When Mr. OTC first learned about the Corn Hill Cemetery, the message board included some geographic coordinates and nary a mention that there was also a New Corn Hill adjacent to “old” Corn Hill. The geographical coordinates were only marginally more accurate than closing our eyes and smelling our way there, so it took us a while to find the Corn Hill Cemetery. Before we came close to our final destination, we found the Catholic cemetery in New Corn Hill, a herd of longhorns, a five-grave cemetery in the middle of a cornfield, a cemetery in someone’s front yard in Weir which is a completely different city, and eventually we found Corn Hill.
The cemetery was presented online as a cemetery in a ghost town. Really, it’s an active cemetery in a town that moved and got absorbed into another town. We were green in terms of such explorations at the time and now know the difference between “abandoned” and “located within a ghost town.” Ghost towns in Texas can be remarkably lively towns, teeny-tiny bucolic places among larger bucolic places. Corn Hill is such a ghost town and its cemetery, while very rural appearing with some very old graves (for Texas), is maintained and contain some recent burials.
I photographed this cemetery several years ago and didn’t intend to include it here for Halloween 2017, but decided to because of a bit of equipment failure that lost new photos. I also want to mention that this cemetery had some souls of the living variety when I photographed it. Some edgy teens were having a literal tea party at the edge of the cemetery where there were no graves. Because this is sort of a visually grim cemetery, they weren’t sitting on a blanket under a big tree or near a gazebo or benches. They were just out there in the corner of a chain link fence, quietly hanging out. They watched me for a while then realized I had no plans to hassle them and ignored me as I went about my business. They were still there when I left. If I were buried in a place like Corn Hill, I think I’d welcome well-behaved teens and their tea parties. I didn’t photograph them because they seemed like good kids, and also because if I had I might have upset them and a scene would have ensued. I don’t want to cause a scene among the dead.
The photos I am going to share in this Halloween 2017 entry are old, in Internet years. I had intended to share some photos I took over the last month depicting some dark Texas history as well as a lovely old cemetery up the road from my house, but I’ve had a significant equipment failure with my camera. I lack the vocabulary to explain what happened but from what I recall from the conversation I had with Mr. OTC, who is sometimes Mr. Tech-Support, a card got corrupted in my camera.
It’s really important to me to have an entry up every weekday in October. So I dug through my archives and found a couple of photo series that have not appeared online as much as some of my other photographs and with them I’ll create some photo essays of some of my interesting Texas crawls.
If you’re not from central Texas and know the name Jarrell, Texas, it is likely because of the massive tornados that struck the town in 1997, creating one of the most devastating natural disasters I’ve ever witnessed personally, being as landlocked as I am. Arguably the fires we get in these parts are worse but generally with fires, people are able to evacuate with some warning. The Jarrell tornados hit fast and with fury and destroyed so thoroughly that at least one family was wiped from the face of the earth. They were shredded in the winds and enough pieces were recovered to be able to legally declare people dead. Sturdy homes and trailers alike were leveled. We tell ourselves that our weather-predicting capabilities are far more sophisticated twenty years later but when a series of over 20 tornadoes is coming your way, there’s only so fast you can move to safety.
In fact, bizarre weather has made it hard to photograph some of the places I want to share here. The Columbus City Cemetery in Columbus, Texas, has some remarkable statues and a couple of pieces of interesting lore. One year massive fires kept me from going out there. This year Hurricane Harvey made a trip impossible. And the last two times I planned to go to a cemetery in Texas where supposedly there is a space alien buried, it snowed. Snow in Texas often borders on catastrophe and it is never particularly pretty more than two hours after it happens because it turns to slush, then into ice, and it’s a muddy, unappealing mess that results in more car crashes (when people like me try to drive on it) than snowmen.
But back to Jarrell, Texas. Years ago, Mr. OTC heard of a ghost town called Corn Hill that had a very interesting cemetery. When I hear “ghost town” I think of an abandoned western Main Street with boarded up shops and peeling clapboard houses. While there are a couple of abandoned buildings still standing, Corn Hill as a town relocated either to New Corn Hill (I am not making this up, I swear, and New Corn Hill boasts my favorite Texas cemetery to date) or was absorbed into Jarrell. The cause for Corn Hill dying is, of course, a railroad being laid a few miles in the wrong direction. At its peak, the town had around 350 citizens, a Mason lodge, a school, a post office, a stage stop and several churches. All that remains of Corn Hill are a few buildings and a cemetery. I will be sharing one of those buildings today and the cemetery tomorrow.
It’s amazing to me that this old house is still standing even after the tornadoes of 1997. I didn’t know the history of this place when I explored it. All I knew was that it looked interesting and that I have a complicated relationship with no trespassing signs. This building was once the hotel and the residence of John Shaver. Located just off I-35, this hotel and stage stop was built in the late 1870s.
But mostly the appeal of this building is how creepy it seemed initially. I guess plenty of fisherman use the “spike the head on a fence to skin the fish” method of descaling their daily catch but it will never not be creepy to see dead heads on barbed wire outside an abandoned house near dusk.
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, and though a creation of the digital age, seemed to have some interesting historical relevance. 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. People who lived during the dangerous time described in the legend actually created the legend, so even if it is not wholly accurate the story was fueled by genuine experience.
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.
(9/14/17: I received an interesting email from a reader who didn’t want to leave a comment and prefers to remain anonymous, but the questions she raised are worth discussing so I am going to address her concerns in the sections appropriate. She was alarmed by what she perceived as a statement I made that in modern Texas there are no racial divisions and racist actions perpetrated by citizens and authority figures. As a life-long Texan I certainly know there are problems with racism in my home state. The point I was trying to make is that the Liberty Hill witch legend is not a legend that attempts to portray or explain the travails of female slaves. Instead it’s a modern mishmash of assorted legends that don’t represent the experiences or customs of any person alive when slavery was still legal in Texas.
I am unwilling to cede the leeway given in other inaccurate but culturally important legends to the tale of “Elizebeth Simpson.” The Liberty Hill witch grave story was created at least 130 years after the Civil War. The people who created the legend were probably at least four generations removed from anyone who was held in bondage in Texas or owned slaves. The person who created the witch legend did not directly experience slavery in Texas. The racial climate when this story was created was not perfect but it was significantly different than it was in the 1860s. The world is and always will be racist to varying degrees but it, for me, a bridge too far to think that whoever created the Liberty Hill witch legend did so with the intent of representing racial tensions he or she never experienced in a time long past. That makes this legend all the more offensive because it becomes a placeholder, and a particularly bad one at that, for the stories of actual black women who were subject to extrajudicial punishments and lynchings.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was born in Dallas and have lived in Texas all my life. When I was a little girl, I can remember seeing “colored” entrances, restrooms and drinking fountains in older downtown buildings. Jim Crow was dead, in legalities at least, so no black person was forced into using these lesser amenities, but they had not been removed yet. In some places in older parts of Dallas, such reminders of the nastier parts of racial history in the USA weren’t remodeled or removed until the 1980s.
I tell you all of this because while I was and still am aware that race relations in the USA are difficult, it was still… shocking when I began cemetery investigation and saw that segregation was enforced even in death. The slave and “colored” sections of “white” cemeteries were seldom maintained well, which is not particularly surprising. But I discovered that large chunks of history were lost in those slave and black sections of cemeteries, making even some of the simplest genealogy or historical research maddening, if not completely impossible.
And there’s no way around this expression of sentimentality – often slave and Jim Crow cemeteries are sad places indeed.
The first slave cemetery I found was in Round Rock Cemetery in Round Rock, Texas. I was there looking for the graves for some Old West villains and lawmen, and was startled when I saw it.
Note that you can’t actually see any headstones beyond that sign.
Up US 281 in Marble Falls, TX, there is a site called Dead Man’s Hole. Dead Man’s Hole is a natural limestone cave many ghost hunters insist is very haunted.
It’s hard to rattle me and I self-identify as a skeptic. But even as I maintain that I am a skeptic, I have had strange experiences that I cannot fully explain. Some of those experiences involve what I call wrong places. A wrong place, simply enough, is a place wherein you feel something is not right. It’s a place where you feel uneasy and you don’t know why. If you probe your feelings long enough, you may find an answer that explains your uneasiness. The human mind perceives more than we process on a conscious level and sometimes our subconscious filters just enough to give us valid information that we may attribute to unseen sources, like the paranormal. I tend to think that was at play during my visit at Dead Man’s Hole, but, regardless the reason, Dead Man’s Hole is a wrong place. It is a place where so much human misery played out that even without any sort of paranormal interpretation many may feel uneasy here. The last time I was there I became so unnerved I likely will never return. I hope that despite the fact I was there during the brightness of the summer that the creepy nature of the place will show up in the pics.
According to the Historical Marker on the site, an entomologist called Ferdinand Lueders discovered the hole, presumably in the course of searching out insects, but it was not until the Civil War that the cave gained it’s ghostly and ghastly reputation. The cave is quite deep, probably around 155 feet down, and is now capped to prevent accidents and, one suspects, potential vandalism.