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The Stories Behind 8 "Witch" Graves

These days, we know there’s no such thing as broomstick-riding, pointy-hat-wearing witches. But it wasn’t that long ago that people blamed witches for everyday problems such as bad crops and common colds. When these supposed spell-casters died, the stories about them lived on—and, in some cases, were fabricated afterward. Here are their tales.

1. LILIAS ADIE // TORRYBURN, SCOTLAND

In 1704, Lilias Adie confessed to being a witch and having sex with the devil. Though she was jailed for “admitting” to her crimes, Adie died before her trial and sentencing. To prevent her from returning to life and seeking revenge on the town, locals buried her in the mud between high tide and low tide, then sunk a heavy, flat stone over it. The BBC points out that this was also the method used to bury people who had committed suicide, which, at the time, was believed to be something one only did if he or she was in league with the devil. 

The extreme measures didn’t keep the alleged witch in her grave, but it wasn't because her angry spirit came back: Unfortunately, Adie's skull was stolen sometime in the 19th century and ended up at the St. Andrews University Museum. The large stone slab, however, remains embedded in the mud to this day.

2. RHODA WARD // BRIDGEPORT, WEST VIRGINIA

During the winter of 1786-1787, a woman named Rhoda Ward suffered from chicken pox. As if the ailment wasn’t bad enough, someone told city officials that Ward was seen throwing up crooked pins during her illness. This, apparently, was just cause to put Ward on trial in January 1787. Her official statement on the matter was, “If I did, I knowed it not, though it might be the case, and if the pins had not been showed to me, and I have been told that I spewed them up, I should have thought that the above had been a fiction, proceeding from being light-headed with fever.”

Ward was found innocent of all charges, even after a second trial 12 years later. But that hasn’t stopped people from declaring that there’s something unsettling about her unmarked grave in Bridgeport.

3. SUSAN GAVAN // AURORA, NEBRASKA

Local lore says that anyone who steps on Susan Gavan’s grave will die within 9 years or by age 21—and the whole superstition seems to stem from the simple fact that her grave is enclosed by a small fence. There’s no record of Gavan being accused of any witchy activity, and her 1882 obituary was perfectly respectful, so the cemetery superintendent believes her reputation as the town witch comes solely from the grave decoration: “In my opinion, the witch story got started, probably by some kids, because her grave has a fence around it and is different from the rest of the graves.”

4. HANNAH CRANNA // TRUMBELL, CONNECTICUT

After Hannah Cranna Hovey’s husband died—he mysteriously fell off of a cliff—villagers said she used witchcraft to curse people who weren't charitable toward her by providing extra firewood or food. It’s also said that Cranna foretold her own death and asked locals to carry her casket into the cemetery when she died. They opted to bring it in by sleigh instead, but the coffin fell off—which they took as a sign that they had better carry out her wishes.

5. MEG SHELTON // LANCASHIRE, ENGLAND

Brian Young, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

As far as witches go, Meg Shelton seems like she was pretty harmless: It’s said that she used her mystical powers to steal milk and grain from farmers. Even so, townspeople were fed up enough when she died to have her grave covered with a large rock to prevent the witch from returning. Though the boulder doesn’t appear to be big enough to cover a coffin, it is when you consider this: They had Meg buried vertically, head down—just in case she tried to dig her way out.

6. THE WITCH OF YAZOO // YAZOO CITY, MISSISSIPPI

Writer Willie Morris immortalized the Witch of Yazoo in his novel Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood. According to his story, this unnamed witch was known to lure fishermen off the river and into her cabin, where she tortured and killed them. In 1884, the town sheriff and his deputies eventually came to arrest her, and when she fled, she fled directly into quicksand in the nearby swamp. As she died, she swore that she would return and burn the city to the ground. She made good on her word—in 1904, Yazoo City suffered from a terrible fire that destroyed the entire business district, more than 100 homes, and all but one church. When the townspeople thought to check on the witch’s grave, they discovered that the chain-link fence surrounding it had been broken.

Whether or not the (very real) fire was the result of a witch, the townspeople have embraced the legend. In the 1990s, they placed this tombstone/monument in the middle of the broken chains. 

7. ELIZABETH GRAHAM // TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA

When 23-year-old Bessie Graham died in 1889, leaving behind a husband and two young children, her devastated husband apparently vowed to memorialize her by building the largest and most striking tombstone in the cemetery. He also had it inscribed with a passage from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Lenore”:

“Ah! Broken is the golden bowl.
The spirit flown forever!
Let the bell toll! A saintly soul
Floats on the Stygian River;
Come let the burial rite be read
The funeral song be sung;
An anthem for the queenliest dead
That died so young
A dirge for her the doubly dead
In that she died so young.”

The combination of the massive monument, the macabre poem, and fact that the grave faces the “wrong” direction (west instead of east) has led locals to conclude that Bessie must have been a witch—albeit a "good" one.

8. BATHSHEBA SHERMAN // HARRISVILLE, RHODE ISLAND

Made famous by the movie The Conjuring, Bathsheba Sherman allegedly sacrificed an infant child as an offering to the devil by jamming knitting needle into the base of its neck. She was acquitted of all charges, but the legend only grew. Bathsheba, some of the stories say, literally turned to stone when she died. And of course, according to The Conjuring, her spirit hung around her old farmhouse and terrorized the Perron family in the 1970s. Sadly, her grave in the Harrisville Cemetery has been repeatedly vandalized since the movie came out in 2013.

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Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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History
The Surprising Origin of the Word Morgue
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Today the word morgue conjures up images of an efficient, hygienic room overseen by professionals in lab coats and rubber gloves. Most of us are familiar with its inner workings only from cop shows and crime novels, never having had the desire—or need—to visit one in real life. However, our image of the modern, sterile morgue stands in stark contrast with the room that originally gave rise to the term.

In 18th century Paris, visitors to the Grand Châtelet—a combined court, police headquarters, and prison that served as the seat of common-law jurisdiction in pre-revolutionary France—could descend to the basement basse-geôle and peer in through the grille of the door. There, they would catch a glimpse of a small room where unidentified dead bodies were displayed to the public, strewn across the bare floor. The room became informally known as la morgue, an early definition of which appears in the 1718 Dictionnaire de l’Académie: "A place at the Châtelet, where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public view, in order that they be recognized."

Print of the Grand Châtelet of Paris by Allain Manesson-Mallet,1702
Bibliothèque de l'INHA via Europeana // Public Domain

The name for this gruesome room likely had its roots in the Archaic French verb morguer, which means "to look solemnly." Historians think that such rooms had existed in Parisian prisons since the 14th century, initially as a place where newly incarcerated prisoners would be held until identified, but later to deal with the many dead bodies found on the streets or pulled from the River Seine. (In fact, there were so many bodies in the river—both murder victims and suicides—that a huge net was stretched across the river at St. Cloud to catch the bodies as they washed downstream, from which they were transported to the Grand Châtelet.) But it was not until around the turn of the 18th century that the public were invited in and asked to try and identify the dead at la morgue.

The stench emanating from the corpses at the morgue must have been unbearable, and the public exposure to the "bad humors" was one of the reasons for the creation of a new, more hygienic morgue, at the place du Marché-Neuf on the Ile-de-la-Cité in 1804. This new morgue building (by now officially known as La Morgue) was housed in a building styled like a Greek temple that was close to the river, enabling bodies to be transported there by boat. The corpses were now displayed in a purpose-built exhibit room, with plate-glass windows and plenty of natural light, allowing crowds to gather and gawk at the corpses laid out on marble slabs. Refrigeration did not come until the 1880s, so the bodies were kept cool with a constant drip of cold water, lending the cadavers a bloated appearance. The clothes of the deceased were hung from pegs next to the dead as a further aide to their identification.

Drawing of the Paris morgue circa 1845
Hippolyte Destailleur, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

The central location of the morgue ensured a healthy traffic of people of all classes, becoming a place to see and be seen, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Its popularity as a place of spectacle grew as the 19th century progressed, stoked by being included as a must-see location in most guidebooks to Paris. On the days after a big crime had been committed, as many as 40,000 people flocked through its doors.

The morgue was also written about by luminaries such as Charles Dickens, who touched on it a number of times in his journalism, confessing in The Uncommercial Traveller (a series of sketches written between 1860-9) that it held a gruesome draw: "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly." Dickens also described the crowds of people flocking to the morgue to gawk at the latest arrivals, idly swapping speculation on causes of death and potential identities: "It was strange to see so much heat and uproar seething about one poor spare white-haired old man, so quiet for evermore."

In 1864, the morgue at the Marché-Neuf was demolished to make way for Baron Haussmann's sweeping re-modeling of Paris. The new morgue building was situated just behind Notre Dame, again in a busy public space, re-affirming its purpose as a place to view and identify dead bodies. However, it was also in this new building that the morgue moved away from pure spectacle and began to be linked with the medical identification of bodies, as well as advances in forensics and the professionalization of policing. The new morgue had an autopsy room, a small laboratory for chemical analysis, and rooms where police and administrators could inspect the bodies and record any murders or suicides. The emphasis shifted—the morgue was no longer purely dependent on the public to identify the bodies; it now had medical, administrative, and investigative officers doing that work, moving it closer to our modern idea of what a morgue is.

By the 1880s the fame of the Paris morgue, and admiration of its now-efficient administrative structures, had spread across the world. The word morgue began to be used to describe places where the dead were kept in both Britain and America, replacing the older "dead house" and becoming synonymous with mortuary. Over time, the word morgue was also adopted in American English, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, for rooms where newspaper or magazine archives are kept—for example, The New York Times morgue, a storehouse for historical clippings, photographs, and other reference materials related to the paper.

The Paris morgue closed its doors to the public in 1907. A combination of factors led to the decision: gradually changing public attitudes to the viewing of dead bodies, concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease, and the increasing professionalization of the police and coroners. Today, the city office that has replaced it is known as the Institut médico-légal de Paris. Meanwhile, the word morgue itself has come a long way—from its roots in a grim spectacle, it's now become a place of professionalism and respect.

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Big Questions
Do Media Outlets Write Obituaries for Old or Ill Celebrities in Advance?
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Archie D'Cruz:

Oh, absolutely, and not for just the old and ill, but also for the very famous. (You can bet, for example, that pieces would have been penned on Barack Obama as soon as he was first elected president).

They are known as advance obituaries, and while not all major news organizations do it, many of the largest certainly do. Of the ones that I know of, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, CNN, and leading news agencies Reuters, AP, and AFP all maintain obits, which are updated on a regular basis.

Obit writers at The New York Times, which is known to have at least 1700 of these posts on file, will sometimes even contact the subject of their grim pieces for interviews, with the request posed as “We’re updating your biographical file” or “This is for possible future use.”

With someone like Stephen Hawking, the web tribute with images and video would very likely have been prepared in advance as well. Television networks like the BBC also pre-prepare video packages that can be aired soon after a celebrity death.

This practice of creating advance obituaries can (and often does) lead to more than just embarrassment.

The most famous recent one that I can recall was that of Apple founder Steve Jobs, declared dead by Bloomberg in 2008—three years before his actual passing. Bloomberg was updating its advance obit but wound up publishing it by mistake, sending shockwaves through Wall Street.

Its retraction was even more cringe-worthy, refusing to even name Jobs and simply saying, “An incomplete story referencing Apple Inc. was inadvertently published by Bloomberg News ... the item was never meant for publication and has been retracted.”

Several other well-known people have befallen the same fate—among them George H. W. Bush (who Der Spiegel described in its 2013 obit as a “colorless politician whose image only improved when it was compared to the later presidency of his son, George W. Bush”), and several world figures including Nelson Mandela, Gerald Ford, and Fidel Castro whose obits were wrongly published on CNN’s development site in 2003.

A (mistaken) CNN obituary for Gerald Ford

Sometimes, though, a too-hastily published obit can turn out to have a silver lining.

In 1888, several newspapers announced Alfred Nobel’s passing, in a mix-up related to his brother Ludwig’s death. A French newspaper, in its obit on the Swedish arms manufacturer, thundered “The merchant of death is dead,” adding that Nobel “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before (through his invention of dynamite).”

On reading that report, Nobel is said to have become distressed about how the world would remember him. It led to him bequeathing the bulk of his estate to form the Nobel Prize in 1895. He died a year later.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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