Categories
Photography

Stories in Stone: Figures Behind Glass

White marble statues preserved behind glass are a unique find in any cemetery excursion.

Funerary art and sculpture is some of the most difficult to preserve. Often outside and exposed to the elements, time takes a toll on even the highest quality pieces. Thieves and vandals are also an unfortunately reality, leading some to encase memorials to their loved ones behind thick glass, hoping to preserve their memory for eternity. There’s something eerie about these serene sculptures frozen in time. Here are just a few I have seen on my travels.

Emily A. Woodruff Keep-Schley (1827-1900)

Lovely white marble statue for Emily A. Woodruff Keep-Schley (1827-1900) in Brookside Cemetery, Watertown, Jefferson County, New York. Emily’s first husband was Henry Keep (1818–1869), one-time president of the New York Central Railroad and then the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Her second husband, William Schley (1823–1882), was a judge and lawyer.

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

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

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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.