Greenwood Cemetery
Where the Dead Still Walk

The beginnings of Greenwood Cemetery are a mystery.
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 Greenwood Cemetery.

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 Greenwood.

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 cemetery.

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 still remain.

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 them.
That was a problem that would come back to haunt Greenwood in the years ahead.

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 evenings.

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
1920-1940


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 broken gravestones.

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 were legends?

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 forthcoming?

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 rest.

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 mausoleum.

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 behind you!

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 in eternity.

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?

Phantom Mourners

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 tragic story.

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 paid off.

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 seen.

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 them?

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 looks today.

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 followed suit.

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 night.

The Confederate Ghosts of Greenwood Cemetery

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 transparent.

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 ghosts....

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!

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© Copyright 2006 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.