Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
“But Jesus said, Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.”
After a job-related relocation to Indianapolis, my family and I were given an allowance to rent a home in the city in order to give us some time to look for our “forever home.” That rental – a hundred-year-old house that was considered historic, and couldn’t be gentrified – was charming in its own way, but it gave us a pretty good idea of what we did NOT want. It had some… er, quirks, but we got used to them. Ah, but that’s another story for another time.
To sum it up, though, that rented house was cold, damp, and dark throughout. It got to be pretty depressing at times.
Indianapolis is like a gemstone in the middle of Indiana; albeit one whose clarity, cut and color would never pass a jeweler’s quality control measures. What I mean is that it’s a bright, glaring, concrete and glass island in the middle of what some consider “flyover country.” Pretty much all farmland. Indy doesn’t have much to offer in the way of suburbs. Its central business district is surrounded by a pretty ugly industrial zone littered with slums and trailer parks which gives way almost immediately to open fields.
Having lived in big cities all of our lives, my wife and I were ready for a change. Plus, we wanted somewhere safe and with lots of space where our kids could grow up. We wanted them to have a swing set, a place to ride their bikes – not crowded sidewalks and busy streets right outside the door. We weren’t having much luck, though.
Then we struck gold. We found a plot of land about twenty miles outside of downtown – agricultural land that had been rezoned for residential – that was smack dab in the middle of wide open fields, with a nice stand of trees at the rear of the property as a bonus. The nearest neighbor was a horse farm about a half mile down the road. It was a place that we could build our dream home, so we put down the money, found an architect and contractor, and commenced construction.
The first snag during construction would become an omen of what was to come, but at the time we thought it was just an inconvenience. Being an engineer myself, I was keeping a close eye on construction. I paid daily visits to the site and planned to watch everything from the groundbreaking until the final tack installed in the carpeting. The contractor had broken ground and was beginning excavation for the basement and footings. They were making good time until one fateful day. I showed up at the site after work to find that the contractor’s men had left, the equipment was gone, and there was a large (and obviously ancient) metal tank sitting on the ground at the edge of the hole. Uh oh.
I immediately called the foreman and he told me that, while digging, they had broken through a brick cistern about fifteen feet under the grade. He almost lost a piece of equipment down the thirty-foot-deep hole underneath. They had found the metal tank near the well and pulled it out. It would have to be inspected by the EPA to test for environmental hazards, and that would set them back about a week. He was more concerned, however, about how he was going to work around the deep hole. Filling it in with soil would cause settling problems later, and he certainly couldn’t fill it in with concrete. It would have raised the construction cost by tens of thousands of dollars.
When I told my friends about the obstacle my contractor had stumbled upon, almost all of them joked. “What’s next? An ancient Indian burial ground.” I laughed. I had a sense of humor about it back then.
After the EPA cleared us, the contractor proceeded with construction. He had come up with a plan to cast a reinforced concrete beam across the top of the old cistern and cast the house’s footing across it. So I got the bonus of having the north wall of my home supported by a very deep footing. Not a bad deal but even after moving in and living there for years, the thought of that big, dark, empty space lying beneath my basement floor sort of gave me the willies. There were no other hitches throughout the rest of the home’s construction, save for the usual deviations from plans and wrong materials being delivered. No more big surprises, although they did pull up the occasional interesting brick or antique tool when doing earthwork around the yard.
When complete, our new forever home was the complete antithesis of the rental we were moving out of. The floor plan was open and airy, with plenty of light streaming in from windows in every wall. A particular favorite spot for the whole family was a large all-glass sunroom at the back of the home. It was a beloved place to curl up on the couch and read during the winter, or sit and watch the children play during the summer. During the fall, we had a beautiful view of the woods and the changing colors of the leaves. It was perfect. For a while, anyway.
It was a few weeks after building a huge swing set/playhouse for our two boys that I first noticed the four children playing in our back yard. Two boys and two girls. The oldest of the girls seemed to be in her early teens, and the youngest – her brother, I assumed – perhaps five or so. The age of my youngest son. The boys were outfitted in coveralls and the girls were dressed in simple shifts. Their clothes reminded me of the Amish, and since the nearest neighbor was the horse farm, I naturally assumed that the children belonged to the couple owning the place. Odd. We had met them briefly when moving into the new house, and they never mentioned having kids. Some people are funny that way, though.
I was happy to see the children. I had been thinking that my own kids were not going to have anyone to play with. No friends. And here were four children who obviously lived quite close. I opened the back door and stepped out onto the deck.
“Hey there, guys!” I no sooner got out the words, then the kids reacted. They looked up at me, seemingly startled, then took off running. “Wait! It’s okay. You’re welcome to…” I trailed off. I hoped that I didn’t scare them. I found myself wishing that they would come back. Perhaps I would take a walk down to their parents’ farm when I had the time and let them know that the children were allowed to play in our yard; that we didn’t mind.
After a couple of days, I realized that it had slipped my mind, but it didn’t matter because the children were back. Playing on the swing set again. I figured that I should approach them more carefully this time. I put together a tray with a pitcher of Kool-Aid and some cookies – an international sign of goodwill among kids – and started out the back door once again.
“Anyone up for some cookies?” I called out. It didn’t work, though. They caught a glimpse of me and took off through the trees again. Dang! I felt really bad for scaring them. I really needed to get over to that farm and talk to them. Once again, though, I got busy with other things and the task went on the back burner.
I came up with a plan. Sure enough, the kids came back. This time, though, instead of going outside myself, I sent my own two boys (then five and seven) out as ambassadors. My strategy worked! The children were a bit wary at first, but soon warmed up to my boys. After a while, I called the boys in and sent some drinks and snacks out with them. Once I had seen that all of the kids had taken something, I went outside. This time, the children didn’t run away.
The older girl spoke up. “Please forgive us, sir. We did not mean to play here without your permission.”
“Nonsense,” I replied, “You all can come over whenever you feel like it, whether my boys are out or not. We’re neighbors.”
I received a chorus of thank-you’s from the children. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. Once again, I’m happy that you kids are around. I’m sure that my boys will enjoy your company.”
My boys did enjoy their company. Over the following weeks, they had all become the best of friends. My boys began asking if they could go to the children’s farm to play, and I hesitated at first because of their ages, but soon relented. The children seemed so nice and polite, after all. And the oldest girl was what my wife and I thought of as “babysitting age,” so I figured that they were safe with her.
One day, my boys arrived home with dirty clothes – dirtier than usual – and I asked them what they had been up to. “Nuthin’” was the usual reply, but this time my older son, by then eight years old, seemed really excited.
“We were checking out the cemetery, Dad!”
Boy. That came as a shock to me. It was my impression that there was nothing around us. “What cemetery?”
“The one in the woods,” said my boy, “The other kids showed us.”
Well, this I had to see for myself. I had been a kid once, too, though I barely remembered it. I did recall making up places. An old boathouse became a fort for my younger self; a fishing pond seemed like an ocean. The kids had probably found some interesting looking rocks and imagined that they were tombstones. Still, I asked if they could show me. My younger son was tired, and went directly upstairs to take a bath, but my older one – still full of energy – was eager to go.
“It’s getting dark, Dad. We’d better get there while we can still see.”
He led me off into the woods at the back of our property. Needless to say that I was shocked by what I saw.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” I mumbled to myself.
There was a farm back there in the woods. A small one, yes, but a farm nonetheless. It was in decrepit condition and no longer inhabited. No house left, but there was a small barn, half falling down; a corral that looked like it once held sheep or goats; and a large, low structure – another barn – but perhaps for the small animals or chickens. There was an old truck back there. Not a “truck” like you’d normally picture, but a panel truck on wagon wheels. The type that would have been drawn by a horse.
And right there in the center of it… a cemetery. “I’ll be damned,” I repeated. There were five tombstones visible: two large ones and three smaller ones, the smallest measuring about one-foot square. In the center of these, and toppled over by a tree that had grown practically around it, was a large, prism-shaped monument with a roughly chiseled sphere on top that had some names chiseled in it. “Baden” was in the largest letters. Probably the family name. Still in a state of surprise, I quickly looked over the smaller stones. They were dated from the early 1900s, and doing some quick math I deduced that the inhabitants of the graves ranged in age from less than a year old to thirty-eight.
I don’t know how I had never see it before. I had hiked a short way into the woods before, but somehow missed this farm. Granted, the barn (the tallest structure) was weathered and its planks had turned gray to match the surrounding cedars, but still… it only sat about twenty-five yards from the edge of the woods. Once I knew it was there, it became obvious. I looked out at it from my bedroom window every morning. This definitely deserved looking into.
I dug into everything I could find on the internet and at the local library. It seemed that these “pioneer cemeteries” dotted central Indiana. A quick search turned up at least three more within a couple of miles from my house. The Baden cemetery – MY cemetery – however, was not listed among them.
The long and short of it was this. During the late 19th century, pioneers were crossing the Midwest on their way to America’s west coast. Many of them found sufficient places along the way and decided to settle in those spots. They would build their tiny homesteads and usually live out their lives there. Many of the older families still remain. The reason for the concentration of these homesteads (and cemeteries) around our area was the proximity to what would become Route 40, one of the first major travel ways across the United States.
Unfortunately for many of the budding families, the great Influenza epidemic of 1918 struck. Dense populations fell quickly because of communal wells and sanitary facilities. Even the outlying farms fell victim because of shared groundwater or a family member that picked up the bug on a visit to town. Most of these smaller homesteads fell into disrepair and their farms and deceased were absorbed back into the wilderness. As the old family cemeteries were discovered, they were usually cleaned up out of respect for the dead, and there were vast movements and societies dedicated to restoring the tombstones and their gravesites, as well as compiling records of those who were buried there.
On one of my almost-daily visits to the cemetery I verified that the residents had indeed all died in or about 1918 – victims of the flu, sure enough.
Once all of my sources of information were exhausted, I contacted the local historical society. I told the representative about the cemetery, and expressed my interest in helping to clean it up and get it recorded in the historical register. They were excited and sent someone out, literally within hours, to take a look. Her name was Jodi, I believe.
Jodi and I walked out into the woods. She asked all types of questions and told me a little about the history of the area, most of which I had already discovered on my own. She did point out a couple of interesting things, though. She had brought a long piece of rebar and began walking around poking it into the ground.
“Yep, just as I suspected,” she said. “There are more.”
“Yes, more. More graves.” She explained that – because the grave markers were small and not supported on concrete pads, as they typically are now – they tended to sink into the ground. She estimated that there may have been up to twenty-five people buried out there.
The other tidbit she let me in on was a little disconcerting. “If you find any bones, let me know immediately.”
What? Bones? She went on to explain that, although most of the wooden coffins tended to rot away over time, foxes would sometimes pull up metal hinges, jewelry, bits of clothing, and even bones. After everything that I had been through in my life, I was not squeamish. Still, this revelation sat ill with me.
Throughout all of this, the thought of the neighbor’s children had taken a back burner. They were the ones who were really responsible for the discovery. Perhaps they knew more. I would definitely need to talk with them. I told Jodi about them and she expressed an interest in meeting them also. While she had me on the phone, she asked if she could email some documents that she had found regarding “my neighbors,” as she had taken to calling them – the family who were most likely occupying the graves out there behind me. I remember joking that they were the perfect neighbors: always quiet and never asking to borrow my lawn mower.
While the Baden family were the final owners of the farm, Jodi found out that they had married into the family of the original owners: The Bucksath (pronounced Buckshot) family. Turned out that the Bucksath boys were grave-robbers by trade. The not-so-nice kind, who opened recently filled graves to steal jewelry and valuables. They had gotten into trouble for it a number of times. Ironic, since we would most likely now be digging up some of their graves. Only we wouldn’t be stealing anything, just restoring and preserving them for history and out of respect.
The neighbor kids hadn’t been around in a while, so Jodi never got the chance to talk to them. After a bit of research on her part, she found an heir to the sliver of property (one who didn’t even realize that his family had owned land in the area) and they had made arrangements for him to begin clearing the area with the assistance of volunteers from the local pioneer cemetery restoration society. They did find quite a number of bones at the back of the farm, but determined that was the location where the farmers had slaughtered hogs and dumped their carcasses. The workers had not come across any human remains yet.
My interest in the project did not wane. In fact, it intensified. I began visiting other cemeteries and museums. The Indiana State Museum had a large exhibit dedicated to relics of the early twentieth century, with a section devoted to burial practices, which were a fact of life. A big part of life, given the harsh conditions that the early settlers had to face.
That’s when it started to become creepy for me. I was fascinated by some of the vestiges of the time that the museum curators had on display: fancy burial clothes, photos of the dead in their coffins (a common practice, apparently), ringlets woven of hair from the deceased as remembrances, and – most disconcerting – small caskets. Child-size coffins. That really hit home. Being a father of two young boys, I was disturbed by the thought of a parent having to bury their fledgling child. Then I saw IT. The thing that would haunt my dreams. A child-sized casket with a window set into it. A window that would display the child’s face and upper body. There were photos of such coffins with their occupants displayed next to it. All that went through my mind was “Why the hell would someone ever do that? That is so freaking disturbing!” People back in the old days were certainly a different breed. I left the museum immediately and literally could not even eat the rest of the day.
From that point on, I lost interest in the work going on in the woods behind my house. Honestly, I didn’t lose interest, so much as avoided it. I dreaded the thought of the workers unearthing one of the small caskets – caskets that were undoubtedly out there, given the ages showed on the grave markers. Worse still, what if one of them had that glass pane in it. I couldn’t handle seeing that. No way.
I did my best to forget about the whole mess. After avoiding a few of Jodi’s calls, she must have finally gotten the message and stopped bothering me. I warned my boys not to go near the cemetery, even if the neighbor kids urged them to play out there. Not wanting to scare them, I explained it away with the excuse that the barn was old and dangerous – ready to collapse at any moment – and that the volunteers working out there did not want to be disturbed.
Ironically, the big discovery came on Halloween day, 2012. Jodi thought that it was a big enough event that she skipped calling and just came knocking at my door. They had begun working near the graves, raising sunken markers, and had inadvertently pulled up an entire child’s casket. One of those sort with the glass window. The glass had been shattered, of course, but Jodi said that the remains were in remarkable condition. She asked if I wanted to come out and take a look. I told her that I was simply not interested anymore and slammed the door before she had another chance to speak. I warned the boys again that they were not to play in the woods, especially after the discovery. My worry was doubled because of the holiday. As I said, it was Halloween. What better way for kids to celebrate than by visiting a spooky graveyard and telling ghost stories?
The afternoon faded, dusk came, and darkness soon followed. Even moonlight could not filter through the overcast night sky. Around nine o’clock, I heard banging on the back door. Trick-or-treaters? Not in our neighborhood. It was too far out of the way, not enough houses, didn’t make “economic sense” for true candy-hunting aficionados. I went to the door and looked out. It was the neighbor kids – only three of them. They seemed to have left the youngest boy at home. Relieved, I opened the door and apologized.
“Sorry kids, I didn’t think that we’d be getting trick-or-treaters tonight. Guess I didn’t plan ahead,” I chuckled. “But I’ll catch you next time, ‘kay?”
One by one, their faces changed to outrage – pure hatred – and the politeness they had always exhibited disappeared entirely. “Blast you, you cussed old boat-licker,” said the older of the two brothers. “Fuck off, you Nancy boy prick,” said the younger girl. Explicitly appalling given her age.
The oldest girl finally said “Let’s leave this blue-nosed twat to the devil!” and the children ran off into the woods.
Damn it all. What the hell had gotten into them. Just because I didn’t have candy? I was so angry that I paced for half an hour. My boys, still awake, had come down to see what was going on.
“You’re NEVER playing with those damn kids again!” I threatened. But in reality, I thought “at least not until I get an apology and an explanation.”
I gave my boys a lecture on politeness, and sent them off to bed. I sat down in my favorite chair and flicked on the television. Due to the complete blackness outside, I didn’t see them approach the house, but I was startled when all three children slammed their hands against the great windows along the back of the house. Sticking their tongues out at me, they chanted in unison.
“Tell me you been gone all day, that you may make whoopee all night;
I’m gonna take my razor and cut your late hours;
You wouldn’t think I’d be servin’ you right.
I said, Undertaker been here and gone, I gave him your height and size;
You be makin’ whoopee with the Devil in Hell tomorrow night.”
Then they ran off. It wasn’t long before they returned, banging on the windows all together. Scared the crap out of me. Again, they were chanting, this time a more detailed and descriptive song:
“We’m gonna cut your head four different ways;
A, B, C, D, that’s long, short, deep and wide.
I’m gonna cut E, F, G right across your face;
H, I, J, K, that’s where runnin’ bound to take place;
Cut L, M, N cross both your arms;
You’ll sell an’ peddle gal your whole life long.”
And so on. You get the gist. At least these kids knew their alphabet. This continued most of the night – long after normal kids should be asleep in their beds. I would definitely be visiting their parents the next day. First thing in the morning.
We were already in bed when I heard the glass break. One of them had thrown a rock at a window downstairs and it had shattered the pane. I ran down the steps and threw open the back door.
“A man of words and not of deeds
Is like a garden full of weeds
And when the weeds begin to grow
It’s like a garden full of snow
And when the snow begins to fall
It’s like a bird upon the wall
And when the bird away does fly
It’s like an eagle in the sky
And when the sky begins to roar
It’s like a lion at the door
And when the door begins to crack
It’s like a stick across your back
And when your back begins to smart
It’s like a penknife in your heart
And when your heart begins to bleed
YOU’RE DEAD, YOU’RE DEAD, YOU’RE DEAD INDEED.”
Again, they ran off. I decided that I wasn’t going to play around anymore. I knew that they were only children, but I grabbed a baseball bat from a bin in my garage and took up a post on the steps of my deck in the back yard. “Let’s just see them come back again,” I thought.
The next time, it was only the teenage girl who came out of the woods. She approached me cautiously, her head lowered, not looking me in the eyes.
“We’re sorry, sir,” she said softly. “We’re just so angry. They took our brother.”
“What?” I wrinkled my brow. “Who took your brother? Why?”
“The bad people. They came to our farm and took our brother away.”
An anxious feeling began creeping into me. I felt a shiver up my spine. “Where are your parents?”
“Dead, sir,” she replied matter-of-factly.
“Hold on!” Now I was in an outright panic. Was this a prank? What if it wasn’t? Not to be made a fool of, I wasn’t about to call the police just yet. I told the girl to wait at the house while I jumped into my car and sped down the road to the neighbors’ farm. The lights were on in the house, and I could see someone moving inside, so I approached the front door. After I felt sure that it was safe, I screwed up my courage and knocked. The owner of the farm answered.
“Oh, thank God you’re okay,” I breathed a sigh of relief. Then my anger returned ten-fold. “Do you know what your damn kids have been up to?”
He looked at me as if I was a lunatic. “What are you going on about? We don’t have any kids.”
Credit: Kenneth Kohl