Tales of Coles County – EIU Sneak Peek

Join me for a look at the section on legends and lore of Eastern Illinois University in the new edition of my book Tales of Coles County, Illinois. Burl Ives, Mary Hawkins and Pemberton Hall, a group of pranksters called The Phantom, and a dog named Napoleon are all detailed like never before. Pre-orders start in September and the book will out in October.

New Edition of Tales of Coles County Ready for Pre-Orders!

Pre-ordering for the sixth and final edition of Tales of Coles County, Illinois is now available.

Own a previous edition? You won’t want to miss this! The original stories have been completely revised and updated. This edition also includes an index and a foreword by local genealogist Ann Winkler Hinrichs.

One hundred additional pages, five brand new illustrations by Katie Conrad, comprehensive bibliography, and over a dozen new photos await you inside.

Pre-order today and use the offer code COLES2020 at checkout to receive a 10% discount off the cover price! The window for pre-orders will be open until September 30, 2020, at which time you will receive a notification of when your copy will ship. Shipments are expected in early October when the book is officially released.

Tales of Coles County Sneak Peek

Look inside the new edition of Tales of Coles County, Illinois in this exclusive sneak preview. What can you expect in this sixth and final edition? More tales – more legends – more history. Plus a comprehensive bibliography and index for genealogists and local history buffs alike. Pre-orders start in September and the book will out in October.

Beware the Ax-Wielding Bunny Man of Fairfax County

For decades, storytellers have claimed an ax-wielding “Bunny Man” has terrorized northern Virginia, but the truth might be stranger than fiction.

Click to expand photos.

The year was 1904. A bus carrying inmates from the county asylum swerved along darkened country back roads towards Lorton Prison. One of the buses took a sharp turn and crashed in a particularly remote area, killing all but ten patients. Most were recaptured, except for Douglas J. Grifon, convicted of murdering his family on Easter. Since then, the carcasses of helpless teenagers and bunnies alike have been found hanging from a nearby bridge, slain at the hands of a deranged man wearing a rabbit-eared costume.

This ax-wielding bunnyman has reportedly appeared to startled onlookers as far away as Maryland, Washington, DC, and Culpepper, Virginia, but if he has a home, it’s in rural Fairfax County, Virginia near an old railroad bridge over Colchester Road. The bridge, variously known as Fairfax Station Bridge or Colchester Overpass, has become known as “Bunny Man Bridge” in popular imagination. It’s even labeled as such on Google Maps.

A remote, creepy bridge used during the 1950s and ’60s as a make out spot is like a magnet for urban legends and folklore, and Bunny Man Bridge is no exception. Though variations of common legends have taken root here, Bunny Man Bridge is unique in that at least part of the legend is based on real events.

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Silver Bullets and Silver Tea–Pioneer Remedies for Witchcraft

For over a century, Illinois pioneers believed silver was a powerful weapon against witchcraft.

Using a silver bullet to kill a werewolf is a common feature of modern horror movies and fiction, but pioneers once considered silver a powerful remedy for witchcraft. Typical counter-magic called for a witch’s effigy to be shot with a silver bullet, or for a more passive approach, a dime inserted into a shoe.

In nineteenth century Illinois, coins were the most readily available source of silver. Before the Coinage Act of 1965, dimes consisted of around 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper. In addition to being composed of precious metals, dimes issued prior to 1837 were slightly larger than today, with a diameter of 18.8 millimeters and mass of between 2.5 to 2.67 grams. Dimes could be worn as amulets, boiled in water, or melted down and molded into bullets.

Pioneers also manufactured silver bullets by drilling a hole in a musket ball and inserting a folded dime. Smoothbore muskets, which were still in use on the frontier after the development of the rifled musket in the 1840s, were versatile weapons that could fire a variety of homemade ammunition. Witch tales frequently ended with the protagonist drawing an effigy of the witch and shooting it with these silver bullets, which either broke the spell or destroyed the witch.

The improvement and increase in popularity of breech-loading rifles and standardized ammunition gradually eliminated this practice.

In this typical tale, told by an Irish informant from Adams County, Illinois to folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt, the process by which the protagonist manufactured a silver bullet was explained in detail. “Some people were living by a witch and she was always borrowing from them or giving something,” he said. “They always had trouble. She came to the house one day and wanted to borrow lard. The man of the house said, ‘No. And I don’t want you to come here any more.’ The witch said, ‘You’ must let me have the lard for I am sick and must have it.’”

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Beware a Witch’s Gift

For some Illinois pioneers, unexplained illnesses were terrifying signs of a witch’s power to spread affliction.

Disease was an ever-present threat on the nineteenth century American frontier. Smallpox, diphtheria, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, food poisoning, and milk sickness were common, and their causes were not well known. Germ theory was still in its infancy. In this hostile environment, Illinois pioneers fell back on folk wisdom and superstitions passed down by their ancestors.

Milk sickness in particular plagued the Midwestern frontier, made even more frightening because its origins appeared so mysterious. It was caused by drinking milk or eating the meat of cattle that had consumed white snakeroot plant, which grows in the woods along the Ohio River and its tributaries. Symptoms included abdominal pain, severe thirst, vomiting, constipation, tremors, delirium, coma, and sudden death.

According to historian Walter J. Daly, “Ordinary settlers and their doctors found it unpredictable, untreatable, and highly fatal. Milk sickness killed many, frightened more, and caused local economic crises. Villages and farms were abandoned; livestock died; entire families were killed.”[1]

Little by little, pioneers like Anna Pierce Hobbs of Hardin County, Illinois, learned the cause of the illness, but their knowledge and experience went unrecognized by the broader medical community. Most people could not make the connection between the milk they drank and this illness, because cattle often showed no symptoms of the disease. Pioneers turned to folk cures and dubious “medicine men” who also doubled as witch doctors. Witch doctors were needed because, according to popular belief, maleficium, and not germs, viruses, or poisoned vegetation, caused these mysterious illnesses.

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The Embrace Of Thanatos

“Thanatos,” a monument to John E. Hubbard (1847-1899), in Green Mount Cemetery at 250 State Street (U.S. Route 2) in the City of Montpelier, Washington County, Vermont. John Erastus Hubbard was a controversial figure. He allegedly duplicitously gained a sizable inheritance from his aunt, Fanny Hubbard Kellogg, who intended her wealth to benefit the City of Montpelier. The controversy surrounding the will tarnished Hubbard’s reputation.

John E. Hubbard (1847-1899)

Upon his death in 1899, Hubbard did leave the fortune to Montpelier, and some of his wealth went toward building a gate and chapel at Green Mount Cemetery. An Austrian artist named Karl Bitter designed his monument, calling it “Thanatos” after the Greek god of death. One side of the inscription reads:

Approach thy grave
Like one who wraps
The Drapery of his couch
About him and lies down
To pleasant dream

According to legend, bad luck will befall anyone foolish enough to sit on the figure’s lap (popularly called Black Agnus).

Sturges Park: A Lesson in Legend Formation

Pinpointing the exact origin of a legend is rare, so this example from Minnesota is invaluable to folklorists.

I once listed Sturges Park in Buffalo, Minnesota as the fifth most haunted park in the Midwest in a Top 10 list on my old website Mysterious Heartland (to be fair, there aren’t many haunted parks). In response, Mac Loomis of Hoofprint.net published an article revealing the true story behind the park’s legend.

Historically, Alfred E. Sturges and his wife Adelaide opened this five-acre plot of land to the public in 1903. The City of Buffalo purchased the park in 1958. According to legend, Mr. Sturgis’ ghost reportedly haunts the park, and visitors have also seen orbs of light dancing through the trees. It is also rumored that names written in blood appear on the bathroom mirrors.

According to Mac Loomis and Ryan McCallum, an English teacher at Buffalo High School, the source of this legend is none other than Ryan McCallum himself. He says:

“It was 1987, I was a bored and lonely kid because I had just moved here from Arizona. My class took a field trip and I didn’t have anyone to go with, so I went down to the lake and found a huge dead carp. I had an idea. I started cutting it open with a stick. I brought [the fish parts] to the girls’ bathroom and started smearing it all over. I wrote ‘help me’ and ‘you’re next’ and put the eyeballs on either side of the sink handles. When my classmates asked why I didn’t do anything I told them that I was going to the bathroom but I saw horrifying things, and I saw a ghost. I saw Old Man Sturges.”

The legend spread from there. You can read the rest of the article at this link.

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