From the neatly tended urban necropolis to the long-forgotten family plot at the end of a winding gravel road, these "quiet cities" of the Ozarks have the power to send chills up and down the spine of the most hardened skeptic. Be it the restless Civil War soldiers of Greenbrier, the mass murderer who stalks Peace Church or the red eyes that persecute visitors to Robinson, tales of ghostly activity abound in every burial ground carved out of the ancient Ozark hills. Follow Dave Harkins as he explores the fascinating history and unsettling lore clinging to these haunted graveyards.
About the Author
David Harkins is the founder of The Ozarks Paranormal Society. He and his team were featured on the Travel Channel program "Legends of the Ozarks" investigating the activity at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield near Springfield, Missouri.
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Then away, out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving.
— Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Witches Foundation Lebanon
Having lived near Lebanon, Missouri, since 1985, I have heard almost every version of the legends of the "Foundation of Death" or the "Witches Foundation," as the locals call it. The Witches Foundation is an old house place and cemetery located outside Lebanon, near what was once called the Old Wire Road during the Civil War due to the telegraph lines that once ran down it. Originally there was an old house situated in the middle of the small graveyard, but many years ago it burned down. After the fire, the present owners discovered five graves in the formation of a pentagram within the confines of the foundation, hence the name "Witches Foundation." Just outside the foundation are many other graves that, oddly, face every direction except for the traditional Christian practice of facing the graves toward the east. The city has no history of the cemetery except for it being listed as a family plot. Other than that, it is unknown who founded the graveyard and why the graves face every direction possible. An even stranger question remains as to why the five graves are situated inside the old foundation. Local legend has it that the graveyard is a burial site for witches who once lived on the outskirts of town. Although this is just local speculation and not based on any facts, I have to chalk it up to being a rural legend. Over the years, the foundation has been a popular party spot for local teenagers, and as a result, many of the graves have been vandalized and many of the tombstones have been stolen.
Along with the speculation of this being a burial site for witches, many stories of paranormal activity have been reported over the years. I have heard numerous tales of paranormal activity, but they mostly consist of high school kids going there to drink beer and play with Ouija boards. Some others claim that when you go to leave, your vehicle won't start, and once you finally get it started a glowing ball of light will chase you down the road for a mile or so. Others tell of a strange foglike mist that only appears inside the graveyard, and a cloaked black figure is also often sighted. I'm not sure how many of these tales are true, as I have never experienced anything out of the ordinary there myself. If you decide to venture to the old foundation without permission, remember, the police have started regularly patrolling it, and the owners do have the right to shoot trespassers, so explore with extreme caution and respect for both the living and the dead.
Church of God Faith Of Abraham Cemetery
Church of God Faith of Abraham Cemetery, also known as "Soul Keepers Cemetery," located in Morse Mill, Missouri, has had its share of reported hauntings over the years. People have reported hearing voices when no one is speaking, being touched and even seeing what appears to be an apparition lurching out from behind trees and tombstones. On the surface this seems to be just another well-kept cemetery here in the beautiful Ozarks hills, but can it be that something more sinister is at play? Some of the local residents and visitors to this "quiet city" attribute at least some of the paranormal activity to the fact that one of America's most prolific and possibly the first reported female serial killer is interred here, as well as at least seven of her victims.
Bertha Gifford was born in 1876 near the town of Morse Mill, Missouri, about six miles from Hillsboro in a beautiful section of Jefferson County. She was one of four children in a family considered one of the area's finest and most respectable. Her family worshiped in the Church of God (Faith of Abraham), a fundamentalist church that holds that the "Kingdom of God will be established on earth when Christ returns personally and visibly to reign as King in Jerusalem." It is not a pulpit-thumping, revival-sweating church; it's a dignified sect, and its members study the Bible with quiet intensity. They are sometimes mockingly called "soul sleepers" because of their literal interpretation of the prophesied resurrection, their belief that all the earth's dead lie waiting in their graves for a single day of judgment.
In her early twenties, Bertha married a man named Henry Graham. They operated the Morse Mill Hotel for a time and also farmed. The Morse Mill Hotel still stands today and has a long history as a private residence, hotel, speakeasy, brothel, halfway house, Confederate field hospital, Underground Railroad stop, Indian burial site, post office and scene of multiple murders and hangings spanning decades. In addition, several known outlaws, gangsters and murderers have visited and stayed here. It is known today to be one of the most paranormally active sites in the Midwest.
Several years after marrying Henry, seemingly out of the blue, Bertha took up with a single man who was seven years younger than her, which was quite the scandal among the townsfolk. Henry, too, was said to be keeping company with a "friend," and the marriage became bitter and mean and was marked by constant quarrels.
The "other" man in Bertha's life was Gene Gifford, a good-looking and affable carpenter and farmer. One of the larger houses he built in Morse Mill still stands, and he helped design and construct the first permanent building for the Church of God, of which he, too, was a member. It was a graceful white country church with a delicate, needle-like steeple.
Gene was a popular man around the region, a good worker, fine storyteller and good friend to all. But people said that he changed some after taking up with Bertha. His life certainly did. At the time he hooked up with Bertha, he was engaged to be married to another woman but quickly broke that off. Folks around Morse Mill muttered that Bertha, now in her early thirties and still one of the most beautiful women in town, was exerting a strange influence over Gene.
Not long after Gene and Bertha began spending time together, Bertha's husband, Henry, came down with what was diagnosed as pneumonia. He held on for a while and even rallied, with Bertha in constant attendance at his bedside. But the disease weakened him, and he developed complications including violent, agonizing stomach cramps. Henry was thirty-four years old when he died.
Following a respectable interval, and after collecting the insurance, Bertha Graham married Gene Gifford, and they left Jefferson County, moving to Catawissa, where they took up farming. Strangely, although Gene was successful at raising cattle, hogs and corn, the Giffords never bought a place of their own. Bertha didn't want to settle permanently; she liked moving from farm to farm.
In her old farmhouse, known now as the Catawissa House of Mystery, Mrs. Bertha Gifford held herself ready to dash for the bedside of every dying neighbor within twenty miles. Uncomplainingly, in fact eagerly, she would jump out of her warm bed in the middle of the night, put on her white nurse's uniform that was always hanging on the chair and drive her old car (or before that the horse-and-buggy) through any sort of weather. Even in blizzards, when no wheel could turn, she would plow her way on foot along cow paths between ten-foot drifts. Nothing could stop this determined woman, who usually managed to get there ahead of the country doctor.
Bertha, now fifty years old but once the belle of Meramec Valley, really was a Good Samaritan — provided her patients actually went through with the program of dying as expected. In that case, with prayers, tears and tender ministrations, she eased their last moments, and she never asked money for her services. The only trouble with Bertha, the police say, was that when her patients rallied and gave promise of recovery, she resented such attempts to cheat the grave and fed them rat poison.
Mrs. Gifford had a passion for deathbeds and funerals, of which she missed only one in eighteen years. But just as youths sometimes become so overenthusiastic about running to fires that they finally get to setting some themselves, this deathbed fan, it is charged, could not resist the temptation when anyone started to withdraw from the edge of the grave to just push him in with a little arsenic. She took command of the funerals too and liked to see everything done right, even going so far as to pay for the embalming of one of her victims.
Mrs. Gifford, though not a trained nurse, was a very competent volunteer, as local doctors well knew. She could keep temperature and nourishment charts, understood symptoms and drugs and therefore might be allowed discretion in administering medicines. Bertha seems to have preferred children for her patients whenever she could get them. The police say this was because they would trustfully swallow anything she gave them as long as it did not taste too nasty, and they never presumed to correct any misstatement she might make to the doctor. When Bertha took charge of a case she took command of the household, ordering this in and that out of the sickroom and impressing the family in countless ways with her superior knowledge and experience. Early in the evening, in her kind but firm professional manner, she would turn to the mother and say, "Now, my dear, I want you to go to bed and get a good night's rest so you can take my place tomorrow. Don't worry, I am here."
This was really a command, and a reasonable one. The mother, relieved to know that her child was in more competent hands than her own, would always obey. Thus, Mrs. Gifford had a whole night, free from witnesses, alone with the helpless child.
Shortly before the rising hour next morning, when she roused the family and telephoned for the doctor, the little patient would be too far gone to dispute the nurse's statement that the turn for the worse had just come in. And the parents would comfort themselves with the thought that their baby had had the best of care in her last hours. After the child's death, Bertha would weep harder than any of the family members.
As might be expected, it was the local women who first suspected Bertha, thinking it strange that whenever that ministering angel "plunks herself down in a sickroom, the patient never gets well." The men scoffed, but the women kept right on putting two and two together, and when Ed Brinley died, the ninth in the House of Mystery itself and the seventeenth under Bertha's care, all with the same symptoms, they demanded an investigation of this "bedside saint" who had consecrated her life to good works. The authorities took notice and questioned the impressively indignant Bertha.
Mrs. Gifford explained each one of the deaths plausibly. They were from acute gastritis caused by the rural habit of eating a heavy dinner at noon and then laboring on a full stomach instead of having the main meal at night after the day's work is over, as the city man has learned to do. The physicians must have been satisfied because they had issued death certificates. Could a lot of ignorant gossips know more than the doctors?
Dr. James Stewart, state health commissioner, must have thought they could because he had the records of drugstores in the neighboring towns examined and learned that Mrs. Gifford had been a steady customer of arsenic rat poison, which produces symptoms quite similar to gastritis. Also, she had made her purchases in some cases just before the deaths in question. Bertha, a picture of outraged innocence, was brought over before the grand jury, threatening slander suits all the while.
The chain of coincidences went back to 1909, when nobody thought it strange that Mr. Graham, the public benefactor's last husband, died of cramps in the night before the doctor arrived at his bedside at Morse Mill Hotel.
The next to succumb of "ptomaine poisoning," in 1913, was her new mother-in-law, Mrs. Emilie Gifford, in spite of Bertha's seemingly heroic efforts. Here Bertha's grief was not so great but was considered adequate for a daughter-in-law. A year later, her thirteen-year-old brother-in-law, James Gifford, passed out in Mrs. Gifford's arms with those same symptoms of stomach cramps and vomiting.
George Stuhlfelder told the grand jury how this "ministering angel," for whom he felt nothing but gratitude at the time, had nursed his three children — Bernard, fifteen months old; Margaret, two years old; and Irene, seven years old — for small ailments that promptly turned into acute gastritis and ended in the death of them all.
George L. Shamel, a hired man who had worked at the Gifford place, testified to the deaths of his two boys:
I worked off and on for the Gifford's about 18 years. I went to the Gifford place once in 1925, on a Saturday night. On the very next day, the Sabbath, my boy, Lloyd, nine years old, had stomach cramps. Two days later he died after being sick at his stomach all the time. The doctor said it was acute gastritis but didn't know what caused it. There was no post mortem performed. Five weeks later my other boy Elmer; he was seven years old; got sick with stomach cramps. He lived two days too. They said it was the same gastritis. There was no post mortem. I always trusted the Gifford's and thought it was just my luck when the boys died.
Hardly a month after Elmer's funeral, Mrs. Gilford learned that Mrs. Leona Slocum, Shamel's sister, a tuberculosis sufferer, was "sinking." Bertha put on her nurse's uniform of white, rushed to the bedside and took charge. Sure enough, Mrs. Slocum rallied so strongly that they were just telling the Good Samaritan that there was no longer any need of taking advantage of her kindness when the patient suddenly developed alarming stomach pains and nausea and died.
After that the survivors of the Shamel family, while not exactly suspicious, decided that Mrs. Gifford was unlucky. But the Stuhlfelders took a chance once more on Mrs. Mary Stuhlfelder, age seventy-four, with the invariable result: death from gastritis.
Quite similar were the last moments of James Ogle, a hired man of the Giffords who had incidentally complained that he could not collect the money they owed him. Bertha, however, paid the money in time for it to be spent on the funeral.
S. Herman Pounds, one of the strongest physical specimens in the neighborhood, indulged a bit too much in his own hard cider and went to sleep in the Gifford pasture. Bertha had him brought into the house and gave him something to sober up. "Acute gastritis, super induced by alcoholism," she told the doctor, who arrived too late.
There was the sudden onset of this same stomach trouble carrying off "Grandma" Birdie Unnerstall just as Bertha dropped in for a visit while everyone was away.
Mrs. Laura Brown, of East St. Louis, aunt of little seven-year-old Mary Brown, one of Mrs. Gifford's alleged poison victims, tells a sample of Mrs. Gifford's nursing. "One afternoon about two and a half months before Mary died," Mrs. Brown said, "she was lying ill in the bedroom. I entered. Mrs. Gifford was sitting by the bedside; she seemed annoyed by my presence. I had come all the way from East St. Louis to Catawissa to visit the sick child and mentioned that I was tired. Mrs. Gifford urged, 'Why don't you lie down and take a little nap.'"
The last of the list was Ed Brinley, a neighbor and another cider victim who rested for a fatal moment against the mailbox post outside the Gifford house. Bertha's watchful eye spotted him there, and she ordered her husband to carry him in. When, two hours later, he also had met his death from the same old symptoms, even the men admitted that it was odd.
The grand jury thought so too and indicted Bertha for murder, but she still persisted in her denials until Andrew McConnell, chief of police of Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, took a hand. He noticed that the prisoner seemed especially annoyed at the suggestion that she had poisoned Beulah Mounds, the three-year-old daughter of S. Herman Pounds. He harped on that case until, according to McConnell, she finally snapped at him, "Well, anyway, I did not give any arsenic to that Pounds child."
"To whom did you give it?" the chief asked quietly. Her answer, he says, was a confession that she had poisoned Brinley, the Shamel boys and perhaps some others. Her excuse was that she wanted to put them out of their misery. Brinley's body was exhumed, and its stomach showed traces of arsenical poisoning, according to the police. Since the confession, Bertha's chief ambition was to avoid being photographed. She sat in her cell with a blanket ready to throw over her head whenever she heard a footfall in the corridor. She exhibited remorse, too, and said she did not care to live.
Following the three-day trial, Bertha was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the Missouri State Mental Hospital at Farmington, where she remained until her death in 1951.
Although counts vary, most historians and family members agree that Gifford actually killed at least seventeen people over a period of twenty-four years. So if you're ever in the vicinity of Morse Mill, stop on by the old cemetery or the Morse Mill Hotel and you may just catch a glimpse of Ms. Bertha or one of her many victims.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Haunted Graveyards of the Ozarks"
Copyright © 2013 David E. Harkins.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Dedication and Acknowledgements 7
A Brief History of the Ozarks 11
Funeral Customs and Superstitions of the Ozark Mountains 15
Part I Missouri Ozarks
The Witches Foundation-Lebanon 22
Church of God Faith of Abraham Cemetery-Morse Mill 25
Wilson's Cemetery-Richland 32
Lonesome Hill Cemetery-Phillipsburg 35
Pine Hill Cemetery and "Goat Man's Grave"-St. James 38
Snelson-Brinker Cabin and Graveyard-St. James 40
Oak Ridge Cemetery-Doniphan 46
Old Salem Church and Cemetery-Farmington 47
Greenbrier Cemetery and the Old Spring;-Marble Hill 48
Mayfield Cemetery and the Mystery of Eliza Jane Laycocks-Devil's Elbow 50
Hrbitov Sv Vaclava Catholic Cemetery-Karlin 52
Old Carney Cemetery-Jenkins 56
Slagle Cemetery-Chillicothe 61
Springfield National Cemetery-Springfield 66
Spanish Fort Cemetery-Mount Vernon 71
Peace Church Cemetery-Joplin 75
Part II Arkansas Ozarks
Confederate Cemetery-Fayetteville 82
Fort Smith National Cemetery-Fort Smith 86
Possum Walk Cemetery-Coal Hill 92
Mount Holly Cemetery-Little Rock 95
White County Fairgrounds, "Poor Farm Cemetery"-Searcy 105
Cousins Cemetery, "Mystery Girl's Grave"-Judsonia 108
Shady Grove Cemetery-Bald Knob 112
Robinson Cemetery, "Red Eye Cemetery"-Jacksonport 114
Auman Church and Cemetery-Harrison 120
About the Author 127