Categories
Mysterious America

Innocence Lost: The Tragic Unsolved Murder of Barbara Sue Beasley

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.

As the summer of ‘73 dragged on, Coles County suffered the loss of another daughter at the hands of an unknown assailant. At around 10:00 a.m. on Friday, August 3, 1973, 11-year-old Barbara Sue Beasley of Mattoon disappeared while riding her white Stingray bicycle near the Cross County Mall.

She was approximately 5 feet tall, 95 pounds, with blonde hair and green eyes, wearing slacks and a blue blouse. She lived on E. DeWitt Street, and her father, Warren Beasley, worked at the nearby General Steel and Metals plant. Her parents reported her missing on Saturday.

On the evening of Tuesday, August 7th, exactly one month after Shirley Ann Rardin’s body was found, two teenage boys left the Cross County Mall and headed to hunt turtles in a drainage ditch one-quarter mile north of the railroad tracks.

At around 6:00 p.m., they stumbled upon the badly swollen nude body of a girl lying on her back in two inches of water under a pipe that ran across the ditch west of Columbia Machine Company. The girl’s blouse was beneath her body, pants wrapped around her left arm, and her other clothes, alongside her bicycle, were strewn along the drainage ditch approximately 35 feet south. The boys ran back to the mall and called the police.

Categories
Mysterious America

The Legend of Bethel “Ragdoll” Cemetery

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.

Categories
Roadside America

Dead Man’s Curve

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.

Many communities in Illinois have an intersection or stretch of road to avoid where it’s said car accidents frequently occur. Northwest suburban Des Plaines has “Suicide Circle”, Spring Valley has “Help Me” Road, Henry County has “Death Curve”, and the tiny town of Towanda has a “Dead Man’s Curve” on Historic U.S. Route 66. Coles County’s is unique, however, because its name predates the road itself.

When settlers first crossed the wilderness of East Central Illinois, large groves of trees became important landmarks. One such grove, in LaFayette Township on the north branch of Kickapoo Creek, was originally known as Island Grove. It was two miles in diameter and filled with hackberry, elm, and oak trees, and supplied a neighboring village of Kickapoo Indians with firewood and wild game.

In March 1826, a man named Samuel Kellogg discovered the frozen body of a Sand Creek settler named Coffman sitting upright against a tree with his horse bridle thrown over his shoulder. Kellogg hoisted the dead man onto his horse and took him to a nearby settlement for burial. Since then, Island Grove has been known as “Dead Man’s Grove.”

Categories
Mysterious America

Partners in Crime? The Murder of Darwin Ray Webb

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.

Thirteen months after Linda Diane Shriver’s murder, the frozen body of a 29-year-old man from Lancaster, Texas named Darwin Ray Webb was discovered in a deep ditch along Illinois State Route 316, three-quarters of a mile west of Loxa Road. A work crew was patching the road when they discovered Webb’s body shortly before noon on Tuesday, February 11, 1975.

The 5-feet 6-inch tall Webb was wearing brown shoes, bluejeans, a flowered shirt, and gold corduroy jacket, and was laying on his back parallel with the road. His chest and neck bore wounds from two shotgun blasts at close range. 

Darwin Ray Webb and 30-year-old Russell Lee Roberts of Warrensburg, Illinois were suspected of robbing an IGA store in Mattoon the previous Friday. At approximately 7:06 p.m. on February 7th, two gunmen wearing ski masks and ponchos armed with shotguns cleaned out the front registers and a safe at Taylor’s IGA at 1316 DeWitt Avenue.

One customer, a man named Joe Mitchell, tried to intervene and grab a shotgun from one of the men. It went off in the struggle, blowing a hole in the ceiling. The second gunman struck Joe on the back of the head with the butt of his shotgun and the pair fled. Before they took off, a bystander wrote down their getaway car’s license plate number.

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.”