In 1692, fear of the dark unknown and mass hysteria laid hold of the small English settlement of Salem, Massachusetts. The panic was touched off when a group of impressionable young girls made the claim that the devil’s handmaidens, witches, were in their midst. And these servants of the prince of darkness were not strangers to their village, but rather their neighbors and friends. Paranoia ran high as fingers were pointed and trust was eroded. It was feared that anyone could be in league with Lucifer.
When the accused were brought before judges, the group of girls began to howl in anguish and writhed on the floor as if they were possessed. To the good people of Salem, the only possible explanation was these girls were bewitched and if nothing were done, all of Salem would fall under the spell of untold wickedness.
Not quite a year after the first allegations and the accusations stopped, 19 people were executed and over a dozen more languished in dank prison cells. Looking back on this disgraceful time, I am sure all would agree it was a black stain on American history.
Allegations of witchcraft and accusations of devil worship were common throughout the history of western Christendom. In Scotland and Germany, superstition and hysteria claimed the lives of countless women, men and even children. The Salem witch trials, as we call them today, was not an isolated incident on the shores of the new world. There were other witch hunts, even in my home state of Illinois.
Near the town of Arcola in south east Douglas county, sits the old Amish town of Chesterville. This abandoned village may not appear on any modern maps, but at one time it was a thriving community. It is there, in an old cemetery you will find a curious gravestone that simply reads, “A witche’s grave.” Not really something you would expect to find in a cemetery in Illinois, and yet, there it is. But who was this woman? And how did she get branded as a witch?
The alleged witch’s name has been lost to history, having died with the town of Chesterville long ago. Nevertheless, according to legend, sometime in the early 1900s, the so-called witch was a progressively minded woman who spoke out against the unfair treatment of women in the austere religious community. It was not uncommon to find her disrupting Sunday services and arguing biblical law with the church elders; and to top off her multitude of crimes against the church, she refused to take a husband and bare children. This disobedience was wholly unacceptable at the time in their community.
Over time, the townsfolk could take no more of her godless ways and accused her of practicing black magic. Without even so much as a trial, she was shunned by the church and banished from the community. Unphased by the judgment, the woman shook the dust of the town off her shoes and disappeared over the horizon.
Following the banishment, the accused witch disappeared, and the community returned to their lives. No one gave a second thought to the woman, and why would they? She was shunned and as far as they were concerned, she never even existed.
Not long after her disappearance a grisly scene unfolded in a cornfield just outside of town. While plowing the field a farmer discovered the severely beaten and mangled body of the accused witch lying on a blood-soaked ground. When the elders arrived they concluded that regardless of the condition of the woman’s body, she perished from natural causes. Her body was put on display and when the viewing of the dead witch was complete, she was buried in a local cemetery.
With the burial out of the way, the elders feared her spirit would escape and seek vengeance on the community that unfairly judged her. In the interest of keeping her securely in the ground, the elders placed a tree over her grave. Satisfied she would never return, the people of Chesterville went back to their lives without fear of hellish retribution. Unfortunately for them, the tree did not work as well as they hoped.
Since the burial well over a century ago, there have been sporadic reports from people claiming to see the specter of the witch. The grotesque apparition of a blood covered woman has been spotted either standing on the grave or peeking out from behind the tree. When she appears, she is said to let out an ear splitting, cackling laugh that chills people to the bone. One man reported that as he jogged near the cemetery, he could hear the voice of the witch beckoning to him to join her in the grave. According to local lore, if the tree is ever removed or dies, the witch would be unleashed upon the town to seek vengeance from those who wronged her.
Although the witch’s grave is regarded as little more than a frightening urban legend, not everyone is quite as dismissive. Some in the area believe the stories told of the witch and actively avoid traveling anywhere near the cemetery that keeps her mortal remains. If a witch is indeed buried in the forgotten cemetery, it is more than likely she was just a woman born in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
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