St. Omer Cemetery and the small, 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 that 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 on top 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 and south, while most headstones are oriented east-west.
Of course, all of these things can be explained without appealing to the supernatural. Being such a large monument, it seems likely that if a mistake had been made in the date it would be difficult and expensive to correct. As for the reaction of locals: vandalism as a result of the legend has been a very real and present danger. The cemetery trustees have had to hoist the stone upright several times after vandals knocked it down. Perhaps the last time it was righted, no one bothered to check which direction it faced.
Still, theories abound. In 2003, Maria Kelley, then a Lake Land College student, told the Coles County Leader, “They tried to kill [Caroline] by hanging her but that didn’t kill her so they buried her alive… When they went back to see if she was dead, they said she was gone. That’s why people say she was a witch.”
Historically, the fate of the family buried under the monument is something of a mystery. According to local historian Carolyn Stephens, Marcus Barnes (Caroline’s husband) is said to have died in a sawmill accident in December 1881. Caroline, only twenty-three years old, died two months later of pneumonia on either February 26 or 28, depending on which document is consulted.
Aside from the alleged witch’s grave, one of the most interesting aspects of this location was the presence of a small village just south of the cemetery. The village, also named St. Omer, has been defunct for over a hundred years, and any remains, aside from a few square fields of grass and old fence posts, have been completely obscured.
St. Omer, named after a seventh century French saint also known as Audomarus, was officially founded in 1852, although it had been called Cutler’s Settlement since 1834. According to The History of Coles County, the village was a collection of around six houses, a store, post office, and a blacksmith’s shop, but the Coles County Map & Tour Guide says that forty to fifty families once lived there.
St. Omer disappeared in the 1880s, around the same time both Caroline and Marcus Barnes died. The community of Hitesville, formerly located a few miles south east of Ashmore, suffered a similar fate. Families living in the two villages packed up and moved to Ashmore when the railroad was built. In 1893, a schoolhouse and Presbyterian church still stood on the Barnes family land, but nothing remains of either of the buildings. The church burned down in the 1950s.
There is no historical or documentary evidence supporting the notion that Caroline Barnes was accused of witchcraft, let alone put to death for it. In the harsh world of rural life in the 19th century, many people died at an early age of a wide variety of what are now easily treatable illnesses. Such a death might be less romantic, but it is more than likely what actually happened.
Whatever you believe, no one can deny that the fascinating story of St. Omer Cemetery and its long-vanished village has captured the imaginations of generations of Coles County residents. Offerings in the form of flowers or coins make regular appearances at the grave, and the tiny cemetery has found its way into nationally-published books and local newspapers.
If nothing else, Caroline Barnes and her family’s unique monument have inadvertently kept the memory, and perhaps the cemetery itself, alive for many future generations.