The quaint and unassuming Bethel Cemetery sits nestled among rolling hills, picturesque farms, and new housing developments. 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 completely 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 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 stones, as well as an assortment of items that have been left there over the years, lay inside of the woods among overgrown weeds. A large collection of the stones, having been knocked down over the years, is propped up haphazardly against one of the large oaks.
Just what the story is behind the folk-name of this place (Ragdoll Cemetery) varies from person to person. Depending on who you ask, the story will either be simply strange or downright macabre. According to the typical version, there was once a little girl of about 8 or 9 years of age (the year in which the story takes place changes) who loved her rag doll. The girl died, some say of an illness, others say murder. In the case of the illness, she asked to be buried with her doll. In the case of murder, her dying wish went unknown or was ignored.
The crux of all versions of the story is that the girl, who was never separated from her favorite toy in life, was eternally separated from it in death. In some adaptations of the tale, the doll forever searches for the girl’s grave. In others, the girl’s ghost forever searches for the doll, which was lost in the cemetery. In a third version, the doll appears every night to look for the girl’s killer. The doll is also said to hang from the oak tree near her grave, where it waits to drop down on unsuspecting trespassers.
Cemeteries with large oak trees seem to attract unusual stories. Outside of Effingham, Illinois, Ramsey Cemetery is said to be the home of both a werewolf and the grave of a warlock. The werewolf and the warlock may in fact be one in the same creature, but the focus of the legend is a thick oak tree, which has been tagged with graffiti over the years. As prominent and often interesting landmarks, it is not coincidental that trees provide fodder for folk stories and legends. Elements of the “Rag-Doll Cemetery” story do reflect some harsh realities of life. Many people died at a young age during the 1800s, and local cemeteries are scattered with the graves of those who passed on well before their time. Sallie T. Hill, once suggested in the Coles County Leader as a possible candidate for the girl in the story, died in 1873 when she was only 8 years and 3 months old. Prior to the 1950s, many children perished of diseases like Cholera and TB, an element in one version of the legend.
Unsolved murder was another sad reality of life in east-central Illinois. Between 1966 and 1980, there were more than six unsolved murders in and around Coles County. In the most gruesome version of the rag doll story, the girl was murdered and her killer was never found. Perhaps the people of Coles, seeking justice in the face of a spate of unsolved crimes, put their faith in a young girl’s loyal rag doll.
Recently, Joe Lucarelli, an independent filmmaker and former Mattoon resident, chose Bethel Cemetery as the setting for his thriller “Rag Doll.” The movie was filmed at various locations around Mattoon and incorporates elements of the “rag doll” legend.