The first time that I remember hearing about a place called “dead man’s” anything was when I was over at a friend’s house in Rock Island, Illinois. We were out riding bikes and one of them made mention that we were coming up on ‘dead man’s hill.’ Clueless, I asked what that meant.
One of the other boys, in the solemn tones reserved only for the most secret stories children tell one another, explained that it was because people had died there. Looking at it, I thought it just looked like another hill. But what did I know?
It might not have looked like much, but that was a special hill. Why? Because someone had told me that it was! Some kid that I’d never met before had told me that it was special, so it must be the truth. It was Dead Man’s Hill! People had died there!
And so, as we rode our bikes down it, I felt a little tingle run up my spine. The story had given it power, fueled by my imagination.
The same scenario has been played out time and time again in places all across the country. The story is told time and time again. Like a stalagmite in a cave, all of those stories build on one another until, finally, a legend is born.
Generally, a “dead man’s curve,” or “death curve, “refers to a place where one or more fatal car accidents have taken place, usually around a nasty stretch of road. At some point, someone took the curve a little too fast, lost control of their car, and died in the ensuing crash. That, of course, means that the curve is now cursed.
Someone drives around it and feels their tires skid a little bit: it was the curse. If someone else dies taking the curve, then it’s the curse. It wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact you’re driving a car with bald tires and you skidded on some loose gravel. And, of course, you’d never speed around that curve yourself.
Nope. It’s cursed. Definitely.
But in Cambridge, Illinois, people tell a slightly different story.
Their ‘death curve’ is on a rural secondary road called Timber Line Road. For years, teenagers used to hang out in an old red barn that stood in that area. Although it’s long gone now, it was a great place to get away from the prying eyes of their parents. There, amongst their peers, they could make their own poor decisions without too much judgement.
But the property has a story, and on some nights, a scenario unfolds that goes something like this:
The fading daylight from the setting sun begins to cast long shadows across the fields. The teenagers who grew up here, so carefree and independent when the light was brighter, can feel the fear creep into their spine.
They stiffen a little, eyes wary of the descending darkness. They remember what this place is; what happened here, as it was told to them. They remember who used to own this barn.
That thought is kicking around in their heads when someone, inevitably, has to bring it up.
“Where do you think the house was?’ one asks.
“Who cares? It’s all bull anyway,” another one says. Their voice lacks conviction, but they’re still going to try and look brave in front of their friends.
After a few moments of silence, another teen points to a patch of grass about fifty feet away. “My dad said it was about there,” she says.
Everyone looks. That’s where it happened.
The new guy, the kid who just moved out to Cambridge from out of town, asks, “What the hell are you guys talking about?”
Another moment of silence, then someone speaks. “A bunch of kids were murdered over there, right in front of the house.” They take a sip from the bottle they’re holding.
“You’re kidding me, right?”
The others look at the new guy with stony expressions. He’s not one of them yet; not a local. To hear the story moves him one step closer to belonging. They all like him, otherwise they wouldn’t have brought him out here. In one way or another, they all knew that, despite their reluctance to talk about it where it all actually happened, the story would have to be told.
Just as the new guy starts to feel uneasy, one of the older kids starts to speak. It’s almost always one of the older kids who tells the story out here. Like the village elders of years gone by, it falls to them, as the wisest among them, to pass out the knowledge of the tribe.
“A long time ago, something bad happened here. Something really bad. It started with a woman named Julia Markham….”
Julia Johnson was about 23-years-old when she married Clarence Markham. They settled into the modest farmhouse on the acreage that Clarence rented in Henry County, Illinois, and, we can only imagine were very happy. A short time after their first wedding anniversary, they welcomed their first child, Clara, into the home. A year after that, they had a son, Harry. Clarence and Julia would go on to have five more children after that: Charles, Mary, Lucy, and their last, Asa, in 1905.
While Clarence and the children seem to have gone out and socialized with the other farm families in the area, Julia mostly kept to herself. Julia seemed to prefer spending the majority of her time with her family. Clarence was very laid-back, and just allowed Julia to do what she was most comfortable with.
Like so many things in life, farm life is all about routine. From the time she was first married, Julia settled into hers. She mostly took care of chores around the house, like cooking and cleaning. The youngest children and the girls would have stayed under her watchful gaze while the older boys would have been out working around the farm with their father.
And so, it went, day after day. Then week after week. Then year after year. Routine can be excellent for efficiency, but one day starts to run into the next. There must have been a kind of dreary sameness to Julia’s life, with very little to break up her schedule. Everyday she was doing chores and taking care of small children, all the while dealing with must have seemed like a never-ending pregnancy. The Markham’s were extremely poor, so even if they had the ability to attend the occasional dance or other event in town, they probably couldn’t have paid for them anyway.
In July of 1905, Clarence’s father, Horace, came to visit. While he was staying there, Julia had a kind of mental breakdown, and began to suffer from severe depression. The effect on her was more than enough for Clarence and Horace both to take notice. Horace was of the opinion that the daily drag and boredom of her daily routine was having a detrimental effect on his daughter-in-law.
Julia’s depression continued unabated for the next several weeks. In mid-September 1905, her mother, Mary, was declared insane and taken to an asylum in Galesburg, Illinois. Julia’s mental state became even worse.
Clarence was concerned. He loved his wife, but he didn’t know how to help her. Unfortunately, no one else really did, either. Treatments that might have been considered for depression at that time included full immersion in water for extended periods of time, dietary changes, and enemas.
Clarence was helpless. All he could do was watch as his beloved Julia crumbled.
Julia was far worse off than anyone could have imagined. Trapped inside her own mind, Julia kept seeking her own solution to her problem. But, her perception of the world was broken, perhaps even deranged. Having reached the absolute limits of her despair, Julia had come to a decisive conclusion about what she was going to do.
After some planning, she sat down and wrote a private letter to her Clarence. She wanted to explain herself, so that he understood later. Julia placed it in a neighbor’s mailbox, knowing that someone would find it eventually.
Putting on the best attitude she could muster, Julia told Clarence goodbye as he left that morning to go help out one of the other farmers with their harvest. The attitude change didn’t alleviate his fears, however, and he was more worried than ever about his wife. He told his two oldest children, Clara and Harry, to stay home from school that day and keep an eye on their mother. With that, he left.
When people around the Markham farm saw the thick, black plumes of smoke billowing toward the powder blue sky on that calm Autumn day in 1905, they immediately knew that something was wrong.
Several families left what they were doing and went to the Markham’s. As they approached, it was clear the farmhouse was on fire, flames leaping from the windows like a furnace. They rushed into the yard just in time to see Julia stumble out the front door. What remained of her clothing was on fire, and her exposed flesh had been badly burned.
When they went to help her, they saw that she was also bleeding profusely from a horrendous gash in her neck.
While some of the men made an initial attempt to put out the fire, they quickly realized that the house was beyond saving. There was nothing to do but watch it burn.
Like everyone else, Clarence Markham had seen the smoke and had come as quickly as he could. As soon as he got home, he began searching for his family. Clarence saw Julia, but not any of the children. Where were the children? With a lurching feeling in his stomach, he realized that they must still be inside the house.
As he began to sprint toward the door, some of the neighbors stopped him. He clawed and kicked and screamed like a wild animal, desperate to get to his little ones. But everyone knew that it was too late. Whoever was in that structure was already long past saving.
Sometime later the county sheriff arrived, along with a local doctor and John Palmer, the chief of police in Cambridge. The sheriff began to question Julia about what had happened while the doctor began to treat her wounds. As he sewed up the gash in her neck and did his best to treat her burns, the doctor realized that her wounds were fatal. Looking at the sheriff, he related the grim diagnosis.
According to Julia, a giant man with a great, black mustache and matching black hat had burst into the house. The stranger had an axe, which he had used to murder her children in front of her very eyes. He had then attacked her, slashing her across the throat.
The sheriff didn’t believe her. Neither did Palmer. Something about Julia’s story just didn’t add up. With time quickly ebbing away, they decided to get straight to the point. Palmer told Julia that they didn’t believe her, and to tell them the truth.
Julia was silent for a few moments, then asked what would happen to her if she did. Keeping it blunt, the sheriff told her that she was already dying. There wasn’t much more that they could do to her.
Taking a deep, ragged breath, Julia relaxed. As she began to speak, it seemed like a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
Julia explained that her and the children had been eating watermelon that morning. When they finished, she asked Clara and Harry to fetch some water from the well. After they left, Julia used an axe to kill the other five children, none of whom were older than six.
When the oldest two returned, they were carrying a pail full of water between the two of them. Before they could react, Julia killed them, too. After, she carried each of them into her bedroom and laid them on the bed side by side.
Then, she soaked them and everything else with kerosene, lighting them on fire. Using the same knife that she had cut the watermelon with, she cut her own throat, then climbed into bed next to her children.
While Julia had planned to burn with them, something unexpected happened. As the flames quickly spread through the house, her survival instincts kicked in. Julia got out of bed and slowly made her way through the smoke to the front door.
As she finished, Julia’s voice trailed off, and she died just a few moment’s later.
Everyone was stunned. They couldn’t believe that this had happened. Clarence was almost incoherent with grief. But there was nothing he, or anyone else, could do. His entire family was gone in the span of just a few hours.
A short time later, a rural mail carrier found the letter that Julia had left for Clarence.
Addressed to Clarence, it said: “Dear Clarence: This is to say good-by to you. Some give their souls for others, and I will do this for my children. God bless them! They will all die happy in the arms of Jesus. I will meet them there, and some day you will join us, too.”
“They say that Julia Markham still haunts the road out here, especially around the curve. They say that she appears out of nowhere, and cause people to die when they wreck their cars.”
Some of the kids there just stared at the ground, others listened with rapt attention. There were some though, who seemed a little tense, eyes shifting from peers to the darkness that had settled in around them.
The new kid just nods. He doesn’t really believe the story. He’s too old now to believe in ghosts and monsters. Still, that story is just weird.
He looks over to where the house stood, thinking about the story he just heard. He remembers something that he saw on one of those ghost shows that his mom and sister watched all the time. They were talking about how hauntings can be associated with places where something truly dark and tragic took place.
There, surrounded by darkness, he couldn’t think of anyplace else he knew that was more likely to be haunted.
And so, the story continues. Eventually, it will be told to someone else, just as it has for generations.
The true story behind the Markham Family tragedy was largely forgotten over the years. What people remembered of it gradually distorted into a kind of urban legend.
Julia and all of her children were buried at nearby Rose Dale Cemetery. The remains of the children were buried in one casket, while Julia’s were interred in another right next to them. Both the graves were unmarked.
Some newspaper accounts claimed that Clarence, so crushed by his grief, had committed suicide in a truly dramatic fashion.
Not wanting to live anymore, Clarence had put a noose around his neck, then shot himself. As his body fell, the rope pulled tight, guaranteeing that if he survived the gunshot, then he would definitely die by strangulation.
While this was certainly very dramatic, Clarence never committed suicide. Soon after they reported it, the papers printed retractions. He remarried almost a decade later, passing away at the age of 77 in 1951.
The house was never rebuilt. The ruins were plowed under, leaving virtually no physical sign that the tragedy had ever taken place. The only thing to show that there had ever been a farm there at all was the big red barn.
At some point, the ghost stories began. Locals began to claim that the ghost of Julia Markham could be seen at what had become known as the “Cambridge Death Curve.”
While easy to dismiss as part of the already popular legend, there are people around Cambridge that truly believe the curve is haunted.
According to one account, two women spotted something strange as they drove toward the curve one night. There, in the cornfield, was a white shape, with what seemed to be long hair floating out behind it like it was underwater.
Others have also claimed to see the white figure, presumed by some to be the spirit of Julia Markham, searching for the children she murdered over one-hundred and fifteen years ago. Former Henry County sheriff Gilbert Cady claims that, according to local legend, the spirit of Julia Markham is supposed to appear every September 25 on the site of her old property.
Still others claim to have seen ghostly lights in the area.
Does the spirit of Julia Markham still haunt the site of the tragedy that she caused so long ago? Or are the ghostly sightings the product of overwrought imaginations?
Whatever the truth behind the hauntings, there is no doubt that a horrific tragedy took place there that claimed the lives of eight people. Julia Markham, in many ways, really was haunted, a prisoner of her own mental illness. No matter how much those close to her wanted to help, there was little they could do.
While the legend of the “Cambridge Death Curve” serves as a cautionary tale to take care when approaching potentially dangerous sections of roads, the true story of Julia Markham provides another truth: Sometimes, the most dangerous spirits are the ones called up within the confines of your own mind.
Slayer of Her 7 Children Had Been Insane for Years. Chicago Tribune, 10/2/1905
Family of Nine is Wiped Out in Day. Chicago Tribune, 10/1/1905
The “Curse of Cambridge.” Daily Republican-Register, 10/3/1905
Henry Woman’s Awful Deed. The Rock Island Argus, 9/30/1905
Once Before Had Tried to End Life. The Dispatch, 10/2/1905
Mother Slays Seven Children. The Dispatch, 9/30/1905
Awful Deed of Insane Mother. The Woodford County Journal, 10/5/1905
Kills Herself and Children. The Jacksonville Daily Journal, 10/1/1905
Seven Bodies in One Coffin. The Daily Times, 10/2/1905
Brown, Shane. Forget the Death Curve; where is that hellcat? The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus, 10/27/2014
Brown, Shane. Is the Death Curve of Cambridge really haunted? The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus, 10/20/2014
Kleen, M.A. An Unspeakable Crime: The Cambridge Death Curve, Part 1. www.michaelkleen.com, 9/28/2017
Kleen, M.A. Cries From the Grave: The Cambridge Death Curve, Part 2. www.michaelkleen.com, 9/29/2017
Hancock, Amanda. Big Story: Exploring ‘haunted’ places just in time for Halloween. Quad-City Times, 10/22/2018
Kleen, Michael. Haunting the Prairie: A Tourists Guide to the Weird and Wild Places of Illinois. Black Oak Press, Illinois; First Edition, 2010