The Murder of Rebecca Houlden
An Illinois Homicide & The Ghosts it Left Behind by John Winterbauer

 

Over the years I've collected countless ghost stories from all over central Illinois. In every case I make an effort to tie the ghostly events to an event or events in the past. This story, I believe, may have some bearing on the ghostly encounters reported in one particular little graveyard. If I'm mistaken then we are left are left to scratch our heads in wonder. The ghosts come later, for now I'd like to tell you about a murder…

The headline in the Athens Cyclone screamed…

JUSTICE AVENGED!

CHARLES HOULDEN, WHO MURDERED HIS HELPLESS WIFE IN COLD BLOOD ON THE 22ND DAY OF MARCH, 1884 TENDERED A ROPE BY 12 Good and Lawful Men and True, After a Fair and Impartial Trial

On the 22nd of March, 1884 Charles Houlden, a resident of rural Menard County, intimated to a neighbor that had he killed his wife, Rebecca, long ago, "he would have been better satisfied and that something startling would occur in that vicinity, some day."

That evening something startling indeed occurred on the Houlden farm. It is an event that remains unparalleled in its cruelty and consequences in the history of Menard County.

Charles Houlden was born in England in 1836 and migrated to America with his sister in youth. He eventually settled in the Rock Creek precinct of Menard where he adopted the life of a farmer. He was described as, "an ordinary average Englishman and a widower" in the Athens Cyclone of 1885. A man of rather heavy build, 5'7", and 140 pounds; His sharp chin and nose gave him Romanesque features. His sunken, gray eyes were framed by "iron gray hair, whiskers and mustache."

Rebecca Hines was a neighbor of Houlden. Not long before her third husband, Samuel Hines, had died; leaving the widow with three children and an 80 acre farm to tend to by herself. Houlden, seeking the land more than the companionship of a wife, began a courtship of Rebecca, which led to their marriage not long after.

The couple began to argue almost immediately. They fought; it seems, over control of the farm. Their home, the newspaper noted, quickly became a place of, "disputes, quarrels and bickerings." The fights were violent and often came to blows. The Houldens quickly became the source of much gossip in the neighborhood. Eventually, it was said, Charles had agreed to buy Rebecca out and give her a divorce.

A murder trial was being held in nearby Petersburg about this time. It was a distraction to many who attended the trial as a form of entertainment. On March 22 Charles Houlden spent the day at the courthouse, leaving as the trial went to the jury.

Later that evening a Houlden neighbor, Joseph Sutton, met Charles on a lane near his farm. Sutton had stayed at the courthouse to the reading of the jury and Houlden enquired as to the outcome, "Not guilty," said Sutton.

"Anybody can come clear if they have the money," was Houlden's reply. Sutton continued home and Houlden went inside for supper with his wife, her daughter and her thirteen-year-old son, Oscar.

During the meal Rebecca noticed something odd about the way her husband was looking at her, "Charley, what are you looking at me for?" she asked.

Without a word Houlden pushed away from the table and went to the door where, just outside, he had earlier placed an axe. In a frenzied rush, he lunged at his terrified wife who only had time to scream before the axe descended toward her head. The quick-thinking boy, Oscar, threw himself at his step-father and managed to hit his arm, deflecting the killing blow to his mother. Rebecca received a glancing blow that immediately left a bruise. The daughter, meanwhile, ran from the cabin for help.

By now, the crazed Charles was blinded with rage and again raised the axe. Oscar again managed to grab Houlden's arm but not before the weapon made contact just above Rebecca's left eye, leaving an ugly gash. Oscar grabbed the axe and tossed it out the door into the night.

Houlden jumped astride his fallen wife, crushing her to the floor with his full weight. As she begged for mercy for herself and her children, Houlden drew a dull knife from his pocket and began systematically sawing away at his wife's throat.

Blood sprayed across his arms and chest, seeming to spur Houlden to more savagery. As his mother lay dying at the hands of her husband, young Oscar struggled with the killer in an attempt to wrest the knife from his bloody hands.

Finally, Charles began savagely waving the knife at the unarmed boy, who had no choice but to back away to spare his own life. Houlden stood and, believing his wife dead, began to leave the scene but then he noticed Rebecca rise to her hands and knees and begin crawling toward her son. Though badly wounded, the woman was still alive!

Houlden howled in fury and, again, jumped on the woman. Seizing her hair tightly in one hand, he wretched her head back, exposing her already brutalized neck and renewed his efforts.

Soon his grisly task was accomplished and he fled into the darkness beyond the cabin. Rebecca, "fell with her head hanging over the front doorstep a bleeding corpse." A short time later the daughter returned with an older brother and found young Oscar in a state of shock, sitting beside the lifeless form of their mother.

Arrested shortly after the killing, Charles Houlden was locked in the Menard County jail in Petersburg and charged with the murder of his wife. He was held there until his trial commenced in March of the next year.

Edward Lansing and N.W. Branson acted for his defense, while an imposing team of lawyers represented the People. The defense attorneys entered a plea of insanity and the trial began.

After both sides rested, the case went to the jury on March 11. It was late in the day, nearly 5:00 p.m., but it took only 15 minutes for them reach a verdict of guilty of willful, deliberate murder. Two hours later, they reached a unanimous decision that Charles Houlden was to "be hanged by the neck until he is dead."

The execution was set for May 15, 1885 and Charles Houlden was returned to the jail to await his date with death. He was to be Menard County's first, and as it turned out, last, public execution.

THE CRACK OF DOOM
In the Prime of Life and Excellent Health, Dropped into the Arms of the Grim Monster, May 15, at the End of a Rope

Early on Friday May 15, 1885 people began pouring into the little hamlet of Petersburg; reminding one citizen of a circus day. A crowd, estimated at over 1,000, soon gathered in the yard of the county jail where, inside, Charles Houlden waited to meet his maker.

The hanging was scheduled to occur inside the jail, out of sight from the masses. When exactly Houlden would die had been kept a secret from everyone except for the people "lucky" enough to have tickets to enter the jail to witness the event. At 11:30 a.m., they arrived and were ushered into a small room adjoining the jail to await the summons of Sheriff Michael T. Hargrave.

Houlden had been allowed to select the hour of his death. It was to occur at 12:10 p.m. and shortly before that, Sheriff Hargrave entered the condemned man's cell and read the death warrant. Houlden, dressed in a new black suit, black slippers and new white shirt, listened silently.

The sheriff then led Houlden from his cell into a hallway at the south end of the jail. There a scaffold, an upright on each side running floor to ceiling with a simple cross piece sitting astride, had been erected. A six by six platform with a trapdoor was reached by a short staircase, the walls of the hallway enclosed the device on three sides; reminding one witness of a speaker’s platform at a picnic.

Hargrave tied his prisoner's hand behind his back and ushered him up the stairs to the platform where a chair had been placed for Houlden. From this vantage point he could clearly see the dirty rope that hung from the upright and would soon end his life.

Several visiting sheriffs joined Houlden on the platform and sat slightly behind him on a bench provided for their comfort. Hargrave asked Houlden if he had any last words. "No," the prisoner replied.

With that ,the noose was slipped around Charles Houlden's neck. He appeared emotionless as a black sack was then placed over his head to mask the agony of his death from the witnesses.

Sheriff Hargrave sat on the bench behind Houlden as the condemned was placed upon the center of the trapdoor. In Hargrave's hand was the rope that ran to the trigger of the apparatus. The pins that had locked the trap in place were removed and seconds passed…

There was no sound in the tightly packed hallway. Finally, Hargrave pulled the rope and the trapdoor dropped and with it, Charles Houlden. A dramatic newspaper article described him as "dropping with a dull, blood stirring thud, his neck was broken. Aside from drawing his legs up and straighten them down again, there was no further movements of his limbs, or body.

"In the prime of life and in vigorous health, Houlden stoically stood between two worlds [and if consciousness is eternal] experienced the realities of each."

Fifteen minutes later, Charles Houlden, the first --- and last ---- man executed by the county of Menard, was declared dead.

There is no record of where the county buried Charles Houlden. His wife, Rebecca, was buried in a rural cemetery not far from the homestead she and her husband shared. Today, she rests peacefully beneath the grass in this out of the way place which, for discretion's sake, shall remain nameless.

This nameless cemetery is a haunted place, possibly one of the few legitimately haunted cemeteries in Menard County. For years, people passing by or visiting the old graveyard have experienced a variety of paranormal activity that, if the stories are true, suggests there's something not quite right.

Can these events be accredited to the restless spirit of Rebecca Houlden? Could it be that the county chose to bury her murderous husband in an unmarked grave in the same ground? Perhaps it is something else altogether but the tales from this out-of-the way burial ground are numerous and varied.

Sitting a quarter mile or so off one of Menard's many twisting back roads, the little cemetery is barely discernable under the best of conditions. At night, or during the months when the corn is high, it can't be seen from the main road at all.

 

The first burial was made in this ground in 1858. It was a family cemetery then but over the years it has changed ownership and names on several occasions. One researcher, the late Jim Toal, made a record of all the stones in the early 1980's and, using the list created from that research, 45 of the stones he noted are now entirely gone. Although the burial records of this cemetery are intact and appear to be complete, it is possible that the removal or destruction of these stones may play a part in the hauntings that are reported here.

Upon entering the grounds, one is immediately moved by the silence of the place. Surrounded by tall cornfields on one side during several months of the year, the acre and a half or so that make up the cemetery are framed by dense timber on the remaining boundaries. It is not particularly eerie and nothing leaps out that says "Haunted!" but close examination of the grounds offer some suggestions that could explain the strange stories that have been uncovered.

Two areas in particular show evidence of unmarked burials. The southeast corner, where Rebecca Houlden lies, is the most prominent. There are very few stones in this area although sunken ground and strips of concrete remain to show where graves are located.

Could this be why the graveyard is considered to be haunted? Many researchers believe that graves that are purposely, or accidentally unmarked can cause this to occur.

The most common event reported here is that of mysterious balls of light that float among the old gravestones. These lights have been reported for many years and, as the reports are fairly consistent. One account will serve to describe what these witnesses see as they drive along the road at night.

"The graveyard is way down a lane in the woods," Jeni told me. "We were coming home from a basketball game in Athens, my boyfriend lives out there and I was taking him home. I hate driving out there anyway because it's so dark and the roads all twist around. I always worry about hitting an animal or something so I pay extra attention and drive really slow there.

"We came up the hill and Robbie said, 'Hey look at that' and he pointed out the window toward the [old cemetery]'."

What the two teenagers saw appeared to be lights weaving around out amongst the stones. Not sure of what they looking at from a distance, they stopped to get a better look.

Jeni continued: “He thought someone was out there screwing around. These lights were red and there were four or five of them. We sat there for maybe ten minutes before they blinked out and didn't come back."

Robbie became obsessed with what they'd seen that night and often walked to the graveyard from his home. Several attempts were made before he finally saw the lights again.

"One night Robbie called me and said he and his friend and gone over there on their bikes and had seen the lights. They rode down the lane to just before the cemetery then they got off their bikes and sneaked up thinking they were going to surprise somebody."

The boys saw the lights from a closer vantage point than on the previous sighting. They claimed they were independent balls of light zipping around in the cemetery and just inside the tree line to the north. There was, according to Robbie, no sign of another human being on the grounds. After only a few minutes, the boys made a hasty retreat and, upon his return home, Robbie called his girlfriend.

"He did sound kind of scared, out of breath and excited. I believed him when he said he saw these lights," Jeni said. Not long after Robbie witnessed the lights again and, this time Jeni was with him.

"This time we just drove down there and sat at the end of the lane. The lights didn't go away and it was freaky because you could see them in the headlights of the car. They were like these balls that were just flying around. There were only a couple that night and they were still red. It was weird and surreal, not really scary, just strange. When they went out we left."

Until Robbie left for college a year later, Jeni often accompanied him to see if the lights were floating in the cemetery. Only one other time did they witness the event after that second night. The results were similar to their first encounter as they saw the lights only from the road that last time.

Jeni and Robbie are braver than most witnesses who have reported these weird lights. Most people don't dare to travel down the long, dusty road to see what waits at the other end. Are these lights ghosts? Probably not, more than likely they are naturally occurring phenomena that has yet to be explained.

My own theory is that as a ghost gathers the energy that is required to manifest itself it drains the area around it of any electricity it can. This "feeding" often results in the appearance of odd balls of light that are akin to static electricity.

These strange balls of light would be enough to suggest some form of paranormal energy lingers at this cemetery but other reports exist that are both chilling and, to a ghost hunter, worthy of further examination. Consider this account, sent by a young man who is a former employee of Menard County and who, in years passed, mowed the cemeteries for the county:

There are a couple of those old cemeteries out there that creeped us all out but [that one] was one of the worst. We always felt like people were watching us there, like they were in the woods or something. We only saw something weird one time.

We were about half done with the graveyard and about ready to knock off for the day. There was nothing odd about the place that day; I mean feeling-wise, it felt fine. Only then one of the guys stopped the mower and was looking off toward the back of the cemetery.

I looked and there was a guy there, young guy-maybe twenty-and he was walking into the middle like he'd just come out of the woods or something like that. Then he stopped and looked like he was going to go behind a tree or something. The other guy with the mower started up again and kept mowing so I did too. A couple of seconds later I glanced over to where that guy had been and there was no body there. He was gone and there was no way he could have got out of the cemetery from where he was in like two seconds while I looked away!

I got kind of nervous but not too scared really, it was just weird. Then later some of the other guys said they had seen him too but none of us could figure out where he'd gone. He was like David Copperfield; he just disappeared right out of the graveyard!

Could these men have seen a ghost? It certainly is possible. It's also possible someone had simply walked into the cemetery or had been there all along and they had just failed to see him earlier. Whatever the case, another witness made it clear, in no uncertain terms, her belief she witnessed a ghost in the same area!

"My family is buried there," Marie informed me, "some of the earliest to come to the area. I do genealogy and have spent a lot of time in [that graveyard]."

One spring afternoon, Marie and her two young daughters had driven from Chatham to take pictures of the family stones. They had been in the graveyard about 20 minutes when one her little girls told her mother she needed a new roll of film.

Turning to go back to the car, Marie was startled by the presence of a man almost directly behind her, ominously between her family and the car!

"He was a younger man," she said, when pressed she determined around 30, "he had this look on his face like he was amused. I was scared because he had walked up on us so quietly. I said, 'hello' and he didn't respond and then I started to panic. Just a second after that he disappeared right in front of my eyes!"

Marie, now terrified, grabbed her daughters and led them quickly to the car and made her escape, rattled but unharmed. She reported that she has never returned to the scene of her shocking encounter, despite her husband's pleas to take him to the cemetery.

These reports are the only two I've received concerning full-blown apparitions in the graveyard. Many times people have told me about feeling watched (which coincides with the boys' sighting) or of strange, unexplained cold breezes or spots in the grounds, which is another indicator of ghost activity. One couple told me they'd heard whispers as they walked the grounds. They didn't stay long and were unable to offer further details as to what they thought they heard. Another woman told me she heard a woman call her name but could find no one else nearby.

The question I put to you is this: can all these people, without any correspondence with each other, be lying, mistaken or confused? It's possible, of course, but it's hard to imagine all these unconnected people could come to me with reports of ghosts and all of them have randomly selected this little known graveyard. Possible, yes… just not probable, especially when Menard County offers many other, sometimes creepier settings for fictitious ghost encounters.

Nothing in the record points to a specific identity for the mysterious young man that seems to be prowling the grounds but there are certainly many buried here that could fit the description. Is it possible his mortal remains lie buried in one of the many unmarked graves and he's simply seeking some recognition? It might just be that Charles Houlden, a criminal if there ever was one, lies there as well. Thankfully, the man the witnesses described doesn't match the description of that man!

While it probably will never be ascertained exactly what these witnesses are reporting out in this place, it is certainly strange and shows no sign of diminishing.

Spurred by the accounts I was hearing, I took a drive out to this isolated graveyard one afternoon a few years ago. It was a bright, sunny spring afternoon. The only sounds that day were the birds in the surrounding trees and the faint sound of an occasional car far up the road.

I'd visited the spot before on several occasions and had never encountered anything odd here myself. This day, I didn't feel anything strange, no mysterious figures appeared to me. It seemed like any other rural cemetery except these odd stories came flooding over me and I have to admit I proceeded with a small amount of trepidation.

With a video camera set up at the west end of the grounds, I began to make my way through the stones snapping pictures as I went.

As stated, Rebecca Houlden's grave is unmarked. Jeanne Weaver, an active Menard County genealogist/historian had told me she remembered Rebecca's gravestone and it was there when Jim Toal did his research. However, time, or other influences, has left nothing to commemorate the unfortunate woman but an empty field. I passed the afternoon scouring the grounds for hints of forgotten graves. I found much evidence of missing stones but, from a paranormal standpoint, the day was a bust.

Until….

Later that night I loaded the pictures from my digital camera into the computer and began to examine them. In one frame, a streak of light, preceded by a white ball of light is clearly seen a little further into the ground ---- quite near the last resting place of the unfortunate Rebecca Houlden.

There was nothing extraordinary about the graveyard that day. No odd EMF readings, nothing to make me think I wasn't alone. Still, that weird picture gives me pause. Is it possible that Rebecca or some other unfortunate soul (or many) still wander the grounds?

Unfortunately, the computer that this photograph was stored on was later destroyed and all attempts to photograph or film an anomaly in this cemetery since have been fruitless. I will continue (and back up my photos) with the hope that something --- or someone --- reveals themselves to me.

Since that day, I've visited the graveyard on several occasions (once I took Marie's husband with me --- he was disappointed). Each time, I wander the grounds I carry Jim Toal's list and quietly read the names from the missing stones with the hope that one of them decides to answer.

Of course, I honestly don't know what I'd do if one did…

 

© Copyright 2007 by John Winterbauer. All Rights Reserved.