Ghosts of the Prairie
Near Bloomington, Indiana
Strange legends of Stepp Cemetery
Elements of folklore and the supernatural also pervade the story of one of the most famous haunted cemeteries in the state of Indiana. Located off of Old State Highway 37 in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest is a small, abandoned cemetery around which a number of eerie legends have appeared.
It is called Stepp Cemetery and it is a desolate and lonely place that can be found at the end of a narrow, dirt trail that winds back into a veritable wilderness. Such a place would have long been forgotten if it wasn’t for the weird tales that are still told about it. Only two dozen of so grave markers remain here and all of them are old and crumbling, as no one has been buried in this tiny graveyard in decades. Along the southern edge of the grounds is a row of tombstones and nearby is a worn tree stump that looks to be vaguely in the shape of a chair.
Depending on which version of the Stepp Cemetery legend that you hear, one of these graves seems to be the focus of the paranormal activity in the cemetery. Does the grave marker belong to that of a child? A road worker who was killed before his time? Or a teenager who met a tragic end? The stories vary, but one part of them all stays the same... each of them tells of a ghostly woman who watches over the gravesite, and the cemetery, in the darkest hours of the night. Over the years, scores of people have claimed that she is seen in the darkness, seated on the old tree stump that is found nearby. There, she waits silently, watching over and protecting the grave of her loved one.
The history of this cemetery is nearly as mysterious as the ghost who is found here. No one really seems to know when the burial ground was started, or by who. Forest rangers will tell visitors that some area families founded it, but local rumors state that a now defunct religious cult called the “Crabbites” may have had some connection to it. Apparently, this peculiar sect conducted services that included snake handling, speaking in tongues and sex orgies. Local lore has it that a deputy from the area once stated that he had been called to the cemetery late one night to break up a particularly bizarre Crabbite ritual. The story says that he had to use a bullwhip to settle things down!
The legend of the spectral woman is just as strange. In his book Haunted Indiana, author Mark Marimen tells of a young woman who came to the region from the east. Her husband went to work in one of the local quarries and they settled down and had a daughter. One afternoon, her husband was killed in a dynamite explosion at the quarry and was buried in Stepp Cemetery. After that, her daughter became her entire life and she watched over her constantly as she got older, attended school and later met a young man of her own. But unfortunately, her happiness was not to be. One rainy night, when coming home from a date, the young couple was killed in auto accident. In a repetition of the earlier tragedy, the daughter too was buried in Steep Cemetery. Her mother would never recover from the girl’s death.
Soon, she began to make nightly treks to the cemetery, where she would sit for hours, talking to her dead husband and daughter as if they were still alive. An old tree stump that was near to the graves made a comfortable, makeshift chair for her visits. It was here where locals who passed by the cemetery began to see a woman in black sitting and weeping as the sun fell from the sky. It was said that if anyone approached her, she would run away and hide in the woods and would not return until they had gone. Soon, local residents began to avoid the graveyard, as it was believed the woman was crazy.
Eventually, she too died and, according to the legend, was also buried in Stepp Cemetery. Her spirit is still said to be restless today though, lingering in the graveyard and watching over the remains of her family. Many people believe that her ghost can still be seen at Stepp on nights of the full moon, when the woman in black returns to the stump and is visible to those of us still among the living. Those who doubt the legend to be true should take into account the many strange sightings that have taken place over the years. The most chilling encounters take place when visitors leave the cemetery shaken after having seen a black figure rise from the old tree stump and turn toward them in the darkness. The descriptions they give of the woman in black are strikingly similar as well. She is said to have long, white hair, although she is not old, but rather the color was bleached from her hair by shock.
Those who do not see the mournful apparition still often have their own tales to tell. It has been said that strange sounds sometimes emanate from the cemetery grounds. Law enforcement officials and park rangers are said to have received reports of a woman sobbing in the cemetery at night. When they go to check and see if anyone is injured or ill, they find that no one is there.
Descriptions of the ghostly woman and her heartbreaking cries have not changed much over the years, but the origins of the phantom often vary with each teller of the tale. There are a variety of different stories that supposedly explain the mysterious appearance of the spirit and here are a few of them:
- In the 1950’s, a young girl was murdered in the vicinity and her body was dumped at Stepp Cemetery. The girl’s mother never gave up the search for her daughter’s killer, even after death. Her ghost now returns to the graveyard and watches over the girl’s grave, waiting to revenge herself on the murderer.
- When they were building the Morgan-Monroe County Forestry many years ago, a man was killed working construction. He was buried in Stepp Cemetery and his wife came there to watch over his grave. Her ghost still returns to the spot today.
- A young child was killed in an auto accident in the 1920’s and blaming herself, the little girl’s mother would come to the cemetery to mourn at her grave. Distraught, she disinterred her daughter’s body so that she could hold it one last time. She was found the next day, having committed suicide. Her ghost still haunts the cemetery today.
In more recent times, the story of the woman in black has taken on some of the elements of the classic “urban legend” tales. In one version, she appears as the mythical “Hook” (which was discussed in an earlier chapter). The story goes that a woman and her son were involved in a horrible auto accident. The little boy was killed and buried in Stepp Cemetery and his mother’s hand was severed at the wrist and was replaced with a metal hook. The boy had always been afraid of the dark and his heartbroken mother came to his grave and watched over him every night. She continued to do so even after death and her ghost now warns away strangers, waving her hook at those who come to close to the grave.
Another story also serves as a warning to teenagers who park in cars. In this tale, a young couple goes for a drive in the state forest at night. While they are driving, the girl tells her boyfriend that she no longer loves him and doesn’t want to see him anymore. Angry, the boy forces her to get out of the car and he drives away, leaving her alone in the dark woods. The girl vanishes without a trace and her mother begins endlessly searching the forest for the girl until she too vanishes. Today, her ghost appears in the vicinity of the cemetery and prowls about in the darkness. The ghost of the girl’s mother allegedly frightens teenagers who come there to go parking. It is said that her face suddenly appears outside, peering into the windows.... looking to see if her daughter might be in the car!
While the stories have changed many times over the years, it does seem possible that the story of the woman in black may have been based on a real event that occurred many years ago. True or not though, Stepp Cemetery has become a landmark in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest and is a popular stop for ghost hunters, curiosity-seekers and those with an interest in eerie folklore.
Many of those who come here wonder if the story of the ghostly woman can be true? Perhaps the story is just a compelling piece of Hoosier folklore, or perhaps not. Those who are convinced that the tale is merely the creation of someone’s imagination often confess to a feeling of doubt when they see the twisted tree stump that looks remarkably like a chair on the far side of the cemetery. If the old stump truly exists, they ponder, can they woman in black exist as well?
Stepp Cemetery is located north of Bloomington, Indiana on Highway 37. There is a stone wall alongside the road in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest and a dirt path there leads back to the cemetery.
© Copyright 1998 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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