Monday, January 21, 2013
Haunted by nuthatches: Greenwood Cemetery
A few posts ago, my most faithful reader (Hi, Mom!) left a comment requesting that I write more often about haunted cemeteries. Since I am a birder, and not a ghost-hunter, I am straying a bit out of my element by doing so; but I have been interested in old cemeteries since childhood, and as for ghosts, well, let's say I am very open-minded.
As it turns out, Illinois is jam-packed with purportedly haunted cemeteries (and there is already at least one blogger out there devoted to them), and one of the best known, Greenwood Cemetery, is located in the same city that I work in, Decatur, IL.
I had visited Greenwood once before, last spring. My parents were in town, and as my mom loves that sort of thing, I suggested we explore a bit. We were joined by my brother and one my nieces. It was a beautiful May morning, and we really didn't pay any attention to possible ghosts. For my part, I was too busy being distracted by a lot of great birds, including red-headed woodpecker, eastern wood pewee, eastern kingbird, brown thrasher. It all resulted in a fun, but not at all spooky, outing.
Last Friday, I decided to stop at Greenwood again on my way home from work and see if I could stir up anything spooky by myself. I was also hoping to see another red-headed woodpecker, or some interesting winter species. (As this post from the Audubon magazine blog shows, looking for birds in cemeteries isn't a bad idea.)
It was a bright and windy afternoon, which probably reduced my chances for either kind of sighting. Birds tend to hunker for cover on windy days, and ghosts and sunshine don't really seem to mix either.
One of the haunted areas is said to be this staircase by the Barrackman graves. Legend has it that a weeping woman can be seen sitting there at sunset.
I wandered around the area and even sat for a few minutes on the allegedly haunted stairs, but really didn't get a spooky feeling or any sort of impressions. (Actually, I'll come back to this later.)
On the subject of ghosts, and most other supernatural things, as I mentioned, I consider myself to be open-minded. I grew up having the heebie-jeebies scared out of me by listening to my mother's tales of growing up in a haunted house (I would beg her to tell me the stories over and over, even when they kept me up at night), and to this day, I love ghost stories, horror movies, any sort of strange tale.
Indeed, when I was younger, I had several experiences of haunted places that were quite convincing at the time. One of the most memorable occurred when I was fourteen, and my parents were looking to rent a house around Newport, Rhode Island. As they talked interminably to the realtor, I became bored and went up to the attic by myself, where I sat down and started reading aloud some words on my French homework. I had been sitting there for maybe five or ten minutes when I distinctly felt that I was not alone. I became quiet and glanced around, and all of a sudden, had an impression of a voice telling me, "You are not welcome here."
Well, that was all it took. I hurried back down the stairs, managed to pull my mom aside, and told her, "We can't stay here. It's haunted." My mom being the person she is, she believed me. We ended up living in a different, non-haunted house.
Over the years, these feelings have grown fewer and fewer. I'm not sure why. A skeptical person would probably suggest that I've just become less imaginative over time. Maybe young people are just more sensitive to such things. Or maybe it's just a matter of noticing most what we pay most attention to. I still like spooky stuff, but it's moved quite a bit down my list of interests. When I was younger, I almost never paid attention to birds, for example, and now I see birds everywhere. The difference isn't with the birds, but the observer.
In other words, although I would have enjoyed having a spooky experience in the cemetery, I wasn't expecting one. And indeed, most of the trip was just a pleasant stroll, looking for interesting things to photograph.
Even without a single ghost, Greenwood Cemetery is an interesting place.
I was enjoying myself, despite being a bit cold. Mostly, I had the grounds all to myself, although I was happy to see a groundskeeper whizzing by on a golf cart now and then. Decatur makes me a bit nervous, and although I'm not afraid of ghosts, all I had to defend myself against corporeal threats were my pepper spray and my imaginary kung fu skills.
Besides not seeing ghosts, I was also not seeing birds. At once point, I could hear the distinctive yank yank call of the white-breasted nuthatch, but with the wind distorting it, so that I could not pinpoint where the birds were. I thought, "Wouldn't it be my luck, to come to a spooky cemetery and end up haunted by nuthatches?" After a bit of twisting about with my binoculars, I did finally see them, and then continued on my ramble.
Among the funerary art to be found were several small stone chairs.
I was vaguely aware that there were urban legends about these "mourning chairs," which were not uncommon in cemeteries in the late 1880s, sometimes merely as decoration and some for visitors to sit and rest on. This morning, as I looked for information to enrich this post with, I learned that these are known as "Devil's chairs," and that one of the more famous ones is here in Greenwood Cemetery. Basically, the legend is that if you sit in one of these chairs you can make a pact with the devil, although everyone from Faust onwards knows that such pacts will always come back to bite you in the ass.
I'm open-minded but not downright silly, and would dismiss this whole "haunted chair" legend out of hand if it weren't for one thing....
There were three places in the cemetery where I did feel something strange. One was a corner of the graveyard by the woods with some very old stones.
Now everybody brace yourselves for this highly scientific measurement: I felt weird. It was subtle, and a bit hard to describe. The area felt heavy. And I had a bit of a headache there, which I didn't have before I strolled by these particular graves, and which promptly disappeared as soon as I left.
And while taking this photo, I thought I caught something out of the corner of my eye. But when I put my camera down and glanced around, there was nothing out of the ordinary, and no further weird feeling.
And finally, there was the creepy feeling I got not far from the Barrackman steps. As I described earlier in the post, I recognized the steps from photos on the Internet, verified from the names on the nearby graves that it was, indeed, the right place, and then sat on them for a few minutes to see if I got any impressions. I did not, apart from the impression of being cold.
I got up, and wandered further up the hill from the steps, where I came across one of the mourning chairs by some other graves. As I said, I was vaguely aware that these chairs had some sort of legend attached, but did not place any credence to it, and did not know that Greenwood was supposed to have a "haunted chair." (Comparing the inscriptions in the photos, it's not the same chair anyway; there are several in the graveyard.)
Still, the first thing I thought was, "There is no way I would sit in that chair!" As my mother, who sometimes joins me on these jaunts, will confirm, I am not afraid of ghosts. I am not superstitious. I had just happily sat down on the supposedly haunted steps. Right before that, I had sat down on the ground by the old graves that had the "heavy feeling." But for whatever reason, I did not want to sit in the chair.
Instead, I took some photos of the area, including the head stone next to it, that of W.W. Kerr. For some reason, out of the 150 photos I took in the cemetery that day, this is the only one that is out of focus.
And this is the only photo I've ever taken that has spots on it.
Hey, this haunted cemetery thing is kinda fun! Sure, some weird feelings and a spotty photo aren't enough to convince me that Greenwood is haunted, but I remain open-minded.
Has anyone else had a strange experience in Greenwood? Or a favorite spooky cemetery of your own?