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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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politics
The Secret Procedure for the Queen's Death
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Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images

The queen's private secretary will start an urgent phone tree. Parliament will call an emergency session. Commercial radio stations will watch special blue lights flash, then switch to pre-prepared playlists of somber music. As a new video from Half As Interesting relates, the British media and government have been preparing for decades for the death of Queen Elizabeth II—a procedure codenamed "London Bridge is Down."

There's plenty at stake when a British monarch dies. And as the Guardian explains, royal deaths haven't always gone smoothly. When the Queen Mother passed away in 2002, the blue "obit lights" installed at commercial radio stations didn’t come on because someone failed to depress the button fully. That's why it's worth it to practice: As Half as Interesting notes, experts have already signed contracts agreeing to be interviewed upon the queen's death, and several stations have done run-throughs substituting "Mrs. Robinson" for the queen's name.

You can learn more about "London Bridge is Down" by watching the video below—or read the Guardian piece for even more detail, including the plans for her funeral and burial. ("There may be corgis," they note.)

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Nicole Garner
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History
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

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