Horror in the Heartland: Strange and Gothic Tales from the Midwest

Horror in the Heartland: Strange and Gothic Tales from the Midwest

by Keven McQueen


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Horror in the Heartland: Strange and Gothic Tales from the Midwest by Keven McQueen

Brace yourself for a journey into a creepy, dark side of the American Midwest you thought you knew—a side teeming with real-life surrealism and historical horror-comedy. From tales of the booming grave-robbing industry of late 19th-century Indiana to the story of a Michigan physician who left his estate to his pet monkeys, Keven McQueen investigates a spooky and twisted side of Indiana, Ohio, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Exploring burial customs, unexplained deaths, ghost stories, premature burials, the industry of grave robbing, bizarre murders, peculiar wills and much more, this creepy collection reveals the colorful untold stories of the region and offers intriguing, if sometimes macabre, insights into human nature and our history.

A fun and frightful look at a vein of darkness running through the Midwest, Horror in the Heartland promises to send chills down your spine.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253029041
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/07/2017
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,187,958
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Keven McQueen is an instructor in the Department of English at Eastern Kentucky University. He is the author of numerous books, including The Kentucky Book of the Dead, Murder and Mayhem in Indiana, and The Axman Came from Hell and Other True Crime Stories.

Read an Excerpt



A Booming Underground Industry

IN THE NINETEENTH AND EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURIES, midwestern medical schools were in perpetual need of cadavers for students to dissect. The gallows provided the schools with a steady supply of "patients," but there were not enough hanged felons to go around; the result was a thriving trade in grave robbery. A little furtive work with a shovel, a sack, and a lantern, and the intrepid snatcher could make enough money to keep himself comfortably in ale for a while. There are many examples of this lost folk art from Indiana history.

Persons entering a graveyard several miles from Indianapolis on October 20, 1877, spied the bodies of Mrs. R. and her child lying on the ground near their open grave. Why hadn't the body snatchers carried away their prize? The woman died of highly contagious tuberculosis several weeks before; perhaps her excavators were unaware of this fact until they already completed their laborious task, and they left the body out of fear and/or disgust at having done all that hard work for an unusable cadaver.

Sometimes people who objected to the shoplifting of their dearly departed would hire "grave watchers" — operatives who, exactly as their name implies, were paid to camp out at a gravesite until enough time had passed for the occupant to spoil, thereby becoming of no interest to any medical school. Rising Sun, Indiana, was plagued with body snatchings in early 1877; when a little girl was buried on February 13, her family and friends hired two men to watch the grave. Unbeknownst to them, the mayor hired two others to do the same. When the two sets of grave watchers spotted each other, they came to the natural conclusion and exchanged shots. Henry S., hired by the mayor, received slight wounds, but Joseph J. of the other party sustained a serious load of shot in his side.

Ghouls Just Want to Have Fun: Indiana

Sometimes furtive openers of graves weren't in it to steal bodies but rather to swipe valuables, plain and simple. There are cases in which their motives are undiscernible, and that may be for the better.

Ursula T. was buried in a graveyard near Taylorsville after her death on October 26, 1865. In May 1921 her coffin was unearthed and pried open by parties unknown — at least eight of them, judging from the footprints in the dirt. The reason was a mystery until one elderly resident remembered an old rumor that dated to the 1840s. Back then, Ursula and her husband, Zachariah, put up $10,000 in gold as bond for a friend who was being tried on a felony charge. The man committed suicide in the courtroom after a guilty verdict was rendered. The religious couple refused to use any of the money after it was returned them; rumor held that Ursula buried the money with Zachariah when he died. So the would-be grave robbers unearthed the wrong casket! Someone must have forgotten to bring a flashlight. There is no record of their taking a second go at it.

Lydia A. died in September 1933 and was buried in Hessville on the sixteenth day of the month. Everyone naively thought she had been laid to rest forever.

In April 1937, George B. and Lynn S., teenage boys respectively from Hammond and Highland, were discovered with Lydia's skull in their possession. They confessed to having stolen the body of the young tuberculosis victim from her grave on March 21, 1937, after fortifying themselves with gin. They opened the coffin with a crowbar and stuffed Lydia in their car.

The boys removed Lydia's head and tossed the rest of her in a marsh in a field near Warren G. Harding School in Hammond. George — who was a whiz at chemistry — boiled the head. As he explained to detectives later, "If I used acid to clean it, I would have softened it." Then he painted the skull white. Unfortunately for the youthful ghouls, they accidentally left a leather glove and a pen with the monogram "G" behind in the cemetery, clues that led authorities right to them.

Why did the teens swipe the skull? They wanted it for "secret society" initiation rites in the Hammond Youth Esquire Club. In fact, they were in a hurry to rob the grave before a rival club beat them to it. Their competitors already were using a really swell casket flanked by candles in their rituals. The Esquire Club did not want to be outclassed and thirsted to possess a neat-o, genu-wine human skull. It was like a really creepy Our Gang short.

George and Lynn could have gotten jail time, but authorities chose leniency since they considered the incident more of a prank than a crime; also, the late Lydia's husband, Frank, had remarried and moved out of the area, so there was no offended kin to press charges.

Buried Alive: Indiana

It is well known that our ancestors had a terror of premature burial. Was their fear founded in reality, or was the danger exaggerated? As the following unwholesome example demonstrates, they had good reason to be worried ...

According to a story that appears to have originated in the New York Sun, George W., a forty-two-year-old Indiana farmer, threw a party at his house on June 18, 1886. Next morning his wife found him dead in bed. "Heart disease," opined the doctor. Better bury him as soon as possible! Over the course of the next several hours, some noted that George maintained a lifelike appearance and had no rigor mortis.

George was placed in a coffin and loaded in a hearse, which led a procession of vehicles. On the way to the country graveyard, a runaway wagon collided with the hearse, flinging the coffin to the ground. When mourners approached to lift the coffin, they heard a familiar voice within saying, "For God's sake let me out of this!"

According to press accounts, "With a little assistance he pulled himself out of the box and walked into the house and sat down in a chair." George told his no longer mournful friends that he had been in a waking coma, able to see and think but unable to speak or move. He added:

Had a pistol been fired in the room I am sure the spell would have been broken. After the doctor's ultimatum I felt that I should be buried alive. But was I alive? All of a sudden this query flashed across my brain and I was troubled more than I can tell you. As I had never died before, how was I to know the sensations? Could the dead hear and think? Was the mind of the corpse in active operation? It was a problem I could not solve.

George could hear everything taking place around him, including his wife's weeping and entreaties, though he couldn't understand what she was getting so upset about. He listened to the clock in the kitchen ticking; he eavesdropped on a conversation two nearby friends had about his untimely passing (which they later confirmed); he even overheard two lowlifes break into his barn and make off with a horse's bridle.

And, once traveling to the cemetery, he clearly heard the sound of the runaway team of horses slamming into the hearse, which ended the fun: "As the collision came my eyes opened and my speech was restored, and from that moment I was all right."

Remains to Be Seen: Indiana

Ella P.'s candle flickered and went out at St. Anthony's Hospital in Terre Haute in September 1887. No one claimed her body. Ball's undertaking establishment embalmed Ella, so she would "keep" two or three weeks in case relatives should turn up. They didn't, and Ball's was stuck with an unwanted body. The embalmer thought to himself, Why not use some experimental chemicals on it and see what happens?

His tinkering proved of interest to doctors, scientists, and undertakers because Ella became mummified "hard as a rock," according to a reporter, who also wrote: "The color of the body is a dark brown, and the fingers of the hands are so hard that they cannot be bent, even with an unusual effort. ... The tissues have fallen away considerably. The features remain very natural and retain a great deal of their original cast. No odor of any kind is emitted." Strangest of all, Ella's body made a hollow sound when thumped, "like an empty wooden box."

The proprietors at Ball's, knowing a good advertisement when they saw one, placed Ella on display in a glass case at first, then later in a coffin, so sightseers could drop by and take in the sight. These included people from the Rose Polytechnic Institute, the State Normal School, and representatives from the public schools.

Eccentric Interments: Indiana

Some rugged individualists can't even be buried normally. When Katherine H. of Medora died on March 10, 1916, she requested that her late husband, John, be exhumed and buried in the same grave with her. John had died in February 1912.

Isaiah S., an ex-soldier, onetime stonemason, and former postmaster of Pleasant Lake erected his own grave marker, a garish ten-ton monument made of red, white, and blue granite. He did not wish to be enclosed in a vault because, as he said, "When Gabriel blows the trumpet I don't want to be impeded by having a concrete overcoat on." He also listed the pallbearers he wanted to tote him to his final resting place — six former girlfriends, whom he described as being "all husky girls of about 160 pounds and good looking, too." They were Lottie, Nannie, Minnie, Addie, Josie, and Millie. Isaiah made these elaborate plans in 1926, many years before he began to slip from the memory of man on November 15, 1939.

Infidel Inscriptions, Indiana

Some religious skeptics of times past shocked their communities by having blasphemous inscriptions carved on their tombstones; as a rule, their sentiments were straight from the fusty "village atheist" school of argument that went out in the days of Robert Ingersoll and Clarence Darrow. For example, Martin Jenners's gravestone in Spring Vale Cemetery at Lafayette reads: "My only objection to religion is that it is not true. I Cor. XV, 52. Is. XXVI, 14. No preaching, no praying, no psalm singing permitted on this lot."

The two biblical verses referred to on the monument are "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Cor. 15:52) and "They are dead, they shall not live; they are deceased, they shall not rise: therefore hast thou visited and destroyed them, and made all their memory to perish" (Isaiah 26:14). Evidently Martin thought the verses contradicted each other in that the first promises a resurrection and the second appears not to. If he had read only five verses farther in Isaiah he would have come to 26:19: "Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead."

Martin was asphyxiated on December 22, 1919.

Clubs You Wouldn't Have Wanted to Join: Indiana

Most high school students in the 1930s joined organizations such as the 4-H Club, the Glee Club, or the Latin Club. Howard S., who attended North Side High in Fort Wayne, joined a secret suicide club. The sixteen-year-old hanged himself in his parents' basement on June 17, 1934, to see how long he could dangle without losing consciousness. The whole point of the club's existence was "to find out exactly how long a person could hang without dying." Howard's parents, wise after the fact, said they noticed that he came home several times with rope burns around his neck.

Getting Stiffed, Part One

Walter M. died at Elkhart on December 4, 1920. His funeral expenses were covered with cash he had saved just for that occasion — but after the money was spent, bankers discovered that the bills were counterfeit. His widow had to cover the loss.

O'er Their Tomb No Trophies Raise

Charles Chase died in 1900 and was buried in Venter Ridge Cemetery in Sullivan. He is notable for the tininess of his grave marker, a piece of marble only four inches high, two inches wide, and seven inches long, and bearing a three-word inscription: "Chase, the Barber." Charles had used the wee stone as a doorstop.

Succinct Obituaries, Part One

On October 18, 1922, Samuel D. and another man were constructing a chicken coop in Terre Haute. They needed something to brace the structure on. "Why not use my head?" asked Samuel. The end result was a nail driven in his skull. His obituary noted: "The widow found the body after waiting [for] supper for more than fifteen minutes."

A Parrot Prognosticates

On May 7, 1917, a twenty-year-old parrot belonging to a married couple of Bedford called out, "Good-bye." Then it fell off its perch as dead as its counterpart in a certain Monty Python skit.

Boo! Did I Scare You?

It sounds like a scene out of Mark Twain: a group of boys see humor in making the schoolmistress think she's encountered a ghost. So on the night of June 22, 1888, a dark stretch of road at Birdseye was full of hiding, snickering boys — including the intended victim's younger brother — just waiting for Miss Josie C. to walk home from a neighbor's house. When she drew near, one of them covered himself with a sheet, jumped into the road, and gyrated his arms. The teacher screamed, fell to the ground, and died in convulsions a half hour later. When the boys heard the result of the practical joke they'd played on Miss Josie — described as "beautiful and accomplished" and "a very popular young school teacher" — they fled the neighborhood in shame, their little joke having lost its savor.

Creativity in Suicide: Indiana

Avery S. killed himself at his home near Columbus on March 18, 1920. He employed the same old muzzle-loading shotgun his father, Sidel, had used to end his own life twenty years before.

Some people find out the hard way that suicide is not always "the easy way out." Peter V., a coal miner from Washington, Indiana, stabbed himself several times in the neck with a table fork on September 1, 1896. When that didn't do the trick, he bashed himself repeatedly over the head with the blade end of an ax until the Death Angel stayed Peter's hand. After all that work and bother he might as well have lived.

Searle J., a nineteen-year-old high school student in Evansville, went to the family kitchen on June 8, 1900, and "told the cook a funny story." After thus entertaining the domestic, the young man produced a pistol and a moment later Searle's head had gained a couple ounces in weight. His death was blamed on "being jilted by a young woman and the use of cigarettes."

Lucy W. died in Kokomo on September 1, 1901, after flinging herself down a flight of stairs and then starving herself. She had tired of life at age 122.

An unknown (and totally nude) fisherman practiced the gentle Japanese art of hara-kiri on an island below Henderson, Kentucky, on June 30, 1907. He disemboweled himself with a six-inch-long cut in the belly and slashed his throat twice with a razor — but not before making his appearance presentable, as testified by a shaving mug found near the scene and a mirror dangling from a bush. He was identified next day as the ironically named Finis G. of Newburg, Indiana.

"I will be dead tomorrow. I am going to kill myself," said John L. to Ernest R., bartender at a saloon in Jeffersonville on October 12, 1907.

"No, you are not," scoffed the barkeep. "You haven't the nerve."

"If you don't believe I am game, just watch me," retorted John, who proved his point by drinking an ounce of carbolic acid. Before he expired horribly, John offered to buy a pint of whisky for Albert C., whom he had sent to the druggist to purchase the poison. Albert declined the kind offer.

Workers at the Globe Handle Company in Evansville were surprised on April 21, 1910, to find that a monkey had hanged itself with a chain from a rafter in their plant. It was believed to have escaped from a traveling circus that visited the city on April 15. Some imaginative souls conjectured that it committed suicide out of loneliness after being separated from its mates.

John Helms, a farmer who has a claim to fame as the founder of Helmsburg, employed a uniquely unpleasant way to kill himself on May 26, 1916: he jammed a sharp stick at least a foot down his throat repeatedly until he bled to death.

Bitter Ironies, Part One

John M. murdered Carl S. in August 1916 and was sentenced to life in prison. Five years later the governor of Indiana gave him a parole. John celebrated by returning to his home ten miles west of Petersburg on June 13, 1921. He was there less than a half hour when he was stricken with paralysis and died.

A doctor was noted for his lecture titled "Why Worry?" He committed suicide by poison in Kokomo on July 20, 1921.

Impressing Their Congregations: Indiana

A storm gathered as a congregation of Free Methodists held an outdoor revival at Springville on August 9, 1920. "If lightning should strike this tent tonight how many would be ready for it?" asked the reverend. The question became more than rhetorical a few moments later, resulting in the deaths of two other reverends.


Excerpted from "Horror in the Heartland"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Keven McQueen.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. Eerie Indiana
2. Outlandish Illinois
3. Odd Ohio
4. Creepy Kansas
5. Nightmarish Nebraska
6. Unusual Iowa
7. Macabre Minnesota
8. Weird Wisconsin
9. Mysterious Michigan

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