My friend and I used to study cemeteries, but what we ended up studying was more storied than a few graves.
Before I get into this, I want to make a small disclaimer: In the intervening 10 years from then to now, I discovered drugs, quit drugs, and have had a brain tumor. The events are truly as I remember them, but I am no longer in contact with the people I was in contact with at this point in my life to get the stories perfectly straight. Some details may vary slightly from the actual events, and because of this, I am not using any real place or people names, in case I remember incorrectly and accidentally slander someone's name or business.
We were a couple weird kids. My friend had a job, but it was part-time, and I was jobless. Two twenty-year-old kids with inquisitive minds and nothing but time; that's what we were.
It's 2000. We're going through one of the local cemeteries, looking at the names and the pretty headstones. It was just a fascination for us to see these old names, and wonder what kind of person each of these people were. This particular cemetery was cool, because it's the oldest cemetery in our state. In fact, our first governor is buried there, up on a hill overlooking the rest of this 100 acre graveyard.
The place is really pretty, too; filled with rolling hills and lots of shade trees...it's one of the most peaceful places I have ever been to. There are a couple mausoleums that look almost like the entrance to Bag-End, and there are statues galore. There are sections for different people, like the couple different orders that our local nuns belong to (Agnesian and Franciscan) There's a pet cemetery, a “low-rent” section, and then there is the section whose headstones must have cost more than my house.
As we were walking through the final resting places of all these people, reading their names and trying to glean from anything else on the stone about who these people were, we came across a headstone that looked just like a tree trunk.
At first, we mistook it for a tree trunk, until we saw that there were markings on it that showed it to be a headstone. Hand-carved from sandstone, this twelve-foot-tall tree trunk headstone built up moss just like any other tree trunk, and even had ivy growing on it, both carved and real.
The person had died in the late 19th century. There were little sandstone logs strewn about this stone with their other family's names on them, presumably their kids.
When we looked around the cemetery some more, we found more and more of these headstones that we had mistaken for simply the remains of felled trees. Intrigued, and spurred by another friend of ours, we started learning more.
We spent weeks in the local library looking at old microfiche of the local newspaper at the time, looking sometimes weeks before and after the date of each person's death, trying to figure out what could possibly connect them that they would have these highly unique headstones. We went to the local historical society and talked to the ladies there, as well as read books of local figures and such. Then we went to the local government center and looked up tax records and plat books, just trying to get anything together about these people.
They seemed completely disconnected: Some were masons, elks, moose, eagles, or some other fraternal order, while others weren't. Some were veterans, while other weren't. Some were immigrants while still others weren't. Some lived right in the city, some lived in the country, some had large, extravagant houses, while others lived in an otherwise modest home. Some were first sons, second sons, third sons, and some were only children. They seemed to have no family connection, and no political connections, either.
They all had money, but they weren't overly rich. And they weren't all independently wealthy, as some of them came from old money, too.
We returned to the historical society to get a hand-drawn map of the cemetery complete with plot locations. We studied who was buried immediately around these people and found no connections there, either. Then we drew lines, connecting the dots where each of these headstones was, and went back to the library to cross-reference the designs that could be made that way with any known fraternal order, cult, or religion.
Then, on a whim, we went to the local headstone maker. I don't know if every town has one of these, but ours does.
According to the gentleman that we spoke with, his company made those headstones, but they were incredibly expensive. In modern money, the four-foot model was $150,000. It was a major status symbol throughout town, apparently, to be able to afford one of these stones. If you had gads of gads of real money, you had a small mausoleum built for yourself, but if you only had gads of real money, as opposed to gads of gads of real money, you bought one of these headstones, and you bought them big.
The people didn't necessarily have to be connected in any real way; it was just the trend at the time. “Well, would you look at that headstone Old Man Jones had made! I'll not be second to that old bastard!”
Our quest was at an end. We finally knew what was up with the headstones, and unfortunately, it wasn't nearly as interesting as we were hoping.
Then our friend that urged us on with this endeavor pointed us on to a new one: There is a cemetery out in the absolute middle of nowhere. Well, it's not in the middle of nowhere now, but it was 150 years ago when the people were buried there.
Her questions: Why is it there? Why is there a grave in there with a foot-thick concrete slab over it? Why aren't there any paths through the cemetery? The graves aren't in any real order; why?
When I was a kid in Catholic school, someone had once told me that this was a cemetery for nuns. I believed them, because I had no evidence to the contrary. Now, I was about to find out.
We went into the cemetery, and had a good look at the headstones. First, there are no nuns there. That put that to rest right away. However, our friend was right; not only were there no paths around, but there was really no rhyme or reason to the layout of the graves. We looked at and took down some of the names that looked to possibly be more prominent than others (our home town is small enough that some names are still important) and we headed to the library.
Once again firing up the microfiche machine and attacking the drawers and drawers of film, we came up with less than what we found with the tree trunks. Eventually, we reasoned that the folks with the tree trunks were prominent members of the local society at the time, so their lives were better documented than people that were quiet and, from the looks of the limestone grave markers, rather poor.
But the question still remained: Why was this cemetery out in the middle of nowhere? We headed back to the government center to read the old plat books to see who might have been living in that area at the time. Turns out, nobody really lived there. There were some small family farms in the area, but the village that the cemetery is named after was over a mile away, and the nearest city, my home town, was over three miles away. There were plenty of churches with graveyards between this cemetery and the city, and a couple of them were right in that village.
We began to wonder, then, why would folk want these particular people that have no apparent connection buried so far away from any real amount of civilization? What did these people do in life that caused them to be ostracized so much that they weren't even allowed to be buried in the local graveyard?
And then there was the puzzle of the grave covered in concrete. Why was it covered? Were these people afraid that she was going to come back from the dead? Were they afraid she was a witch? There are no crosses, crucifixes, or any other religious symbols on her headstone; who was she, and why was she here, miles from civilization?
We began in more earnest. More trips to the local historical society, more trips to the library, and more trips to the government center. We were puzzled; what on Earth was this graveyard that was arranged almost as though a feng shui master had put these graves in their places doing out in the middle of nowhere?
We started with the concrete grave.
Turns out that the woman was well to-do, but that she had gotten into a traffic accident and was trampled. She lived in the city, but chose instead to be buried out there, and that was the end of her story.
That added to the intrigue: What was out there? She had no apparent family with either her married name or her maiden name out there. Her husband was buried in a different cemetery. What was going on out there?
This is a question to which we never had an answer. However, the concrete over the grave wasn't placed there, according to the paper, for another 50 years. Turns out that her grave was constantly being robbed. Nobody ever knew why, nor did they ever catch the folk that were doing it. It was assumed that it was because that cemetery has no fence, and she was a rich lady buried there, waiting to be plundered. Instead of putting up a fence, they just poured concrete over her grave.
Then, much to our dismay, we learned why the cemetery was there. After weeks of searching, reading old books and handwritten accounts of folk in our town, it turned out that the land for the cemetery was donated by a wealthy farmer that just felt like that village deserved its own cemetery. It was mostly peopled with farmers, and there was no preset design, so people were able to put their plot wherever they thought it was prettiest.
Well, that was the end of that. Almost a year of studying two things to great detail, and both of them ended up being rather boring. (but that's not to say that the journey wasn't fun)
But then, another friend, a girl named Jolene, approached us. She wanted us to simply look up the tax records and previous owners of an old three-story hotel in a small village a few miles out of the city. She wanted the tax records and everything from the sale of the government land until that day in 2001. When we asked why, she just said that it was for a friend of hers that was told by the bank that there were too many previous owners or some such, and the only way to find out the extensive list was to go back into the tax records. This is a daunting task for most people, but my friend and I were adept at this by now.
Never ones to balk at a good hunt, we went back to the government center and looked up everything there. We didn't know what year the land was bought (although we were pretty sure it had to have been around 1850) so we worked from 2001 back.
The owner at the time bought the place in 1999. He held it for a year before he decided to renovate it. You see, it had been condemned in the early 70s and shut down after a semi truck hit the building and knocked it off its foundation. It had gone through ten owners between that point and 1999 when the current owner bought it.
Before that, we found that no single person owned it for more than three years at a time between the purchase of the land from the Native Americans in the very early 19th century and when it was hit in the early 1990s. There had been nearly a hundred owners in that nearly 200 years.
That brought up some interesting questions for us, but the most important question was this: Why were there so many owners of this building?
In the original purchase order of the land from the Natives, it was noted that the land where the village now resides was cursed before the Natives left it. Now was time to hit the library and the historical society again.
The building in question was put up in the late 1840s. That's about the only accurate information on Wikipedia about this building. It was owned by over twenty people between then and the turn of the century. It eventually hosted a brothel on the third floor that was run by a tall Asian immigrant woman that was purportedly very, very hard on her girls. Since she and her girls outlasted ten to fifteen owners, she ran the place. She dictated terms, and the woman's husband, a small American man, was always to be seen at her side. She was the epitome, the very construct, of Cruella DeVille, only instead of puppy coats, she wanted money from her girls. She was cruel and she was malicious. And if you were a man that couldn't pay, well, you'd best hope that you can land well from a 30-foot drop, because if you didn't run fast enough, you were tossed out a window.
One Saturday night in the late 1920s, a chimney fire started on the second floor. Most of the people on the second floor escaped with their lives, if a little singed, but the third floor was trapped. The chimney was inside the wall of one of the two staircases leading to the third floor, and the fire spread to engulf both staircases in minutes. People were dying in droves from inhalation and burning to death. The girls and the men that hired them were all screaming, and dozens of them started jumping out the windows. Those that were hesitant to jump were pushed and fell to their deaths, while others that jumped weren't guaranteed to live, either.
All told, over 50 people died that night, and among them was the Madam of the House and her husband, who were caught in the inferno upstairs along with most of their girls.
We got most of this story from the next day's newspaper. It was big enough news that my town's paper, miles away, carried the story.
The owner at the time of the fire, who had just bought it earlier that year, sold it. That owner began renovating the second and third floors, but became sick, sold it to his kid to finish the renovations. He ran out of money, and sold it to someone else a year or two later, who finished the renovations, but died of a heart attack. Finally, someone else bought it after almost a decade of sitting idle, finished the renovations to all three floors, and opened it. Unfortunately for him, stories had already been going on for ten years about how the third floor was haunted by the spirit of the Madam and her husband, still commanding the girls that had died there that night.
Whether he believed them or not was irrelevant; people believed it, and his business suffered for it. He went to the local paper to set the record straight that there was no ghost, and that the long list of owners since then is no different than the long list up to that point, but still nobody came and he had to sell.
The next owner was smart, and boarded up the third floor. Nobody could get up there. You couldn't even get to the staircases, and he boarded up the third-floor windows because people said that they could see her staring out of them.
But still nobody came and he had to sell.
It cycled through a few more owners that seemed determined to bring this building back to what it was before the fire, but all had to sell within a couple years of owning it. The local paper followed it much closer since the fire, and commented about how the place was haunted, but with a reputation for being haunted, and not an actual ghost. The place closed.
It opened again in the early 50s, and was more than fairly successful. Some owners simply retired, some died, some sold, but in the end, no more than three years after buying it, the place was always sold again.
In its run through that time, there were a lot of reports from people that stayed on the second floor of noises coming from the third floor: screaming, moaning, pounding...it was really unsettling. Because the fire had happened so long before, nobody really remembered anymore that there was a brothel there once upon a time that had burned down and that there were rumored to be ghosts residing there now. Some people told the newspaper years later that they assumed that the owners' apartments were up there, and it was their kids making the noise.
A dozen or so owners after the place was re-opened, it was struck by a truck driver asleep at the wheel (or a drunk driver driving a large car, depending on who you talk to about it) and shifted the building enough that it was condemned. Once again, it was sold. And sold. And sold. And sold. In the intervening almost 30 years, as I said before, it went through roughly ten owners until my friend's friend bought it in 1999.
We approached our friend with the information that we had learned. To our surprise, she knew it already! This was her story:
Her friend, we'll call him Bob, had either bought or was bequeathed (I'm not sure which) this building that was 160 years old and condemned. He knew nothing about its history, only that it was a beautiful, old former hotel that with enough TLC, could be turned back into its former glory. After he bought it, he went through and saw all the old furniture, decorations, and everything just as it had been right after the building was hit.
He set to work right away working on rebuilding the supports that had been damaged in the crash, and quickly got the building un-condemned. Then he set to work at gutting the rest of the place.
When he tore down the rather creepy walls that led to the third floor, that was when Bob started to hear the noises, too. First, he started hearing moaning, then walking, then screaming...I guess furniture started to move of its own free will, and Bob was done with this.
He happened to know a Native American that we'll call Andrew. Andrew was a Native American religious man. A medicine man, if he were Sioux. He was a holy man, and Bob talked Andrew into becoming an associate in this business venture.
That was when Bob learned all about the history of the land, including the curse laid on it almost two centuries before, and the fire that claimed all those lives seventy years before. Andrew couldn't even handle the feeling within the house. He started sleeping outside, and at night, when they weren't renovating (or attempting to renovate) the inside, Andrew was building himself a small out-of-building sanctuary to get away from whatever was in the house.
Eventually, Andrew left the project altogether. He didn't even care if he got his money back (although Bob did give it to him) he just simply wanted out.
That was when Bob called my friend, Jolene. See, Jolene and her friends form a modern coven. They are Wiccan, and, for lack of a better term, specialize in cleansing houses of metaphysical things that the owners don't want there. In later years, my friend and I would have Jolene and her coven cleanse my house, which was formerly a part of the Underground Railroad, and lots of angry slave spirits resided in the small space in my basement that used to house them.
I want to say right here that, although I used to claim to be a practicing Wiccan, and I have studied metaphysics, and I do believe that metaphysical beings can and do exist in this world without our perceiving them, I have a very difficult time believing, and am indeed very skeptical of, anyone that claims that they can interact with these beings, and actually do anything about their presence in a given area.
That said, when Jolene and her coven were done in my basement, I can tell you that it felt lighter down there, and I didn't even know she had come (I was expecting her the next week)
Anyway, so Jolene and her friends went to this hotel to investigate first. Before Bob told Jolene the stories about the place, her and her group discovered everything they needed to know: There was a fire, lots of people died, and there is a horrible devil of a woman presiding over the non-human beings that were there. They took hundreds of photographs, and three hours of audiotape that she played for us on her 5.1 surround.
It was whoa creepy. When Jolene on the tape said she was alone in the room, suddenly things would start being thrown, and even a mirror shattered. She would take a couple steps, and the floor would make sounds as though she continued her pace: *step* *step* *step* and then stop.
They heard voices telling them to go, and one girl was even nearly pushed down one of the stairwells leading from the third floor.
Three hours of tape of this was what greeted my friend's and my ears, along with hundreds of photographs of faces in mirrors and windows that weren't there in the next frame. In one, you could even see the Asian Madam in her full-length red form-fitting dress and her small, squat American husband next to her. In the next shot, time-stamped in the same minute, from the same angle, the image was gone from the window.
There were even images of people out in the yard, where they had died seventy years before jumping out of the third story window to escape the fire.
The girls left. They needed to gather information. They needed to know exactly what they were up against. That was when she called us. Although they knew the basics of what we told her, we helped her fill in details so she could prepare herself and her friends better.
Jolene contacted some other covens that did things like this, and put a serious action plan together. (a plan that included someone astral projecting) She put a proposal together for Bob, but suddenly and inexplicably, Bob wanted nothing to do with her ever setting foot in that place ever again. He kicked her out, and told her that she was never welcome at his hotel for as long as he owned it, which would be a long, long time indeed, and she should never call him for any reason.
Over ten years later, Bob is still the owner. He is the longest-held owner of that building in its nearly 170 years. The hotel eventually opened, but to my knowledge, to this day, the third story is still closed.