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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.

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Mysterious America

Independence Grove and “The Gate”

For years, visitors to this curious northern Illinois landmark have told wild tales of decapitated heads and gruesome murders, but few know the real history behind Independence Grove and “Devil’s Gate.”

A campfire crackled deep in the Independence Grove Forest Preserve north of Libertyville. Charity, Travis, Wade, and Katrina sat on thick branches around the glowing embers of the fire. Chatty and nervous, they knew they weren’t supposed to be there, but they hoped they were deep enough in the forest that no one would see them. They spoke in low whispers. Far above their heads, tangled branches interrupted the silhouette of the waning moon while hushed laughter echoed from their campsite on the east bank of the Des Plaines River.

Earlier in the evening, they had explored the woods along the equestrian trail and came across cement foundations, broken bottles, rusted playground equipment, and old fire hydrants where they had been told nothing like that should be. They could hardly contain their excitement.

Katrina hushed her friends. When they finally settled down, she began to tell the tale of “The Gate.” They had all heard rumors about the gate and the nearby woods, but Katrina promised them the real story. “I heard it from my uncle, who heard it from a guy who knew someone who was there,” she said.

“It was the 1950s, and at that time this whole area was the property of an exclusive all-girls school. The elite of Libertyville—doctors, lawyers, politicians—all sent their daughters there. Unbeknownst to them, a dangerous man had recently been hired as one of the school’s janitors.

“They should have paid more attention to who swept the halls and took out their trash, because this particular man had been spurned by the wife of a local politician, whose daughter now attended the school. It had been years since the incident, but this man would never forget the pain he felt. He swore revenge, not just on the politician, but on all the village’s elite who had treated him like dirt.

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Mysterious America

Maple Lake’s Tragic History

Most visitors to Maple Lake in southwest suburban Chicago come for recreation, some to witness unusual lights that emerge from its water at night, but few know of the lake’s violent past.

Every spring and summer, visitors by the hundreds of thousands descend on the southwestern corner of Cook County. They come to the Palos and Sag Valley Divisions of the Park District to ride horses, hike, and bicycle on the trails, or drop a fishing line into one of the dozen lakes and sloughs. Many grab a quick bite at the Ashbary Coffee House before heading south down Archer Avenue to 95th Street. There they enter Pulaski Woods under a canopy of maple trees and continue east until they reach Maple Lake, a man-made body of water roughly half a mile in width. With its wide, curving shores and tranquil waters, it is a deceptively peaceful place.

Over the years, Maple Lake has acquired a reputation for the unusual. A handful of visitors—those who stuck around after sundown—have reported seeing strange lights hovering over the lake. These lights, although they are the subject of speculation by every chronicler of Chicagoland folklore, are just the tip of the iceberg. Maple Lake has a grim history into which few have delved.

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Mysterious America

Abandoned in New York

When it comes to urban exploration, New York has it all. The Empire State stretches across 54,555 square miles. Relics of the past can be found in every corner.

Upstate New York is filled with abandoned, out-of-the-way places. Each represents someone’s dream; a career; fond memories; a home; all quickly fading into the past. But explorers beware: while most of the following places are open to the public, some are restricted and you visit at your own risk.

Camp Beechwood

An abandoned Girl Scout camp deep in the woods is something from a horror movie, and you can experience it yourself in Upstate New York. In 1929 the Girl Scouts of America purchased 150-acres between Maxwell Bay and Sill Creek for use as a summer camp.

Unfortunately, rising tax rates, declining membership, and environmental factors led to the camp’s closure and sale in 1996. New York State bought the land but budget cuts forced it to designate the site as a preserve. The buildings were left to rot. The camp is remarkably well preserved for having been abandoned and accessible to the public for over two decades.

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Mysterious America

The Legend of Bonapartes Cave

Missing jewels, exiled European royalty, old bones, and a lakeside cave make this unassuming spot one of Upstate New York’s most enduring mysteries.

Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844), older brother of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, saw his fortunes rise and fall with his more famous brother. He once reigned as monarch over two kingdoms, amassing a small fortune before Napoleon’s downfall. How did a lake in northern New York come to be named after him?

In 1794, Joseph, a French lawyer and diplomat, married Marie-Julie Clary, and in 1806 Napoleon crowned him King of Naples. During the ill-fated French occupation of Spain, he reigned as King of Spain and the Indies. After Napoleon’s defeat and exile in 1814, Joseph fled to Switzerland with a trove of diamonds and jewels, but made plans to leave Europe. Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 sealed his fate, and Joseph landed in America in August 1815 under the assumed name “Count de Survilliers”.

James Le Ray de Chaumont, son of a prominent French supporter of American independence, had purchased large tracts of land in northern New York and the Delaware Valley, where many French aristocrats had fled after the French Revolution. Using his stolen wealth, Joseph purchased land along the Black River in Upstate New York from James Le Ray. He named the lake at the heart of his Black River property Diana, but it would come to be known as Lake Bonaparte.

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Mysterious America Photography

Loyal to the Grave

This black, cast iron dog stands in silent vigil over the grave of Florence Bernardina Rees in Hollywood Cemetery, 412 S. Cherry Street in Richmond, Virginia. Florence (1860-1862) was less than three years old when she died of scarlet fever. Her parents were Thomas B. and Elizabeth S. Rees, who to my knowledge aren’t buried nearby.

According to folklorist L.B. Taylor, Jr., the dog used to stand outside a shop on Broad Street, and Florence would pet it and dote on it as if it were real. When she died, the owner placed it by her graveside. Another legend says the cast iron Newfoundland was placed in the cemetery to avoid being melted down and turned into bullets during the Civil War. Whatever the reason, visitors love leaving tokens of their affection for little Florence.

Florence Bernardina Rees (1860-1862)
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Mysterious America

The Terrifying Truth Behind Crawford Road Bridge

The sinister reputation of haunted places are often unearned, but in the case of this remote Virginia bridge, the truth is more horrifying than fiction.

Click to expand photos.

A remote road in Virginia’s Historic Triangle holds secrets, or at least that’s what storytellers say. Otherworldly phenomena is responsible for events ranging from electronic disturbances to car accidents, and real-life murders have darkened the spot’s already sinister reputation. “Bad vibes” and “negative energy” make some locals steer clear.

This object of morbid fascination is a concrete bridge, built in the 1930s, where Tour Road passes over Crawford Road in the woods north of Newport News Park, south of the Yorktown Battlefield where George Washington defeated Lord Cornwallis in 1781. Crawford Road bypasses Yorktown Road between I-64 and US Route 17, but there’s not much to see aside from occasional wildlife. This remote patch of wilderness lends itself to unusual stories.

The most popular legend involves a young bride forced into a loveless marriage. Rather than spend the rest of her life with a man she loathes, the woman hanged herself from the Tour Road overpass. Since then, a ghostly woman in white can be seen standing on the bridge, only to reenact her sickening plunge. Cars swerve to avoid a lone specter in the road, or experience engine trouble while driving through the narrow tunnel.