Illinois 1: A road less taken

Joe Gisondi and Brian Poulter, journalism professors at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, traveled Illinois 1 over the summer and recorded their journey. For our purposes, their journey started in Danville, but the six-part series will cover the length of the road from its origin near Cave in Rock and its end near the south side of Chicago.

Gisondi is the author of “The Field Guide to Covering Sports” and blogs about sports journalism at Sports-FieldGuide.com. He is finishing a book about Bigfoot researchers that will be published next year by University of Nebraska Press. At Eastern, he primarily teaches courses in advanced reporting, sports writing, sports media and computer-assisted reporting. He worked as a sports journalist for more than 20 years at the Orlando Sentinel and other Florida dailies.

Poulter has taught photojournalism at Eastern for more than 20 years. An award-winning photographer and teacher, he is also the co-author of news writing software News Scene. His travel photography has documented the Mississippi River, Dalton Road (Yukon), and the Oregon Trail. Recently, under a grant from Verizon, he used only an iPhone 4S to photograph the National Road. On the Illinois 1 project, he used an iPhone 5 and a Nokia Lumia 928 cellphone. Before joining the faculty at Eastern, he worked extensively for newspapers on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

HEATHSVILLE — As a child, I was terrified of monsters, although I still watched countless black-and-white movies involving Dracula, Frankenstein, werewolves and all kinds of bizarre, ghoulish creatures. I may not have slept well some nights, but that didn’t mean I enjoyed hanging around graveyards, where, I knew, arms can easily reach from the ground and pull a person into a crypt to a gruesome death. Or so I thought.

At age 50, I still have a healthy respect for cemeteries and an abnormal fear of walking over graves. For the most part, I no longer expect arms and hands to emerge from the ground. But I still feel unwelcome walking over interred bodies, sort of like a guest who fails to take off his muddy shoes before walking over your new carpet.

Yet, I was somehow excited to track down the grave of Elizabeth “Betsey” Reed, the first woman publicly executed in the United States and considered a witch here in Central Illinois in 1845 — a story that many locals appear to know and one that inspired a book written in 2009 by Rick Kelsheimer, “The Hanging of Betsey Reed: A Wabash River Tragedy on the Illinois Frontier.”

Reed was allegedly buried in Baker Cemetery, a small plot tucked behind cornfields, under large oaks, near a creek, and past miles of gravel roads. The Crawford County Illinois Ghost Hunters Society claims to have witnessed strange events and to have recorded data that indicates paranormal activity takes place in Baker Cemetery, which researchers call “a very haunted location.”

Tom Compton, a reporter for the Daily News in Robinson, had mentioned Reed’s bizarre story to us ear-lier on this July morning before sending us about 16 miles past Palestine (population 2,176), the oldest standing settlement town in Illinois that was originally built around Fort LaMotte in order to protect locals from Indian attacks during the War of 1812.

Compton would not be the last person to mention Reed.

Twenty minutes later, Brian Poulter and I were lost somewhere outside Flat Rock, near North 2000th Street and East 280 N, another gravel road carved amid Illinois cornfields; but we found a farmer near a small home and tractor, which he used to bale hay for horses. Bob Correll’s gray hair is tucked under a tan cowboy hat, falling down broad shoulders in a ponytail onto a gray, cotton, collared shirt. His chin is squared, his eyes concentrating on the best way to redirect these city folk. Correll, 65, appeared like a no-nonsense Midwesterner.

When we asked to find Baker Cemetery, he remarked: “Are you looking for Bessie Reed?”

A few years earlier, Correll had stumbled onto the grave marker while coon hunting. He knew her story and had heard the ghost stories.

“You talk about getting the creeps,” Correll said. “I told my hunting buddy, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ ”

Compton had already warned us that electronic devices lose power or do not work in this cemetery.

Ten minutes later, we eventually found the graveyard, marked by a partially hidden aluminum sign where a narrow, dirt road runs back about 100 yards to an area that could fit about three full-sized basketball courts, and that is hemmed in by ancient oaks, vines, and a shallow creek. Corn that is more than six feet tall lines the entrance road. We were about a mile from Heathsville, an unincorporated area that has fewer than 100 residents, but it’s not even a half-mile away as the crow flies.

Baker appears ignored, which is not unusual. Of the 4,000 cemeteries in Illinois, only about 800 are active, says Victoria Hand of the Illinois Cemetery and Funeral Home Association. Cemeteries are regularly aban-doned when parishes dissolve and when families can’t afford to pay annual fees. Families, not cemetery associations, have control over dead family members in Illinois. Sometimes, younger community members feel disconnected from deceased relatives who are several times removed and, subsequently, they do not replace appointed trustees.

Crawford County has a higher percentage of cemeteries per capita than most of Illinois. Crawford County, which has a population of nearly 20,000, has 75 cemeteries — far fewer than Cook County’s 220. But Crawford has a cemetery for about every 267 current residents, compared to a ratio of about 23,600 to 1 for Cook County.

Sue Jones at the Crawford County Historical Society says her county actually has 88 known cemeteries that includes a few that are overgrown. Several others, started on the banks of creeks, have been washed away by severe weather and high water. In addition, several cemeteries, such as one in Palestine, include remains from both settlers and Indians. A Palestine graveyard holds the remains of Ohio’s first governor, Othniel Looker, who is buried in Kitchell Cemetery after having moved near his daughter’s family after he left office.

Why so many graveyards in this sparsely populated area? Probably because early settlement of Illinois began here in the southern portions and expanded northward. Before Illinois was granted statehood in 1818, nearby Vincennes, Ind., had been the county seat for an area that extended to Canada.

Betsey’s headstone is in the back corner of Baker Cemetery, the only one facing west, the opposite direction of the other 117 interred bodies, perhaps because people at the time were amazingly disturbed by this allegedly heinous crime, or perhaps because Betsey’s body was stolen from a doctor’s office in Lawrenceville and moved into this plot late at night. The story has blurred through the years, but countless stories persist. But here are some of the facts gleaned from court documents, newspaper accounts and a website written by Kelsheimer.

Reed was convicted of killing her husband with arsenic on the testimony of a single witness, 16-year-old Eveline Deal. Deal claimed to have watched Reed pour a white powder into her husband Leonard’s sassafras tea, which, the teen testified, “seemed to make him very sick and caused him to vomit immediately.” Leonard died three days later in great agony from “inflammation of the stomach, induced by some poisonous drugs.”

The evidence would never had made it past a modern grand jury — a piece of paper that had allegedly held the arsenic, Doc Logan’s claim that he had sold this poison to Reed (even if he could not recall any specific details) and Deal’s unsubstantiated claims. But the women in Heathsville loathed Reed’s “hardened disposition” and her bizarre mountain remedies, which prompted many to call her a witch, a claim rein-forced when she was able to burn down the Palestine jailhouse in an attempt to escape, whereas matches or a lantern would have easily sparked the wooden tinderbox used for the area’s justice building. The women were also a bit jealous since the men in the area allegedly believed Betsey to be beautiful and mysterious.

Reed was eventually convicted, sentenced, and hanged in Lawrenceville, after which she was buried in an unmarked grave when city officials refused her entry into the main cemetery. Local medical students ex-humed her body the next night. Their autopsy revealed that Reed had been eating pieces of bricks and mortar from her jail cell in hopes of dying before the hanging. Reed came within a few days of accom-plishing that feat, according to the medical students.

Reed’s relatives, angered by this personal violation, reclaimed Betsey’s body and buried her next to her husband Leonard in the Baker Cemetery. Only three bodies had previously been interred in this cemetery, including Major Asahel Heath, who earned his commission fighting in the War of 1812 and who was the region’s first justice of the peace. It is not clear whether he is also connected to the local family that devel-oped the delectable candy bar that bears the same name and which is still produced by Hershey in nearby Robinson.

The Crawford County Ghost Hunters Society says Reed haunts this cemetery, claiming to have recorded strange, paranormal events on their equipment. In addition, several local residents have reported hearing a woman weeping near Reed’s grave and of seeing a lady dressed in white flitting across the grave stones.

If Reed’s spirit does linger, she apparently would not be alone, according to local lore. A woman, who drowned when her car slipped off a ferry and drowned her just north of this location, allegedly roams the Wabash River. A family massacred, and decapitated, by Indians in 1812 has also made itself known, accord-ing to the ghost hunters society.

But at 10 a.m., the cemetery appears in repose, relaxing in the shade of the large, ancient oaks. Reed’s headstone sits on the west side, the sun shining on the wide marble marker that includes both Betsy’s and Leonard’s names, along with a phrase “Gone But Not Forgotten,” indicating the family probably disagreed with the court’s death sentence. Why else would they have placed the two together in this manner? Across the cemetery, most headstones describe those interred simply as mother, father, son or daughter.

The Reeds, though, are identified by their demise — “Death By Murder” for Leonard and “Death By Hang-ing” for Betsey.

“Those are certainly two reasons why this place could be haunted,” Brian said.

At this point, Brian and I check our phones. In about 30 minutes, my iPhone has been drained of more than half its battery even though it is not searching for a local tower. Brian’s Nokia Lumia 928 has also lost half its charge.

We do not feel the same creepy sensation that overcame Bob Correll or the paranormal investigators that searched here late at night. But we decide to skedaddle nonetheless. There’s no reason to disturb the dead, although I’d think they would appreciate the company on a sleepy July morning.

hrnews@herald-review.com

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