A forgotten graveyard squirreled away in the cornfields of central Illinois makes for good storytelling, and almost all have their ghostly tales. Old Union is no exception. This cemetery first received attention on Troy Taylor’s website, Prairieghosts.com, and he later included it in Weird Illinois (2005).
Though he failed to disclose its location, Old Union Cemetery is clearly marked on cemetery and plat maps available to the general public through the DeWitt County Genealogical Society.
A history of the cemetery is difficult to find, and several sources appear, at first glance, to be fractional or contradictory. Troy Taylor provided a general overview on his website, but Genealogytrails.com, in an excerpt from an article entitled, “The Disciples of Christ History,” filled in some of the details.
According to the article, Old Union Church was established 10 miles west of Clinton on October 13, 1831 near a large, white oak tree. The stump of the tree, and “the gravestones of the cemetery which grew around the house of worship” are “silent sentinels of faded joys and departed glories,” the article opined.
Less than a mile outside of Cambridge, Illinois sits Timber Ridge Road. As motorists travel west along Timber Ridge, they encounter a sharp curve marked by a Mulberry tree and an old, rustic fence that divides two cornfields. This bucolic scene hides a dark history, a history that few would remember if it were not for the ghost stories.
In 1896, Julia Johnson married a man named Clarence B. Markham, and the young couple settled on a farm in Andover Township outside of Cambridge. In nine years of marriage, Julia Markham gave birth to seven children, an average of one every 15 months. There were four girls and three boys, aged from between five months to eight and a half years.
On the morning of Saturday September 30, 1905, while her husband labored in a neighboring field, Mrs. Markham, to quote the Cambridge Chronicle, “committed one of the most dastardly deeds that has ever occurred in Henry County.”
At around 11 o’clock, Julia sent her two eldest children to a nearby spring to retrieve water. While they were gone, she took an ax and swung it at the heads of her five youngest, killing them instantly. When her eldest returned, she dealt with them the same way.
Julia had carefully planned the massacre and tried to commit suicide afterward, but the knife that she used to cut her throat was too dull. Wounded, she laid her children out on a bed and doused them with coal oil. She lit the oil on fire and the entire house went up in flames.
Winter has me feeling nostalgic for the halcyon days of summer, when my dad and I would make the long drive up to the Chain O’ Lakes in Northern Illinois to rent a rowboat and go fishing.
The Chain O’ Lakes, including Fox Lake, Grass Lake, Lake Marie, and Channel Lake, near Antioch, has offered summer visitors a unique blend of sporting and entertainment since the late nineteenth century.
Possibly the most famous establishment on the Chain is Blarney Island, “Key West of the Midwest,” a bar located a mile offshore in Grass Lake, where over a decade worth of bras, hats, and business cards used to hang from the ceiling.
But the fond memories of my childhood lay a little to the east, at C.J. Smith Resort. Don’t let the name fool you, C.J. Smith’s is not much more than a boat rental near the shore of tiny Spring Lake that looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1950s. At least it hasn’t changed in my lifetime.
If you are looking to rent large, gas guzzling speedboats, look somewhere else. C.J. Smith’s offers only top quality 14’ and 16’ aluminum rowboats, with a 6, 8, or 15HP motor for an extra cost. Ditch the motor, in my opinion. The experience is much more rewarding if you row.
Williamsburg Hill is the highest point in Shelby County, Illinois and is accessible by 1100 E, a road that horseshoes around the tiny community of Cold Spring. Visitors can pick up 1100 E just west of Tower Hill on Route 16, and it will lead them straight to the hill and its cemetery. Due to its unsavory reputation, this is a place many locals avoid.
As far as I can tell, Troy Taylor was the first person to write extensively on the strange legends of Ridge Cemetery and Williamsburg Hill. He included them in a number of books, including Haunted Illinois (2001), Haunted Decatur Revisited (2000), and Beyond the Grave (2001).
As Taylor explained, the hill that Ridge Cemetery occupies once also sheltered a town, one of the many that sprung up and disappeared in nineteenth-century Illinois. Williamsburg, as it was known, was platted in 1839 by two men, Thomas Williams and William Horsman. Many Horsmans can be found buried in Ridge Cemetery to this very day. The village disappeared in the 1880s as the railroad bypassed its inconvenient location.
The legends surrounding Ridge Cemetery involve occult rituals, spook lights, and the ghost of an old man who disappears upon approach. “There is little evidence to suggest these stories are true,” Taylor wrote, “but once such rumors get started, they are hard to stop.”
There is nothing peculiar about the concrete bridge along Old Post Road two miles east of Crete, Illinois. If a motorist were to drive past, over the trickling waters of Plum Creek on a pleasant summer day, not much would alert this passerby to the Axeman’s gruesome story.
In the woods a few yards to the northeast, however, sits a rickety steel bridge, collapsed into the water. It is tagged with graffiti. For years, local teens imagined this was the scene of a gruesome ax murder. The remains of a home hidden in the trees and the closure of the road leading to the steel bridge have only fueled the legend.
Although landmarks set the stage for this story, the exact history of the area is difficult to determine. According to John Drury’s photographic history, This is Will County, Illinois (1955), David Harner was the first white settler of Crete Township, and a large contingent of ethnic Germans followed.
Early in Will County history, the thick timberland along Plum Creek was called Beebe’s Grove. It was named after Minoris Beebe, who arrived in 1834 along with David Harner. According to an old county plat map, a man named William Vocke owned the property around Axeman’s Bridge in 1909. I have been unable to determine when this bridge closed.
Perched on a bluff overlooking the Rock River in Lowden State Park, Lorado Taft erected this 48-foot concrete statue in 1911 on the grounds of Eagle’s Nest Art Colony. He called it “The Eternal Indian” but it became widely known as a statue of Chief Black Hawk, who led an uprising against the United States in 1832. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, and unfortunately has suffered deterioration in recent years.
Southern Illinois has a far more diverse topography than the rest of the state. Situated at the gateway to Little Egypt, Ramsey Cemetery in Effingham County is no exception. Its claim to fame is the nearby “caves” or rock shelters. Formed by thousands of years of erosion, generations of local residents have carved their names and proclamations of love into the sandstone walls.
Back in 2002, the Shadowlands Index of Haunted Places labeled it “Kazbar Cemetery.” The entry described it as an “old cemetery that has haunted caves.” Eschewing details, it added, “a were wolf and a man in a black coat with red eyes is said to be seen there. Many weird things have happened there.” Kazbar, or Casbah, seems to be a local place name.
Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk uncovered more information for The Illinois Road Guide to Haunted Locations (2007).
One story they uncovered was the tale of a young man who allegedly committed suicide in Ramsey Cemetery. According to Lewis and Fisk, a small chapel existed on the cemetery grounds for the benefit of mourners from the 1920s until the 1960s when it was torn down due to vandalism.