The Common Burial Grounds
Lingering Hauntings from Decatur's Original Graveyard

The haunted history of Decatur has its roots in the local cemeteries and burial grounds. In fact, most believe that the reason that Decatur has become so well known for its ghosts and hauntings over the years is because of its graveyards and the old burial mounds that came before them.
Is this what makes the city so haunted?

It has been said that the origins of our local ghostly tales can be traced back to the very beginnings of the city. Decatur has gained a reputation as a town that is rather notorious for building over the sites of former cemeteries, both in recent times and beyond. The downtown area of Decatur happens to rest on land where a number of American Indian burial sites are located. Centuries ago, the land around Decatur belonged to tribes within the large Illinwek Confederation. During this time, a number of these tribes settled in the area, although none of them lived within the boundaries of the future city limits. When the first settlers arrived, they would find this land abandoned by the Native Americans. They had used it only for their burial grounds. Today, several of the city's reportedly haunted sites (like the old Culver House and the Powers Mansion) rest on lands that death records say were once burial locations.

Besides the Indian burial sites, sketchy records exist today to say that there were once a number of private and family cemeteries scattered throughout old Decatur. Most of these sites have been forgotten over the years. Early burial records in the city were largely nonexistent because many of the forgotten graves were marked with primitive wooden planks and they deteriorated in a few short years. It is not really surprising that many of these tiny graveyards faded from memory within a generation or two, but what of the secrets left behind by Decatur's first "official" cemetery?

Actually, there were two cemeteries located at one site and were so close together that they have since been listed under the name of the larger of the two, the Common Burial Grounds. The other graveyard, King's Cemetery, was nearby and accounts state that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. The two cemeteries were located on the far west side of the early Decatur settlement and today the corner of Oakland Avenue and West Main Street marks that area. The two cemeteries comprised several acres of ground and probably extended as far east as Haworth Street.

The exact size of the Common Burial Grounds is unknown but it was once a part of the Amos Robinson farm. The Robinson family had settled in Decatur just a few years prior to 1836, when Amos Robinson died. He was buried in an orchard on his property, which later became part of the burial grounds.

King's Cemetery was platted in 1865 and was owned by John E. King. The cemetery ran alongside Haworth Street and extended down Wood to Oakland. The cemetery also lay on the edge of the old Robinson farm and as mentioned before, published accounts of that time stated that they were so close together that they were usually mistaken for one.

No one knows for sure when the first burials took place here but it was probably in the early 1830's. The cemeteries were used for many years but were finally closed down in 1885 because of overcrowding. The land was sold off to the city to use as building plots for many of the homes and buildings that still stand in that area today. Once the sale went through, workmen were called in to remove the bodies and take them to Greenwood Cemetery.

However, these luckless workmen faced a problem. No one had any idea just how many people had been buried in the two cemeteries over the years, thanks to unmarked graves, poor records and lost grave markers and stones. The city pushed the move ahead and the workmen were advised to do the best they could with what information they had to work with. Construction was started a few months later and the old cemeteries were all but forgotten. But they wouldn't stay that way for long...

In 1895, while work crews were building an extension onto West Main Street, they discovered dozens of lost skeletons, the remains of caskets and buried tombstones. This was the first grisly find, but it would not be the last. For years after, new construction brought to light skulls, bones and pieces of wooden coffins. There were no clues as to just how many bodies had been left behind and these gruesome discoveries have continued for years, even up until today.

In 1935, a house on West Wood Street had its basement lowered and a broken wooden box that contained a complete skeleton was found beneath the dirt. Late that same year, a man working in his backyard found four skulls and three long bones in the spot where he planned to put a vegetable patch. This convinced him to find another location. The discovery of bones throughout the neighborhood became such a sensation that young boys organized "digging parties" and more remains surfaced each week. A 1938 newspaper report covered the furor over the lost cemeteries and even stated that Amos Robinson himself was still buried under a driveway on West Main Street.

In the middle 1950ís, even Decatur's landmark restaurant the Blue Mill was not safe from rumors of strange discoveries. According to anonymous staff members, a number of skeletons were found beneath what had been the basement floor of the original restaurant from the 1920ís. A fire destroyed the Blue Mill in 1956 and when a new basement was being excavated, the bones were discovered. According to employees in the middle 1990ís, these remains were tied into weird happenings in the place. A number of ghostly encounters have supposedly taken place in the kitchen area and many of them were afraid to go down into the basement alone.

The Blue Mill was torn down a few years ago and a new building was constructed to take its place. As work was being done on a new parking lot for the structure, one of the machines starting bringing up things besides dirt and stone --- namely, skulls, bones and assorted human remains.


The Blue Mill Restaurant as it looked at its last location of Wood and Oakland in the 1920ís. The place was always a popular hangout for Millikin students, especially during warm weather. It was one of the only buildings (aside from theaters) with air conditioning in downstate Illinois.

The construction was halted until an archaeologist from the state of Illinois could be called in to verify that the remains were part of the old Common Burial Grounds. They were covered again but the parking lot excavation could not be continued. A visit to this site today shows a very strangely shaped parking lot, marking where the bodies of Decatur's dead still remain beneath the ground.

As it has turned out, the old Blue Mill was not the only place within the bounds of the former graveyards where there were reports of the restless dead. Many of the people who work and live here believe that spirits, whose rest was disturbed more than a century ago, still roam this area today. They may be right!

One family that was plagued by a disturbing ghost contacted a friend who claimed to have psychic abilities to identify the problem behind the knocking and pounding sounds in the house. I was actually able to speak to one of the residents of the house years after I first wrote about this incident. My witness, Charles Sanders, was a small child at the time of the haunting and is an adult who lives in the Chicago area today. He told me that the family had been awakened at all hours of the day and night by knocking and rapping on the walls and what they all believed to be footsteps pacing back and forth in one hallway.

"My mother had this friend who was supposed to be psychic," Sanders explained to me, more than 40 years after the events. "We called her and she came over to have a sťance. She thought that if she could get in touch with this ghost, or whatever, she could make everything stop."

The family sat down around the table and the friend, who Sanders called "Aunt Sandra", lit a candle and began speaking to the ghost. It wasn't long before some strange things began to occur.

"We could still hear all of these knocking sounds," Sanders recalled, "but then all of the dishes in the cabinets started rattling. My sister was pretty scared at this point, and so was I. Aunt Sandra then took out a piece of paper and a pencil and started writing down whatever she was hearing from the ghost."

According to the information that the medium gained through her "automatic writing", the ghost was that of a person who had been died long ago. His grave was now located beneath the front porch of the house and he wanted someone to help him. A short time later, Charles' father climbed beneath the porch with a shovel and began digging. It wasn't long before he discovered a number of scattered bones. They turned them over to the authorities and with the help of their pastor, arranged for a proper burial for them. The ghost troubled them no longer.

Charles Sanders has never forgotten the incident. "I laugh now when I hear people say there are no such things as ghosts," he told me in our interview. "I can tell them differently!"

Another man that I spoke with lived on West Wood Street as a boy. He told me about an experience that he had many years ago. He was playing outside one afternoon and caught a glimpse of a man standing in the far corner of the lot. His features were blurry and his clothing was hard to make out. "He seemed to be looking at me," the man remembered, "although it was hard to tell because it was early in the evening and the yard was very shaded by the trees."
He said that the phantom figure only stood there for a few moments before he noticed something very strange about him. "The man was visible only to the knees... below that, he just sorta faded away," the man explained to me. "I have never forgotten that, even after 20 years."

The ghost of a pale young girl who endlessly walks back and forth haunts an additional house, on West Main Street. She seems oblivious to the people who live there now, as if she is from another time, but has also been seen skipping, running and playing with a small red ball. The occupants have also heard the sounds of knocks and whispers in the house on occasion.

And these are not the only tales from the area of Decatur where the Common Burial Grounds once lay. Other stories tell of whispers, knocks and fleeting apparitions, leading most of to believe the the "memory" of these burial grounds have not yet faded from the history of "haunted" Decatur.
 

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© Copyright 2006 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.