Wednesday, July 31, 2013

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Loon Lake Cemetery


I asked Seth to accompany me to Loon Lake Cemetery because I feared getting lost on some farm road near the boarder of Minnesota and Iowa. Loon Lake Cemetery doesn’t have an address, at least not that I could find. If I can’t put the destination in my GPS, I don’t go alone. I’d like to say that this is because Southern Minnesota was new to me, I moved to Mankato about a year earlier for graduate school, but I have always been afraid of getting lost. Seth and I were in the same non-fiction class, and our trip to Look Lake Cemetery was part of a journalism assignment. Each student was to go somewhere new, and strange, and write about it. I decided to search for the ghost of Mary Jane Terwillegar, a witch who haunts Loon Lake Cemetery in Jackson County, Minnesota.
Most of my sources on the Ghost of Mary Jane were Blogs. The authors of Paranormal Research & Investigative Studies Midwest (P.R.I.S.M.) performed an extensive study of Loon Lake Cemetery that included Hi-Fi Recordings, Magnetic Recordings, EVP Recordings, and many other “recordings” that I can only assume were used to detect paranormal activity. The results of their testing were… inconclusive.
 Accounts of levitating headstones and a ghostly teenage girl in a prairie dress wandering through the cemetery made me to wonder if the veil between life and death is thinner at Loon Lake. I didn’t expect to see a witch, or a ghost, or to feel the disquietude of cold dead eyes, but I hoped for it.
Seth was in his late twenties, over six feet tall, and broad shouldered with a fat waistline. He wore thick-framed glasses that contrasted his waist length dark hair and beard that mostly grew from his neck. From a distance, he looked like a large medieval butt kicking kind of dude, but upon closer investigation, I discovered that he was actually meek and nerdy, and talked a great deal about his cat. A graduate of Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran College, Seth often read from a pocket bible with a binding wrapped in duct tape. He always wore slacks and a tie and I was a surprised when he showed up at my home the morning of our trip dressed out of character— in jeans, cheap sneakers, and a t-shirt from a scout camp he attended a decade earlier.

Seth
Seth and I pulled anchor, and after driving south on Minnesota sixty for ten minutes we’d lost cell phone service and could see little more than Midwest farmland. Mankato was a pocket of suburbs and commerce nearly two hours from the nearest metropolitan area, and as we drove, the city fell out of sight behind us like it was afloat in an inland sea of rich dark earth, harvested hay, and harvested corn.
This was the first time Seth and I had been alone. Most of our interactions had been in classrooms, author readings, or group offices. As we drove, Seth told me that he got in a fight with his girlfriend over Mary Jane’s curse.
“She thinks it’s something we should take seriously. I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I mean think about it, ghosts are unnatural. They can’t exist.”
He gave me a satisfied look like he was about to set me straight on this whole ghost thing. Seth mentioned Newton’s laws of motion (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) and how if ghosts walk, then they must be applying force to the ground, and the ground must be applying an equal force on the ghost. “Ghosts must be made of matter and not energy,” he said. “Pure energy would not be able to stay on the floor without passing through it. This proves that ghosts are a fairy tale. We might as well be searching for Snow White or the Three Little Pigs.”
He laughed.
I presented the idea of visiting Loon Lake Cemetery to multiple friends. Seth was the only one that appeared interested. Now I wondered why he came. The first time Seth and I spoke he asked, “You’re Mormon, Right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What’s up with your underwear?”
I can know someone for years before they ask me this question. Most don’t ask it at all. Seth, however, was direct, candid, and sometimes tactless. After our first conversation, I got the impression that Seth had difficulty making friends, and as he told me about his skepticism of ghosts, I wondered if he came because he hoped the trip would turn us into friends.
I understood his longing for companionship. Being the only Mormon in my graduate program made me feel like an outsider. While others drank beer and wrote, I only wrote. I suppose I was twice as productive, but I was also twice as lonely. And while I didn’t fully appreciate his skepticism about ghosts, I did understand what it was like to have an unconventional belief about the undead. I believe that the ghosts people see on earth are actually Sons of Perdition. These are the third part of the hosts of heaven that followed Satan rather than Christ during the war in heaven. They were denied bodies, cast to the earth, and thus became the devil and his angels. As a child, I understood that the Sons of Perdition were jealous of our bodies, and that they wander the earth as spirits tempting man to commit sin. They impersonate angels in order to give false information, and they are known to possess the bodies of the living.
I was fascinated by the Sons of Perdition as a child, but stories of them impersonating angels and taking over bodies caused for some long nights. I often lay awake hugging blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, anything I could fit in my arms, fearful that Satan’s legions would enter my bedroom, armed with deception, and drag me down to Outer Darkness. But if I were to peel back the layers of my fear and anxiety I would have found a curious desire to meet a Son of Perdition. I had my doubts about Mormonism (I still do), and I assumed that meeting a messenger from the devil would be evidence enough to prove, at least to myself, that Mormon teachings and scripture were true.
When I first heard the story of Mary Jane’s ghost I immediately believed she was a Son of Perdition. I felt frightened curiosity, same as when I was a child at night hugging blankets in my bedroom. And as Seth and I passed through Jackson County, only a few miles from Loon Lake, I felt anticipation rather than fear, and I wondered if those old longings for tangible evidence of my faith were resurfacing. I didn’t mention any of this to Seth. If fact, I’d never told anyone about my desire to meet a Son of Perdition.
---

We found the cemetery by pairing directions posted on Find aGrave.com and the P.R.I.S.M Blog, with a map of Jackson County area parks. I was relived to have not gotten lost. We arrived at a dirt parking lot that was within spitting distance of the Minnesota/Iowa boarder. It was 11 AM on October 9th, 2010 and the sun was shining; odd weather for that time of year in Southern Minnesota. Early October the year before it was a gloomy fifteen degrees with a wind chill of negative ten, but during our visit it was a crisp, still air sixty five.
There was no longer a road, only a quarter mile trail carved into the Minnesota prairie between Robertson County Park and Loon Lake. The Loon Lake Cemetery sits on the east side of a hill overlooking the lake. I could see it from the dirt parking lot. It was abandoned in 1926 after the last burial. From photos I found online, it appeared that the cemetery had grown cluttered with pricker bushes, tall grass, and black maples. Over ninety bodies were buried at the Loon Lake Cemetery, but only about twenty markers remain.
Loon Lake Cemetery
I stand five-foot seven and the prairie grass surrounding Loon Lake Cemetery came to my neck. The grass was slim, dense, and rich green with faded brown tips the color of weak chocolate milk. The trail to the cemetery was the width of a double blade lawn mower, and as we walked along it I was fearful that something could be lurking between the tall, heavy, lean blades of grass. We reached the cemetery, and surrounding it was a sagging chain link fence that looked as wore out and neglected as the graveyard, and as we passed through its opening, I ask Seth if he will challenge the curse and jump three times. He didn’t answer me.
---
Janine Porter states that her great aunt Mary Jane died of diphtheria at age eighteen. But the residents of Jackson County say that Mary Jane was beheaded on March 8th, 1881 in Petersburg, MN for practicing witchcraft. She was later buried eight miles north, at Loon Lake Cemetery. As with any urban legend there are discrepancies and contradictions. Some say Mary Jane was not beheaded for being a witch, but killed by her father John Terwillegar because she was pregnant. Dave Ellefson, the bass player for the slash metal band Megadeth, grew up in Jackson County. He wrote the song “Mary Jane” that appeared on the album So Far, So Good… So What! The lyrics tell the story of a witch who was buried alive.
The details divide and overlap, but when you mention Mary Jane Terwillegar to a resident of Jackson they will tell you that Loon Lake Cemetery is cursed. They call it “The Witches’ Cemetery.” Some say if you jump across Mary Jane’s grave three times you will die within a year. Others say Mary Jane is less forgiving and that she doesn’t allow for three passes—only one. Because of the curse, Loon Lake Cemetery has become the venue for late night games of Truth or Dare, drunken Halloween parties, and satanic rituals.
---
Seth and I began exploring the cemetery. I was shocked by how many markers rested on the ground. Replacing the damaged or missing headstones was a five-foot wide and three-foot tall monument the color of red sandstone. In six columns, three in front and three in back, are listed the names of the dead. I searched the monument for Mary Jane Terwillegar. It was on the back.
I was looking for Mary Jane’s grave, but I didn’t expect to see her headstone. Jane Hastings, a former graduate student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, recorded this quote from The Jackson County Deputy Sheriff concerning Mary Jane’s headstone, “It’s been picked up from Iowa and all over Southern Minnesota. Once, it was thrown into a creek at the location where two people had drowned.” The Jackson County Historical Society in Lakefield, MN houses the headstone. A photo of it is on the Find A Grave website. Mary Jane’s marker is a tall slender pillar with a crack down the middle. A star is carved at the top with an inscription below reading,
My friends beware as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you must be
Prepare yourself to follow me.

Mary Jane’s Marker
Making Mary Jane’s resting place was a flat slab of gray rock that the pillar once rested on. This lack of a definitive marker, combined with the curse, made Mary Jane’s grave something akin to a land mine. It could be anywhere.
---
Most of the standing gravestones were near the entrance. Many of the markers were tall and slender pillars, and if I leaned my weight into them they wobbled. A few markers bore the image of a ripped curtain. I asked Seth what he thought it meant.
“They could be the temple curtains that tore after Christ’s death,” Seth said. “It’s kind of ironic, if you think about it.” Seth reminded me of the veil that tore in the Jerusalem Temple after Christ’s death. “God moved out of that place never again to dwell in a temple made by the hands of man.” He said, “God was through with that temple and its religious system. The temple and Jerusalem were left ‘desolate.’” He made air quotes with his fingers.
I was confused by his use of “ironic.” But then I looked at the weeds and the trees covering the tombstones, and realized that like the Jerusalem Temple God had also abandoned this place.
We walked across the small graveyard. As we ventured to the back it became wicked and overwrought. Seth’s long hair filled with leaves and tree cotton as we ducked and weaved through overgrowth to find headstones buried beneath shoulder length grass and pricker bushes. Loon Lake was thirty feet to the east. Its shore had risen since 1876 when the cemetery was established. Some of the graves are submerged. A white wooden cross sat broken across one of the headstones. Attached were yellow vinyl flowers with a sun-faded bow. This was the only decorated grave.

There was something organic in the way Loon Lake Cemetery had been abandoned by man and swallowed up by earth and water. Sunlight broke through the black maples in slender lines like fingers tapping my shoulder. Auburn leaves cluttered the ground like flakes of dead skin ready to be peeled. I stood for a moment and looked, wondering if something would move.
We searched headstones, leaning in close to make out inscriptions. Dates and names alternated in their legibility. Few headstones contained both. We found the last name Terwillegar. Mary’s father’s grave. John Terwillegar died in 1905 at the age of 101, 24 years after his daughter. I wondered if I’d stumbled into a family plot. I wandered the area,  searching the ground for the blank flat stone that marked Mary’s grave.
To the right of my foot was a gravestone, but it was slender, upright, and still held an inscription. It was covered in long grass, so I pushed it to the side.
 “Infant son of Beutel.”

The only decorated grave
There were four infant sons and daughters of different last names all within three feet of each other. Between stones was less than a foot. Small bodies. Small graves.
After finding several flat stones that could’ve been Mary Jane’s grave, Seth and I walked to the truck to check our sources. As we walked, Seth told me he didn’t believe in life after death and I wondered if that was the real reason he felt Mary Jane’s curse was a joke.
“I thought you were a religious man,” I said.
Seth nodded, “It’s complicated.”
“Try me,” I said.
 Seth was quiet for a moment. “You can’t think I’m crazy.”
I agreed.
“There’s an emphasis on resurrection in Lutheranism. As the church developed and got further and further away from Judaism, it took on more Greek thought. The emphasis became on the immortality of the soul. We became convinced that it lives on.” As he spoke, he used his hands. I got the impression that he’d thought about this for some time, but never told anyone. “The Bible is much earthier. It speaks of bodies being raised and a new creation, a new heaven and earth happening.”
My confusion must have showed on my face. Seth paused for a moment. Looked me up and down, and said, “Long story short, I think that resurrection and immortality of the soul is a metaphor. It should not be literalized.”
---
We searched through newspaper articles and website printouts. A comment under one of the web photos read, “Your photo of the grave of Mary Jane at Loon Lake Cemetery is the incorrect grave… Mary Jane's grave is in a big circle of picker bushes near the back in the center.”
In a circle of picker bushes, near the back center, we found two flat unmarked stones. One was beneath a bush and buried in slender rocks. The other was in a small open area surrounded by a patch of short grass.
We stood over the stones and discussed the curse. We asked questions: Do we need to be directly over Mary Jane’s body? Or just near it?
 “Maybe we sealed our fate by entering the cemetery,” Seth said with a short laugh.
We walked back and forth between the two graves, trying to decide on which one was Mary Jane’s.
I felt confident that the grave in the open grass was it. The trembling leaves do not whisper it, nor did the soft cool breeze. It was just something that I could feel. I couldn’t explain it. Jumping over a grave three times is silly, but gazing at that nameless marker felt like the moment before a blind plunge.
---
At twenty-one I was ordained an elder in the Mormon Church. The Mormon Priesthood came with this calling. The ordination was performed by four priesthood holders. All were men in suits. They stood around me as I sat in a chair, their hands upon my head. The Mormon priesthood gave me the power to heal the sick and afflicted by the laying on of hands, the same power Christ welded in the New Testament. The bible—especially parts about the ministry of Jesus and the early church—offers examples of this power. In Mark, a leper beseeches Jesus to make him “clean” of his disease. “Moved with pity,” Jesus touched him and willed the man to “be clean,” and “Immediately the leprosy left him.” The priesthood also gave me another power. If ever faced with a Son of Perdition, I could raise my right hand to a square and say, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to leave,” and they would have too. This was the same priesthood power used by Christ at the end of his forty-day fast to cast out Satan. When I think about these stories, it feels like I’d been given some fantastical ability that was to good to be true. I’d heard stories of exorcisms and of amazing recoveries after priesthood blessings, and I’ve performed the laying on of hands—blessing the sick and ordinations—but I’d never witnessed what I’d call a miracle. And I’d never cast out an evil spirit. 
I stood next to Mary Jane’s grave. I was surrounded by fallen tombstones, weeds, decades of neglect, and curses. I wanted to raise my hand to the square and exercise my priesthood power. But I didn’t and I am not confident why. Perhaps because Seth was there. I didn’t want to look weird. Or perhaps my faith slipped, as it sometimes does. I don’t know, but what I do know is that inside me was a yearning for Mary Jane to wander out from the bushes. And maybe that’s why I hesitated. I didn’t want to prevent her from saying hello.
Seth’s gaze was fixed on the same stone, his right palm tapping his chest, left in his pocket, face between curiosity and fear. Is he going to jump? I thought. Or was he hesitating, worried that his actions may jeopardize our growing friendship? He waited and I wondered what questions he was asking himself. What if it’s true? What if some great hand really is lurking somewhere, waiting to sweep me from this earth? Did he think that by jumping, he would be confirming that there is life after death?
We stood in silence for a while. Then Seth asked if this was really any different than any other time and any other place? “One cannot leave the house without tempting Death,” he said. He took a step forward, looked at the grave, and then took two steps back.
Supposed Marker for Mary Jane Terwillegar
We walked from the cemetery, along the grass trail, and into the parking lot, neither of us having jumped three times. We drove north, along Minnesota 60, through Jackson County, along the miles and miles of harvested corn and hay, the road taking us back to where we began. As we drove, I asked Seth why he didn’t jump. He rambled for a bit, using words like “silly” and “pointless.” Then he passed for a moment, looked out the window, and said, “What if it were true?” Seth shrugged, “It wasn’t worth the risk.”
I nodded. Then I told him about the Sons of Perdition, about my fear and curiosity. I told him of my longing to find evidence of my faith. I told him what I’d never told anyone. There was something about visiting Loon Lake Cemetery and how freely Seth told me about his own believes, that made me feel comfortable.
As I spoke, Seth looked out the passenger window and nodded. Once I was done speaking, he turned, looked at me, and said, “I get it. I completely understand.”
Then I asked him if I should take the next exit.
“Yes, Yes,” he said.
I turned quickly, cutting off an SUV.

2 comments:

Barker Marine said...

I enjoyed the story. It has everything, emotions, drama, and a bit of suspense. Thanks for writing beautiful stories.

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Barker Marine
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Clint said...

Thanks, Baker Marine!