A Requiem For Baby Lester — The Hauntings of Stepp Cemetery

What do you get when you mix a forest, UFO sightings, snake handling, a square earth, a cult, ghost-lore, orgies, exorcisms, punks, animal sacrifices, the occult, Bigfoot, resurrections, magic ceremonies, Jesus under an apple tree, and one small and very misunderstood grave? You get the recipe for one of the most haunted locations in the State of Indiana — Stepp Cemetery.

Video:

• A special thank you to everyone who assisted me in going down the rabbit hole with this one — Gene Caswell, Justin Brown, Guy Teague, Liz Newcomb, and Natalie Fiorini. And especially PARAHOLICS researcher Eunice Spector, she went deep — almost became a Crabbite priestess for the cause. I salute you all.

• A big shoutout to my friend Steve Hultay of Hultay Paranormal for selling me the incredible Reverse Speech Box!

• Thank you Britt Kinder for lending me your gorgeous vocals and giving us the creepiest lullaby ever!

• If you see or know of anyone involved in vandalism of this location, contact the Benton Township Trustee at (812) 339-6593.

Stepp Cemetery

(Also known as Stepp Precinct Cemetery)

Within Morgan-Monroe State Forest, Three Lakes Trail and Walls shelterhouse

approximately 15 miles north of Bloomington, Indiana

Historical Timeline

• One of Monroe County’s oldest pioneer cemeteries circa early 1800s.

• Jacob Adkins lived near Morgan County line in mid-1800s; log cabin homestead (cornerstones still visible) now site of Walls shelterhouse on Mason Ridge Road where cemetery located. Adkins said to have donated cemetery in early 1800s. Adkins and wife Anna, as well as relatives, buried in cemetery. (Reporter-Times, 2/14/2010)

• May have originally been owned by Reuben Stepp in 1856; sold to William Peterson in 1884. (Reporter Times, 10/31/2011) Stepp and relatives buried in cemetery.

• Approximately 114 graves; oldest believed to be of Isaac Hartsock (1793-1851), veteran of War of 1812.

• Burial place of Civil War and World War I and II veterans. (monroehistory.org)

Crabbites

▪ Location believed to have been connected briefly with Crabbite religious sect (leader William Crabb), largely undocumented/fringe Christian sect that may have used cemetery for unusual/taboo practices such as snakehandling and ritualist sexual activity – and which may have spurred cemetery legends and notoriety. (indianapublicmedia.org)

▪ Stepp said to have built church next to cemetery, which he willed to any parish needed it so long as Christian, potentially attracting the Christian subset of Crabbites. (WBIW.com)

▪ Some believe may have woken spirits or put some sinister energy over the graveyard, which is why so many hauntings occur. Reports of hearing strange chanting and howling in the night when no one found in the cemetery; believed Crabbite spirits responsible. (“Indiana’s Strange and Unusual Haunts,” Floyd)

▪ “ … nude rituals that included sacrificing small animals and gently handling snakes while participating in sexual orgies with a communion host leading the group. The Crabbites fancied unusual activities that normally took place at Stepp Cemetery that included talking in tongues, drinking and dancing, while feasting on sacrificed animals and then ending the gruesome ritual with promiscuous and wild, pleasure seeking indulgences to insure the highest form of euphoria known to man. This type of behavior is believed by some to have summoned dark entities to the area that are still hanging around today.” (“Haunted America & Other Paranormal Travels,” Granato)

▪ “They go out to a small clearing in the woods and hold their services in their temples of the True God.” Water holes baptistries. (Indianapolis News, 5/23/1908)

▪ Beliefs included square earth, Christ born under apple tree and ability to resurrect dead.

• Five found guilty of riot after interfering with burial of woman at Gose Creek Cemetery: “Imbued with the belief that they are possessed of power by which they can raise the dead, fifty (Crabbites) succeeded for a time in preventing the burial of Mrs. George Hatley, who at one time had been baptized in the faith.” Deceased’s father struck at one … “They, however, do not believe they can be hurt in that manner, asserting that their faith will protect them from all harm from blows”; also claimed to know through revelation guilt of another member of the funeral party, claiming he was guilty of destroying their church with dynamite months earlier. (Reporter Times, 5/15/1908; Buffalo Enquirer, 5/16/1908)

▪ ”Yell In Unknown Tongue in Court”: During trial, Crabbite witness on stand when another Crabbite began to give blood-curdling yells … “Men, women and children rushed to the courthouse.” Judge ordered sheriff to clear room and next person who attempted religious yell would be sent to jail. (The Republic, 9/9/1908)

• Weeks later group again arrested after altercation at funeral in Stepp Cemetery when began speaking in tongues and surrounding deceased’s sister, who did not believe in their doctrine. Nephew of deceased one of jailed in earlier incident, allowed by judge to attend funeral. (Reporter Times, 9/24/1908)

▪ Crabbite followers said to number about 600 in Brown and Morgan counties. (Bedford Daily Mail, 2/5/1912)

Snakes

▪ Assert it is only church in Bible and that the Bible says believers shall handle snakes. Two men named Kent and Rush from a distance inaugurated strange belief in the community but not long before one of converts William Crabb became leader with his people. (Star Press, 6/22/1907)

▪ Crabb said to have carried with him water moccasins, black snakes, and occasionally rattlesnakes, demonstrating that the man with sufficient faith in the Almighty immune from even bites of venomous reptiles. (Indianapolis News, 5/23/1908)

▪ “They claim should a snake bite any of their members the reptile will die, and that the patient will suffer no pain or ill results.” (Bedford Weekly, 8/23/1907)

• Will not poison person if firm believer and if person and members of the flock pray hard enough, anoint with oil.

• “Cody Baker was bitten by rattlesnake … Miss Grace Adkins was bitten by a rattlesnake, and Miss Ella Goss was bitten by a copperhead. Baker handled the snake for several minutes after being bitten. It was seen shortly afterward lying dead in Baker’s dooryard and when someone asked who killed it, the reply was: ‘The Lord did.’” No marks or bruises to indicate how died. (Star Press, 6/22/1907)

▪ (Snake legends widespread in Indiana; commonly feature whip snakes, hoop snakes and milk snakes, as well as strange, often sympathetic relationship, between a snake and a child. (“Hoosier Folk Legends,” Baker))

▪ After stint in area, short-lived sect believed to have relocated briefly to Brown County.

▪ Crabbites or “Church of the First Born of Brown County,’’ holding forth in vicinity of Nashville and parts of Morgan County … their leader has been preaching from a stump in the open woods … asserts he can handle snakes without danger to himself … a feature of the congregational meeting is the ‘holy kiss,’ in which the brothers and sisters have become apt pupils and give freely. (Star Press, 9/1/1907)

▪ Plan to convince skeptics announced with Crabbite allowing full-grown rattlesnake to bite him and then demonstrate how prayer would save and heal wound. Several demonstrations had previously been held with one or two members of congregation having been bit, but skeptics declared the poison fangs had been removed. Paid boy $20 after he returned with 6-foot rattlesnake for demonstration; kept in nonbeliever’s house to prevent tampering. Plan for member of congregation to be selected to remove lid from box and which time snake expected to strike. If it did not, would be “worried with a stick until it does. Then as soon as poison injected into believer’s arm or hand the prayers will begin.” (Indianapolis News, 5/7/1908)

• Demonstration did not occur, Crabbites saying had not been planned. (Star Press, 5/12/1908)

• Area around cemetery known as “Precinct” with “unsavory” reputation; ridge trail follows south of cemetery known as “Precinct Ridge.”  (Reporter-Times, 4/11/1998)

• Remote location became even more so after cemetery became part of Morgan-Monroe State Forest in 1929; maintained by Benton Township.

• Cemetery has fallen victim to destruction and vandalism, strewn with debris; approximately 30 headstones said to remain; many vandalized or removed. Wax from candles burning down on gravestones. Rumors of cult activity.

▪ “A vandal with a grisly sense of humor dumped a tombstone in the front yard. The stone bears the name of Thomas Stepp, who died in 1869.” (Reporter-Times, 8/31/1974)

▪ Conservation officer saw no traces of cult meetings, saying evidence of campfires but not of human or animal sacrifices. (The Reporter-Times, 1/11/1982)

▪ Under purview of Indiana Pioneer Cemeteries Restoration Project, a grassroots effort to identify and preserve neglected historic sites.

Popular legends, variations

• Much of lore’s origins said to date to 1950s-1970s. In 1972 article “The Legend of Stepp Cemetery,” (Clements and Lightfoot), 27 legend variants cited: generally involve elements of woman (as living, disfigured, witch or ghost) dressed in black visiting grave of husband, daughter, infant or combination; woman seated on stump near entrance; stump curse (below); deaths and mutilations, frequently of German shepherd dog, cited as proof of stump’s potency.

▪ Variant of woman losing husband and daughter in accidents; each night traveling to cemetery to sit on specific stump by daughter’s grave. (Reporter-Times, 5/15/2005)

▪ Variant of young couple racing along winding roads and killed in accident; girl decapitated and head never found – now woman dressed in black seen wearing girl’s head around neck as a warning to travelers. (Reporter-Times, 10/28/2007)

▪ Variant of Lady in Black as girl’s mother, gone insane and dying in mental institution, and sitting on old stump chair where she had sat when alive, talking to graves of daughter and husband, who had died in quarry accident.

• Variant of Lady in Black ghost sitting on old stone bench chiseled to look like hollowed log.

• Variant of old woman insisting couple’s deaths be kept quiet; unknown until her own death; old woman sits on tombstone, which is actually petrified tree hollowed into bench.

▪ Variant of woman whose daughter and husband had died killed in crash with a new boyfriend; buried at cemetery and sits on tree stump (below).

▪ Variant of woman’s husband killed working construction and she guards his grave even after her own death. (Reporter-Times, 10/28/2007)

▪ Two teenagers arrested for hanging dog in cemetery; denied and blamed on “The Black Lady.” (Vincennes Sun-Commercial, 10/31/1985)

• Most well-known legend involves variation of ghostly woman in black who has roamed cemetery for decades, sometimes exhuming her child from grave to hold him.

▪ Variant in 1960s involves distraught mother having gone insane at child’s death, exhuming and reburying him every night. Grave said to have never settled and grass not growing until 10 years after infant’s death; detail added of lightning striking large tree next to grave, forming natural chair/stump (below) where mother/“Lady in Black” would rock him.

▪ Variant of wife of local doctor died in crash in 1936; her infant died and was buried at Stepp Cemetery. Woman or “Lady in Black” went insane and spent her time at infant’s grave.

▪ Some claimed it was the ghost of a local woman who’d lost her infant son 20 years earlier. Other stories of spirit called Anna, who would weave among the headstones mourning the accidental deaths of her husband and teenage daughter.

▪ “In 1967, droves of young people would congregate in the cemetery to await her (‘Lady in Black’s’) arrival.” (Daily Journal, 10/29/1975)

▪ Conservation officer said a woman had identified herself to him as the “mystery lady” reported to have a child buried in the cemetery whom she visited nightly; admitted having child buried there but denied returning to grave at night to mourn; said received numerous harassing phone calls. (Reporter-Times, 1/11/1982)

▪ Other variations include father having killed child and mother killing father; or woman joined by large dog or two white wolves on her nightly vigils. (Reporter-Times, 4/11/1998)

▪ Tree stump near a baby’s grave (below) become known where “woman in black” sat to hold her child – story eventually evolved into “Warlock/’s Chair” (now gone; original said to have been burned down in 1974), further expanding to include curses of delayed death.

▪ Tree said to have been carved into chair when Civilian Conservation Corps was tasked with the upkeep of the cemetery after state forest established.

▪ Person who sits on stump usually at certain hour said to meet death or misfortune.

▪ Variant woman had tree carved into chair so she could watch over child and put curse on anyone who sat there to die within year. (Reporter Times, 5/31/2003)

▪ Variant of Lady in Black committing suicide on stump over grief at infant’s death

▪ Variant of old cemetery caretaker who used to sit on stump after rounds killed when log flew off logging truck and crushing him on stump, which he haunted.

• Legend of two brothers who dueled to the death in the graveyard for their inheritance.

▪ Variant of disagreement/duel over ownership of land, leading to death of one of Reuben Stepp’s children

• Exorcism site

Baby Lester grave

▪ At far end of cemetery grave marker “Baby Lester 1937,” which visitors continue to adorn with gifts.

▪ Grave of Paul Lester, child of O’Leatha (Alicia/Clethia) Pryor Lester (Walls) and Harley Lester, who passed after only a few breaths. O’Leatha, the mother of the stillborn child, married James Walls after the death of the baby’s father. (findagrave)

• “The infant, stillborn this morning to Mr. and Mrs. Harley Lester, was buried this afternoon in the Steppe (sic) cemetery.” (Reporter-Times, 7/6/1937)

▪ Family said baby’s grave continually vandalized and marker replaced twice. Once headstone completely removed and was found broken in Bloomington; later cemented down. Relatives said mother upset by urban legend. (Reporter-Times, 7/29/2006)

▪ Starting in 1950s, visitors said to have reported sightings of a lady shrouded in black, hovering on a chair-like tree stump above a stone simply marked “Baby Lester.”

▪ Variant “Baby Lester” died after hit by car/accident, which relatives refuted. 

▪ Variant of Baby Lester’s glowing/black dog appearing to protect the grave.

Morgan-Monroe State Forest

Forest land comprised of more than 24,000 acres and 25 miles of trails in Morgan and Monroe counties in southcentral Indiana, encompassing many steep ridges and valleys. Land occupied by Native Americans for thousands of years prior to Euro-American settlement in 1800s. Described as “particular hotspot” for the unexplained and paranormal.

• Stepp Cemetery hauntings

• Lore of odd circular pools behind cemetery

• BigFoot (Sasquatch) sightings

▪ Most of state’s reported Sasquatch sightings said to happen in this forest. (wildindiana.com)

▪ Indiana Bigfoot Research Organization believes activity in Morgan and surrounding counties.

▪ Featured in “Finding Bigfoot” television series in 2012.

▪ Brown County family spotted “stalking figure” in forest and experienced “peculiar nightly activity” in 2012; 14-inch-long footprint found year later. (Brown County Democrat, 1/6/2016)

▪ Indiana Bigfoot Reports site received eight reports of creature resembling Big Foot-like creature in forest in 2015. Hunter described loudest howl he’d ever heard, attributing to something akin to Big Foot. (Brown County Democrat, 1/6/2016; Southside Times, 7/4/2019)

▪ Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization posted 78 Bigfoot sightings in Indiana since first in 1973. Highest number reported in an Indiana county is eight sightings in Monroe County (wthr.com). Among Monroe/Morgan reports:

▪ Possible nighttime encounter by a couple camping near Martinsville.

▪ Duck hunters reported hearing loud vocalizations in 2009.

▪ Man recalls his observation of a creature crossing a road while hunting in Morgan-Monroe State Forest in 1988.

• Draper/’s Cabin, primitive log cabin found on property when state purchased forest; available for rental, but many campers said to leave early because of odd shapes and sounds, phantom footfalls and sense of ill ease.

• UFO sightings (Southside Times, 7/4/2019)

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