On Lakey’s Ghost from John W. Allen; Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois … Until recent years it was a common custom to go calling on neighbors in the evening and “set until bedtime.” There were no telephones, television sets, or radios for entertainment. There were no automobiles nor were there any roads for them to travel. There was practically no place to go. Stories, songs, narration of personal experiences, yarns, pleasantries, mere chatter and gossip filled the evening. Much of what is termed culture grew from such practices. With the waning of this old custom, folklore became background. Nevertheless, it remains essential to a reasonable understanding of our way of life. No thinking person would discard the comforts, conveniences and opportunities that things modern have brought. Likewise, those who would understand the present cannot lightly dismiss the past and its practices.
In the process of transmitting our lore, those relating it naturally sought to improve upon it by making it more interesting and dramatic. There also was the tendency to give the story a local setting and to relate it to known persons. Many basic stories endured for centuries, being adapted to the local situation and to different individuals. Some well- known stories will illustrate this point. One from German lore was bor rowed by Washington Irving, relocated in the valley of the Hudson in New York State, and is known to us as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In it a mythical headless horseman like the one that rode along lonely paths in the Rhine Valley was brought to America to ride beside the wildly fleeing Ichabod Crane. Before this horseman entirely disappeared from the roster of fanciful figures, he came to ride the woodland trail that passed Lakey’s cabin on the creek at the eastern side of McLeansboro. Perhaps somewhere in America he still rides.
+ + +
Lakey’s ghost, or perhaps the man in life gave his name to a creek which winds through Hamilton Country and beyond, moving southwest from McLeansboro, Illinois till it reaches the Saline River, which itself flows into the Ohio to the east of the Shawnee Forest. Go a little further downstream and the Ohio meets the Mississippi, which flows along the western shores of the Shawnee forest and hills, its bluffs dotted with native American petroglyphs and folklore. It’s this area of Illinois between the rivers where another headless horseman was believed to ride.
As Lakey appeared to have lived in these parts for no more than a few weeks, it’s quite possible that it’s the ghost itself which gave Lakey’s creek its name.
A couple hundred years ago the shallow waters would have been an important milestone on the road from Carmi, my hometown, to McLeansboro and on to Mt. Vernon, Illinois, for it made crossing the rushing water much easier. Today, Route 14 is the main route and misses Lakey’s Creek entirely.
McLeansboro has the nearest hospital to Carmi, and as I spent much of the past decade caring for two ailing parents, I had many occasions to make the run from Carmi to McLeansboro. Years and years ago I had a copy of Allen’s book, and often kept my eye out for Lakey’s Creek, as well as Lakey’s ghost. In this part of the country, when a highway crosses a river or even a notable creek, that body of water gets a sign. But I noticed there wass no sign for a Lakey’s Creek.
Perhaps John Allen got the highway wrong, or perhaps the highway shifted a bit over the years. Highway 142 does cross Ten Mile Creek just before it merges with Bear Creek and becomes what is called, at least for this stretch Lakey Creek. Even then there are two country roads which cross it, but only one goes off in the direction of Carmi, which matches the story. And so I found myself there late one fall afternoon, leaving the horrors of the hospital to go looking for the scene of another horror, set long ago but still not forgotten.
His first name is forgotten. Perhaps it does not matter. For this story it is enough to know his last name and that it was given to the small creek that crosses the highway near the eastern limits of the city.
Lakey was building a cabin on the west side of the stream a short distance south of the ford where the present street — then an old trail leading from the Carmi vicinity toward Mt. Vernon — crossed the creek. He had practically completed the log structure and on his last day alive had felled a large oak tree to make clapboards for the roof. At the close of day, he was bolting this timber.
The next morning an early traveler saw a gruesome sight. Beside a large stump was a human body and near by a severed head — they were Lakey’s. A broadaxe sticking in the stump indicated the manner in which the head and body had been separated.
News of the tragedy spread, and settlers came to look and wonder. Lakey was a quiet and inoffensive man. So far as anyone knew, he had no wealth that would tempt anyone to commit such a crime, nor did he have any known enemies. There was no evidence of a struggle. There seemed then to be no explanation for the murder that had evidently been committed about nightfall the day before. Indeed, no solution to the murder has ever come to light. Lakey was buried near the site of his uncompleted cabin, and his story was added to the local lore, but this was not the end of the incident.
John W. Allen; Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois
+ + +
For the descendants of Mr. Lakey’s ghost, and a handful of amateur historians, his first name certainly does matter. Perhaps it’s the prominence of being related to one of the earliest ghosts in Illinois. By the time John Allen wrote it down, well over a century had passed. And yet the tale lived on.
Poring through the pages of the Goodspeed History of Hamilton County, you’ll find many interesting historical notes, such as this story … “Benjamin Auxier is well remembered from a difficulty he had with a man named Grant, occasioned by jealousy of the latter with reference to some woman whose name is not to appear in this history. In connection with the affair Grant swore he would kill Auxier, and Auxier, wishing neither to be killed nor to kill Grant, caught him in the woods, bound him to a log with a strong withe across his neck, and put out both of his eyes.”
Buckskin was the most common fabric for men, cornbread and variants upon it was one of the main staples, and when it came to meat, it was usually bear or deer. Women weren’t decked out in ribbons and bows, and “didn’t court for pastime.” Life and relationships were about survival.
We also find in the section on early settlers a listing for “Mr. Lakey, who lived on the Jones Tract, after whom Lakey’s Creek was named, and who was killed by his son-in-law.”
Goodspeed’s history was published in 1887, and it’s interesting that the murder was remembered, but no mention of the ghost, despite the somewhat colorful anecdotes found sprinkled throughout the book. It’s also interesting that Lakey’s first name had already been forgotten, and that the crime was solved, and the murderer, his son in law, was fingered, if not precisely named.
At any rate, his family has dug into the genealogy and narrowed it down to two brothers, Joel or Simon for Lakey’s first name. It’s also possible that the gentleman’s name was actually Leaky, or perhaps that was just a variation.
The point is, we’re in the realm of folklore, and if this was Britain, folk horror. By the time our story takes place, most of England had been civilized, even individual trees had names and folk tales associated with them. In Hamilton County, Illinois, civilization ended at the fence, and even then the wild had a way of coming in. Paganism plays a prominent part in folk horror, and if paganism is interacting and following the ways of nature, then our story is set in a very pagan place.
Even if the protagonist was a devout Christian, it’s not a Christianity which we’d readily recognize today. Folklore still played a prominent part in these people’s lives, and not just for entertainment around the fire. People still believed in the signs of nature, whether it came to planting or when to pull a tooth. A few generations earlier, and on the other side of the world, these same signs would have been labelled witchcraft. Now they were just a way of life.
By the time witch panics moved over to the American colonies or even the United States, the accusations had gone from spells and potions to a vague (and unprovable) pact with the Devil. Occult knowledge of plants and nature which might have found you burned in Europe, was taught to you by your grandmother.
Nature wasn’t a peaceful, loving mother goddess, it was an angry bear at the cabin door, or a hungry wolf following you through the forest, which stretched on further than your mind could fathom. And if the critters didn’t get you, there was always the axe wielding son in law to contend with.
Decapitation is a particularly gruesome and fearful way of dying. Which could account for Mr. Lakey’s popularity throughout the years. If in this century, capturing the attention of the civilized world was the goal of ISIL, they accomplished it via their gruesome and clumsy beheading videos. The Reign of Terror was accomplished with the guillotine. There’s something about a head plucked off the shoulders that sends a collective shiver down the spine of all who hear of it.
This was particularly true in the nineteenth century.
For my money, the axe and decapitation were likely an exaggeration at most, or just as likely, an invention. It’s hard to persuade a person to place his head upon a stump to have it lobbed off. It’s even harder to take a swing at the neck of a person quite likely trying to avoid said swing, and get a clean cut across the thorax. Just as his name was forgotten, the manner of his death likely was too, other than he was murdered as the history says. The storyteller fills in the rest.
On the day following Lakey’s burial and just at nightfall, two men living west of McLeansboro were passing the Lakey cabin site as they returned from a trip to the Wabash. A few rods east of Lakey’s Creek they were joined by a strange and fearful companion. A headless horse man on a large black steed, on the left hand or downstream side, moved along toward the creek with them.
Neither of the awed men spoke. The new rider also was silent. All rode along together down the gently sloping bank and into the water. As they neared the center of the stream, the phantom horseman turned to the left, passed downstream and appeared to melt into the waters of a deep pool just below the crossing. It must be remembered that no ghost can cross running water.
The two men, happy to be rid of the ghostly horseman, rode onward to their homes. They hesitated to tell the story of the unbelievable in cident, but they soon had corroborating testimony. The same apparition appeared a few evenings later to other men approaching the stream from the east at nightfall. The story rapidly gained circulation.
John W. Allen; Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois
+ + +
Washington Irving published the Legend of Sleepy Hollow in his book, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. in 1820. Written appropriately enough, on a tour of Europe, the headless horseman can be found in many European countries, including Germany. In Irving’s tale, the horseman was a Hessian soldier from Germany, hired to fight on the side of the British in our revolution. It’s also possible that Irving took the idea from a poem, “Tam o’ Shanter” written by Robert Burns, a Scotsman. Lakey wasn’t far off the boat from Scotland himself, and it’s possible that Tam O’ Shanter had more to do with Lakey’s ghost and his later appearance as a headless horseman than Washington Irving’s creation.
Then again, the inability of Lakey’s ghost to cross moving water has The Legend of Sleepy Hollow written all over it.
It’s impossible to pull the history from the folklore in the story of Lakey’s ghost. Perhaps he really did lose his head to his son in law. Perhaps the memory of a murder was embellished by some local storyteller who was a fan of Washington Irving and his version stuck. Perhaps Lakey’s Scottish heritage and Burn’s headless horseman brought that element into the tale. Or perhaps it was some mother who lived nearby, who told her children a cautionary tale about playing down by the creek where sometime in the previous century or so, a grisly murder stained the memory of the landscape.
My Granny Bert, as well as her mother told us the story of Black Annie, another folk tale from Scotland which made its way to our vicinity along with the first settlers. Like Mr. Lakey, and Robert Burn’s specter, that branch of my family were of Scottish origin. Perhaps the Scots were more adept at bringing their ghosts with them to the new world?
It’s impossible to overstate the role of mothers in folklore. They were and are, often the ones who tell their children the tales and seem to take great joy in scaring the wits out of them. It wasn’t that they were malicious. They were trying to keep their loved ones away from dangerous places, in one of the most effective and time honored ways possible. Fear.
There’s a small track which runs alongside Lakey’s Creek, and I took it till it petered out at the edge of a meadow. I parked the car and started following the creek towards the bridge. I was downstream from the crossing, the side where Mr. Lakey’s cabin stood and where he was buried. It’s also where Lakey’s ghost was most often seen. Two centuries have passed and there is no sign of either. A fine crop of beer cans and a burnt out fire ring showed it was the kind of place teenagers tend to hang out in, and those are the locations where folklore is often kept alive. Sleepy Hollow Road outside of Louisville, Kentucky is a fine example of that. And a little over an hour from here, at a place where the highway crosses the Wabash river near Vincennes, Indiana, there was another headless horseman who roamed another dark hollow.
One has to wonder why early storytellers used such cliched elements for their stories. For one thing, people weren’t so cynical then, and a well known tale set its own mood. People were looking to be entertained, as well as informed, and didn’t necessarily put their entire stock into the truth of a tale they heard. As a storyteller, if you can bring in elements from another sinister tale into the one you’re telling, it works to telegraph mood and tone, without having to do it yourself. With a nineteenth century audience, it was quite effective. And it also helps the storyteller stretch out and remember the story.
That we’re still telling this tale two hundred years later shows things haven’t changed all that much.
Illegal rites of passage in these parts still need country dark, and in these places, with a head full of beer or smoke, sitting around the embers of a fire, the old ways still take over and the old tales still are told. To an audience chemically susceptible to believing. For at least a generation or two, folklore through out the world was kept alive in large part by the stoners.
Always the rider, on a large black horse, joined travelers approaching the stream from the east, and always on the downstream side. Each time and just before reaching the center of the creek, the mistlike figure would turn downstream and disappear. For a generation or more an occasional traveler would report the strange horseman; but no living witness of the strange rider has been found.
Very old persons still tell of those who declared they saw him. Perhaps he has completely disappeared. Perhaps it is because there is no longer a ford over Lakey’s Creek but instead a concrete bridge. It may even be that automobiles move too rapidly for the slow pace of the large black steed. Again, their noise and strange appearance may have frightened him away. Who knows?
John W. Allen; Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois
+ + +
Sightings of Lakey’s ghost are almost nonexistent in the modern era, which is pretty common for ancient ghosts. It seems the most common evidence for ghosts now comes from spectral photography, the occasional misty shapes which could be a person, could be the photographer’s breath on a cold night. Orbs are another common occurrence, and I used to pick those up quite often myself … till I got a better camera. There are natural explanations for almost every “scientific” technique of ghost hunting out there. It doesn’t mean that the natural explanations are correct, and that orb isn’t some entity from another dimension. It just means you can’t ever know, and the question becomes, where does your faith lie?
Those who seek evidence of life after death are seldom swayed from their previous held beliefs till they see a specter for themselves, like Lakey’s ghost riding along side you, in which case you quickly become a believer.
Lakey’s ghost could be quiet because it never existed, or perhaps he finally found peace. Walking through that dark and quiet creek bed that bears his name, I come up with another explanation. These are forgotten places, even though people drive within feet of the scene of those horrendous memories all the time. Like the white lady of Raven’s Rock, another ghostly tale mentioned in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and whose life froze away within eyesight of what is now a very popular walking trail, these places are forgotten and ignored. The sighting of a ghost usually lasts a few seconds at best, and if we’re not looking for it, or it’s not in our faces, we tend to miss it.
The modern world moves very quickly, and we shy away from dark places at night now, unless in the company of others, so the one-on-one interactions that tend to make a believer of a person seldom have a chance of happening. When these places stop being a part of our day to day lives, the odds of us experiencing anything declines rapidly.
To meet the unknown requires making these places a part of our existence, so the forgotten places are remembered, perhaps to coax the dead back to life with the daily rhythms of life itself.
Even if folk tales such as Lakey’s ghost are nothing more than that, stories passed down from generation to generation, they serve a valuable purpose. A couple of centuries ago a man named Lakey found his way across a newly discovered continent and attempted to carve out a place for himself in the wilderness. He failed in that, but his memory lives on, and as a ghost, he continues to haunt us to this day.