While many historians have been quick to dismiss tales of witchcraft as “superstitions of the past,” these stories have been told in the Prairie State throughout its history, from the very first French settlers until the present day. This month, we at Mysterious Heartland have scoured newspaper archives and dusty volumes to bring you some of the most exciting and obscure accounts of witchcraft in Illinois. Which story will prove to be the most compelling?
10. St. Omer “Witch’s Grave”
St. Omer Cemetery is home to an unusual family monument that some say looks like a crystal ball on top a pyre. 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 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. There is no historical or documentary evidence supporting the notion that Caroline Barnes was accused of witchcraft, but never-the-less, the legend has persisted.
9. The Chesterville Witch
Chesterville is a small Amish and Mennonite community that consists of no more than a few dozen houses located a couple of miles away from Rockome gardens. Within the neatly trimmed grounds of Chesterville Cemetery, an old oak tree stands at the edge of the woods that separates the graveyard from the river. The peculiar thing about this tree is the iron fence that surrounds it, and the old stone marker that no longer bears a name. According to Troy Taylor, this is the grave of a woman who turned up dead after being accused of witchcraft in the early 1900s after she challenged the conservative views of the local Amish church elders. The town planted a tree over her grave to trap her spirit inside and prevent her from taking revenge. Her ghost can still be seen from time to time hanging around the area.
8. The Persecution of Toby Allen
In 1879, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a series of articles about a man named Toby Allen, who alleged that the State of Illinois had hired a witch to torment him. It began with a letter that Toby sent to his Chicago alderman. During his incarceration in the Joliet State Penitentiary, he explained in the letter, the State of Illinois hired a man named Johnson to practice witchcraft on the inmates in order to keep their bedclothes clean. Instead, this Mr. Johnson caused the deaths of several inmates, compelled Toby to cut off one of his own fingers, and “whispered in his ear so that he couldn’t work.” Toby appealed to his alderman to have the mayor look into the matter and alleviate his torment, but no public action was ever taken.
7. Strange Case of Elizabeth Friend
McDonough County, IL
On a farm near the meandering banks of Hogwallow Branch in southwestern McDonough County, a man named James Spiva tossed and turned at night, felt tired during the day, and was afflicted with bad luck. First his cows gave bad milk, then his favourite dog died, and finally his oxen went missing. His brother William, a “rural physician,” suggested that James had been bewitched. Their suspicion fell on Elizabeth Friend, who was sick with typhoid fever. James drew an image of her, nailed it to a tree, and shot it with a silver bullet. Around the same time, she succumbed to her illness. James openly claimed that he had rid himself of this “witch,” and so he was tried and convicted of her death. Luckily for him, a skeptical lawyer passed by while his execution was being carried out and convinced the judge to let James free. Years later, the New York Times reported on this incident, but mixed up the names of the participants.
6. Beulah, the Meridian Witch
A witch named Beulah was rumoured to have lived along Meridian Road west of Rockford, Illinois during the 1960s and ‘70s. It was said that she developed her powers as a young girl after being disfigured by shards from the lens of her glass speculum. She refashioned the shards into a divination mirror. She was also said to have two hounds, one black and one white. In 1965, it was alleged that Beulah caused the disappearance of several local teens who had gone looking for her. According to author William Gorman, Beulah was actually a widowed hermit who lost her mind after several school children died in a fire at the one room schoolhouse where she taught. Gorman believes her spirit is not at rest because of the torment she suffered in life.
5. The Hanging of Moreau
In 1720, a Frenchman named Philip Francois Renault purchased 500 African slaves in Santo Domingo and brought them to Fort de Chartres in what is now known as Monroe County, Illinois. The French living along the Mississippi River believed that some of these slaves possessed supernatural powers. In 1779, a slave named Moreau, Emanuel, or Morace (depending on the source) confessed to the murder of his master by “devilish incantation” and “necromancy.” Colonel John Todd, Lieutenant Commandant of the County of Illinois, originally condemned Moreau to be burned at the stake on the banks of the Mississippi, as was demanded by the court at Kaskaskia, but later ordered a militia captain to guard the slave from the mob and administer a more merciful execution. It was said that he was either shot or hung, becoming the only person to be executed for witchcraft in the history of Illinois.
4. Eva Locker
Williamson County, IL
During the 1830s, 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. Eva was notorious for her ability to steal milk from cows by hanging a towel over a rack or door and then, magically, wringing out the milk from the towel. Pioneers of the area blamed this old spinster for maladies of all kinds. “She could do wonders, and inflict horrible spells on the young, such as fits, twitches, jerks and such like; and many an old lady took the rickets at the mere sound of her name,” Milo Erwin, author of the History of Williamson County Illinois, wrote. According to historian John W. Allen, Eva had the ability to kill cattle by shooting them with balls of hair, which were found in the stomachs of the afflicted animals. Whenever Eva Locker struck, the men of Williamson County sent for Charley (Charlie) Lee, a noted “witchmaster” from Hamilton County who broke Eva’s spells by piercing an effigy of her with silver bullets.
3. “Black Annie”
Mount Vernon, IL
Between the late 1860s and the early 1930s, Mount Vernon was plagued by the appearance of a female spirit known variously as “Black Annie,” “Lady of Sorrow,” or “Cyclone Annie.” According to Michael Norman, sightings of Annie began when the citizens of Mount Vernon ran off a witch who was threatening their cattle. They thought they were rid of her, until February 9, 1888 when a tornado touched down in Mount Vernon and destroyed a half-mile wide swath of homes and businesses, killing 37 and injuring as many as 800 people. After the disaster, several eyewitnesses reported seeing a woman dressed in black—wailing and screaming—wandering among the debris. In 1918, residents of Mt. Vernon were terrified by the appearance of a woman dressed in black who chased pedestrians. Finally, “Black Annie” was blamed for a series of strange attacks in 1936 involving sleeping powder thrown through open windows. She has not been seen since, but parents sometimes use “Black Annie” to scare their children into behaving properly.
2. The Williams Sisters
West Frankfort, IL
In 1871, a farmer’s two daughters, 16 and 18 years of age, created quite a stir when they went on nightly dances around the edge of their roof, ate flies, and spoke to each other in a language only they could understand. Their dances were said to be accompanied by shrieks, groans, and acrobatic feats. Hundreds of visitors from around Illinois were said to have witnessed the strange performances, and both the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times reported on the incident. The sisters claimed to have been bewitched by an old woman who lived nearby in retribution for having refused to become witches themselves.
1. Mary Worth
Accord to legend, Mary Worth was a notorious witch who lived on a farm west of Gurnee in Lake County in the mid-1800s. Prior to the Civil War, she would capture runaway slaves and torture them in her barn. Outraged locals took the law into their own hands and burned her to death. Some say her bones were buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, but others say they were buried on her farm. Years later, a house was built over the foundation of the former barn. The family who lived there found a stone on the property and used it as a step beneath their front door. Poltergeist activity quickly followed. In 1986, the house burnt to the ground, and subsequent efforts to build at the location have failed. Some researchers believe this tale is the origin of the “Bloody Mary” urban legend.
Check out these places and more in Michael Kleen’s Haunting Illinois:
A Tourist’s Guide to the Weird and Wild Places of the Prairie State! Three years in the making, the 3rd edition of Hunting Illinois is your ticket to adventure in your own backyard. This edition contains 60 new listings and 35 new pictures, for a total of 260 haunted or mysterious locations and more than 120 photos and illustrations. Divided into eight distinct regions and listed by county and town or neighbourhood, each location features a description, directions, and sources from a wide variety of books, articles, and websites. Haunting Illinois challenges you to get off the couch and start exploring our wonderful State of Illinois. Go here to order!