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Six Seriously Spooky Cemetery Stories

It's that time of year, when we look to graveyards for tales that scare the dickens out of us. Ghosts, unexplained phenomena, and even vampires figure in these stories of graveyards from all over.

1. Silver Cliff Cemetery

Silver Cliff Cemetery in Colorado took its name from the nearby mining town of Silver Cliff, which was named for the Silver Cliff Mine. It was a silver mine. Despite an abundance of ore, bad management and financial shenanigans ran the company into the ground -three times! The cemetery is famous today for its dancing blue lights. National Geographic published an article about the lights in 1969. Witnesses say the lights are small, round, and come in other colors besides blue at times. The lights dance across the gravestones. Some say they are reflections of lights from town, but sightings were recorded before electricity came to Silver Cliff.

2. Stepp Cemetery

Stepp Cemetery is a small abandoned cemetery in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest in Indiana. Only a couple of dozen graves are there, some going back 200 years. It is officially a local family cemetery, but legend has it that it was founded by a cult called the Crabbites, whose rituals include snake handling and sex orgies. Some reports say you can still hear the chanting of their gatherings in the cemetery at night. However, I could not find any references to the Crabbites outside of Stepp Cemetery stories, which gives it urban legend status. Another story holds that a devoted mother stayed at the grave of her infant every day, even after the mother's death. Yet another story attributes the crying sounds heard to an old woman who put a curse on the cemetery after a fraternity group killed her dog and left its body at the cemetery.

3. Camp Chase Cemetery

Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio is the final resting place of 2,260 Confederate soldiers. Why Ohio? It was the site of a Union POW camp, which held 9,400 rebel soldiers during the Civil War. A smallpox epidemic struck the camp in 1863, and the victims, both prisoners and those who worked at the camp, were buried there. After the war, the camp was dismantled and the cemetery is the only remnant left. Gravestones began to replace wooden markers in 1895.

Louisiana Ransburgh Briggs was a Southerner from New Madrid, Missouri, whose father sent her north to Ohio to avoid the war. After the war was over, she married a Union veteran but never forgot her Southern sympathies. She visited the Camp Chase Cemetery and placed flowers on various graves, even those covered with overgrowth. Briggs wore a veil to hide her identity during her evening visits, earning her the nickname "the Veiled Lady of Camp Chase." She later spearheaded the efforts to reclaim and maintain the cemetery. After her death in 1950, reports of mysterious flowers appearing on graves and the sounds of crying were attributed to the ghost of Mrs. Briggs, who then came to be known as "The Gray Lady." Her activities are particularly connected with the grave of a 22-year-old soldier from Tennessee named Benjamin F. Allen. There have also been reported sightings of Confederate soldiers' ghosts at Camp Chase.

4. Highgate Cemetery

Highgate gothic

Highgate Cemetery in London, England, has its share of celebrities, but after it was filled, maintenance declined and the resulting overgrowth made it a classically spooky-looking place. So much so that a series of horror movies from Hammer Films were filmed there in the late '50s. In the 1970s, interest in the occult led to rumors and sightings of first ghosts, then vampires, in Highgate Cemetery. Vandalism and graverobbing stunts fueled these rumors, and ultimately led to a competition between "magicians" Seán Manchester and David Farrant. Both vowed to be the one who could rid the cemetery of the vampire. A series of escapades in the cemetery occurred between 1970 and 1973 in which crowds of people gathered after dark, and corpses were found unearthed, damaged, and sometimes posed. Police tried to keep order, and in 1974 Farrant was jailed for vandalizing graves. Manchester and Farrant carry on their occult rivalry to this day. A lasting document from the vampire scare 40 years ago is the Hammer film Dracula AD 1972, which was inspired by the Highgate Cemetery hijinks. Image by Flickr user Anders B.

5. Chase Mausoleum

The Chase Family Vault in Christ Church Parish, Barbados was built in 1724 and first used in 1807. Remains were interred and sealed with marble and cement. In 1812, the mausoleum was opened for the fourth burial, but the three earlier coffins were found to have moved! An infant's coffin was found standing on end. They were repositioned and resealed. Twice in 1816 and once in 1819, the crypt was opened for further burials and the previous coffins were found flipped over or turned end-to-end. The island governor ordered a seal placed on the door and sand was put on the floor to retain evidence of any break-ins. Yet when the crypt was next opened, the seal was unbroken, the sand was intact, and the coffins were again moved. That's when the family decided to relocate the coffins of their loved ones elsewhere. The vault has not been used since. Although contemporary accounts say there was no evidence of flooding, the simplest explanation is underground water seepage, which could move coffins without seeming to disturb a layer of sand. As the vault is built of coral, leakage does seem to make sense.

6. Chesnut Hill Cemetery

Chesnut Hill Baptist Church Cemetery in Exeter, Rhode Island is reported to be haunted by a vampire named Mercy Lena Brown. She was preceded in death by her mother and sister, victims of tuberculosis, and Mercy would often visit their graves. In January 1892, 19-year-old Mercy herself fell to tuberculosis and was interred with her family members. Mercy's father George claimed she haunted him every night, complaining of hunger. His son Edwin fell sick, also with tuberculosis, but as he experienced visits from Mercy, the family and townspeople considered the cause of his illness to be the restless dead. George Brown, with the help of others, dug up the graves of his wife and two daughters on March 17, 1892. Only Mercy, who died in January, was free of decomposition. This led George to believe she was a vampire. The villagers cut out Mercy's heart, burned it, mixed the ashes with water, and gave the concoction to the ailing brother Edwin as medicine. He nevertheless died a couple of months later. The story of Mercy Brown was an inspiration for elements in several novels, including Bram Stoker's Dracula.

If you don't see your favorite haunted cemetery in this list, you light try 10 of America’s Most Haunted Cemeteries.

See also: America’s Most Haunted: Six Seriously Spooky Sites
The Haunted Hospital
The Haunted Plantation
The Happy, Haunted Island of Poveglia

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.

1. KRAMPUS

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. JÓLAKÖTTURINN

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. FRAU PERCHTA


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. BELSNICKEL

A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. HANS TRAPP

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. PÈRE FOUETTARD

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. THE YULE LADS

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 

8. GRÝLA

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

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