The Stepp Cemetery: A Dying Legend

The Stepp Cemetery: A Dying Legend

by Emmanuel Paige (Published in Macabre Cadaver magazine 2008)

The Stepp Cemetery, located in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest just north of Bloomington, and south of Martinsville, Indiana is home to a famous legend about the grave of a baby named Lester, and his protective mother’s ghost: the “Lady in Black.” She is rumored to wear the black dress of a lady in mourning, her hair is long and white, and she is said to haunt her dead baby’s grave, lamenting and mourning her loss as she sits watching from her perch on the “warlock seat” (a stump in the shape of a chair). She is vigilant and protective, and she is said to chase unsuspecting visitors away when they get near her baby’s grave. The baby, Lester, died as an infant in 1937, and the true cause of death was unknown only until recently. The variations of the legend told of many differing and fantastic ways that both the mother and the baby met their demise.

The history and the legend of the Stepp Cemetery are steeped in folklore and myth and it has so infiltrated the mythology of the local residents in the surrounding counties that the cemetery has become quite famous locally and abroad. Due to the cemetery lore, it has become a haunt for teenagers and college students alike to go out and drink beer and scare each other senseless as a rite of passage. The cemetery attracts people from far away, too, as it has been highly publicized by the media and Internet. The local Indiana newspapers, including the Indianapolis Star, The Herald-Times, and The Martinsville Reporter-Times, have all published numerous articles about the Stepp Cemetery. There are numerous websites on the Internet that have the Stepp Cemetery as the core subject matter, from organizations, ghost hunting societies, to where you can find videos of the famous cemetery. A preliminary search for the keywords: “Stepp Cemetery” will bring up literally dozens of links that can be visited for more information. There are also many books published that cover the legend of the Stepp Cemetery, including: “Campus Legends: A Handbook” by Elizabeth Tuckerbu, and “Haunted America” by Michael Norman and Beth Scott, and “Indiana Folklore: A Reader” by Linda Degh, among others, but the definitive source is from: “The Legend of Stepp Cemetery” by William H. Clements, and William E. Lightfoot, published in Indiana Folklore 5 (1971): pp. 92-141. Although the cemetery is enjoying a surge of popularity, with all the traffic and exposure comes dire consequences: the cemetery is being destroyed by vandalism and litterbugs, and the legend is slowly dying.

I recall my first visit to the Stepp Cemetery. It was back around the summer of 2002 and I had never heard of the place before. Some friends and I were looking for some entertainment one night and someone suggested that we go out to the Stepp Cemetery and visit the “Black Lady’s” grave. I recall thinking that they were calling her a “Black Widow” or something or other, and it all sounded like a big sham to me. I wasn’t afraid of any ghost, and besides that, I liked the idea of going to a spooky place. I got a thrill out of that sort of thing, after all, I was an avid Stephen King fan, and that meant that it was my duty to sniff out this ghost.

We set off for the Morgan-Monroe State Forrest well after dark. The drive led down an old section of Highway 37 and into some rather secluded woods. When we arrived at the cemetery gate it was well into the evening, perhaps after midnight, and it was dark so we needed a flashlight in order to navigate the trail through the woods.

When we got to the perimeter of the cemetery there was a large limestone marker bearing the inscription: STEPP CEMETERY, ESTABLISHED EARLY 1800’s. I started to get a little uneasy when I saw that. The next remarkable thing was a gravestone marker that said: “Richard Samual Westfall, Apr. 22, 1924, Aug. 24, 1996, Never at Rest.” The words were instantly etched upon my mind: “Never at Rest.” I thought that was a rather peculiar thing to have on a tombstone in a supposedly haunted cemetery. I felt my skin crawl. That is when I realized that something wasn’t right about this place. I could feel an energy in the air, and because I was seeing the cemetery through the dark with a flashlight, I was really getting some good atmosphere and visuals. It was like the air was filled with tiny motes of dust and electricity and you could literally breath in the ghostly essence of the place. I was amazed at the antiquity and history of the place. There were a bunch of civil war veterans buried there and their markers were ancient and in an advanced state of decay. Some of the grave markers were so old that they had been stripped of any identifying markings. It was truly an eerie place to be.

The real scary part was yet to come. When we reached the legendary stump I was told of the story of the “Lady in Black” and her baby “Lester.” I didn’t really get it at the time, but I remember thinking that the stump was just a stump and not very spectacular, and that the baby’s gravestone was constructed with rough concrete and plastic letters. It looked like a pauper’s grave, and I couldn’t figure out why someone would use crusty old concrete for a grave marker. I found out the rest of the story later on after living in Indiana for several more years and revisiting the Stepp Cemetery on numerous occasions.

There are several versions of the story about the Stepp Cemetery, and most of them adhere to the tried and true cautionary “Tale of the Hook.” Most children are probably familiar with this kind of cautionary tale by the time they are in grade school. It goes something like this: An escaped lunatic who has a hook for a hand likes to lurk around where teenagers are out doing “bad” and “nasty” things that they shouldn’t be doing. There is an announcement on the radio that the crazed lunatic known as “The Hook” has escaped from the insane asylum. He is on the loose. Lovers beware. The story develops and eventually the lunatic either tears the naughty lovers to pieces with his hook, or they narrowly escape with their lives and the hook is left as a bloody souvenir, severed off by the angry jilted boyfriend as it is caught on the door handle as he speeds away. The clincher being the hook hanging from the door handle and the boyfriend passing out white-faced and cold when he sees it as he is going to open the car door for his girlfriend. The other rendition I loved as a kid was that the boyfriend left the girlfriend alone to go for help and she fell asleep and when the cops wake her up they tell her not to look up when she gets out of the car but she does and there is her boyfriend hanging dead in the tree.

The legend of Stepp Cemetery shares many similar qualities with the “Tale of the Hook.” There are several variations, but they all have the same thing in common: to scare the daylights out of anyone who dares to go near the cemetery. Part of the legend is that of the “warlock seat” (the chair shaped stump) and that it has the magical power to heal itself if damaged, or kill anyone who sits in it. I have recreated the “warlock seat” as it appeared in the 1970s in a drawing based on rare and hard to find photographs which could not be reprinted due to copyright restrictions. The artistic rendition shows the shape and texture of the chair; the shaping and construction was done with a chainsaw. The stump appears to be from a tree that had a trunk that split in a V and was cut down and shaped into the likeness of a chair.

Legend tripping and vandalism . . .

Thrill seekers go to the Stepp Cemetery just for fun; paranormal investigators and amateur ghost hunters go there in search of ghosts; college students studying folklore from Indiana University go their on field trips with their teachers; collectors of gravestone rubbings go their to collect rubbings; myth busters go there to prove it a hoax; pranksters go there to frighten the unwary visitors. It is an interesting place that is fun to visit and most people who go there are reverent and respectful, but it also attracts a deviant type of visitor too.

The major problem is vandalism. Some people don’t seem to care that the place is a cemetery, a resting place for the dead, and they treat it like a freak show. If this were a regular cemetery located in a suburban area would the same thing happen? Although vandalism occurs throughout cemeteries all around the world, these “special” places that grow to mythical proportions seem to attract the worst of the worst when it comes to carelessness and vandalism. It is as if the popularity is going to be the demise of Stepp Cemetery, and many other places abroad that have spooky reputations.

Vandals have defaced the stone that greets visitors at the entryway to the cemetery. Since I took my photos a few years ago, the stone has suffered damage as if someone struck it with a hammer or other blunt object with enough force to make large chips in the limestone. I even imagine that some deviant may have shot at it with a gun, which enhances the danger factor immensely when you consider that this type of person might cross paths the more common benign sort of visitor to the Stepp Cemetery.

Why do people feel inclined to damage, destroy, and vandalize these places? Is it fear? Is it retaliation? Is it ignorance and disrespect?

The local people that live near such haunted places tend to agree that getting rid of the attraction altogether would be the best solution, after all, it attracts a certain undesirable element to their community and, an especially troublesome bunch known as criminal trespassers. These are the worst. They will trample onto private property in an instant to seek whatever haunt or ghost or rumor they have heard about. Fortunately, the Stepp Cemetery is on public or state property that is accessible to the community and you don’t have to trespass to visit it; and the local authorities haven’t figured out a way to keep meddlesome curiosity seekers out . . . yet. There is an 11:00 PM closing time, however, after which you could get into some trouble if you are caught messing around in the cemetery.

I recently went back to the Stepp Cemetery to look around and get some fresh images for this article. When I got there I was anxious to start taking pictures, and there was a car parked in front of the gate and a young couple was sitting on the wall and they seemed to be enjoying a pleasant afternoon picnic. I wanted to get a new picture of the gate during this beautiful time of year in Indiana, but I wasn’t sure if they would like having their image publicized, and not wanting to interrupt their meal or wrangle with the legal aspects of taking someone’s image and using it for publication, with or without permission, decided to wait. I thought, what the heck, I’ve already got a picture of the gate from a few years ago, the gate still looks the same, and what I really came here for was to get some pictures of the actual Stepp Cemetery. So, I said “hello” and me and my fiancée, Angela, commenced our hike down the trail and left them to enjoy their afternoon snack in peace.

The trees are really lush and green this time of the year and it was beautiful, even though there was a vicious swarm of mosquitoes that seemed immune to the insect repellent we had brought with us. The trip down the trail was surreal and I began to get a familiar feeling that I get whenever I go out there, the feeling that I’m traveling back in time to a little microcosm where time stands still and the dead eternally slumber.

I began taking pictures on the way and when we got to the stone marker at the beginning of the cemetery the first thing Angela noticed was a bunch of candles surrounding the stone. I was on a mission to get some photos so I took a bunch of pictures noting all of the damage and trash that was strewn about the cemetery. The candles were a sign that someone had been up to some weird stuff out there in the cemetery (later, on the way out I took one last parting shot and when I got home I discovered that there was an odd ring around the stone that looked strangely like a ritualistic type of marking). The ring made me think of the rumors of strange rituals that used to take place in the cemetery. It is rumored that a cult known as the Crabbites used the Stepp Cemetery as their sacred place to practice their rituals (which were said to be highly sexual in nature). Is this still happening? Why would anyone want to go out there and light candles and stand within a concentric ring? Were they chanting and hoping to summon a spirit? I wonder if they were successful?

We traveled through the cemetery and I began snapping shots of tombstones and old gnarly trees and lots of trash and signs of vandalism. There was a lot of trash: beer cans and bottles, candy wrappers, pop bottles and Styrofoam cups. It was as though the people who had been out there didn’t care one iota about the fact that this was a sacred place of the dead, and that it deserves a certain respect, a reverence for the dead, and that they should have enough common sense to pack any trash back out with them and not just tossing it down on the ground. Traces and signs of vandalism were abundant. There was damage to the stone at the entrance to the cemetery (someone had intentionally tried to deface it), there was a plate missing from one of a pair of bronze grave markers, and there was graffiti, and broken tombstones, and stolen artifacts.

Vandalism isn’t new to the Stepp Cemetery, however it seems to be getting worse with the new influx of visitors. There was a report that someone had once tried to dig into one of the graves back in the 1960s, digging nearly five feet into the ground before leaving their endeavor unfinished, and abandoning the dig for unknown reasons. In the 1970s some of the tombstones from the Stepp Cemetery were found in the Martinsville High School parking lot. Around that same time frame, a dog was found dead and hanging from a tree, and later the police caught up with some juveniles who, when they were questioned about the incident, said that they had found a dead dog and thought it would be fun to scare people by hanging it from a tree.

The true death of “The Legend of Stepp Cemetery” came several years ago when Olethia Walls made it public (to dispel the myth once and for all and to make public her annoyance at the disrespect and damage that visitors were bringing to the cemetery) that she was the mother of “Baby Lester” and that she wasn’t the “The Lady in Black” and hence there could be no such thing. She said that back in 1937 she gave birth to a stillborn son, baby Lester, and that she and her husband, Harley Lester, had the baby buried out in the Stepp Cemetery. She added as a side note that she did have long white hair, but that she didn’t ever wear black. Her testimony killed the myth, because no one could refute what she had said. The myth was dead. Olethia died shortly after she made it public and now she might really be the “Lady in Black.” Who’s to say? Or is the myth really dead?

Another source from a blog on the Internet claims that the “warlock seat” out in the cemetery is nothing more than some fancy chainsaw carving work done by a relative. It seems that Olethia, and another gentlemen that was drunk, thought it would be neat to fashion the tree or stump into a chair, so he grabbed his chainsaw and went to work carving out the throne. This drove another nail into the coffin of the myth of the Stepp Cemetery.

The real story is that Terry Walls, who’s family is buried in the cemetery, joined together with some of her other living relatives and they began taking care of the cemetery over 70 years ago. Prison inmates used to go out there and take care of it, but when they stopped the place was quickly overgrown and that was a prime opportunity for vandals and thrill seekers alike. So, Terry and the others started going out there and caring for the cemetery grounds. They were partly responsible for creating the myth because they would often times hide in the woods and play pranks on visitors to the cemetery.

The stump myth started when William Walls and his brother, Ralph, who owned a sawmill, saw that a tree was dying in the cemetery and needed to be cut down. They thought it would be fun to carve the stump into a seat so that visitors would have a place to sit. Later he said that he regretted doing that because it expedited the vandalism and destruction of the cemetery, according to Terry Walls. The stump eventually began to rot and they had it removed. Ralph Walls died in 1981 and is now buried in the cemetery. This is another nail in the coffin of the legend of the Stepp Cemetery.

The modern-day storyteller believes that the stump is out there still. There is a stump presently near “Baby Lester’s” grave, however it is not the stump that was carved into a chair by the Walls brothers. The “Lady in Black” could theoretically sit on any stump that she liked, so perhaps she sits on any stump that she wants to, or maybe she had a new stump made for her . . . and the new stump is even closer to “Baby Lester’s” grave.

Lastly, a man named John Findly claims much of the responsibility for encouraging the myth and mystery that surrounds the Stepp Cemetery. During the summer of 1966 he and his friend, Jack Abram, spent a few weeks out haunting the cemetery pulling pranks on unsuspecting visitors. They hung a dummy from a tree that looked like the “Lady in Black” and they set booby traps that simulated movement in the brush and they made howling noises and basically scared the daylights out of the visitors (a group of kids took off as if they had seen a ghost, Findly is noted to say) and eventually the news spread and the popularity of the Stepp Cemetery exploded until it was impossible for Findly to pull any more pranks.

In conclusion, the Stepp Cemetery is steeped in legend and myth and, although much of the facts are out and the myth should be dead, people still want to believe in the stories. Even when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, new generations of story tellers recreate the legend and spin a new yarn that incorporates the modern with the historical and the legend doesn’t truly die. Why? We need to have these scary stories . . . it is mithridate. It helps us to cope with the unknown. I, for one, do not want to see the legend of the Stepp Cemetery breath its last. I like the place; it is peaceful, quiet and pleasant, and it is just a really nice place to go out and visit with a bygone era and pay some respect to those who have gone into the void before me.

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