The beginnings of Greenwood Cemetery are a
There is no record to say when the first burials took place on the
land that would later be called "Greenwood". The cemetery is the
oldest burial ground still in existence in the city today but as the
reader just discovered in the preceding pages, it was not the first.
|The Native Americans of the Illiniwek Confederation
were the first to settle in the area around Decatur.
Before they settled here, the lands of middle Illinois
were covered in a vast sea of prairie grass for as far
as the eye could see. They built villages in the
immediate region, hunting the forests and fishing the
rivers. Strangely though, none of these villages were
ever built on the site of the future city of Decatur.
Instead, the area was used as a burial ground. Some
"historians" have made excuses for this, citing
confluences of rivers and other reasons, but these
alternate explanations never see fit to explain the
burial mounds that have been found throughout the
downtown area. Many of the burial sites have become
common knowledge as the years have passed while others
have simply vanished with time.
According to Native American beliefs, their
burial grounds were chosen very carefully and locations were
preferred that were more closely connected to the world beyond. They
felt this would aid in the progress of the soul to the place that
lay beyond death. The burial grounds served as passageways, they
believed, to another dimension. Some believe that the land on which
Decatur would someday rest was just such an area, a place that
allowed easy access from this world to the next. With this thought
in mind, perhaps this is why Decatur has come to be regarded as so
haunted. Combine the Native American burial sites with the disturbed
cemeteries of yesterday and possible hauntings don't become so hard
to believe anymore!
One of the sites believed to have been used by the Native Americans
as a burial ground was the southern part of the current Greenwood
Cemetery. There are a number of possible unmarked graves and
impressions here that suggest a number of burials that have taken
place and have been unrecorded.
The first home built in this area was a log cabin erected in 1820 by
William Downing. It was located just south of the Sangamon River.
Downing remained in the area until 1824, when he sold the house and
property to the Ward family. A short time after Downing arrived, the
Stevens family followed him and several other settlers, who also
built homes near the Stevens cabin and near the Ward cabin, creating
two small settlements. As the next few years passed, more
frontiersmen continued to arrive from the east, adding to the
struggling population of the region.
Life was hard in those days and anything from weather to illnesses
could wipe out an entire family with ease. There were no real burial
customs in those days, no undertakers and no embalming. Funeral
services consisted of nothing more than a few prayers and bible
passages over an open hole in the ground. The corpses were placed in
these holes without benefit of coffins and were normally just
wrapped in a winding sheet in a close proximity of the rituals the
settlers knew in their former homes. And while some of these burials
took place literally in the back yards of the log cabins scattered
throughout the area, most of the settlers searched for a communal
place to bury the dead. This led them to begin burying in places
that the Native Americans had also used, namely what would be
Burial records did not exist in this time, so we are now forced to
speculate on the number and the exact location of these burials.
There are many unmarked graves in the cemetery and it is also known
that the settlers often used wooden planks and perishable materials
to mark burial sites with. These items would have long since been
lost to the elements, leaving both the locations and the occupants
of the graves unknown.
Before the local residents began using the burial grounds through,
another incident took place that marked the last of the Indian
internments in the cemetery. It was not a burial that took place by
choice however. It was an act of cold-blooded murder and may have
been one of the incidents that has contributed to the hauntings of
The late historian Roy V. Terneus wrote about this particular event,
which has been only touched on in the "proper" annals of Decatur
history. He called the event the "Moonshiners and the Indians",
although he was never clear as to when exactly it took place. Based
on the records and other events of the time though, it is thought to
have occurred in the late 1820's; possibly 1828.
One day, in the spring of the year, a small group of settlers were
encamped near the Sangamon River, just south of the present day
cemetery. The men had constructed a crude liquor still and were hard
at work making alcohol (or "moonshine") from corn. It's thought that
perhaps they were sampling the end product of the still as they were
unaware of a group of Native Americans that was passing by. What may
have happened next is unknown, but for some reason, the settlers
decided to pursue the Indians through the woods. Whether or not this
attack and pursuit was provoked also remains a mystery. Regardless,
the Indians were chased through the woods and they ran up a hill in
the direction of the burying grounds. Before they could make it to
the top of the incline, the settlers opened fire on the Indians and
they were cut down on the side of the hill.
The area was heavily wooded at this time and the men were unlikely
to have been seen in the commission of these murders. However, they
did not want to take the chance that the killings would be revenged
by any others of the Indian populace. There had been trouble just a
short time before when Indians raided a farm at a local settlement
and stole a number of livestock. Most of the Native Americans had
been driven out of the Sangamon River region by the middle 1820's,
but even the scattered tribes that remained far outnumbered the
white settlers. For this reason, the moonshiners decided to conceal
the bodies of the Indians in a shallow ravine on the side of the
hill where they fell. The bodies were dragged into the ditch and a
number of stones were heaped over them. The makeshift grave can
still be seen on the side of a hill in the southwestern part of the
The story of the settlers and their victims has been largely
forgotten over the years but folk legends survive and it is
sometimes re-told. As hauntings in cemeteries have often been blamed
on incidents such as this, it is impossible to ignore it as a likely
cause for strange happenings in Greenwood. Could the restless
spirits of these Native Americans still be stalking the grounds of
the cemetery? Or is this just another of the horrific legends that
still haunts the history of the graveyard?
It would still be another 10 years or so after this event before the
burial ground would turn into a full-fledged cemetery. It has been
recorded that burials continued to be carried out at the Common
Burial Grounds until at least 1838. After that, many of the city's
dead began to be interred at Greenwood as well.
Thanks to the relative seclusion of the cemetery, other burials
began to take place here too. It is believed that local
abolitionists used the cemetery as a secret burial place for escaped
slaves. According to the lore, a number of unmarked graves began to
appear and burials were carried out under the cover of darkness.
There have been many stories passed down through the years about
locations in the city being used as "stations" on the Underground
Railroad. The "Railroad" was a system of safe houses and hiding
places that smuggled slaves out of the south and into freedom in the
north and Canada. According to the local tales, escaped slaves
crossed the Mississippi River at towns like Chester and Alton and
carefully made their way through Central Illinois. The city of
Decatur was actually located along one branch of the "Chester Line"
during the decades before the Civil War.
Slaves who did not survive the dangers of the journey were often
buried in secret and according to old accounts, many of them were
hidden away in graves in Greenwood Cemetery.
Around 1840, a few records began to appear that chronicled burials
in Greenwood Cemetery. Not all of the records have been clear
though. A mistake that was recorded in a history book from 1970 has
caused many problems for historians in recent years. It was stated
at that time that the oldest marked grave in Greenwood belonged to a
man named "William Pratt", who had died in 1811. Unfortunately, this
was a misprint and he actually died in 1840 and was the third
"recorded" burial in the cemetery.
The first recorded burial was of a man named "Samuel B. DeWees" and
the second was that of a "Dr. Burrell", both of whom also died in
1840. Again, it should be noted that these were burials that were
actually recorded. We have already established that the cemetery was
in use for years before this, based on the many unmarked graves that
On March 3, 1857, the newly established Greenwood Cemetery
Association was organized and the cemetery was incorporated into the
city of Decatur. One of the main stockholders in the association was
a prominent local businessman named Henry Prather. He would
ultimately be responsible for the design of the main cemetery gates
and for much of the design and layout of the cemetery itself. Things
were still fairly primitive in those days though and the association
had little outlook for the future of the cemetery. Burial plots were
sold for $10 each in those days and the idea that an entire work
force would someday be needed to tend the grounds never occurred to
That was a problem that would come back to haunt Greenwood in the
The Heyday of Greenwood Cemetery 1900-1925
By 1900, Greenwood Cemetery was widely accepted as the most
fashionable place in the city to be buried. It was the place where
even the most common could spend eternity next to the elite of
Decatur society. In those days, Decatur's other primary cemeteries
had not yet come into being. Graceland Cemetery had its beginnings
in 1919, while the first burials at Fairlawn were in 1913, shortly
after the land was converted from an abandoned brickyard. Calvary
Cemetery, near Millikin University, was started in 1871, but its
internments were limited to those of the Catholic faith.
In addition to being a showcase for funerary art, Greenwood had also
become a popular attraction for local people on Sunday afternoons.
The park-like setting, rolling hills and towering oak trees made the
cemetery a frequent spot for picnic lunches and casual strolls.
There was no stigma attached to the fact that this was a burial
ground and the peaceful atmosphere of the place caused any initial
misgivings to vanish.
The cemetery was in pristine condition and was managed with a crew
of about eight men. There were three miles of water pipe installed
with spigots at various intervals to send water through the
property. The roads and driveways were smoothed and covered with red
shale rock, providing easy access to points throughout the cemetery.
They also offered a quiet place to walk in the cool of the summer
Greenwood Cemetery had become known as the "Beautiful City of the
Dead" ---- but it wouldn't hang onto that description for long.
"Perpetual Care" and the Fall of Greenwood
In the middle 1920's, things began to change for Greenwood Cemetery.
The change began with a startling announcement that was made by the
association in charge of the management and the upkeep of the
cemetery. In short, the association was completely out of money. The
cemetery had been losing as much as $1,800 per year trying to pay
the staff to maintain the grounds. In 1926, they had reduced the
crew of the cemetery to just two men, who admittedly were unable to
give the grounds the attention needed. The only logical solution was
to allow the burial ground to revert back to nature and salvage what
they could from the disastrous financial situation.
The association and the superintendents at the cemetery claimed that
the property had no more room to expand, adding to the problems they
were already facing. They still had burial space remaining, but had
no more land for the association to purchase and to sell plots in.
The available land had already been purchased, but the income from
this had already been spent. The cemetery had already expanded far
from its original 10 acres and was surrounded by residential area,
woods and the Sangamon River. They needed to come up with an
alternate plan to raise funds or they would be forced to discontinue
the cemetery's use.
Researching their options, they soon realized that families of most
current occupants of the cemetery could not be appealed to for help.
Many of them were now dead themselves or had moved out of the area.
Most had also purchased their burial plots for as little as $10 and
while there was a voluntary fund for care and upkeep of the
cemetery, there were few contributions.
However, there was an option that presented itself. Around this same
time, many cemeteries along the east coast had started a program
called "Perpetual Care". This meant that burial plots could be sold
at a much higher price with the stipulation that they would always
be cared for. Nothing like this had been available when Greenwood
was started, but it was possible that the new influx of cash could
be the answer to the current money problems.
And it did work, at least for a time. The cemetery had already
started to decline by the middle 1920's but a drive to interest
people in Perpetual Care lots managed to rally the financial
situation for several years. The campaign was started in 1928, along
with a plea for contributions to family members to make small
donations that might provide care for the rest of the property. By
1929, there were 116 Perpetual Care lots in Greenwood and as the
money trickled in, the caretakers were heartened to see the
financial situation start to improve.
Unfortunately though, it was not the answer to everything, because
while the new income did care for the recent Perpetual Care plots,
it did not allow any excess money to care for the rest of the
graveyard. The grounds crew had to be assigned to care for the areas
that had been paid for and the rest of the burial ground began to
suffer because of it. It wasn't long before a large portion of the
cemetery began to resemble a forgotten boneyard with overgrown
grass, rampant weeds and brush, fallen branches and tipped and
The Perpetual Care fund continued to grow though and in 1931, the
number of lots in the program had reached 580. The additional income
allowed the caretakers to mow the entire cemetery a total of four
times that year, which had not been accomplished in some time. By
1932, the superintendents were receiving commendations for their
improvements to the cemetery. They managed to build a retaining wall
along the east side of the grounds because portions of the hill
tended to collapse onto the newly refurbished South Main Street.
They also made improvements inside of the cemetery as well. Perhaps
the most notable was the removal of the Bullard family vault, which
was located in the northwest corner of the property.
Old photos from
the 1950’s show the poor conditions of the city.
|This underground vault had been built in the late
1800's and had fallen into a state of decay.
Superintendents stated that it had become both dangerous
and was an unnecessary use of space. Permission was
granted by the family, which had moved to California, to
destroy the vault. The old entrance was torn out and the
interior was filled with cement, covering the bodies
that remained inside.
This was a brief period of revival and progress --- but
these "glory days" were not destined to last.
By 1938, the cemetery was in dire straits again. The
size of the crew was again reduced and during that
summer, the entire cemetery was mowed only one time. The
only graves being cared for were those in the Perpetual
Care program, which left literally hundreds of others
unattended and forgotten. The caretakers repeatedly
begged the community for aid and assistance but the
cries for help landed on deaf ears.
It was during
these dark times in the history of Greenwood when the
stories and legends that still "haunt" the place today
were first told. The desolate conditions in the older
parts of the graveyard gave birth to stories of ghosts,
strange happenings, grave robbery and worse. These
intangible tales were only solidified by tales of
marauding gangs and outright lawlessness in the area
around the cemetery and at least one unsolved murder
that occurred within the bounds of the graveyard itself.
How many of these weird tales were true and how many
Many of them certainly had a basis in fact. A flood
had wiped out a portion of the cemetery in the early
part of the century and the bodies that had been
dislocated were moved to other parts of Greenwood. But
were the strange balls of light seen around the original
corner of the cemetery the spirits of the dead searching
for their new burial places?
And there were dozens of other tales that were
told. While perhaps many of them were simply local lore, those with
an interest have long pondered how such tales got started in the
first place? Could stories of restless ghosts have been invented to
explain other supernatural things for which no explanation was
The 1940's are a lost portion of Greenwood Cemetery history. The
tales of wandering spirits and glowing apparitions continued to
thrive while decay and decline came ever closer to bringing about
the graveyard's final destruction. Greenwood had become a forgotten
place in Decatur, other than as a spooky novelty from another time.
New and more attractive cemeteries like Graceland and Fairlawn were
much more visible and after they had expanded and beautified their
grounds, made Greenwood seem like an overgrown wasteland. These
newer cemeteries had none of the problems that faced Greenwood, like
poor roads, aging tombstones and a lack of funds with which to care
for the wooded grounds.
As 1950 rolled around, the place once called the "Beautiful City of
the Dead" was no more. Greenwood Cemetery was in ruins.
The roads, which had once been smooth pathways of shale, were now
partially covered cinder tracks that were so deeply rutted that most
of them were no longer passable. The cinders had washed away into
piles at the bottom of hills. The huge oak trees, which had always
added a great beauty to the cemetery, were now the graveyard's
greatest curse. The falls of leaves, which had not been raked in
years, were knee deep in places. They choked the grass and drifted
across roadways and over grave markers. Branches that had fallen
from the trees littered the ground, which were overgrown and tangled
with weeds and brush. Only the Perpetual Care lots still resembled
what the cemetery had once looked like, but they too were faded and
worn with age.
Water, time and vandals had wreaked havoc on Greenwood's tombstones
and markers. Years of rain, harsh weather and wind had caused many
of the stones to sag at odd angles and a lack of care caused many of
them to become lost. Others lay broken and damaged beyond repair,
having given up the fight against the elements.
The old public mausoleum was pronounced unsafe by two city
inspectors but nothing was done about the dangerous condition of it.
They simply chained the doors closed and added a padlock, but
curiosity-seekers and neighborhood children still managed to slip
inside. Later, court proceedings would be undertaken to determine
just who owned the building and to settle the question of removal
and proper consent to move the more than 100 bodies that remained
inside. The mausoleum remained standing until 1967, further mired in
the quicksand that had become Greenwood Cemetery.
Greenwood History Since 1957
In 1957, after decades of decline, it finally appeared that
Greenwood Cemetery would be saved from total destruction. A vote at
the annual Decatur town meeting declared that ownership and
operation of the graveyard would revert to the city.
The financial state of the nearly defunct cemetery association had
never improved and this was a last chance effort to revive the
property. The operation of the cemetery would now be paid for out of
the township budget and the association would finally be laid to
Of course, major problems faced the city when it had to address what
could be done to restore the cemetery to its former glory. A private
firm that was engaged to inspect the grounds estimated that it would
cost more than $100,000 (and this was in 1957 dollars!) to restore
the cemetery. Needless to say, this kind of money was not available
but public support did seem to be behind the restoration of the
graveyard. What could not be paid for was volunteered and a number
of organizations donated time and labor to help save an important
part of the city's history.
A day was set up in April 1958 and over 200 volunteers arrived to
clean, repair, rake and burn the brush from the cemetery. The Wagner
Memorial Co. furnished trucks and drivers to haul away sticks,
branches and debris. Other volunteers ranged from the VFW to the Boy
Scouts and the Marine Corp League and VFW Post 99 served lunch.
The restoration was largely a success and despite a few setbacks,
Greenwood has managed to prosper over the years. It took many years
though for burials to reach the capacities seen in the past and for
the cemetery to regain the respect that it had in its earlier days.
The decades of revival have not been without problems however. In
September 1970, vandals raided the cemetery, knocked over about 90
tombstones, and broke 30 stone flower urns. They entered the
cemetery at the northwest corner and took a circular route through
the graveyard, overturning stones as they went. Many of the grave
markers were damaged beyond repair and many others remain damaged
today. This occurred despite the fact that a fence had been
installed around the cemetery in 1963 and the gates had started to
be locked after dark. This was the first major incident like this to
ever occur and Greenwood trustees offered a reward for information
out of their own pockets leading to the arrest of the vandals.
Unfortunately though, the vandals were never caught.
Other late night forays into the cemetery were cited as the cause
two decades later when the road through the infamous "Hell Hollow"
region (just west of the cemetery) was closed and abandoned by the
city. Officials claimed that the wooded road offered easy access to
the cemetery and decided to eliminate it. They denied that the wild
legends and strange stories about the area, which had once been just
a gravel road in the woods, had anything to do with it being closed.
Greenwood has continued to make improvements over the years,
including expanding for more burial space and closing the east gate
that once allowed traffic from South Main Street. Remnants of this
road still remain, although it is mostly grown over now. The curious
can still see it by entering the main gates and turning left at the
first intersection. A rusted "closed" sign blocked the path for many
years but by following it on foot, the visitor can see the remains
of a path as it winds around the hill and slopes down to the street.
Another gate once entered where the car wash is now located on Main
Street but it was abandoned after the destruction of the public
What does the future hold for Greenwood? Perhaps only time will
tell, as officials continue to face the same problems as they faced
in the past with the funds simply not being available to save the
failing sections of the graveyard. The old historic markers continue
to deteriorate and time continues to take its toll on these bits of
memory from days gone by.
We can only hope that Greenwood's connections to the past will not
be lost and that concerned citizens will still be there, as they
were in 1958, to help save the last vestiges of the Decatur that
used to be.
Ghosts of Greenwood Cemetery
There are literally thousands of graves in Greenwood Cemetery and
many of them contain the remains of those who have been long
forgotten and who are now lost in the mists of time. Many of these
distant souls will slumber here in blissful darkness for eternity
---- but do the restless souls of Greenwood Cemetery actually
outnumber those who sleep in peace?
Why does Greenwood have so many ghosts? Is it because of those
Indians who were slain here so long ago? Do their souls still stalk
the cemetery grounds, guarding the rugged hill where their bodies
still lie? Or is it because of the strange and violent events of the
past that are still felt and experienced in the cemetery today? I'll
leave that for the reader to decide.
There have been nearly as many legends and strange stories told
about Greenwood as there have been people buried here. They are the
stories of the supernatural, of ghosts, phantoms and things that go
bump in the night and what follows is a sampling of these eerie
tales. Just don't forget, as you are reading them ---- keep looking
back over your shoulder. You never know who might be coming up
The Greenwood Bride
The story of Greenwood's most famous resident ghost begins around
1930 and concerns a young couple that was engaged to be married. The
young man was a reckless fellow, who was greatly disapproved of by
his future bride's family. In those days, during the waning years of
Prohibition, young men did whatever they could to make their
fortune. In this young man's case, he sold illegal whiskey. This was
not an uncommon profession in those times and while everyone did not
frown upon bootlegging, it could still be dangerous.
|One summer night, the couple decided not to wait any
longer to get married and made plans to elope. They
would meet just after midnight, as soon as the young man
could deliver one last shipment of whiskey and have
enough money for their wedding trip. Unfortunately, he
was delivering the bottles of whiskey when he was
murdered. The killers, rival businessmen, dumped his
body into the Sangamon River, where two fishermen found
it the next morning.
The young woman had gone to the arranged meeting place
the night before and she had waited until daybreak for
her lover. She was worried when she returned home and
devastated when she later learned that he had been
killed. She became crazed with grief and began tearing
at her hair and clothing. Finally, her parents summoned
the family doctor, who gave her a sedative and managed
to calm her down.
She disappeared later that night and
she was found the next day, floating face down in the
river, near where her lover's body had been pulled
ashore. She had taken her own life near the place where
her fiancée's had been lost, perhaps hoping to find him
Her grieving parents searched through her closet
in hopes of finding a suitable dress in which their daughter could
be buried in and found the wedding gown that she planned to wear
hidden away there. They blamed themselves for the tragedy, believing
that if they had given their blessing to the union, the young man's
life might have been saved ---- and their daughter would still be
among the living. As some small measure of atonement, they buried
their daughter in the bridal gown that she was never able to wear.
A funeral was held and her body was laid to rest on a hill in
Greenwood Cemetery. It has been said however, that she does not rest
here in peace. As time has passed, dozens of credible witnesses have
reported encountering the "Greenwood Bride" on that hill in the
cemetery. They claim the ghost of a woman in a glowing bridal gown
has been seen weaving among the tombstones. She walks here with her
head down and with a scrap of cloth gripped tightly in her hand.
Occasionally, she raises it to her face, as if wiping away tears.
Could this sad young woman still be searching for the spirit of her
murdered lover? No record remains as to where this man was laid to
rest, so no one knows where his spirit may walk. Perhaps he is out
there somewhere, still looking for the young woman that he was
supposed to marry many years ago?
The phenomenon of the "phantom funeral" is one that is unique to
cemeteries. The stories of single mourners, or even entire funeral
parties with automobiles, are more commonly reported than people
might think. These tales are scattered throughout the country and
even appear in Decatur.
The legends of Greenwood's phantom funerals seem to turn up on just
about any occasion. The accounts that I have collected date back
many years and are all strikingly similar, leading me to believe
that cemetery visitors may occasionally encounter mourners from
another time. Are these figures merely residual images of days gone
by ---- or are they something else?
One witness, Ann Cummings, was in the cemetery one afternoon
visiting her father's grave. She was carrying flowers and walking up
a small hill when she saw a woman in a long, black dress standing
near a tree. The woman was holding a small bundle of yellow flowers.
Ann turned away for a moment, concerned about her footing on the
incline of the hill, and when she looked back ---- the lady in black
had vanished! She looked around the area to see where she had gone,
but there was simply no one there.
Not all of the phantom mourners in Greenwood have been individuals
either. Some of the stories have concerned entire funeral parties
that have vanished without a trace.
A former employee of the cemetery told me about a time when he was
working one summer afternoon with some other men. They took a break
from mowing the grass when a funeral party arrived in the area where
they were working. They walked away for about five minutes but when
they came back, the funeral party had vanished. No funeral had been
scheduled to take place that day.
Another man was visiting the cemetery one day and came over a hill
to find a funeral was taking place. He waited for a few minutes out
of sight and when he climbed the hill again, the party was gone. He
could find no sign of the mourners or an open grave. He first
believed that he had been mistaken about the location, until he
explored further. He then realized that the mourners had been
gathered around the tombstone of a woman who had died on that day
---- nearly 60 years before.
Another former staff member was raking leaves one fall afternoon and
spotted a funeral that was taking place. Not remembering that any
were scheduled for that day, he took a closer look and noticed that
the hearse and the other cars parked nearby were from the 1940's.
Intrigued by the idea of someone using vintage automobiles, he later
asked another grounds crew member which funeral home in town was
arranging old cars for funerals. His friend looked at him rather
strangely and he explained what he had seen. Together, they checked
the calendar and learned that no funerals had taken place that
afternoon. Further investigation revealed that no graves had been
opened in that area of the cemetery.
And what do you call a ghostly funeral where the funeral party does
not appear ---- but the deceased does? A man named Kenny Becker
reported an incident just like that to me several years ago. He
recalled attending a funeral where this occurred when he was a young
boy. The deceased had been Becker's grandfather, who had passed away
after a lengthy battle with cancer. The entire family had attended
the service and then followed the hearse to Greenwood Cemetery for
the graveside memorial.
After the service, Becker was walking back to the car with his
grandmother when something caught his attention. He couldn't believe
his eyes for a moment but when his grandmother saw the same thing,
he realized that he wasn't imagining it. Inside of the automobile,
sitting on the driver's side, was his dead grandfather. He looked
completely solid and appeared to be alive. There was nothing
remarkable about his appearance and he looked as though he was ready
to go out on a Sunday drive. He was looking straight ahead through
the windshield and both of his hands were loosely gripping the
steering wheel. He remained that way for 20 or 30 seconds and then
he gradually faded away.
Was the apparition real? Did they imagine the whole thing? Or did
Kenny's grandfather actually stop off on his way to the other side
to offer a few last moments of comfort to those he left behind?
The Greenwood Ghost Lights
One of the cemetery's most enduring legends is the story of the
"ghost lights" that appear on the south side of the burial grounds.
These small globes of light have been reported here for many decades
and are still reported today. I saw these lights myself a few years
back and while I have no logical explanation for what they are, or
why they appear here, the lore of the cemetery tells a strange and
The legend tells of a flood that
occurred many years ago, most likely around 1900-1905,
which wiped out a portion of the cemetery. The Sangamon
River, located just south of the cemetery, had been
dammed in the late 1800's and was often prone to floods.
During one particularly wet spring, the river
overflowed its banks and washed into the lower sections of the
cemetery. Tombstones were knocked over and the surging water even
managed to wash graves away and to force buried caskets to the
surface. Many of them, as these were the days before Lake Decatur
had been formed, went careening downstream on the swollen river.
Once the water receded, it took many days to find the battered
remains of the coffins that had been washed down the river and many
were never found at all. For some time after, farmers and fishermen
were startled to find caskets, and even corpses, washing up on
riverbanks some miles away. There were many questions as to the
identities of the bodies that were unearthed and so many of them
were buried again in unmarked and common graves. These new graves
were placed on higher ground, up on the southern hills of Greenwood.
Since that time, it has been said that the mysterious lights have
appeared on these hills. The stories say that the lights are the
spirits of those whose bodies washed away in the flood. Their
wandering ghosts are now doomed to search forever for the place
where their remains are now buried.
Dozens of trustworthy witnesses have claimed to see the spook lights
on the hill, moving in and out among the old, weathered stones. The
mystery of the lights has managed to elude all those who have
attempted to solve it. Many have tried to pass them off as
reflections from cars passing over the lake -- but what of sightings
that date back to before Lake Decatur ever existed? In those days, a
covered bridge over the Sangamon River took travelers along the old
county highway and for many years, not a single automobile crossed
it, as motorcars had not yet come to Decatur.
Whether the cause is natural or supernatural, the lights can still
be seen along the edge of the graveyard today. Want to see them for
yourself? Seek out the south hills of Greenwood some night by
finding the gravel parking lot that is located across the road from
the cemetery fence. Here, you can sit and observe the hills. You
have to have a lot of patience, and may even have to make more than
one trip, but eventually, you will probably be lucky enough to see
the ghost lights.
My own patience paid off for the first time back in 1991. People who
came to me with their strange tales and ghost stories had told me
about the lights. In those days, I was already collecting such
stories and I was starting to hear many ghostly accounts from the
confines of Greenwood. One of the stories that I was already
familiar with though was the story of the ghost lights. I had
actually first heard about them from relatives who, back when they
were teenagers in the early 1930's, used to park their cars along
the road south of the cemetery in hopes that the eerie lights would
appear. I first started seeking out the lights for myself in the
late 1980's but it would take several years before my persistence
One night, a friend that I worked with and I drove down to the
cemetery to try and look for the lights. We waited there, sitting on
the hood of the car, for about two hours, quietly talking and
watching the hills that stretched out in front of us. It was a
cloudy night, but just enough of the moon seeped through the clouds
to softly illuminate the stones of the cemetery in the distance. My
friend, Larry, spotted the first light as it moved at a fairly quick
rate of speed from the lower part of the hill to the top. There, it
vanished in a second, almost as if it had been switched off. More
lights followed and I began to see them too as they darted and
zipped among the trees and the stones, some shooting upward and
others speeding off into the darkness and fading away. The "light
show" lasted for about 15 minutes and then no more of them were
I have since seen them on other occasions but still have no idea how
to explain what I have seen on these hills. The lights appear to be
about the size of softballs and are white in color and tinged with a
faint blue. They have an electric sort of glare to them, as though
they were light bulbs, surging with energy. What could have created
Obviously, it's very possible that these lights might have a natural
explanation. I do believe that they are paranormal in origin, but
only paranormal in the sense that we don't have an explanation for
what causes them yet. Many researchers have cited the causes for
spook lights as being railroad tracks, power lines or sources of
water. Almost every spook light location has one (or more) of these
things in common. In the case of the Greenwood lights, we have all
three. The lights are seen on a hillside that is only a few yards
away from the old Illinois Central rail line. In addition, there are
power lines running next to the tracks and both the railroad tracks
and the power lines cross over the Sangamon River. Given all of
that, I would say that it's possible, and perhaps even likely, that
the Greenwood lights have an explanation that is of this world,
rather than the next one. In other words, they are not likely the
restless souls of the dead.
I will tell you though ---- as you are sitting out on the south side
of the cemetery in the dark and happen to catch a glimpse of the
famous Greenwood Ghost Lights, it's easier to believe that they are
ghosts than anything that we can explain away as a glitch of nature.
Ghosts of the Greenwood Mausoleum
Located in the heart of Greenwood Cemetery is a low, flat area where
the old public mausoleum was once located. This site rests at the
bottom of a steep hill and grass and earth now cover the foundation.
However, if a visitor to the cemetery looks closely, the stone
outlines of the building can still be seen.
There are many secrets about this place ---- stories of odd sights
and sounds that threaten to chill the blood. They are mostly
forgotten now, as is the old mausoleum itself, but some believe that
the ghosts still remain!
The Greenwood Mausoleum was built in 1908 and for years it held the
bodies of several hundred of Decatur's former citizens. The
structure was a long, narrow building that was fitted with crypts in
both interior walls. A long, open hallway ran down the center and
opened on both ends. Overhead, glass skylights provided dim
lighting. Each corner of the building was fitted with a tall,
fortress-like tower. The only security provided for the building was
a set of iron gates located at each end of the center corridor. They
were locked with a steel padlock at night with, which may have kept
the grave robbers out, but certainly didn't stop the weird tales
from being told about the place.
|The tomb deteriorated rapidly, whether because of
poor construction or harsh weather, no one really knows.
It did however, begin to crumble and lean. The overhead
skylights began to leak and it became common to find
puddles of water on the floor after a hard rain. It also
became a place where neighborhood children would go only
on a dare and people started to tell tales of
unexplainable shadows and strange noises inside.
A view of the
old Greenwood Mausoleum and its location in the
cemetery. The photo to the right shows the site as it
It was often said that visitors could hear the
ominous sounds of whispering and disembodied voices echoing off of
the stone interior walls. The most commonly repeated stories
recalled the sounds of screaming that bellowed out from both ends of
the empty building.
Soon, the mausoleum began to be avoided and interments in the crypt
dropped off rapidly. By the early 1950's, they had ended completely
and the tomb became a forsaken place. The cemetery itself had fallen
into abandonment and disrepair by this time and old crypt had
In 1957, Greenwood Cemetery came into the hands of the township and
plans were made to restore the graveyard to at least a semblance of
earlier and better days. One of the first items on the improvement
list was the destruction of the mausoleum. It was declared unsafe by
city inspectors but in the years that followed, many argued that it
could have been repaired. Some believe the mausoleum was actually
torn down because of the stories of disembodied voices and screams
and not because the place was structurally unsound. Of course, we
will never really know for sure.
Once plans were made to destroy the building, caretakers had to
begin the long and time consuming process of trying to locate family
members of the people interred in the mausoleum. Permission was
needed from these family members to rebury their loved ones in other
locations in the cemetery. This search would take nearly ten years
and by the time it was finished, there would remain about a dozen or
so bodies that would be unclaimed. Many of the families who had
interred relatives in the mausoleum had moved out of the area and
could not be located, or had died themselves, leaving no one to
grant permission or to pay for a new burial.
The crypts inside of the building had been broken open over the past
decade, leaving gaping holes in the walls. By the mid-1960's, the
last of the bodies were removed and the mausoleum was left with
nothing inside but empty crypts and floors covered with stone and
plaster. The area around the mausoleum was barricaded and no one was
allowed near it while the last of the unclaimed bodies were being
taken out. These remains were moved directly across the road from
the mausoleum site and placed in a common grave. The bodies were
placed there in random order and no one ever attempted to try and
discover the identities of the various remains. The grave can be
found today, straight east of the old mausoleum site. The building
itself was finally torn down in 1967.
A photo showing
the interior of the Greenwood Mausoleum just before it
was demolished in 1967. The photo on the right shows the
markers over the common grave where unclaimed burials
from the mausoleum were moved.
Many believe that the spirits of those
who were moved from their resting places still linger in
this area today. While the empty building was still
standing, witnesses reported the cries of people coming
from inside of it, even though the tomb was clearly
empty. Strange energy and sensations have also been
reported around the site of the common grave across the
road. Ghost researchers conducted experiments around
this area in the summer of 1996, using Geiger counters
and devices that measure fluctuations in earth energy.
All of the equipment managed to pick up abnormal
amounts of energy around the common grave and on the site of the
mausoleum itself. Apparently, there is still energy here that has
lingered for more than 30 years!
In 1998, during an outing with a "Haunted Decatur Tour", a group of
more than 35 people (including myself) experienced something very
strange here as well. One night, I was leading a group on a walking
tour of the cemetery. It was a very warm night in early October but
as we walked down a hill to the site of the mausoleum, everyone in
the group noticed a temperature drop of at least 30 degrees --- to
the point that we could suddenly see the vapor of our breath in the
air! The really strange thing was that this happened only in the
area where the mausoleum once stood. We could cross the road and
feel the air immediately grow warmer!
So, why is this so strange? Most paranormal researchers believe that
unexplainable temperature drops can often point to the presence of
ghosts, or at least some sort of spirit energy. It is thought that
ghosts use the energy in the air to manifest and as they do so, the
energy being pulled from the atmosphere creates a drop in
temperature, hence the mention of "cold spots" in ghost stories and
tales. Did we encounter the ghosts of the mausoleum's restless
spirits that night on the tour? I don't know, but we certainly had
no explanation for the chill, and we certainly never felt it
anywhere else in the graveyard that night!
The Barrackman Staircase
Located on the edge of the forest that makes up Greenwood's
northwest corner is an old burial plot that sits upon a small hill.
This is the plot of a family named "Barrackman" and if you approach
this piece of land from the east, walking along the cemetery's
narrow roads, you will find a set of stone steps that lead to the
top of a grassy hill. There are four, rounded stones here, marking
the burial sites of the family.
|Little is known about the Barrackman's, other than
that the four members of this family are buried in
Greenwood. No records exist about who they were, when
they may have lived here or even about what they may
have accomplished in life. We simply know their names,
father, mother, son and his wife, as they are inscribed
on the identical tombstones. As mentioned, two of the
stones bear the names of the Barrackman women, and
although no one really knows for sure --- it may be one
of these two women who still haunts this burial plot!
According to many accounts, collected over the years
from dozens of people who never knew one another, a
visitor who remains in the cemetery as the sun is going
down may be treated to an eerie, and breathtaking sight.
According to the story, the visitor is directed
to the Barrackman staircase as dusk falls on the graveyard. It is
said that a semi-transparent woman in a long dress appears on the
stone steps. She sits there on the staircase with her head bowed and
appears to be weeping, although she has never been heard to make a
sound. Those who do get the chance to see her, never see her for
long. She always inexplicably vanishes as the sun dips below the
horizon. She has never been seen in the daylight hours and never
after dark ---- only just at sunset.
Who is this lonely woman and why does she haunt the staircase and
the Barrackman graves? There are some who suggest that she may have
been a member of the family buried here, but what could have brought
her back to her burial site? I tend to favor the idea that she may
have been another person entirely, who found peace on this staircase
and came to the place during her lifetime to weep for someone who
died and was buried nearby.
Most likely, we will never know for sure just who she is or what
brings her here, although she is still seen today. Perhaps one day
she will break her silence and speak to some unsuspecting passerby,
who just manages to get a glimpse of her before she fades away into
The Confederate Ghosts of Greenwood
Located on a high, desolate hill in the far southwest corner of
Greenwood Cemetery is a collection of identical stone markers,
inscribed with the names of the local men who served, and some who
died, during the brutal days of the Civil War. The silence of this
area is deafening. Visitors stand over the remains of some of the
city of Decatur's greatest heroes and the bloody victors of the war.
But not all of the men buried here served under the Stars and
Stripes of the Union Army. There are dark secrets hidden here.....
During the years of the Civil War, a great many trains passed
through the city of Decatur. It was on a direct line of the Illinois
Central Railroad, which ran deep into the south. The line continued
north to Chicago and ran near the prison camp that was located
there, Camp Douglas. Many trains came north carrying Union troops
bound for Decatur and beyond. Soldiers aboard these trains were
often wounded, sick and dying. Occasionally, deceased soldiers were
taken from the trains and buried in Greenwood Cemetery, which was
very close to the train tracks. These men were buried in the
cemetery and the citizens of Decatur marked their graves with honor.
But that wasn't always the case....
On many occasions, trains came north bearing Confederate prisoners
who were on their way to the camp near Chicago. These soldiers were
not treated so honorably. Often, Confederates who died were unloaded
from the train and buried in shallow, unmarked graves in forgotten
locations. Most of these soldiers were unknown victims of gunshot
and disease and many were past the point of revealing their
identity. These men will never be known and their families will
never have discovered what became of them after they departed for
the battlefields of war. Those men are now silent corpses scattered
about the confines of Greenwood Cemetery.
Why was there such a hatred for the Confederacy in Decatur? Besides
being the home of the 116th Illinois Regiment, it seemed that nearly
everyone in the city had a friend or relative in the Union army. A
number of places in Decatur were also used as stations on the
"Underground Railroad", which means that the abolitionists also had
a stronghold here.
This was the reason, in 1863, when a prison train holding southern
prisoners pulled into Decatur, it was given the kind of reception
that it was. The stories say the train was filled with more than 100
prisoners and that many of them had contracted yellow fever in the
diseased swamps of the south.
The Union officers in charge of the train had attempted to separate
the Confederates who had died in transit from the other prisoners,
but to no avail. Many of the other men were close to death from the
infectious disease and it was hard to tell which men were alive and
which were not. They called for wagons to come to a point near the
cemetery --- but no one would answer the summons.
Several soldiers were dispatched and a group of men and wagons were
commandeered in the city. The bodies were removed from the train and
taken to Greenwood Cemetery. They were unloaded here and their
bodies were stacked in piles at the base of a hill in the southwest
corner of the graveyard. This location was possibly the least
desirable spot in the cemetery. The hill was so steep that many of
the gravediggers had trouble keeping their balance. It was the last
place that anyone would want to be buried in and for this reason;
the enemies of the Union were placed there.
Ironically though, years later, the top of this same hill would be
fashioned into a memorial for Union soldiers who died in battle and
for those who perished unknown.
The men from the city hastily dug shallow graves and tossed the
bodies of the Confederates inside. It has been said that without a
doctor present, no one could have known just how many of the
soldiers had actually died from yellow fever ---- were all of those
buried here actually dead? Many say that they were not, some of them
accidentally buried alive, and this is why the area is the most
haunted section of Greenwood.
To make matters worse, many years later, spring rains and flooding
would cause the side of the hill itself to collapse in a mudslide
and further disturb the bodies of these men. Not only did the
Confederate remains lie scattered about in the mud, but the disaster
also took with it the bodies of Union men who had been laid to rest
in the memorial section at the top of the hill. This further
complicated matters, as now, no had any idea how to identify the
bodies. In the end, the remains were buried again and the hill was
constructed into terraces to prevent another mudslide in the future.
The bodies were placed in the Civil War Memorial section and the
graves were marked with stones bearing the legend of "Unknown U.S.
Soldier" ---- and it will never be known just who these men may be.
But what causes this section of the cemetery to be considered as
haunted? Psychic impressions from the past or angry spirits? Some
people believe that it may be both, as reports from eight decades
have revealed unexplainable tales and strange energy lingering
around this hill. Visitors who have come here, many of them knowing
nothing about the bizarre history of this place, have told of
hearing voices, strange sounds, footsteps in the grass, whispers,
cries of torment and some even claim to have been touched or pushed
by unseen hands.
There are also the reports of the soldiers themselves returning from
the other side of the grave. Accounts have been revealed over the
years that tell of visitors to the cemetery actually seeing men in
uniform walking among the tombstones --- men that are strangely
The most stunning tale was reported a few years ago and was told to
me first-hand. It happened that a young man was walking along the
road in the back corner of the cemetery. He saw a man standing on
the top of the hill, who beckoned to him. The boy walked up to him
and was surprised to see that he was wearing tattered gray clothing,
which was very dirty and spotted with what looked like blood. The
man looked at the boy oddly and he wore an expression of confusion
on his face.
"Can you help me?", the man asked softly of the boy. "I don't know
where I am..... and I want to go home."
Before the boy could answer, the man simply vanished.
And that brings us to the end of our strange trip through the
haunted history of Greenwood Cemetery. The conclusion of our journey
leaves us with many questions and few solid answers. The history of
the graveyard has lingering mysteries of its own, but perhaps the
most puzzling questions are those regarding the cemetery's
Is Greenwood Cemetery really as haunted as the legends would have us
believe? Or could all of the stories be wrong? That hardly seems
likely based on the longevity of such tales and the reliable
witnesses and storytellers who have passed them on. For even if we
dismiss the largest part of the stories as mere folklore, that still
leaves dozens of stories that cannot easily be explained. As for
myself, I have become convinced over the years that something very
strange lurks in this forbidding graveyard.
But what about you, dear reader? Are you convinced, or are all of
these stories just mindless entertainment? What if I concede to the
fact that at least a portion, perhaps even the largest portion, of
the ghostly tales of Greenwood might be simply folklore? Even so,
this still leaves scores of tales that just might be the truth! So
don't be too quick to disbelieve ---- there is more to Greenwood
Cemetery than first meets the eye!
back to Haunted Decatur!
Copyright 2006 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.