The ghost of the White Lady is a supernatural archetype, who manifests herself in nearly all cultures, dating back centuries. Southern Illinois is no exception. Elizabeth “Betsey” Reed of Baker Cemetery, near Palestine, Illinois is the most recent White Lady story in the limelight of southern Illinois. She’s even got her own biopic. There are those who believe that as a witch, she cast a curse which is still doing damage in both Crawford and Lawrence county today.
Granted, the people saying that are usually paranormal pundits on the internet, who if they landed in southern Illinois, with our spotty cellphone reception, intense heat and humidity and mosquitoes that could pack away a small family, would turn and run back shrieking to more populated areas.
I’ve seen the ghost of the White Lady more than once. I saw her run across the hallway of an inn a thousand years old in Glastonbury, as clearly as I’ve seen anything. I’ve seen white men as well, even more clearly and frequently. They don’t get the publicity because a woman in white is more romantic of a story.
The one consistency I’ve noticed is speed. It lasts a second, if you’re lucky. Most of the time it’s just the hem of a white dress disappearing through a door, and there’s no one on the other side.
The most vivid one could have been a dream. I was living in Vincennes, Indiana and she was standing beside my bed, beckoning me, so I got out and followed her. In the living room she turned around as though to tell me something, and disappeared. I thought it was a dream, but there was no transition from sleeping to waking, and I was standing in the middle of the living room.
There could be a mundane, quasi-scientific explanation. I work with translucent layers with my photography. When you layer a color with bright highlights over a background, then gradually make it transparent, if it’s light enough, it becomes something akin to white or grey. Even something as dark as red hair can be mistaken for white.
Ghosts, particularly those who are merely repeating the past, are often described as transparent, and frequently white. Hence Casper, the friendly ghost in his sheet. I’ve seen those apparitions as well, and always assumed they were wearing white or something almost as light. So it’s easy to be misled by your eyes.
I once had an art teacher demonstrate how in darkness, there is no color. Color requires reflected light. It if it reflects the full spectrum, which is rare, an object appears white. Usually it’s grey, or cream, or even a light blue if illuminated by moonlight. If it absorbs all light, the object appears black. In between you have colors.
So a ghost, specifically one which is just replaying the past, which isn’t corporeal, won’t reflect light. And therefore has no color. If it was wearing dark clothes in life, or was dark skinned, a transparent image would be almost invisible against a dark background. But if it was wearing light clothes, had light skin or hair, the imprint of reflected light would still stand out against the dark. But there would be no color.
I’d had a list of haunted places around Lawrenceville for years. I’d recently watched a documentary on Elizabeth “Betsy” Reed, who was hung there in the nineteenth century, and as the White Lady haunted the cemetery where she was buried.
So one balmy Saturday afternoon, the lovely Lisa and I set out from Carmi, up Route One to get a feel for these haunted places, and the landscape and history behind them.
Route One … a two lane highway meandering through declining small towns in southern Illinois
Route One goes north from Carmi – through Crossville, Grayville, Allendale, Mt. Carmel and finally Lawrenceville, which is about as far north as I’d really wandered. It’s two lanes, and it can be an hour and a half to Lawrenceville during tractor season.
But if you’ve got time, it goes all the way into Chicago as Halsted Street, and you see a lot of interesting things along the way. Till you hit Danville, it pretty much skirts the Big Wabash River, with Vincennes and Terre Haute on the Indiana side. The Wabash was an early lifeline into the area, dating to the French in the sixteenth century. So you find a lot of French names, and French superstitions, such as the werewolf, Loup Garou.
Whether that werewolf made it across the Wabash we don’t know. But I’d bet dollars to donuts the story did.
For the most part, certainly for a few decades in the nineteenth century, Illinois was settled from the south up. Or rather, from the rivers inward. So these are some of the oldest communities in the state.
The shores of the Wabash are dotted with signs that the native Americans were here. Not just as settlers pushed in, but for centuries before, dating back to the mound builders of the Mississippian culture. Up here it was the Vincennes branch of the culture, a rival for the Angel settlements to the south, with their impressive mounds near Evansville, Indiana.
In the early nineteenth century, it was commonly believed that these mounds were built by visitors from Europe, or even the middle east. Some of the most learned minds of the day swore that the native Americans didn’t possess the technology to build them.
For the settlers, the mounds had to be a source of great mystery Even the native Americans of that day didn’t know the story behind the mounds, or the people who built them. Only long lost legends, barely remembered. Which no doubt became merged with the superstitions and folklore of the settlers.
Someone who had lived in Britain, Ireland, or elsewhere in Europe where there were mound building cultures, would certainly transfer that folklore to their new surroundings.
Likewise, those who believed in witches, would find them here in the wilderness as well. And with those beliefs came paranoia. There is nothing as frightening as a small, isolated community, dependent on each other for survival, engulfed in a wave of supernatural fear. Remember Salem?
For this was wilderness. These were people moving into new areas, and the vast prairies proved too hard to plow. That left the woodlands, complete with the big bad wolf, the three bears, coyotes and any number of hidden, as well as mythical dangers.
Blood, fire and lead … the dark history of the Huston Family Memorial Cabins
Native Americans were one of those dangers, an almost spectral presence because of their ability to move unseen through the thick forest, they were a constant fear in 1812. The tribes were rightly pissed at the intrusion, as this was their homeland. They had banded together at Tippecanoe, over in Indiana under Tecumseh. A force under the command of William Henry Harrison had ridden north to sack Prophetstown, which was to be the heart of Tecumseh’s dream.
Unfortunately Tecumseh was out of town, and his brother, Tenskwatawa violated a parley and attacked Harrison. To do so he’d cast a protective spell around his warriors. Native American witchcraft. Harrison repelled the attackers and proceeded to sack the town, destroying Tecumseh’s dream. And native American tribes began moving westward, leaving only a few scattered remnants behind.
Occasionally they lashed out around here, often quite viciously. The settlers fought back, and found their revenge in equally gruesome ways. It’s hard to look at the story from either side and not think “my god how can be people be so atrocious?”
So the Hutson Family Memorial Cabins near Palestine was our first destination. It’s a recreated Pioneer settlement, with a bakery, general store, barn, inn, weaver’s cabin, museum and of course, a church. The church is actually a work of primitive gothic splendor. And sitting here in silence on the grass, looking around me, it felt as though I could be on a movie set. And at any moment, the set could be filled with extras in period costumes.
Which is quite the sensation to have in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cornfields, with no other people in sight. In fact, I don’t remember more than a car or two passing by while we were there.
And of course, a recreation of the original Hutson cabin is here. In roughly the same place it would have originally stood. My first feeling was of claustrophobia. The place is tiny, and housed seven people. Surrounded by the dangers of the forest. It was through that you’d need to travel to the safety of the fort. And of course, this wasn’t a village back then. Just a small farm.
According the grandson of Isaac Hutson, the Hon. Austin Hutson, one day in 1812, his grandfather has been on a trip to the Indiana side of the Wabash for provisions. Isaac had moved his family to the vicinity of Fort LaMotte in 1810, which according to his grandson, was situated in the midst of hostile Indian country. His writing makes the settlers out to be John Wayne replicants on steroids, and all native Americans burning with treachery and evil in their hearts.
Isaac returned from his trip to find a horrific scene waiting for him. His farm was ablaze and his family missing. He feared the worst, that his wife and five “interesting” children were dead inside. Investigating further, he saw it was true, and that the culprits were Indians.
Along with some neighbors from the area of the fort, he set off after them. According to the Hon. Austin, “We remarked that their pursuit was in vain, but those eager pursuers, perhaps, thought differently, for many a straggler did their unerring rifles bring to the dust. And the red men finding that the whites were in pursuit and in desperate earnestness, stopped not until they had put many miles between them and the dreaded pale face foe.”
That those that he took his revenge on might not be a party to the fate of his family didn’t appear to matter. In that day and age, native Americans were often painted with the same broad brush. Eventually he made his way back to his smoldering cabin.
“The bones of Mrs. Hutson and those of her nearest son were found near the fire place. As the doors were barred, they had either attempted to climb out of the chimney, or rescue the little babe from the boiling soap kettle into which it had been thrown, no doubt, before the house was fired.”
“The kettle was suspended from an old fashioned crane, which was fastened in the jamb, and swung around like a gate. Think of the feelings of that mother when she saw her tender infant, about six months old, torn from her bosom by bloody hands and cast into the kettle. The sweet little hands are seen struggling with the bubbling surface; the strangling gurgle is heard; the foaming lava leaps the sides of the kettle; a noise of quenching fire is heard, mingled with the pleadings of the agonized mother, the deafening screams of the children and the threats of the brutal savages. Then followed the blows of the tomahawk; deep wounds were inflicted, from which the blood in streams did flow; the rough unpolished puncheon floor was colored red with human gore. The doors were fastened and the rude cabin set on fire. Around the burning house the remorseless red men danced with fiendish glee and yelled with demoniac merriment.”
That’s the mellow version of the story. A couple hundred years of folklore has made it even more grisly. One can’t help but wonder at the accuracy of the grandson’s account. By the time they poked through fire, the cabin had been burning and smoldering throughout much of the day at least, and likely through the night. How much evidence could have been left about what had happened prior to the fire? Who watched the native Americans dancing with glee in their demoniac merriment?
Isaac spent the rest of his life as an Indian fighter, and eventually died doing so. One can understand his rage and prejudice, even a couple centuries later because of his loss, if not his methods. But those were different times. Even then, not everyone reacted to atrocities the same way.
While researching Vona Shue, the Greenbrier Ghost of West Virginia article last year, I was reminded of the Muddy Creek massacre, which took place in the same area of West Virginia where Vona lived. It was my great grandmother, or rather one of them with several greats before her name, as this was in 1763. Settlers were banned by law in this area, but for one reason or another they decided to skirt the legalities. Then on June 26th, out of the blue, several native Americans showed up, bringing gifts and wanting to party. Each cabin in the settlement saw native Americans and settlers settling in for a bit of eating and drinking.
Back in my ancestor’s cabin, my grandmother complained of a headache. A native American said he could cure it, and she told him to go right ahead. He buried his tomahawk in her skull, and with that sign the settlement was wiped out. As I’ve heard it, her son was coming home from hunting and saw the massacre, and hid out till it was safe.
That fellow hiding in the tall grass … that’s my ancestor. I can’t blame the Indians as the settlers weren’t supposed to be there to begin with. Luckily for me, one of my line was more about self-preservation than revenge.
A lost Frenchman’s discovery lead to Fort LaMotte, Palestine and a haunted opera house on a deserted Main Street
The area the Hutson family had moved to was guarded by Fort LaMotte, built by a group of Baptists near what is now Palestine, Illinois around 1810, which has been reconstructed on the outskirts of town. About seventy rangers were stationed at the fort, under the command of Captain Pierce Andrews.
The fort was named after John Lamotte, a Frenchman who was a part of the LaSalle party which came through the area, and who was separated from the main expedition and found his way here.
During the War of 1812, when a couple of coopers, scouting the river bank near Africa Point on the Wabash for wood spotted some canoes, a squad was sent from the fort to check it out. The native Americans ambushed the soldiers, killing four and wounding two. The soldiers escaped back to Fort LaMotte, and presumably, the remaining Indians went on their way.
Today the fort was standing silent, in a pasture which appears to be used for events involving horses. On one side is a ball park. On the far side was a street with houses. No doubt during events, with costumed interpreters, this would be an impressive site. But empty, locked up, it felt simply abandoned. You can’t feel the history here, despite a noble try with the restoration.
The same could have been said for Palestine itself, at least the Main Street. Palestine is a good sized small town of about 1,400 people, certainly respectable for this area. It’s well kept, obviously old and with a quirky sense of of humor, shown by peculiar statues and other art in the town.
Which almost makes the emptiness of the place on a Saturday afternoon even more ominous. There was a definite Children of the Corn feel, with the corn being close to picking.
There were a handful of patrons at the tavern on Main Street, which is dominated by Fife Opera House. We parked at the side and wandered around.
It’s hard to imagine on these empty streets, devoid even of traffic, that this place once warranted an opera house on this scale. It’s said when they threw the lights for the first time, all the lights in town dimmed.
There have been no White Ladies reported at Fife Opera House, that I’m aware of. Only the sound of a woman singing opera, as well as a few mumbled voices over the walkie talkies of paranormal investigators.
David Fife was the man who built the opera house, and he also used it for a general store. Being a licensed embalmer, he used the second floor at the back of the building as a funeral home. His nephew shot himself there, and Fife himself was believed to have died here.
When one considers suicide in a funeral home, the mind kind of boggles.
Later it became a furniture store. It’s not known when the building took on the reputation of being haunted. Looking online, you don’t even find much in the way of details about the haunting. But standing outside, you can feel it.
There in the hot sun, peeking in through the windows for a glimpse of the splendor inside, you do get the feeling that the place could be haunted. This building which saw so much life, now spends most of its time in silence. It seems to me it would be easier than most places to hear the past.
But the same can be said of the whole town, and many of these small southern Illinois towns. You can feel the life which was once here, before being abandoned to suffer the long decline.
Mysteries surround the white lady of Baker Cemetery, Elizabeth “Betsey” Reed
Elizabeth “Betsey” Reed was believed to have been born early in the 19th century. Her tombstone doesn’t give the year of her birth, or her husband’s with whom she shares a tombstone. Only the date of her death, by hanging.
Most accounts have her as being 38 years old. Though believed by some to be partially disfigured, she’s believed by others to have had the power to mesmerize men.
But like most of the story of Elizabeth Betsey Reed, you can’t trust anything you hear. Your gut instinct is about as helpful as the facts. Even the tombstone, and where Betsey is buried is surrounded in mystery.
When you take a story from folklore, and then present as fact, history or historical fiction, it has the effect of making people believe that what they’re learning is the truth. In fact, there is no way to learn the truth of what happened with Betsey Reed.
There are plenty of contemporary newspaper accounts, from Chicago and back east mainly. It’s oddly familiar reading the debate between those who viewed Elizabeth Betsey Reed as a victim on the liberal east coast, and deserving of mercy, and those in the midwest who thought hanging was too good for her. She was a cause in the 19th century death penalty debate.
Elizabeth Betsey Reed was the first, and last woman executed in Illinois. This is true. But few know that the first person executed, at least legally in Illinois was a black man in Cahokia for witchcraft. He was supposed to be burned at the stake, but someone got ahead of the game with their pistol, perhaps out of mercy, perhaps out of fear.
Betsey was believed to be a witch too, or at least that’s the folklore. My hunch is that story came later, as none of the contemporary sources I’ve seen mention it. And they would have been on that story like stink on shit.
The most useful article I found wasn’t contemporary, but from the Princeton Daily Clarion of December 5, 1913.
Princeton is just across the river from Mt. Carmel, about 20 minutes south of Lawrenceville, where she was hung. Early on we find out that the author knows many of the people involved. She has the names of the jury, the witnesses, the judge – and knows his family history. She writes with familiarity with many of these people, so even though the author likely wasn’t alive at the time of her trial and execution, it’s drawing on sources who are using their memory of the events.
Which isn’t always all that accurate of course. Like the comment that Betsey was hung from a tree, rather than the gallows.
But they make another statement, which explains where the information comes from … “Elizabeth Reed and her husband lived near Palestine, Crawford county, on the farm cf my great uncle. James Baird. They being old and infirm and without means, he allowed them to live in the old log house, giving them a few acres for cultivation. Elizabeth must have had some terrible disfigurement of the face, for she always wore a wide white band about her head and tied under her chin, ard when she went out a thick veil.”
This is obviously someone still seeing Betsey as a victim, but someone with closer ties than all the writers out east, or up in Chicago. At first I discounted the story, as I’d heard that Betsey was around thirty or forty. She had the ability to charm men. She found God before her execution and was described as being robust on the way to the gallows, and during the 90 minute sermon preached before her hanging. That doesn’t jibe with her and her husband being old and infirm.
But then again, her husband had been treated for a stomach ailment for two or three years prior to his death. That jibes with being old and infirm.
Much has been made about her confession, that she killed her first husband, starved two of her children to death and dispatched one or two more via poison. But as the Chicago Tribune printed October 18, 1885, “days after the hanging, her confession was published post mortem, sold widely, but not a single copy can be found today.”
Which begs the question … did the confession ever exist? Or was it just a story circulated to sell newspapers?
And at any rate, her confession only came out after her death, by all accounts. So she was convicted on evidence that was only related to the death of her husband, a sickly man it was testified, and the the testimony of a little girl.
The author goes on to state that she asked the woman who rode in the wagon with Betsey on the way to the gallows, who had helped her find Jesus, if she thought her guilty. She replied that she didn’t, and once again mentioned that she was nearly seventy.
Was Elizabeth Betsey Reed a witch?
Who can really say? Today, we can’t even agree what a witch is. But I can’t help but be drawn to comparisons with Salem, Massachusetts, and their encounters with witches.
Elizabeth was never accused formally of being a witch. And it was never mentioned in contemporary accounts. It could, and likely is a modern addition to the story, relatively speaking.
But the connection with the Salem trails is startling. The star witness, who claimed to see Betsey putting the poison in her husband’s sassifrass tea was a young girl, just as in Salem. Without that evidence, there would have been no conviction. Unless the townspeople were already convinced she was a witch.
Another point made in the Chicago Tribune article is that there were several ambitious young doctors in town, and aside from the fact that the body was buried beneath scaffold, “no one cared what became of her body.”
Other papers were more specific. She was exhumed and an autopsy performed. Or the autopsy was performed prior to burial. In her stomach was found several pieces of brick, no bigger than a pea, and pulverized glass. She was eating the jail she was imprisoned in, trying to hasten her death and beat the hangman.
The doctors said they didn’t think she would have lasted through the week. And that explained her weakness on the scaffold. Unless of course, you’re following the stories where she’s up and praising Jesus.
My first thought, is why do you do an autopsy on someone who has just been hung? Isn’t the cause of death pretty much certain? Why check the contents of the stomach, when everything put in it, at least in most cases, would already be known? Why would it even matter?
It’s also worth mentioning that several papers had announced her suicide from swallowing a quantity of glass, only to have to issue a retraction that the hanging had been carried out after all. Which came first? The rumor of the suicide? Or the story of the autopsy?
But the story is there from the very beginning. A hanging is a gruesome event. This one drew 10-20,000 people to a town of a few hundred. An autopsy keeps the people in town just a little bit longer. The hanging of Elizabeth Betsey Reed was good business for Lawrenceville.
In my own hometown of Carmi, an hour south of Lawrenceville, our first hanging was halted with a stay of execution by the governor, delivered to the sheriff the night before the hanging. The sheriff arranged for the rider to come back the next day, while the condemned was on the gallows, to deliver the writ. He feared a riot from the crowds gathering in town without an execution, or something equally as exciting.
So you can’t put anything past these people. They’re my people, God bless them, but sometimes people behave like dogs.
The rumor of witchcraft stems from when Betsey was being held in the jail at Palestine. It was a formidable structure. You had to climb a ladder to the second story, then you went down to the floor for the first, which was set two or three or feet below ground level. There were two alternating layers of timber a foot thick. It was a dungeon, and somehow, Betsey managed to set it on fire.
She was caught running down the street, almost insane from some reports. She was moved to Lawrenceville, which set the stage for the final act. And back home in Palestine, the rumor mill started grinding out the story that Betsey was a witch.
If it’s true she was about seventy, impoverished, living on the outskirts of town, and convicted on the testimony of children, then the correlations between her and the Salem witches are even closer. She’s the kind of woman that people believe to be a witch, because she fit the archetype.
So Elizabeth Betsey Reed was witch, because in part at least, she was likely prosecuted by people who believed she was a witch. To be a witch, in that time and place, didn’t require you to do anything.
In that day and age, witches were thought to be old, ugly, the crone in the woods. Today witches take on a more glamorous aura, just as mythical. But it’s only natural that over time, a poor old woman prosecuted because of suspicion and little evidence, becomes younger, a temptress and more malicious than in life.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Reed springs up in folklore springs up before her body is even cold
As noted, a group of doctors, or medical students did an autopsy on Betsy’s body. But the reliability of this report is sketchy.
According to some, Betsey was buried beneath the gallows, and the students dug her up. Then once their grisly deed was done, buried her in a pauper’s field in Lawrenceville. So even before she’s spent a night in the grave, there’s disagreement about where that grave was.
And remember … the longer the time between execution and autopsy, the harder it is to explain the rumors of poisoning by ingesting glass that made their way to print even before the editors had seen the first reports of her hanging.
If there was an autopsy, it was done immediately, and she was buried. Either beneath the scaffold, or in a local cemetery. Then, according to later legends, her relatives, brothers are often mentioned, dug her up and moved her to Baker’s Cemetery, outside Heathville, just south of Palestine near where Betsey and her husband lived.
It’s there you find the tombstone, the grave of Betsy and her husband.
But wait a minute.
Would her husband’s family dig up his killer and bury her next to her husband? Would her own family dig her up and bury her next to the man she was accused of killing. If they thought her guilty, it’s unlikely they would have went to the trouble. And more unlikely they would have buried her next to him.
Unless the family, on both sides, if there was a family, believed her innocent. Only then would either side agree to burying the two together. After all, there were plenty of free places to bury bodies on the frontier.
A trip to Baker’s Cemetery
I’d read that electronic instruments, like cameras and recorders don’t work in Baker Cemetery. I can’t vouch for that. My camera worked fine, as did Lisa’s iPhone. We had no trouble taking photos, even at Elizabeth “Betsey” Reed’s grave.
As usual, Lisa was the one to find it. I didn’t really try to be honest. I knew she’d find it before I did. It’s a modern tombstone, set in 1988 by a nearby family who always believed she was innocent. A man was hunting along the edge of the woods there, and stumbled across a small square stone that had the initials ER carved on it. It’s obviously old, obviously hand done, just as you’d expect from a poor settler family in the 1840s.
But there’s always a mystery with Betsey. There is no old stone for her husband. In the records of Baker Cemetery of 1944, he doesn’t exist. Though on the edge of the woods, in all fairness, maybe his stone hadn’t been discovered. And perhaps the new one replaced it. Who knows?
The new stone is edged in pennies of people coming to pay their respects, just like us. And there is a mood in Baker Cemetery. It’s a summer day, the sun is shining, it’s hot, humid. But the place just feels oppressive.
I sat on a tombstone nearby, a modern one, big enough to hold my fat ass without any problems, and just let myself go blank. Lisa was between me and Betsey’s grave, and I brusquely asked if she could move, as she was fucking with my feng shui. I didn’t mean to sound gruff. It was the result of the last hour or so, where our electronic devices that should have taken us directly to Baker Cemetery refused to work, even back in Palestine. I still just had anxiety and frustration in my voice.
We knew the cemetery was near Heathsville, so we set off for that town. Luckily we blinked before coming into town, as that’s about how long it takes to pass through it. We guessed that the population must be eighty, but someone had removed the zero from the sign, so it read eight.
Just past town there was a road which we thought we should take but the sign was too small to read. I pulled into the next turn to turn around, and a truck that had been following us pulled in beside us. He rolled his window down, and Lisa rolled down hers.
“You lost?” he asked, sounding more friendly than menacing. These are small communities, and they tend to shy away from outsiders. It’s not as bad as in Betsey’s day, but long hairs and Lisa’s bumper stickers can arouse suspicion.
She told him we were looking for Baker Cemetery. He paused for a second, then gave us directions. And was on his way.
So when we finally pulled into the winding dirt road that runs next to a creek, and up a hill, I half expected to see a convoy of villagers coming in behind us with pitchforks and sickles. That left me paranoid, on top of the irritation and panic that comes from being lost, and seeing the sun dip lower in the sky.
Lisa moved away and went back to taking photos and I pondered. But nothing came to me.
When you put aside the EVPs various paranormal folk come up with, what you have here is a classic White Lady story. The White Lady, seen walking among the tombstones. As Betsey is believed to be buried here, and she went to her death in white, it’s assumed that’s who the White Lady is. But that’s a guess.
This is a graveyard that’s been in use for over 150 years. The earliest markers were of wood, and likely why Betsey’s husband had no marker. Those are long gone. But all these people had stories, and any woman buried here could just as easily become a Lady In White as Betsey.
I walked over to where Lisa was standing. She had a stabbing pain in her side, like someone stuck a knife between her ribs. She was leaning against a tombstone, obviously in pain. There was no cause for it that she could pinpoint, except riding too long in the car perhaps. It finally passed and we decided it would be a good time to leave, as we still had stops to make in Lawrenceville, and the sun was going down.
The ghosts at Lawrenceville High School
The old Lawrenceville High School stands abandoned on a high hill on the edge of Lawrenceville, Illinois, overlooking the Embarrass river (pronounced Ambraw) below. A few years back a fire swept through empty building, leaving an eerie brick shell. A weeping willow, ancient and huge stands guard at the shattered front doors.
At the foot of the hill is where the gallows were erected for Betsey’s hanging. The trouble is, nobody knows exactly where. But it’s a safe bet that this is the hill that people clamored over to get a good view, whichever direction they were looking. Even the low estimate of ten thousand gawkers would have covered this whole area.
The Crawford County Ghost Hunters have done a pretty extensive investigation at the football field, which is where most people believe that the gallows stood. They found a few bad EVPs, heard unusual sounds and in general, felt creeped out.
I walked around the high school, which looks like a castle on a hill in ruins. Peering into the empty rooms, without ceilings into the sky above, it looks deserted much longer than a few years.
The grass is a bit tall, and every path that seemed to lead to the football field was locked behind a chain link fence. I finally found an open gate and wandered down into the pit. The grass was blowing a bit in the breeze, and I can’t say I ever saw a place look more empty.
The goalposts rise eerily out of the grass, and I could still remember seeing this place packed with people, the sounds of shoulder pads slamming into each other under the bright white stadium lights.
What creeped me out was knowing that in the one year I played football in high school, the last sixty seconds of the game against Lawrenceville where I finally got to play, we might well have been playing over the buried corpse of Elizabeth Betsy Reed. If she was indeed buried beneath the scaffold, there’s a good chance she’s still there. If not, where I got pulverized by a tight end might well have been where her neck was snapped.
But according to most historians, the actual site of the gallows was likely a quarter mile to the east. So what supernatural occurrences could the Crawford Paranormal folks been picking up on?
They’re convinced it’s remnants from the hanging. But I can’t buy that. The football field is simply a convenient location for the legend to live.
Still, that doesn’t mean that Lawrenceville High School isn’t haunted.
The grey lady of Lawrenceville High school
It’s said that the Lawrenceville High School had been haunted for years. But nobody spoke up till Halloween, 1975.
The football team had been over in Bridgeport kicking the asses of their main rivals, and returned to the high school after the game, still elated. They hung out for a while in the locker room, till one team member made a run to the water fountain.
“I went upstairs to get a drink. I heard a noise and turned around to see a lady standing behind me. I took off running – but when I stopped and looked back I didn’t see her anymore.”
He ran back downstairs and told his teammates, some of whom wanted to go upstairs and check it out. When they did, they’d see something move, freak and run away. Finally they girded their loins and went upstairs for another look.
One of the boys described what happened, “we thought we saw something move. It looked as if it tried to hide. Then we saw something move from window to window. It was a tan-ish figure. I saw it at least five times that night. I got scared and ran out, and then had to go back in to see if I was going crazy. One time she was so close I could see her eyes. They were shiny and – weird. You couldn’t really tell it was a woman. I guess we just felt it was.”
A couple of other students saw the figure, as well as some of the parents, who had went inside. Other reports came from the parking lot, where parents were waiting for their sons. One said, “I was outside. I saw the blinds going up and down. I saw the lady moving back and forth in the band room on the top floor.”
These weren’t anonymous reports. These are people speaking in a national magazine using their real names. That’s taking a chance in a small town, where talking about ghosts can lead people to believe you’re half a bubble off plumb.
Trust me. I’ve got experience in that department.
Lawrence Lore, the blog of the Lawrence County Historical Society where I got the story tracked down a possible source of the haunting.
Georgine Lyon of Madison, Indiana became high school librarian in August 1952. She had been engaged to Charles Petrach of Gary, Indiana. Chuck had served in World War II, seen action in Japan and was injured there, which left him a bit “erratic.”
Georgine caught on to this fact, and after he got busted for drunk driving and lost his license, his car and his job, she broke off the engagement, and took a job as librarian at Lawrenceville High School.
On September 3, 1952, Charles showed up in the high school library, which was empty at the time and asked Georgine to reconsider. When she turned him down, he pulled out a 22 and started firing. Georgine was hit in the right temple, the lower throat, twice in the heart and three times in the abdomen.
Could she be the grey lady of Lawrenceville High School?
Still more Stranger Things, The White Lady on the railroad bridge
I’ve stolen liberally from the website, Folklore, Legends, Tall Tales, An Interactive Casebook For Knox County, Indiana by Richard King for years. It’s only right. He still owes me a bottle of Jameson over a bet.
What I like about his site is he covers much more than Knox County, Indiana. I’ve found stories about southern Illinois which were once big news across the country, but long forgotten in the state where they were born.
Like the White Lady that haunts the railroad, waiting on the bridge for a train to take her pain away.
On the edge of Lawrenceville, an old steel railroad bridge still crosses the Embarrass River to the east of the tank farm of the old Texaco refinery. The refinery was big business in Lawrenceville and responsible for much of its population. Then it shut down, leaving a town to decline and fade. Looking at the satellite view from Google maps, it’s apparent that though most of the structure is gone from the refinery, much of the mess is still there.
I had a notion it might be tricky getting down to the river, as this meant going through the area where the refinery used to stand. To be honest, I wasn’t excited about taking the path. The railroad tracks looked to be a safer bet, but it appeared it would be a choice between one or the other, as both sides of the tracks looked overgrown and wet.
It turns out that I was right. The whole area is sealed off by chain link fences. While I drove, Lisa pored over Google maps on her phone, looking for a way in. The sun was rapidly going down, and as we crossed the tracks I stopped and looked towards the river. In the distance I could make out the bridge.
Lisa was having no luck, so I hung a left and headed towards the river. I didn’t get far, before running into more chain link, this time courtesy of CSX railroad. So I parked in a skeptically legal spot, and decided to head for the bridge on foot, as I really needed the photo, and to feel the place. Lisa stayed behind to safeguard the car from any authorities who were likely to pop up.
I immediately realized it was a bad idea. It was still hot, getting dark and the bridge was barely visible in the distance. But I set off all the same down the tracks.
There’s an art to walking on railroad tracks, or rather the cross ties. The rocks in between are large and jagged. The ankle twists frequently. The only way to make good time is to walk on the wooden ties. But to walk on each tie means taking tiny steps. Skipping a tie means a longer stride. I was in a hurry so I skipped a tie and opted for a longer stride.
I passed more No Trespassing signs, and after about a quarter mile I was in an area that was sealed off on both sides of the track. You could tell there was something noxious about the place, Toxic even.
According to the article on Richard’s site, “She was said to be about our age, a high school girl or maybe just a little older. At some time in the past she had put on her nicest white dress, and walked the mile or so through the refinery stink and the tank car yard and walked out onto the bridge and waited for a train. When it came along she made no attempt to jump or get out of the way, she just stood there in her white dress and let it hit her.”
“A full train of cars at fifty tons apiece or more takes quite a ways to stop, and there was no way those trainmen could keep from hitting her. At forty, fifty miles an hour there’s not much left when a train hits a person like that, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a pretty girl or not. At least it must have been over pretty quick.”
I remember as a child, growing up in Carmi that an old man had been hit by a train a short time before. Some friends were playing along the tracks and found a shoe. With the foot still in it. So I was used to the gruesome idea of death by train from an early age. It’s only got worse as I grew older, and more people I knew died from them.
So that had me weirded out. I would occasionally hear a scream in the distance, as likely to be a little kid as a lady in white. But it was unnerving all the same. By this time I was moving at a good clip, drenched in sweat, short of breath, the blood pounding in my head.
I was reminded of the series, Stranger Things which deals with mysteries around small towns, fenced off with secret horrors going on within. Though based on Long Island legends, it’s located in the show in southern Indiana. In one episode, they have to escape to Illinois, and according to my calculations, they’d have been right around here.
I’d hear an occasional high pitched whine that sounded like a train whistle and jerked my head around and stopped. Each time it was a large power line running along the tracks, screaming out in the silence. Otherwise it was silent. There are no people back here. No cars. No wildlife for that matter, and the sky was turning pink.
The girl who died here was thought be about high school age, and was believed to be depressed over losing her boyfriend in the early days of a war. Nobody was sure which one, though WWII is a likely candidate.
The author to the story on the site, related the following, which he had heard from his girlfriend’s brother, who worked for the railroad.
“When we got to his house, her sister-in-law told us he had been crying. Then laughing. Then he cried some more, and then he started getting very, very drunk. I had seen a few drunks before. When we got to talking, he was laughing again, but he was shaking like he was real cold. He’d seen her, he said: the girl on the bridge. He told us about it.”
“It seems that sometimes since that first time, the train crew would see a girl standing out on the bridge right where the one had been hit before. It was no ghost either; when the train hit, there was blood across one side of the engine front on the fireman’s side and as they went past they could see her white dress go under the wheels. The first few times, trains had stopped there and the fireman and head brakeman would go back to see who it was. When they got there, there’d be nothing there. They were told that it was probably a trick of some kind, a stunt by some kids with a dummy and some white rags. That was the official explanation anyway, and for a while at least, the trainmen were ordered not to stop at that bridge if they thought they had hit someone.”
The story dates at least to the 1950s, and it’s not heard of much since. I finally made it to the bridge, with still enough light to get the photo. As I got my photos, the whir of the camera the only sound. The White Lady didn’t come out to greet me, but I was thankful for that. I didn’t want to watch her go down, and didn’t want to be on the tracks when a train was coming.
So I texted Lisa I was on my way back. By then she had relocated the car to someplace legal, not much further away than before, and had started wondering if I was dead. I assured her I was till amongst the living, though I didn’t see any, and turned heels and started back down the tracks.
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