Halloween is synonymous with ghosts.
Every October, people from all over America break out their spooky holiday decorations to celebrate all things supernatural. Perhaps most iconic among them all are cemeteries.
As a place were we bury out dead – both loved and no-so loved – the cemeteries conjure thoughts of the great beyond, serving as they do as a doorway from the living world into the next. It really doesn’t come as a surprise then that there are several graveyards throughout Iowa thought to be haunted.
When I was sitting down to write this blog for the Halloween season, I was excited to tell a few ghost stories. Inevitably, the research I did wound through a graveyard or ten. But as I made my way along, I was slightly surprised by the fact most of the legends and the stories just didn’t hold any water.
One cemetery in particular that comes to mind is Stoneking Cemetery, a rural cemetery in Lucas County, south of Des Moines.
Portal to Hell
Although people have claimed to have seen the ghost of an old man walking along the rows, and heard disembodied voices, the most notorious thing about the place is the headstone of Joseph Stoneking.
The most persistent legend claims that if you read the epitaph written on it out loud, then a portal to hell opens and tries to suck you in. Another legend says that if you walk behind the row of trees planted in the back of the graveyard, about fifteen feet away from Joseph’s grave, then the Stone King will appear on the grave and try to send you to hell.
Yet another disturbing (and disgusting) story claims that if you urinate on the epitaph, then the writing will disappear. Yeah. Seriously.
Suffice it to say, I was more than a bit skeptical, so I tried to maybe find some truth behind the stories.
Researching the Legend
First of all, the graveyard’s name is really Oakhill Cemetery. Stoneking is a family name, and the place is called that because there are a lot of Stoneking’s buried there. I reasoned that maybe the legend of a “Stone King” appearing was really a “Stoneking,” which made a lot more sense to me, mostly because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the hell a ‘Stone King’ was.
Next, I wanted to find out that if there was someone who’s buried in the cemetery who could come send you to hell, then what kind of evil deeds must they have committed to earn such an ability? Well, apparently, nothing. As it turns out, the Stoneking’s were just ordinary people.
There were no horrendous crimes that they committed, no babies drowned in bathtubs. They came to Lucas County from West Virginia and lived pretty normal lives, just like you and me.
As if the research wasn’t poking enough holes in the legend, a paranormal investigator named Chad Lewis drove the proverbial nail into the coffin by posting a YouTube video where he challenges each of the legends in succession. It became obvious after a few minutes that he hadn’t opened a yawning hell portal, and that the legend was just so much nonsense.
But Stoneking isn’t the only haunted cemetery in Iowa.
Half a state away in eastern Iowa, the Hickory Hill Cemetery lies just a few miles outside of Charlotte, Iowa.
Accessed by a long, graveled farm track, Hickory Hill is an old rural graveyard surrounded by trees. Now regularly mowed and well-kept, the cemetery feels restful and looks great. Not too many years ago, however, this wasn’t the case.
Hickory Hill was once like several rural cemeteries – overgrown and abandoned, covered in knee-high grass and checkered with large, volunteer trees that were never intended to grow there. It was when the cemetery was like this that the ghost stories apparently started.
Tales of a ghostly little girl telling visitors to leave, and of the ghostly sounds of crying babies are rumored to haunt the remote burial ground. Perhaps the most disturbing tale to come from Hickory Hill, though, was when it was haunted by something more tangible in nature.
Robbing the Dead
In 1992, a few locals discovered that someone had been digging up a grave in the cemetery. Law enforcement were called in, and their investigation revealed that someone had been digging up a grave and perhaps stealing ornamental items from tombstones around the cemetery. The perpetrators had gone to some lengths to hide their activities from passing cars on the nearby road.
To learn more about that story, click here.
While it was pretty obvious that they had been grave robbing, their motivation for doing so wasn’t quite as clear. Try as they might, authorities were never able to pin it down. Some thought it might have been driven by monetary gain, while others proposed the much darker idea that it might have been Satanists.
Satan and darker aspects of the occult have reared their ugly heads for decades, especially around Halloween. Their methods are mysterious, but anything that could be even be remotely considered to be both bizarre and supernatural is many times considered to be the work of occultists.
To be honest, though, it seems that anytime there is some kind of cemetery vandalism that doesn’t involve knocking over tombstones, occultists are always rumored to be involved. But then, sometimes there are crimes that seem to have no logical – or sane – motivation behind them outside of something dark and supernatural.
In 1977, a young man named Richard Edwards broke into several crypts at Fairmount Cemetery on the west side of Davenport, Iowa.
Fairmount is large and old, and was about half a mile west of the Davenport city limits when it was founded in the late 1800’s. Over time it grew to hold hundreds of people, but even with major population growth, the cemetery still sits on the very edge of the city. It might have been that remoteness that encouraged Edward to do what he did.
In at least one crypt he broke into, Edwards destroyed a casket and then pulled out the body. He also stole a human skull. Police arrested him, and the crypts were re-sealed.
Twenty years later, the crypts were broken into again. This time, no suspect was ever found.
Richard Kronfeld, who was the cemetery superintendent of Fairmount at the time, believed that the robbery was linked to Satanists because the bodies were ransacked and it was quite possible that they had taken some bones with them. The robbery had also taken place during a full moon, which might have further coincided with occult activity.
Kronfeld also believed that these break-ins were related to an earlier theft that had taken place a short time before, where a power saw had been taken from Fairmount’s main mausoleum.
In Fall 2008, the crypts were broken into yet again, this time being by far the most disturbing.
Body parts had been thrown around the interiors, and in at least one instance rearranged. One police officer even stated that it felt like there was something else going on with the break-in than mere pranks or a simple robbery.
So are these cemeteries actually haunted?
After a walk through a few of the haunted cemeteries in Iowa, I can say that I believe that almost all of them are haunted. They are haunted by the memories of those left behind, with nothing left of them in this world usually then a granite headstone and a handful of stories.
They are haunted by the living, who come to remember, honor, and cherish the dead. And, finally, cemeteries are sometimes haunted by dark things, who seek to do bizarre and perhaps malicious things in the night.
And maybe, just maybe, there are a few out there that are haunted by something that lingers with unfinished business, walking the rows, seeking to finish it out.
You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please check in every week or so for brand new true stories of triumph, tragedy, and everything in-between. If you want to make it easier on yourself, you can subscribe to John’s blog and have new entries sent directly to your inbox, or you can ‘Like’ the Kitchen Table Historian Facebook page, and receive them in your news feed.
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‘Man Held; Graveyard Vandalism.’ Quad City Times, 6/24/1977
‘Grave Robbers Hit Davenport Crypt.’ Quad City Times, 4/25/1997
‘Human Remains Disturbed During Mausoleum.’ Quad City Times, 9/10/2008
‘Stoneking Cemetery.’ Supernatural Dares, http://www.youtube.com
Myers, Frank D. ‘Tombs With a View II: Stoneking.’ http://www.lucascontyan.blogspot.com, 12/31/12
dpaulson. ‘These 10 Haunted Cemeteries in Iowa Are Not For the Faint of Heart.’ http://www.onlyinyourstate.com, 8/7/16
2 thoughts on “Unfinished Business: Walking the Rows of Iowa’s Haunted Cemeteries”
I love these words of yours: “After a walk through a few of the haunted cemeteries in Iowa, I can say that I believe that almost all of them are haunted. They are haunted by the memories of those left behind, with nothing left of them in this world usually then a granite headstone and a handful of stories.
They are haunted by the living, who come to remember, honor, and cherish the dead.”
Thank you, J!