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 know people who love legends like the one of “Elizebeth Simpson” will find any attempt to show that this story is nonsense to be pedantic or evidence of a killjoy nature. So be it, but after observing what has happened in Bittick cemetery due to the story about “Elizebeth Simpson,” I’m willing to deal with being a wet blanket. Entire swathes of history have been lost due to drunken incursions into the cemetery as thrill seekers smash bottles and kick over gravestones in their quest to interact with a dead witch. Most of the ghost hunters who come into the cemetery are respectful and I appreciate that but they add to the legend via their insistence that a woman who never existed is talking to them via electronic voice phenomena. All the moaning I listened to online sounds like the cows who live in the pasture south of the cemetery, so close I got pictures of them.
And strangely lots of people who sought out the grave reported how evil Liberty Hill seemed to them. I suspect they have this view because it’s hard to have much love for a place where a young black woman was murdered in a cemetery. But Liberty Hill is no worse than any other Texas town, and no slave woman was executed in Bittick cemetery.
(I decided not to link to any of the sites with stories about the Liberty Hill witch because I don’t want to make fun of anyone in particular and I also don’t want to push up Google rankings for sites that contribute to the traffic through the cemetery, but I’m making an exception for the Weird Texas entry. Hilariously, the Weird Texas team were some of the most creeped out by the racist evil of Liberty Hill but they never actually made it into Bittick cemetery. They wandered around in another cemetery close by and reported that they couldn’t find the grave. In a way, that asinine article may have reduced some of the vandalism at Bittick by directing casual ghost-seekers to the wrong cemetery.)
But it’s important to understand why, on a common sense level, that this grave could not possibly be the resting place of an executed slave and that nothing about the gravestone is witchy or evidence of a curse.
- Slaves, even those who died “honorable” deaths, were seldom buried next to whites in established white cemeteries. Long after slavery ended in Texas, blacks and others not considered white were buried in “colored” cemeteries or in sections of church or community cemeteries with fences or other demarcations separating the white section of the cemetery from the “colored” folk. Those graves generally indicated in some manner that the person was a slave. There are exceptions but there is absolutely no way a slave who was hanged to death for witchcraft or theft would be buried alongside the family in a white family cemetery. That point alone pretty much should end the conversation but let’s keep going.
- “Elizebeth’s” stone is facing east, which was not a religious luxury afforded most executed criminals, let alone criminal slaves. The Christian dead are buried with their heads pointing to the west and their feet to the east so that they will be facing east because that is evidently the direction from which Christ will return. This is admittedly a weak point because other stones in this cemetery are not oriented west to east but I also have no idea if those stones were knocked down by careless witch seekers and then replaced facing the wrong direction. A couple of gravesites that have footstones on the other side of the headstone lead me to believe this has happened in Bittick cemetery.
- Why would a lynch mob or even an angry slave owner drag a criminal slave into the hallowed ground of a cemetery and then hang her? Short answer: they wouldn’t. Has anyone outside of this story read a legitimate account wherein a black slave was brought to a white cemetery to be hanged? If so, please send me the link because you’ve found something of historical significance that needs to be shared with others.
- The passage carved into “Elizebeth’s” stone is not a threat or curse of any sort. It’s a common sentiment that appears on many gravestones, one that urges the living contemplate their own mortality because they too one day will die. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen variations on this saying carved into headstones. This inscription on “Elizebeth’s” stone is the most primitive version of this quote, down to the misspellings (and this will come up again in the “evidence” section below), but it is certainly common and so common that it’s hard to see how anyone could misinterpret it as a curse. Here’s a very interesting article about how and when the inscription came to the USA (and references my go-to-man for cemetery lore, the fabulous Douglas Keister). Here are some variations on the saying:
“Stranger stop and cast an eye,
as you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you will be.
Prepare for death and follow me.”
“As I am now, you shall be too! ”
“All ye readers who now pass by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so must you be,
Prepare for death and follow me.”
- There is nothing on the stone that indicates that a slave woman was killed for theft or for being a witch. A traditional warning to the living to be aware of their mortality is etched on the stone. Would white men who executed a black slave woman for theft or witchcraft bury her with a stone, and if they did would they carve on her stone a sentiment many white Christian women had on their stones with zero reference to the crimes that led to her death? Unlikely.
So just knowing a bit about how cemeteries at the time worked and the sorts of things one commonly finds on gravestones will make the legend of “Elizebeth Simpson” seem rather unlikely. But even knowing a thing or two about how lynchings were handled and how slaves were buried can still give plenty of people who really want to break bottles in a cemetery and do unspeakable things among the dead enough wiggle room to say, “Well, that may be well and good but in this case it’s different and a slave witch is totally buried there.”
It is for those people that I include actual research, some of which shows without a shadow of a doubt that no forsaken slave is buried in Bittick cemetery.
- The gravestone has been misread. There is no “Elizebeth Simpson” but there is a woman who was part of the Bittick family who is named Elizabeth Simpson and this is her grave everyone’s been covering with cigarettes and tiny toys. Elizabeth Simpson was born on April 10, 1834 and died on September 24, 1864.
Click on the picture and zoom in – that two at the end of 1864 only appears like a two because this stone is somewhat eroded. “Elizebeth” died in 1862, according to the lore around the witch. Elizabeth died in 1864. Simple misreading but that two year error has allowed people who really want to believe “Elizebeth” is real some leeway.
- The real Elizabeth Simpson spelled her name in the traditional way. Look closely at this stone – the “e” has been added after the name was initially carved, which is not unexpected – you’d be surprised how often “Elizbeth” appears on gravestones and you’d be surprised how often minor corrections are added after the fact. It’s not unexpected that her name could end up as “Elizebeth.” Other names in the cemetery are misspelled when compared to official records. What is bizarre to me is how misspelled the inscription is on the headstone. No other extant stone in this cemetery was subject to such miserable spelling. It is my belief that the misspelling to correct the original name misspelling as well as the mangled verbiage in the mortality quote led people to wonder why this stone is such a mess compared to the others in the cemetery. Some creative mind came up with Elizebeth, hanged slave witch whose stone was hastily and sloppily carved in comparison to the graves of the white people buried there. The Internet spread the story, and here we are.
- The story of “Elizebeth” has roots in other stories about forsaken black slaves and powerful black women who were believed to have supernatural powers. Whoever created the story of “Elizebeth” very likely knew about other legends involving black slave women and used those legends to craft a new one. One such legend is the story of Chloe, a young black woman who was supposedly killed for poisoning the family that owned her, itself a myth since there is no record the family in question owned slaves. Chloe was mistreated and acted out and killed for her reaction and we feel sympathy for her, in a similar manner as we might feel sympathy for a Texas slave who stole a horse, presumably to run away. Additionally, “Elizebeth’s” story harks back to legends of Marie Laveau, who did exist but whose powers in Vodoun/Voodoo are legendary still. Before access was cut off to her tomb, people would leave “X” marks, similar to the ones left on “Elizebeth’s” grave. What one was supposed to do with Marie was to leave an X mark on her tomb, turn in a circle three times and shout out a wish one wanted Marie to fulfill. If she granted the wish, the person was supposed to come back to the tomb, place a circle around the X and leave her an offering. No idea what the X marks represent on “Elizebeth’s” grave but the legend surrounding her doesn’t speak of wishes but rather bribes to prevent the curse from “Elizebeth’s” grave stone from hexing you or killing you in some way. Some accounts online report that people leave gifts because they want something from the witch or because they feel doing so offers respect. Despite the differences in the stories, the Liberty Hill witch legend has pieces from other stories that show, in a sense, how it came to be.
Elizabeth Simpson, White Lady and Member of the Bittick Family
- While I may despair that more people do not avail themselves of search engines before they break beer bottles over a dead woman’s resting place, the Internet is still there with enough information to quickly show who is buried in the Bittick cemetery. Ancestry.com is filled with crappy data, some of which has fueled this legend – more on that feedback loop in a moment – but it’s also filled with people who have done lots of original research. One group of people did an enormous amount of research on the Bittick family and all its branches. The Simpson family is part of the Jonathan (his name is misspelled on his stone, too) and Jinsy Bittick family – they are buried in Bittick cemetery, too, and their resting place is an historical location. In that Texas branch of the Bittick family we find Elizabeth Simpson.
- In the link above, I managed to work out Elizabeth Simpson’s relationship to the Bittick family. Here’s how it worked: We begin with Jonathan and Jinsy Bittick. Jinsy’s maiden name was Butler and she had, among several siblings, a sister named Mary “Polly” Butler. Mary Butler married William Henry Ashabranner and they had a passel of children but key to this relationship are George Jefferson Ashabranner and Lucinda Ashabranner, who both married siblings from the Simpson family. George Ashabranner married Martha Simpson and Lucinda Ashabranner married Bartlett Simpson. Martha and Bartlett Simpson had a younger sister named Elizabeth Simpson. Elizabeth never married and appears to have come to Central Texas from Louisiana along with Martha Ashabranner’s family. That means that Elizabeth was a sort of niece-in-law to Jinsy Bittick because two of Jinsy’s sister’s children married Elizabeth’s siblings. Elizabeth was not blood kin to the Bitticks but lived among the Bitticks as extended family and was buried in the family cemetery when she died at age 30.
- To be fair, until the Bittick family members posted their research online, finding out how Elizabeth Simpson fit into the Bittick family would have been a bear. I can see how spinning a yarn about a witch slave would have been far easier than performing the extraordinary amount of research the Bittick site posted that got me to the answer of who Elizabeth was. It’s easier when someone else has done and posted the work for you.
- The Bittick family researchers are divided on whether or not the Bitticks in Texas owned slaves. One source says Jonathan Bittick owned slaves but they were free, a contradiction in terms and I suspect she means he hired black people to work for him after the Civil War but I have no way of knowing. Even so, the source says Jonathan’s slave was named Sam – no mention of a female slave named Elizebeth. Another person checked historical records in 1860 and found that only one Bittick in Texas owned slaves, a fellow named Francis, who lived out in Hopkins County. Hopkins County is far enough from Austin that I’m reluctant to drive out there for Thanksgiving because it’s four and a half hours by car – if Francis had a female slave named Elizebeth Simpson, she wasn’t making trips back and forth between the households in the 1860s. The people who assembled the Bittick Family Database display some of the most exacting genealogical research I’ve seen online. They know enough about Jonathan Bittick to know that he traveled from Arkansas to Texas in the 182os with a slave called Sam. If Elizebeth existed, they would have found her and documented her. Her absence in their research is a slam dunk, for me at least, that she’s an Internet creation.
The Feedback Loop
- Some well-meaning soul in 2007 shared the story of “Elizebeth Simpson” on Findagrave.com. He or she reported the story about the horse theft and that Elizebeth was hanged and buried in the cemetery. Again, I do not want to demonize the person who reported this legend as fact because I do not know when the Bittick Family Database went online. It’s easy for me now to piece it all together and this person posted the least salacious rumors about Elizebeth. But this piece of information is unfortunate because…
- It is used to support the Ancestry.com record about the lynched slave, “Elizebeth Simpson. People who research this case often point to “Elizebeth’s” presence on Ancestry.com as proof she really did exist.
- In turn, the presence of this information on Ancestry.com gives the Findagrave entry legitimacy.
This sort of closed circle in research that appears in the two most popular Google hits for “elizebeth simpson” that aren’t linked to ghost or weird phenomena sites is problematic because it appears as if the Ancestry.com information about “Elizebeth Simpson” is supported by sturdy research since the Findagrave.com entry has several pictures that at first glance support the dates and the name spelling and overall has a patina of legitimacy about it. But it’s user generated research from 2007, which is sort of the ice age given the amount of research available now about the Bittick family and the people who are buried in the cemetery. People I’ve talked to about this issue say they’ve tried to change the entry but evidently it’s hard to do and even changing it will not get rid of the Ancestry.com record.
And that’s kind of crappy because the cemetery is being defaced, probably right now as I am writing this. An entire gravestone has been lost because people love to believe weird stuff and because the truth is seldom as fun as legend. More may be lost in the future if the coins left on other graves show that people are transferring the legend from Elizabeth Simpson’s stone to other, more visually impressive stones still standing in Bittick family cemetery. I can find no other reason why people would be leaving coins on the grave of a Caucasian boy who died at age five, or why they would leave coins on an unidentified, child-sized rock tomb.
(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. The woman who emailed me pointed out that coins left on other graves may be linked to the custom of leaving coins on gravestones to show respect, or as a symbol of offering the dead money in the tradition of burying the dead with coins on their eyes to pay the ferryman to carry them across the river Styx into the afterlife.
Certainly, when we look at coins on graves, the story of the ferryman and the river Styx comes to mind, but it’s questionable that it has any relevance to this particular legend. It’s unlikely that part of Greek mythology is influencing those who leave coins on graves in Bittick Cemetery.
Outside of military graves, which have a very specific symbology behind leaving coins on the stones of dead men and women who served in the military, I know of no common custom of leaving coins on the graves of civilians in Texas. I consulted several books to see if I have overlooked this custom – a notable book being Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy by Terry G. Jordan – and could find no scholarly documentation of coins left on civilian stones in Texas.
The leaving of the coins is clearly directly linked to the creation of this legend. No coins were left in Bittick Cemetery before the creation of this legend, the family reports gifts and coins began to be left solely on Elizabeth’s gravestone in the 1990s, and there is no cultural tradition in this area for leaving coins on the graves of long dead children. I have never seen coins on gravestones of children outside of Bittick Cemetery. I’ve seen toys and balloons and very touching statuary. I’ve seen dishes left behind with cake for the child on a birthday. But in all my travels in and out of Texas cemeteries I have never once seen coins strewn across a child’s grave in or around central Texas outside of Bittick Cemetery. It is very hard to attribute the coins on the graves of the two children in this cemetery to old pagan traditions or a desire to show respect when the only graves that receive this treatment in Bittick family cemetery are those two child graves – one belonging to a child who was born near Halloween and is an excellent stand-in for spooky rituals now that Elizabeth’s stone is destroyed – and Elizabeth’s.
There may be a rich folklore tradition behind leaving coins on graves but in this case it’s safe to put to bed the idea that these coins have anything to do with pagan rituals to see the dead safety into the afterlife and far more to do with a bastardization of the traditions surrounding Marie Laveau’s tomb. Still, if anyone has records of people leaving coins on the graves of children in or around central Texas, please share! I base a lot of what I write about on my own observations and information derived from my own personal library and would love to see examples if this custom is common in central Texas and I am unaware of it.)
It’s also difficult because Texas was a slave state. Black people experienced terrible things here. East Texas, with its proximity to Louisiana, was the site of more atrocities against slaves than seen in central Texas but the fact remains that black women, women whose crimes would not be worthy of the death penalty, and that’s assuming they committed a crime to begin with, were killed extra-judicially or via mob lynchings in Texas. Texas ranked third among states in the South for the number of lynchings that happened after the Reconstruction. Without working very hard I was able to find the records of over 15 black women who were actually lynched in Texas, and they were killed after the Civil War. None were accused of being witches, none angered their masters – they were free women who were executed outside of the judicial system because of the color of their skin. Their stories lack the salacious elements of witchcraft, no one has sex on their graves (or at least I hope no one does) but their stories are far more important than this demonstrably untrue legend of Elizebeth Simpson, horse-stealing witch slave.
But let’s be frank – no one cares about the truth. Lots of people have tried to set the record straight, from news paper articles to people correcting data on genealogy sites. I know the folks who live near the cemetery want this nonsense to end. Mr OTC and I caught the attention of a family as we were in the cemetery. From a distance we look far younger than we are and a dual cab pickup stopped right in the middle of the two lane black-top highway that passes outside the cemetery to make sure we weren’t doing anything wrong. They recorded the plate number on my car and when we realized they were worried about our presence there, so close to Halloween, we walked toward the fence and waved at them. The kids in the back waved back and the adults, seeing clearly that we are in fact a staid, middle-aged couple, finally drove away. It was unsettling knowing the locals were taking note of us, gathering information in the event that something even worse happened in that cemetery, but who can blame them? God only knows what fresh hell awaits people come November the first.
Sadly, I imagine no one is going to read this article next year before going to test their mettle at a witch grave on Halloween. This article will never rate higher than the ghost hunters and assorted ghost fans who have shared the legend online. However, that may be a good thing – if you’re gonna do the nasty on a dead woman’s grave, maybe you deserve to get a terrible rash. Far be it for me to interfere with the flow of natural justice.
Happy Halloween, everyone.