Witchcraft in the Woods: History or Myth?

History, Mystery, and Hauntings of Southern IllinoisFrom History, Mystery, and Hauntings of Southern Illinois by Bruce Cline.

Rhoda Penn Calbreath was born on December 6, 1826, some 134 years after the Salem Witch Trials. Yet, prior to her death in 1876, she found herself face to face with the eyes of a witch, in the form of her daughter Hester.

Rhoda lived near Lebanon, Illinois with her husband, John Hamilton Calbreath. After her death in 1876, she was interred in a remote cemetery located in a wooded area near Trenton. Local legend has led to Rhoda’s grave being a popular destination for thrill-seeking teenagers. Reports have said that attempts to photograph her grave site are futile; the pictures are blurry. This is an interesting story, except there is a quite clear picture of her gravestone on the internet. Is this to say that spirit activity hasn’t led to unclear pictures in the past?

As any paranormal researcher will tell you, activity peaks and subsides, and we often photograph the same area multiple times for review. All the pictures being blurry would only make us believe it was a camera malfunction or other disruption. One picture being clear while another is not is more, rather than less, indicative of possible activity. Another tale says that if you kneel on Rhoda’s grave, your knees would bleed. This is a little vague for a report, giving that since it is a popular gathering site for teens it could lead one to believe broken beer bottles could be the culprit.

One account is more difficult to rebuke. After hearing the stories and legends, a group of students from the local college decided to spend the night at Rhoda’s grave. Armed with equipment and ready for activity from beyond, the group captured an amazing EVP with their digital voice recorder. The ghostly voice spoke out from the grave “Mommy, please don’t kill me.” Obviously the voice of a child, begging for mercy from the person she most trusted: her mother.

What is the cause of all this turmoil at the final resting place of this woman? As the story goes, Rhoda was the mother of a young girl named Hester. While walking in the woods near their home, Rhoda came upon her daughter alone in a clearing. Her heart was broken to discover her child practicing the evils of witchcraft. The tale is told that unable to accept such wickedness even from her own daughter, she killed Hester in the woods, ending the child’s life and beginning a mystery that haunts Southern Illinois to this day.

Interestingly enough, through research of census records, there is no indication that Rhoda and John had a daughter named Hester. Documents indicate they had four daughters: Sarah, Caroline, Josephine and Theodosia; but no Hester. Seemingly, this would debunk the whole story except for facts that anyone who researches old records knows: records are not always complete. Births and deaths occurred without being documented. Records were lost. Registers burned in courthouse fires. And some simply never submitted the information.

It was also common in those days for children to be called by different names than their given ones. Any of the four daughters could have been known by Hester, a loving family nickname passed down. The name could have also changed after years and years of retelling. A lack of documentation does not in itself debunk a legend. There was often a real story, a quite true story, which led to the myth. A story, somewhere in time, led to the haunting.

Copyright Bruce L. Cline, 2014. You do not have permission to copy this post.



  1. I investigated this site extensively in the 1970’s, as part of a team made up of psychology grad students at SIU-E. We are probably the college students referred to here. What’s reported here is inaccurate and incorrect about Rhoda, the incident in the graveyard, and the story behind the haunting. It just goes to show that stories take on a life of their own.


  2. Stacy J Moorhead says:

    I am descended from Rhoda. Most of what is in this story is from my genealogy research and things I have been told from people who I’ve asked to take pictures, etc.. The story on the college students came from a student who wrote a paper for her college class. Reportedly the students also used a Ouija board in their dorm room and had paranormal activity. Barb – was the house still standing when you did your investigation? My great grandma visited the house before it burned down. I have a picture.


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