Assessing the collateral damage when people and places are attached to ghostly legends.
Mary Jane Terwillegar was born on January 5, 1862, in Border Plains, Iowa. She was the eighth, and last, child of John and Phoebe Terwillegar. John and Phoebe lived long lives. According to her obituary, published in the Spirit Lake Beacon on March 3, 1908, Phoebe was born in North Carolina in 1816 and married John Terwillegar in Illinois in 1848. John and Phoebe moved to Ohio and lived there for a little more than three years. The couple’s final move was to Minneota Township, on the southern border of Minnesota, where they remained as farmers until John’s death on September 7, 1905, at the extraordinary age of 101. John was buried at Loon Lake Cemetery. A compassionate obituary published in the Spirit Lake Beacon on September 15, 1905, refers to him as “Grandpa Terwilliger [sic]” and states, “Peace to the spirit of a worthy pioneer.”
Almost a year after John’s death, Phoebe went to visit her sons in Idaho for what turned out to be an extended and final stay. Although Idaho agreed with Phoebe, who improved in health and weight, she caught a cold in February 1908 that developed into pneumonia and resulted in her death on February 26, at the almost-as-extraordinary age of 92. Phoebe’s remains were returned to Minnesota, where her funeral was held on March 4, followed by her burial beside her husband.
By the time John and Phoebe were interred at Loon Lake Cemetery, their youngest child, Mary Jane, had been buried in the same ground for more than 25 years. Unlike her parents, Mary Jane did not enjoy a long life; she died on March 5, 1880, at age 17. The circumstances of Mary Jane’s death have been told and retold by generations of people, published in books, and propagated by the media, especially via the internet. Hers is a tale of two accounts. First, however, we must fast forward in history a good 125 years.
Loon Lake Cemetery is currently regarded as one of the premier “paranormal hot spots” in its region. As recently as October 2012, CBS News of Minnesota listed the cemetery as one of four “best” burial grounds to visit for a “real scare from beyond the grave.” The cemetery is also identified in Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman’s book Weird U.S., in which one local resident is quoted as saying, “It seems like everyone in this part of the state knows about it and goes there at least once while growing up. It’s given me more sleepless nights than I care to admit. I’ve heard too many stories and been frightened personally too many times because of it. I will never go there again.”
There are numerous apparent reasons for Loon Lake Cemetery’s eerie reputation, one being its shadowy antiquity. The cemetery was established in 1876 and includes at least 100 known interments. Some of the eternal residents of Loon Lake died before 1876, were originally buried on private property, and were relocated to the cemetery after its establishment; there are no official records for at least 10 percent of the buried. Abandonment also contributes to its mysterious nature. The cemetery, once owned and maintained by a Methodist church, was orphaned long ago, when the church burned to the ground. No one has been buried at Loon Lake in more than 90 years. The uniqueness of the location also contributes to its eccentricity; located atop a knoll overlooking Loon Lake, the site can be seen for miles around – especially the large red pines in the center of the cemetery, which apparently were planted there, since no similar conifers are found in the groves and small stretches of deciduous trees that dot the landscape of prairie and farmland. Dishevelment further contributes to the spooky ambience. Loon Lake Cemetery is abandoned, neglected, and unkempt—virtually swallowed by overgrowth, especially ivy, prickly wild raspberry, and, above all, tall prairie grass infested with an unfathomable population of ticks. Only a fraction of the known interments in Loon Lake Cemetery are still marked by headstones; hence, considerably more human corpses lie within its earth than are identified. The road that once led to the cemetery no longer exists, and the location is primarily visited by campers from a nearby park, ghost hunters, teens seeking morbid adventures, and thrill seekers, many of whom have documented their experiences on websites devoted to the paranormal; on YouTube; and via photographs, videos, and recordings of alleged electronic voice phenomena. Yet Loon Lake Cemetery is uncanny not only, or even chiefly, because of its antiquity, abandonment, location, and abundance of unmarked graves. It is the legend that people tell—especially the legend of Mary Jane Terwillegar—that makes it so.
As the legend holds, Mary Jane Terwillegar, believed to be a witch, was beheaded in March 1880 by the citizens of nearby Petersburg, Minnesota. While the legendary execution is consistent with Mary Jane’s official date of death, the accounts do not specify where the alleged execution took place, although many versions claim that she is buried with the ax that severed her head. Some accounts claim that Mary Jane was not alone in her dealings with the occult—that, in fact, she was part of a coven of witches whom the locals warily tolerated until their witchery started causing trouble “and terrorizing the non-witch townsfolk” (quoted in Moran and Sceurman’s book). Hence in this version of the legend, two other witches were also hunted down and similarly beheaded. The witches were buried “out in Loon Lake because it was desolate and used mainly to bury orphans. In other words, these witches would be out in the middle of nowhere, not buried with the God-fearing Christians” (also from Moran and Sceurman’s book). Indeed, people in the region often refer to Loon Lake Cemetery simply as the “witches’ graveyard.”
As the only witch consistently named, Mary Jane Terwillegar is the primary focus of the legend. David Ellefson, a native of the area and the original bass guitarist for the metal rock band Megadeth, grew up familiar with the legend and occasionally visited the grave. Inspired by the legend, Ellefson co-wrote the song “Mary Jane” on Megadeth’s album So Far, So Good—So What (1989). The lyrics describe being haunted by a “witch of the wind,” and the words of the song’s bridge section match the time- and weather-faded epitaph on her tombstone:
Kind friends beware
as you pass by.
As you are now, so
once was I:
As I am now, so you
Prepare yourself to
These exact words constitute the epitaph on the tombstone of Clarinda Allen, who died on October 15, 1885, at age 65, and was also buried at Loon Lake Cemetery. As a result, Clarinda is sometimes identified as one of Mary Jane’s accomplices in the occult.
These witches, and especially Mary Jane, are said to haunt Loon Lake Cemetery with a presence that can be felt: strange winds, unexplained drops in temperature, glowing orbs, and mysterious noises. It is also said that if you step on or over Mary Jane’s grave, you will die an unnatural death within 72 hours. Local stories accentuate the threat with tales of people who have walked over the grave and come to strange and ghastly ends. An ascending fog allegedly caused one such careless visitor to pull over in his car, where he died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Local stories attribute suicides, as many as four fatal car accidents, and other tragic ends to the curse.
Yet despite all the titillating drama—witches, beheadings, strange epitaphs, a curse, and tragic deaths in what appears to be a graveyard forsaken by God and humans—what is most notable about the legend of Loon Lake Cemetery is how little of it is true, at least according to all known historical records. Mary Jane Terwillegar did die in March 1880 at the age 17, but she spent her final days in Cherokee, Iowa, where she worked as a domestic servant. Official records identify the cause of her death as diphtheria, a once common and deadly respiratory disease for which there was no effective immunization until the 1920s. Her remains were brought to her bereaved parents at Loon Lake, and I have no doubt that her head was fully attached to her neck.
The origins of the fabricated ghostly witch legend of Mary Jane are unclear. Mike Kirchmeier, the director of Jackson County Historical Society, is also unsure. But he has vast knowledge of the history of the area and a reasonable hunch:
I think that story goes back to the 1880s, where there was a guy named James S. Peters who lived out there, and he had this thing about witches. In Iowa, when he ran a mill down there, things didn’t go right, so he blamed it on witches. I think he brought the concept [of witches] to Jackson County and the Loon Lake area. I think that story sorta lingered just in that area with the people that lived there [until a] church [close to the cemetery] closed and they opened a bait and tackle store in there, and this guy sold beer. The neighboring county was dry, so people came from some distance to buy beer there. And so he liked the business and told the story [about the witch cemetery down the road]. There’s even an article in the paper where he bragged about it. He said, “Yeah, they liked the story, so I kinda helped it along a little bit.”
Michele and I spoke with Helen, age 78, who with her husband and three children had lived and farmed on land nearly adjacent to Loon Lake Cemetery. When Helen and her husband bought the property in 1956, Loon Lake Cemetery had been abandoned for decades, and the legend was already circulating in the region. “When did you first hear of the witch legend of Loon Lake?” I asked Helen. “Oh, lord,” she replied, “right after we moved there.” Through the half-century that she and her husband lived on the farmstead, strangers frequently knocked on their door asking for directions to the graveyard. “People would stop by the farm all the time,” Helen told us, “and at all time of the day and night. They would stop and want to know where the cemetery was. People were going out to that cemetery all the time. Toward the end, my husband got so tired of them he’d send them on a wild goose chase.”
Helen’s son Peter, age 55, fondly remembered the cemetery. Tall enough to make seeing the bald spot on the top of his head difficult, Peter had a warm smile and a well-delivered, and equally well-intended, sarcastic wit. He enjoyed his close-knit family, frequently visiting his mother, who no longer lived at the farmstead. Peter could not decide whether to renovate the old farmhouse or put a new one on the site—or so he told us when we met him there on a warm, sunny day in the spring of 2013. He had us follow him to the now unoccupied property, the red pines of the cemetery clearly visible from his family farm.
“It’s been a long time,” Peter said as we walked through the tall prairie grass. “I don’t remember those trees [pointing vaguely at a small stand of relatively young hardwoods].” After a few more long strides, he said, “That’s where Jack’s farmstead used to be.” He pointed vaguely again, but in the opposite direction, adding, “The house was right there.” His index finger pointed directly at another stand of relatively young hardwood trees. Peter recalled that Jack, the farmer who had lived there, both looked after and protected the abandoned cemetery, which would have been easy, given the close proximity of his home. Jack’s former homestead had been acquired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services for wildlife protection, ironically leaving the cemetery defenseless.
Fascinated by the graveyard as a boy, Peter mapped the Loon Lake Cemetery and documented the names on all of its tombstones. When he was a teenager, Peter said, a newspaper reporter visited the cemetery to write a story about the witch legend. The reporter agreed to exchange a copy of the story for Peter’s documentation of the graves; only Peter held up his end of that agreement, however. Still, Peter remembered the cemetery well and had no difficulty showing us the grave sites of Mary Jane, her parents, and many others he remembered—or, at least, what is left of them.
“There used to be so many,” Peter commented as he peered over the graveyard with an expression as displeased as mine. Indeed, the cemetery once had at least 68 headstones; when we visited in the spring of 2013, we could find only 11(three of them newly replaced). Only one historic headstone, the farthest from the gate, is relatively intact. All of the others have been broken from their foundations, and many have been smashed into pieces that are carelessly strewn about.
Forcibly broken from its base, the headstone of Henrietta Labor lies faceup in the prairie grass. At present, the only known information about Henrietta is what is written on her vandalized headstone: born June 28, 1842; died September 28, 1901. Beyond that, her life is a mystery, and one can only hope that in death her epitaph was fulfilled: “She passed through glories [sic] morning gate and walked in paradise.”
Occasionally, headstones are placed upright on a foundation, perhaps in some small semblance of respect, but in nearly all cases they are in the wrong location and on a mismatched base. Such is the case for John Terwillegar’s headstone, which we ound on the opposite side of the graveyard from where it should be—perhaps just as pitiable as if it had been left where it was lying on the ground, especially considering that his headstone has been significantly damaged presumably from years of being dragged around the cemetery, and who knows where else. It also carries what appear to be two bullet holes. Most of the headstones that previously decorated Loon Lake Cemetery are missing and ostensibly have been stolen.
Police occasionally recover headstones that have been stolen from Loon Lake Cemetery. The police “find them out on people’s lawns,” Michael Kirchmeier told us. “They thought it was a joke. The last guy [the police] caught said he took only one … stone. Another individual had four of them.” This, too, is the ultimate fate of Mary Jane Terwillegar’s headstone, which was stolen in the 1990s, was recovered by the police, and is now held at the Jackson County Historical Society. After decades of abuse, including one mind-boggling incident in which, as Kirchmeier recalled, “someone had actually dug at least six feet across and down about a foot and a half trying to dig Mary Jane up,” her headstone now sits on a concrete floor among a variety of other county artifacts. Perhaps as a final twist of sad irony, as of October 2013 Mary Jane’s headstone is on display next to a locked case of Megadeth memorabilia donated to the historical society by the local rock star, including a copy of the single inspired by the legend. Only a printed photograph above Mary Jane Terwilligar’s gravestone indicates where it stood before its theft.
The Jackson County Historical Society has a collection of recovered Loon Lake headstones and cannot return them to the cemetery, not only because “people won’t leave them alone,” as Kirchmeier rightly noted, but also because “in many cases we really don’t know where the stones should be. There was never any map. We have the original plat map, but they didn’t put any names in there. Through photographs and stuff we might be able to put some where they belong.” Making the task even more difficult, a protective (but ineffectual) chain-link fence was built around the graveyard. But, Kirchmeier said, the actual cemetery “might be twice as large—the map shows a much bigger area than where they actually fenced around. Whether there are other graves farther out, I have no idea.”
Loon Lake Cemetery has been destroyed—far beyond what we expected to see—and in all likelihood is unsalvageable. It is a heartbreaking example of thoughtlessness, disrespect, contempt for the dead, insolence toward their living descendants, vandalism, and theft. We have been to other abandoned graveyards, and it’s not unusual to see damage caused by the ravages of time, but nothing like this. It is a tragic irony that the ghostly legend of Loon Lake Cemetery warns of deadly harm that will come to those who trespass on the so-called witches’ graves when, in fact, the historical truth is the exact opposite: The living have brought great harm unto the dead of Loon Lake and to their descendants.
The tragedy of Loon Lake Cemetery ought to be apparent. The large cemetery is the final resting place for the earliest pioneers who settled the region—a great many are first-wave European immigrants born in the late 1700s and early 1800s. It is also the final resting place for many who fought for rights and liberties; buried in Loon Lake are four veterans of the Civil War and one veteran of the War of 1812. Yet perhaps none feel the anger and pain over the destruction more than the descendants of those who are buried there. None of the Terwillegar family still lives in the region, and most are unaware of the witch legend that surrounds their family name, as a great-great-granddaughter of John and Phoebe Terwillegar told me in a phone interview. She was unaware, she said, until she started conducting genealogical research and discovered the stories while searching the internet to find out where Loon Lake Cemetery was located. The sadness, frustration, and anger that she expressed to me on the phone hardly require elaboration.
I have gone into great descriptive detail about the history of Loon Lake Cemetery, its ghostly witch legend, and that legend’s destructive consequences. Indeed, things defined as real are real in their consequences. There are no witches in Loon Lake Cemetery, any more than there were witches in Salem village in 1692. Yet what was defined as witchery resulted in the real execution of 19 people in 1692, just as the ghostly witch legend of Loon Lake Cemetery has been instrumental in its destruction.
Dennis Waskul is a professor of sociology and distinguished faculty scholar at Minnesota State University and Michele Waskul is an independent scholar with a focus on special education. Excerpted with permission from their book Ghostly Encounters: The Hauntings of Everyday Life (Temple University Press, 2016).