Halloween Week – Baby Head Cemetery

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

In the summer of 2012, Mr. Oddbooks and I drove out to Baby Head, Texas.  A real place.  I swear.
Baby Head Cemetery

It’s a ghost town now, more or less incorporated into Llano, Texas, and Llano was a weird place in its own right.  We drove around forever trying to find the remaining Baby Head post office and never found it.  But we did find plenty of Apostolic churches, Cowboy Congregations, exotic animals being raised so weekend warriors can obliterate them with assault weapons on canned hunts, and several hidden little cemeteries that I really want to go back and investigate, as long as I can remember to wear steel-toed boots to repel all the grass burrs and fire ants.

Back to Baby Head.  The town got its name because “oral tradition” says that some time between 1850-1875, a local Indian tribe kidnapped a white child, killed it, and left it on a mountain that came to be called Babyhead Mountain.  (The town’s name and the cemetery’s name are Baby Head, while the mountain is Babyhead.  Don’t ask me why.  But even that isn’t carved in stone as you will find the town, the cemetery and the mountain all referred to as “Babyhead” or “Baby Head” with no real explanation for the variations.)
Historical marker

It’s hard to know if there is any truth to this legend.  The tribe of the Indians who supposedly killed the baby is unknown, though if hard-pressed I would say it had to be Comanches, a pretty harsh tribe to be sure.  The name of the baby is also officially unknown, but it is assumed to have been a little girl.  I personally suspect the baby’s designated gender is because the oldest grave in the Baby Head Cemetery belongs to a little girl who died on New Year’s Day in 1884, though one local historian insisted her late husband knew people who searched for the child.  The woman’s husband said the little girl was murdered in 1873, and that her name was Mary Elizabeth Buster.  I have never been able to run to ground a Mary Elizabeth or a Mary Elizabeth Buster from Baby Head in 1873, but I also have a notoriously short attention span.  This article by Dale Fry best illustrates all the stories about this Texas legend.

I had read several accounts of how creepy Baby Head Cemetery is.  It wasn’t creepy.  It was interesting, and sort of macabre in a very sunny way, but mostly it was painful. 

I have never encountered more grass burrs per square foot than I did in Baby Head Cemetery.  It was July, 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius, for my readers abroad), but we were prepared for the potential problems one encounters in Texas.  We both had on long sleeves, jeans and reasonably proper footwear and within two minutes inside the gate, from the calf down we were covered in burrs that picked through our shoes and socks.  Seriously, next time we both need to be in heavy boots.  A couple of people showed up while we were there, tourists attracted by the road sign, and they lasted less than a minute.  One woman in flip flops and shorts actually screamed in pain.
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It’s hard to see that she was running out of the cemetery, but she was. And she was straight-up screaming as she did it.

We later saw some men leaving a different cemetery a bit south of Baby Head and when they left they removed their pants, standing in their underwear by their cars, struggling to remove the burrs.  I didn’t take pictures because they were at the cemetery to pay respect to a friend or family member and who needs a city slicker taking pics of you in your tighty whities when visiting grandma left you covered in painful burrs.  Still, I mention them because the pain was so intense they couldn’t endure staying in their pants long enough even to wait through the usual burr-removal-process (it involves a stick and lots of complaining).

Those burrs made sure I raced through the cemetery.  I did, however, manage to get some interesting pictures of this weird, weed-ridden place.  I became interested in cemetery investigation because I really enjoy decoding the funerary symbols on gravestones.  Most modern Protestant stones tend to be pretty unremarkable but in older cemeteries, especially Catholic ones, you can find all sorts of interesting symbols and statuary.  I also like periodically looking up the names of the people I find in unusual cemeteries or whose stones and plots seem particularly interesting.  A few of the stones in Baby Head Cemetery had interesting iconography.
Jodie May McKneely

This is the oldest stone in the cemetery, the grave of the little girl whose death I personally suspect has colored the legend of the child murdered by Indians.  When the first person buried in a frontier town cemetery happens to be a female toddler, it can cause people to engage in macabre stories.  The dove on Jodie May McKneely’s stone indicates Christian purity and God’s promise of safety after the flood, and is a common image on the graves of children or unmarried young woman.  This stone appears to be sinking, which is sort of odd given that most stones this old and in such a hot, dry place tend to break.  I suspect this stone broke and that the top of the stone was reburied.  For people who live in Europe or in New England, a stone from 1884 doesn’t seem that old but in Texas, this is some ancient history right here.

Charles McCoy
This grave of Charles McCoy, who died as a baby, is just one of many gravestones belonging to little children. Old cemeteries in Texas are a stark reminder of how often families lost babies and little ones.  The extraordinary number of dead children and babies stems off around 1950 in most of the cemeteries I’ve visited. The top of this broken stone has a lamb, a common symbol used on the graves of babies and young children to indicate a meek, mild purity. The bottom of his stone says, “Where immortal spirits reign, we shall meet again.”

Jerry and Mary Fleming
This stone caught my eye because of the birthdate of the couple, and because my father was named Jerry and my mother is named Mary. You look at this picture and it seems so peaceful and nice. Shady tree, pretty flowers. Except that it was boiling in the shade and all those pretty flowers were producing miserable burrs. Also it was right next to a portojohn. You don’t want to be close to a portojohn in Texas in the middle of summer.

Martha Bell Sawyer

I really liked Martha’s stone because it is the sort that demanded a little bit of attention in order to understand it. Clasped hands are often a symbol of marriage, with the cuffs and hand size to indicate a man’s hand and a woman’s hand, symbolizing that a married couple would meet again in Heaven.  If the cuffs are the same, then the image is indicating a farewell from this mortal coil.  The stone is too faded for me to see if these hands were supposed to indicate a man and a woman but I do know Martha died just after her fifteenth birthday.  Even in the old West, it’s unlikely she would have been married at such a young age.  The hands likely mean to indicate an earthly farewell.  And since the word “farewell” is over the hands, this seals the deal for me.

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Thankfully, given the heat, the ants, the burrs and the smell, we missed the plague of locusts.

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There was a fenced off area in the cemetery devoted to the graves of one specific family and because I lack common sense and was already quite miserable, I decided to enter this area.

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The little fenced off area was overgrown and the burrs ensured I didn’t try to battle my way to get a closer look at the stones. But I do have to admit it was pretty peaceful in this section of the cemetery.

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I invariably have a favorite stone from every cemetery visit, and Mary Augusta Willbern was my favorite at Baby Head. I like the appearance of her stone – it seems cheerful, if a gravestone in a Protestant cemetery can ever seem cheerful. I also love this stone because the images used to adorn it require more interpretation than the average stone. Mary was only 17 when she died, so the image of the dove makes perfect sense, as it is a symbol of purity and God’s promise of peace. The dove is carrying a palm frond, a symbol of resurrection, and what I believe is an olive branch, another symbol of God’s promise to man after the flood. However, it is interesting to note that the dove is carrying both branches with her feet and that they are not held in her beak. An olive branch in a dove’s beak is often a Catholic symbol to indicate the Holy Ghost. This dove is holding the olive branch with her feet, which makes sense since this is a decidedly Protestant cemetery.

As I mentioned earlier, the entire Llano area was pretty interesting and sort of horrible.  I would very much like to return because every tiny road you drove down featured something for the curious explorer.

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We saw several tiny frontier cemeteries tucked away off tinier country roads but could not endure the thought of dealing with more burrs. You had no idea what you would encounter beyond the bend because several of the roads featured free-roaming livestock.  Like longhorn cattle and Brahman bulls just wandering in the road, sometimes settling down on the gravel for naps.  And then there were the canned hunt animals…

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Yeah, this zebra is probably dead now, killed by a scumbag who totally just had to pay money to shoot a pretty animal that is not native to this area.  I’m not anti-gun or even anti-hunting but if you’re such a jaded piece of shit that you just have to kill an animal that someone imported for the purpose and kept in a field wherein the animal had no chance of escaping, you need to reevaluate your life and choices because you are a complete asshole.

Hopefully we’ll go back soon and check out some of those other cemeteries we encountered as we drove around.  And I really hope all those zebras managed to cause some damage before some unethical, cowardly dumbass shot them to death, but that seems unlikely since they were not nearly as skittish around humans as they needed to be.

As often happens in Texas, that which is meant to be creepy turns out to be weird.  I think there is a lot more curious weirdness hidden down those little gravel country roads that will prove to be every bit as interesting as Baby Head, Texas.

**I photographed over 100 gravestones during this trip but evidently never edited them or made them public when I uploaded them.  I will be editing them soon so bookmark my Flickr album with these Baby Head pics if you want to see more in the future.**

7 thoughts on “Halloween Week – Baby Head Cemetery

  1. baby head, so very texas. I am intrigued.

    when we first moved here a friend said not to go out in the yard without shoes because of “the burrs” so I threw on my flip flops and headed out, naively. several moments later I was pretty sure I had stepped into hell, and had to limp from foot to foot all the way BACK through the nightmare. God damn those things!

    1. As a native Texan who has spent some time out in the wilds of west Texas, I was wholly unprepared for the burrs we encountered out in Baby Head. This was near Biblical in scope. GAH!

  2. I’m wondering about the Maria Cantu headstone photograph on your Flickr page (I didn’t see an obvious way of commenting there). Was the photo, on the stone, added later? It appears cleaner than the rest of the stone and I would have assumed that putting a photo on a grave marker is a process that was developed in more recent times – later than 1933.

    1. David, sorry about that. Flickr is a complete nightmare for me these days, too.

      The photo-transfer techniques that permitted Maria’s stone to have her picture were around in the 1930s. It’s been a while since I’ve read about the exact techniques but my money is a porcelain or ceramic transfer. Her stone is almost completely covered in live brush. I had to more or less climb into the brushy area and ask my husband to hold one of the branches back. It appears to me that she’s likely been in the shade for a long while, which cuts down on some of the fading you can see with other porcelain or ceramic transfers. Lots of similar stones from similar time frames are pretty faded from decades of sun exposure – I think being in the shade helped Maria’s photo stay so crisp in appearance.

      Maria Cantu is one of my favorite stones from Santa Maria cemetery.

      And just to share the pic David is referring to:
      Maria Cantu

  3. you must be talking about goatheads, not ‘burrs’

    i liked the story about Baby Head Cemetery till you ruined it by cussing at the end about hunting zebras.

    1. Hoo boy, you best stop reading here entirely, Randy. If my use of “asshole” to describe the sorts of scumbags who pay to kill semi-domesticated exotic animals is enough of an issue to cause you to comment about it, you definitely do not want to read my review of Tao Lin or my opinions about mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik. Glad you enjoyed the article up to that point though!

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