers Theatre?

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.

Built in 1938 at a cost of $90,000 in Art Deco style, the Will Rogers Theatre has been a fixture of downtown Charleston for generations. It was named after William ‘Will’ Rogers, a world-famous actor, humorist, and columnist of the Progressive Era who died in a plane crash in 1935. During the 1980s, Kerasotes Theaters divided the 1,100-seat auditorium and began showing movies on two separate screens. The Will Rogers was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, and designated a Landmark Property by the City of Charleston in 2011.

Like many theaters, there are rumors it is haunted. Since at least the 1990s, employees have encountered strange sounds and surreal events they attributed to a ghost aptly named “Will.” Will, however, is just a convenient moniker.

There are several stories behind the identity of this ghost, but no one knows for certain. According to Will Sailor, a former theater employee, the ghost is that of a man who died in the Charleston Riot. Lucas Thomas, who worked at the theater from 1996 to 2000, told the JG-TC that he heard it was the ghost of a projectionist who died of a heart attack in the projector room.