The Liberty Hill Witch Grave: Bad Legends and Cemetery Desecration

I’d known about the legend of the infamous Liberty Hill witch grave for a while but only recently managed to drive up there and have a look around. It seemed a perfect thing to document for Halloween, because the legend, though unlikely, is fueled by witchcraft, cruel death and creepy graveyard stories. But this was one of those times when the damage done by the legend far outweighs the value of recently-created folklore.

The Liberty Hill witch grave is an example of new folklore, and is largely a creation of Internet sites that breathlessly repeat rumors as fact and take EVP tapes gathered by ghost hunters as solid evidence. My research shows that the stories of the witch grave really started to get traction in the last 20 years or so, and have been spread through ghost hunters who visit the cemetery at night to talk to the dead witch and assorted “weird” sites that tell ghost stories. Older locals in Andice and Liberty Hill, small towns north of Austin in the Texas Hill Country, especially those who don’t spend hours online each day, haven’t heard of the witch grave or only know about it now because they are appalled by the amount of destruction ghost hunters and drunk teenagers have done to the cemetery.

Often legends need to stand as they are – critical analysis of the legends seldom does any good because people who have a will to believe will not be dissuaded by facts and because most of the time truth in such stories doesn’t matter. For example, I’ve shared my trip to Baby Head, Texas on this site – Baby Head gets its name because there are stories of a Comanche raid that resulted in the beheading of a little settler girl. I don’t know if that happened, but have come to believe that because the first grave in the Baby Head Cemetery is that of a little girl who died on New Year’s Day, and because Baby Hill/Llano was once in the middle of Comanche territory, the town name may not be based in whole truth but is certainly derived from genuine trauma or terror.  Real Comanche incursions into pioneer settlements combined with that tiny dead girl fueled the legend of the little girl who lost her head to the Comanches, the girl behind the legend that gave Baby Head its name.

Such legends are organic outgrowths of genuine events and even if they are not true in the factual sense, they are true in that they represent the collective fears and anxiety of a particular group of people in a particular place and time. The Liberty Hill witch grave is not one of those kinds of legends. It’s cobbled together using elements borrowed from other places and times, it’s not a story that attempts to explain some unpleasant reality of frontier life because tensions regarding slavery were long in the past when the myth was created (though certainly elements of the story may have some factual basis in social injustices that happened to other black women in Texas). It’s a bad ghost story that doesn’t really add to the lore of Texas or depict social issues of the past so much as it contributes to wholesale vandalism of historical sites.

So let me tell you about the story of the Liberty Hill witch grave, show you some pictures, and then explain, using common sense, why the story is nonsense, and using factual record to show why it’s absolutely false. I’m going to leave the analysis of the myth under the cut so that way people who just want to revel in the ghost story can skip my commentary.  Also, I have set up an album in Flickr that shows the whole of the cemetery so those who love cemetery porn can see some old Texas graves, some of genuine historical worth.

Click on any picture in this entry to see a larger version.

entrance
North entrance into Bittick Cemetery. This sign was erected in 2004 after the wooden sign was destroyed by vandals.

The Liberty Hill witch grave, located in the Bittick family cemetery in Williamson County, is said to contain the mortal remains of a slave named “Elizebeth Simpson.” The legend says that in 1862, “Elizebeth Simpson,” a slave woman, was hanged to death for stealing one of her master’s horses. She was dragged to the Bittick family cemetery, hanged from one of the oak trees in the center of the parcel of land, then cut down and buried there.  Other legends indicate Elizebeth was hanged for witchcraft but witches in the Hill Country were thin on the ground.  I can’t find a single historical record to indicate anyone was ever executed for witchcraft in Texas.  Frankly the horse story makes a lot more sense – stealing livestock is serious business even now, but common thieves seldom make curses from the grave the way hanged witches do.

esfront1
What’s left of “Elizebeth Simpson’s” gravestone.

Her stone said she was born on April 10, 1834 and died on September 24, 1862. Her head stone had the following saying:

And remember as yo ar pasin by yo must die as well as I

That inscription has been interpreted by some to be a dark curse of sorts, with people insisting it means that anyone who walks in front of “Elizebeth’s” grave will be hanged unless they leave her some sort of offering to appease her.  And I use past tense describing the stone because it’s been destroyed – I am relying on an older picture of the stone I’ve found online to show its original form. A picture taken by someone else before it was wholly obliterated is under the cut.

 

esangleview
Debris and offerings left at “Elizebeth’s” gravestone.

Ghost hunters have come to “Elizebeth’s” stone and recorded all kinds of EVPs they claim demonstrate moans they claim no one heard while they were recording, as well as ghostly whispers.

To keep from being hexed by the curse on the stone, or possibly in attempts to curry favor with the dead slave, people leave gifts and offerings on the grave, like toys, alcohol and coins. Curiously, other stones throughout the cemetery are covered in coins, mostly pennies and quarters. I worry that because “Elizebeth’s” stone has been destroyed and lacks visual impact that ghost seekers are going to other graves.  One grave of a dead child who was born the day before Halloween 150 years ago was festooned with quarters, and a rock tomb belonging to a child was also covered with change.

esofferingsclose
Toys and cigarettes left for “Elizebeth.” The cough drops seem a pretty thoughtful gift for a witch whose throat likely hurts after being hanged.
esgrave3
Note the “X” marks at the bottom of the stone. These are reminiscent of marks left on Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau’s tomb.

Some try to raise her spirit to speak to them via seances and ouija boards.  Mr OTC found this handmade ouija board folded up in some tall grass in the northwest corner of the cemetery.

ouija2
Impromptu attempts to speak to the dead.

Far creepier than leaving beer bottles on the gravestone of a possibly executed slave woman is that it appears that people engage in carnal activities on or near “Elizebeth’s” grave.

condom
Never a good sign when you find condom wrappers in a cemetery.
ugh
It’s an even worse sign when you find used hand towels and empty beer bottles near a condom wrapper in a cemetery.

I would like to beg everyone who thinks of going into this cemetery to commune with a dead woman to please not have sex on her grave.  From the standpoint of courtesy, having sex on a grave is impolite.  But I suspect the sorts of folk who fornicate in cemeteries are not often bothered by social niceties.  If you are the sort who doesn’t care about graveyard etiquette, bear in mind I got poison oak just walking through the cemetery – the sap seeped through my jeans.   And let us not speak of all the broken glass from shattered beer bottles around “Elizebeth’s” stone.  If you anger the dead by engaging in any sort of activity that may require even partial nudity, you may find the dead achieve vengeance in itchy or painful ways. Be sure your tetanus shot is up to date.

So here we go – the physical location where people go to talk to, torment, or otherwise irritate a woman they believe was a slave witch executed in the cemetery for stealing a horse or for being a witch.

Now let me explain to you why none of this happened and why this legend is so tiresome where history and the residents of Liberty Hill are concerned.

Halloween Week – My Favorite Cemetery

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

One day Mr. Oddbooks came home and told me about a cemetery near Jarrell, Texas that was evidently very interesting.  It was located in a ghost town called Corn Hill.  Old Corn Hill Cemetery boasts the graves of people of historical importance in Texas, so I wanted to check it out.  Cemetery, ghost town, historical importance – what’s not to like?  The problem was that the directions were so bad that I really think that had we closed our eyes and tried to get there by our sense of smell, we wouldn’t have ended up as lost as we became.

It took us a couple of weekends to find Old Corn Hill Cemetery, but during the hunt we found a couple of very interesting mini-cemeteries, a derelict house where we totally trespassed and took pictures (I later learned that house is the James Shaver home, called the Old Stage Stop and Hotel), and all sorts of interesting fauna, mostly longhorn cattle.  But we also found the Holy Trinity Catholic Cemetery, which has become the cemetery to beat for me in terms of symbology, statuary and emotional attachment.

Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Jarrell, Texas, is an imposing building, very gothic without any accompanying morbidity, which seems strange to say given that the cemetery is essentially in the church’s backyard.  Corn Hill, Texas was established in 1848 and began to die a slow death in 1910 when railroad lines bypassed Corn Hill in favor of neighboring Jarrell.  The Holy Trinity Catholic Church was built in 1914, and, as I’ve mentioned before, in such a young state as Texas a hundred year old church has serious history behind it.  Corn Hill itself was not founded by Germans and Slavs, but their influence is felt heavily in this area.  People who aren’t familiar with Central Texas and the Hill Country are often surprised to know that huge swaths of this area are to this day very German and Slavic, especially Czech Moravian.  For decades many Moravian families spoke a Moravian Czech dialect, as well as English, being bi-lingual in the way that we tend to associate with Mexican and Central American settlers to this area.  Sadly, this dialect with pidgin elements is dying off though you still see lots of signs and bumper stickers boasting the phrase, “Jak se mas?” which translates as “How are you doing?”  In short, Czech for “Howdy!”

Holy Trinity Catholic Church is heavily Czech and the cemetery reflects it.  I loved this cemetery not just because it was exotic to my austere Southern Baptist upbringing, but also because it was, quite literally, an education investigating the stones.  Eventually my friend Barbora K., a resident in Slovakia, had to help me translate much of what is written on the stones.  This cemetery was the gateway to me learning about the German, Moravian and Bohemian influences in Central Texas.  It also taught me a lot about how cemeteries are arranged in Eastern Europe.  Others feel strongly about this cemetery as well – I get at least one message a month from someone who finds my photos and wants to share their experiences with the church or ask if they can use some of my pictures.

And I know this isn’t particularly spooky or Halloween-y, but cemeteries in the bright Texas sun simply cannot be creepy unless you’re out in the middle of nowhere near dusk.  But there is still a somber, gloomy mood to this cemetery, especially when you get to the “babyland” section. The cemetery is a strange mix of dereliction and utter devotion because while many graves and statues have not held up in the Texas heat, every grave has been tended to by church members, even the ones where the stone is missing and all that is left are little metal markers so weathered the names were unreadable. The cemetery is grim yet comforting.

Angry Angel
I am not a particularly good photographer but this angry angel is one of my favorite pictures I’ve taken. You can see the church spires peeking behind the trees. 

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.