“I foamed — I raved — I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder — louder — louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly , and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no? They heard! — they suspected! — they KNEW! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! — and now — again — hark! louder! louder! louder! LOUDER! —
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”
From the Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
Burrell’s Woods lies on the outskirts of Carmi, Illinois, a small collection of wooded hills, creeks, picnic shelters and playground equipment. Today it’s been modernized, the road is better paved, there’s a campground and a small lake, complete with fountain. But growing up in the late sixties, it still had a bit of wild about it.
As you near the turnoff you pass Maple Ridge Cemetery. A rolling field of tombstones, with the oldest dating from the 19th century, it’s a field of the dead that immediately captures the imagination.
The most striking of the tombstones there is of one William Rebstock, also known as Hoppy. Hoppy was born July 11, 1878, and died November 12, 1952. As his headstone says, “here lies a man who lived and died for his country, relatives and friends.” Not much was known about Stumpy by those of us growing up back then. It was rumored that his nickname, Hoppy, came from a wooden leg. Others said he was born with one leg shorter than the other. It was also said that the life-size, realistic statue of Hoppy that sits atop the marble pedestal had to be sent back to the carver, as he had fixed Hoppy’s mangled leg, and his family insisted that it be deformed as it had been in life.
It was said that once a year or so, Hoppy came down from his pedestal and walked around the neighborhood. This was a story further reinforced one day when people driving by Maple Ridge noticed that Hoppy wasn’t up there. Further investigation found Hoppy at Burrell’s Woods. Of course the old-timers in our community, and the police as well, put his disappearance down to some local kids. But lifting a life-sized concrete statue from a pedestal four foot tall is a mean feat, even for the hardiest of corn-fed, midwestern youth. So those of us who were inclined to look for the supernatural whenever possible, had our doubts.
Each year Jefferson Elementary School, which I attended piled all the students and most of teachers into busses and hauled us out to Burrell’s Woods, for the Spring Picnic. In today’s law-suit prone world, we’d never have had the freedom we had then. We hit the trails, waded through the creeks, did battle with water moccasins, and generally ran wild for the afternoon. Eventually we found ourselves taking the dare of the older students, and headed up to the cemetery on top of the hill.
It wasn’t a large cemetery by any standards, no more than a dozen tombstones. Most of them were ancient, weather-beaten and illegible. But in the center stood one, much larger and somewhat newer. It was rumored that if you pressed your ear next to the stone and held it there, you would hear the heartbeat of the tenant below, who had been buried alive.
And each year a couple of brave kids would press their ear against it and shout “I hear it, I hear it,” though none of us ever believed them. It was only when one of our ranks would react with shock and horror, that the truth of it hit home, and we all fled back down the hill, oblivious to the taunts and laughter of the older boys who stayed back at the tombstone, waiting for the next group of kids who would inevitably come up to take their turn.
I never seemed to get my chance. Eventually the routine would get old and the older boys would come down the hill, and the younger ones would never go up there alone. And then it was time to pack the troop of muddy and exhausted kids back into the busses for the ride home.
Then one Sunday, my family attended a picnic at Burrell’s Woods. For some reason, I was the only kid there, and I tried my best to stay occupied. But the creek was up, and with my mother there I was forbidden to get in the water. My thoughts kept turning to the hill with the cemetery on top, and the beating heart of the man who was buried there.
Eventually I could stand it no longer. Hanging out with adults who were getting loaded on beer and playing pinochle wasn’t my idea of a good time, so I started up the hill.
It’s a steep climb, and even if you’re in shape, as most nine year olds were at the time, you find yourself winded, your heart pounding in your ears. My palms were sweating as I approached the stone, and I knelt tentatively beside it. The sun had been bearing down, I was hot, sweaty and the first brush of the cool stone took me by surprise and I jumped back. Then I slowly pressed my ear flat against the marble.
Initially, all I could hear was my own breathing, and then faintly I heard it. It was the beating of a heart, quiet yes, but getting louder all the time, and beating faster, faster and my eyes widened with terror and I ran from the place, back down the hill and into the sanctuary of the adults gathered under the picnic shelter.
Eventually we younger kids became the older kids at the picnic, and we were let in on the secret. As the younger kids pressed their ear against the stone, one of the older kids would beat out the heartbeat with the heel of their hand on the opposite side. And for most of us, that was the end of the story.
But for me, the story didn’t end there. When I went there alone, there was no one else to beat out the cadence on the other side. And yes, I know, that the heartbeat I heard was probably my own. But I didn’t believe it then, and it was years before I dared go up there alone once again. Even today, when I find myself at Burrell’s Woods on a hot summer day, I’ll find myself in the cemetery, and feel the chills spread over me, as I press my ear against it the stone and wait.