It was dark, and Rusty had been hauling cargo from Missouri to Illinois all day. He decided to take a shortcut up Route 146 from Cape Girardeau to Interstate 57, passing through Jonesboro and Anna along the way. The terrain became rough and hilly as he turned east and began to pass through a narrow strip of the Shawnee National Forest near Hamburg Hill. As his blurry eyes scanned the horizon for any sign of the nearing town, he almost missed the black shape laying on the asphalt. He slammed on his brakes.
Someone must be playing a prank, Rusty thought as he got out of his truck. He noticed through the glare of his headlights that the shape in the road was the body of a man, who wore an outfit that looked like it had come out of a spaghetti western. It was no joke, however. As he got closer, he saw blood oozing from several wounds in the crumpled body. Just then, a motorcycle screeched to a stop in the oncoming lane.
“Is everything all right?” the biker shouted.
By the time Rusty looked up at the newcomer and back at the road, the body was gone.
For more than a century, a ghost has haunted this lonely stretch of Route 146, formerly known as “Dug Hill Road,” in rustic Union County. Although sightings have become less frequent in recent years, the ghost of Provost Marshal Welch has earned an iconic place in the folklore of Southern Illinois. Like many of its kind, this ghost story preserves the memory of a real event, an event that took place at a traumatic time in the history of our state and our country. But the details of this event have become murky and distorted.
While Provost Marshal Welch was actually killed in 1863, every recent retelling of the tale places his murder in 1865. Also, at some point during the reprinting of the story, authors changed Route 146 to “Highway 126,” which has created a very confusing state of affairs for anyone wanting to visit the location. There is no Highway 126 anywhere in Union County. Complicating matters further, a quaint country lane off Route 146 is now the only feature in the area named “Dug Hill.”
The truth is that Marshal Welch was killed in the early spring of 1863 along what we now know as Illinois Route 146, a few miles west of Jonesboro past the tiny village of Berryville. The legend, however, is a different matter entirely. Storytellers generally agree that Welch died in an ambush during the waning days of the Civil War, but the details vary depending on who is doing the telling.
The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Early historians claimed witch beliefs vanished from Illinois along with its earliest pioneers, but in this chapter I discuss incidents involving witchcraft that occurred even after the Civil War. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com
The end of the Revolutionary War opened the vast Northwest Territory to settlement, and Scotch-Irish pioneers began to cross the Appalachian Mountains and travel down the Ohio River looking for new land. Many settled in the bottomlands between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, in what would become southern Illinois.
Following close behind, Yankees from New England spread out across northern Illinois and down the Illinois River Valley. Rapid growth transformed the state from a sparsely populated wilderness to a thriving agricultural region. Between 1800 and 1840, Illinois’ population grew from 2,458 to 476,183 residents.
Southern Illinois was called “Egypt” or “Little Egypt” for its proximity to a vital river trade route (like the Nile delta in Egypt) and the presence of towns with names like Cairo, Thebes, Dongola, and Karnak. New Englanders who immigrated to Illinois in the early half of the nineteenth century also called it “Dark Egypt.” They viewed the Scotch-Irish pioneers who preceded them as uneducated, boorish, and backwards.
For their part, the Scotch-Irish, who emigrated from Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas, viewed these Yankees, in the colorful words of one historian, as “a skinning, tricky, penurious race of peddlers, filling the country with tinware, brass clocks, and wooden nutmegs.”
According to cultural historian David Hackett Fischer, Scotch-Irish pioneers were obsessed with magic and sorcery, and they brought those beliefs with them into Illinois. One early account of witchcraft in Little Egypt comes from the History of Williamson County Illinois (1876). “From 1818 to 1835,” its author claimed, “there were a great many witches in this county.” On a place called Davis’ Prairie (also known as David’s Prairie), there lived a woman named Eva Locker, who was widely reputed to be a witch.