The Haunting of Loon Lake Cemetery

Assessing the collateral damage when people and places are attached to ghostly legends.

  • “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.”
    Photo by Dennis Waskul

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.”

8/16/2020 6:29:01 PM

John was my great grandmothers grandfather. My grandmother said how their youngest had died young. She said he and her wife were good folk. There was never a word about occult during her life. It's terrible that people have vandalized their graves for cheap thrills.

11/11/2019 1:33:56 PM

Very Spoofy!

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