Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Welcome to Bachelors Grove
I first wrote that invitation in 1996 in my very first book, Chicago Haunts, in a chapter entitled, "In a Bad Place: The Puzzle of Bachelors Grove." A lot of people remember reading those words and, even then, through a page in a book a hundred miles away, feeling the pull of the enigmatic site, through space and through time, pulling, pulling . . .
I haven't been surprised at this response from so many. I'd felt it, too, many years before, and I still feel it every day.
I first visited Bachelors Grove cemetery in 1988, as a research assistant to a parapsychologist Jim Houran (then a mere undergrad in psychology) performing field work in "spontaneous phenomena"--the world of experiences including ghosts, hauntings and other prevalent though inexplicable happenings. Over the course of about a decade, we conducted a series of photography experiments at "The Grove," and it was here that I began the "proper" study of the paranormal--and its often complex relationships with human history.
It was a sublime place to start.
As a native Chicagoan and devout fan of "true ghost stories," I well knew the tales of "The Most Haunted Cemetery in the World," for the tiny, one-acre enclosure had become world famous generations before, and with good reason. Since at least the 1950s, whisperings had abounded of what went on at this worn old ossuary, which lay down a broken path through the woods of a south side preserve, in present day Bremen Township, just outside the city limits. Legends of a phantom farmhouse, seen glimmering through the trees; and of ghost lights flashing blue, yellow and white, which would sometimes chase visitors through the woods. Stories of a Woman in White--the mysterious "Mrs. Rogers"--whose image (a diaphanous form perched on a tombstone in the afternoon sun) was famously and controversially captured on film in 1989.
I knew, too, the shadowy, half-history of the place: the abandonment by its settlers: a first wave of English-born; a second the German stock who farmed here well into the twentieth century; the eventual desecration and destruction; the theft of the crumbling stones; rumors of ritual and sacrifice by those drawn to the stories.
As I grew in my studies, history and psychical research meshed ever further, and at some point I became a professional paranormal researcher and historian. The way that I wrote history--interpreted through accounts of the wondrous--gained its own name: "ghostlore."
Twenty-six years after I first visited Bachelors Grove, I've written nine books of ghostlore, founded a company which takes visitors to some of the region's most infamously haunted sites, and continued to explore new avenues by which I might teach the dramatic history of ordinary--and extraordinary-- people through tales of their brushes with the supernatural.
Along the way, inexplicable things happen to me, too. Of course, I've seen, heard, felt and even smelled countless phantoms as I've pursued my work, and I've heard thousands of stories of the encounters of others. But it is something deeper than these thrilling (but, in the end, limited) experiences that has proven to me, suddenly and without question, that this is all real.
That something deeper came out of the woods at Bachelors Grove again two years ago and gave me a mission: to find and tell the stories of those buried there, and to find out what true secrets the land really held: in essence: to drag the history of Bachelors Grove "out of the woods," where it has been lost for so long.
Bachelors Grove is known among "ghost hunters" to have a strange relationship with its fans. Like a best friend or lover, it can welcome one with warm sunshine and comraderie, with new friends met on a long Sunday among the broken stones, talking about the supernatural, about the fragments of history to be found there, or about nothing at all. It can make you think you've found something some sort of home there. And then turn on you in an instant, rendering everything as reflections in a funhouse mirror.
People change at Bachelors Grove; or perhaps their masks come off there. Whichever it is, the ones close to the Grove know that it is not a place where one should stay long, or come often. To do so is to risk losing oneself to its infamous "pull."
In June of 2012, after more than two decades of occasionally returning to research Bachelors Grove, I found myself there one muggy night with a steward of the forest preserve, gazing across the quarry pond just before midnight, the unbroken surface lit up with the flashes of thousands of fireflies. It was perfectly still and we were totally alone, but I felt the unmistakable presence of others with us. It was one of "those" moments in life: those instants when you realize there is some wonderful universe just beyond an invisible curtain, and that one day--if we believe it--we'll step through and not just feel it but know it, too.
After a brief stay there, after the moment had left us, we left to return through the woods to our cars, but we became disoriented and, at last, quite lost.
Bachelors Grove is known, too, for disorienting visitors. Even my companion, a steward of the woods for some ten or more years, could not find the way out, though we searched for hours for the trails he himself had marked. We had no light, and even the compass and GPS readings on our mobile phones failed. It was late--or early--the 'wee hours' had come. I was wearing a cotton dress and as we trudged on and on toward nowhere in particular that hot night, the thorny vines that covered the ground seemed to reach around my ankles and calves, trying to keep me there. It was after some time of this blind searching that we began to see the lights of houses in the distance, and to hear the whoosh of cars passing on the road.
Grateful, we routed our path toward these, only to have the lights and sounds swallowed up in a second, as if by a huge vacuum. We were dumbfounded. Somewhere between our cars and this place, we had fallen through some unseen doorway. We were living in a world we couldn't fathom. Seeing things that weren't there. The air was close, and time was still going by. But none of it was real.
It was then that we realized we were standing in the heart of Bachelors Grove: a place without direction or landmarks, a place made of visions and of memories. A place that is sometimes on the map, but sometimes--and quite suddenly-- un-findable and un-leaveable.
Bachelors Grove has put me through a lot since I returned there that June night. I've had the most sublime and the most harrowing moments of my life in its clutches--and they are clutches, there is no other word--, and have met both the kindest people I've known as well as the only people I have ever honestly described as "evil": people who turn the truth on its head, without conscience and with impressive will.
It could be said that Bachelors Grove brings out the best and the worst in people. I have heard it said by more than one--and have come to say myself--that Bachelors Grove eats people.
A lot of people stay away from the Grove because of its strange pull. A few people give into it, with really bad results.
As a surveyor of the supernatural and a servant of history, I have determined that what I could do would be to take some of its power away--and put something better in its place.
It was in this way that the idea for an exhibit--and a later book--about Bachelors Grove came to be. If I could document the lives of those buried there and bring honor to the dead whose physical space had fallen to desecration; if I could, too, finally find the real stories behind the looming horror stories that had long been told there: maybe in this way I could wrest some of the power from the darkness and give it back to those who deserved it: the strong, brave men and women who lived "ordinary" lives of great drama in this beautiful place.
I do not spend a lot of time in the physical space of Bachelors Grove anymore. For a time, I did. For a time, I felt perhaps more at home there than anywhere else. At some time, however, you realize that you are living in a place meant for the dead. It shows in the living you do.
I spend my "Bachelors Grove" time now telling its stories, through the website BatchelorsGrove.com (spelled with a "t"" and otherwise known as BachelorsGroveForever.net or BachelorsGroveInfo.com), and delving ever deeper into the rich history of this storied site. You can find all of my work at www.batchelorsgrove.com, and on facebook at www.facebook.com/bachelorsgroveforever. You can follow my lecture and events trail at these sites also, and come out to see the traveling exhibit, "Lost in the Woods: the Real-and Unreal-History of Bachelors Grove" at area libraries and historical societies, as well as my lectures on Bachelors Grove and the "Graveyards of Chicago" documented in Matt Hucke and my new book, as well as my earlier writings about the Grove in "Chicago Haunts."
I thought it would be standard for such things as this to end with the same invitation I extended eighteen years ago, but in good conscience and after all I've learned, I cannot. Instead, I'll offer this revision:
Welcome to Bachelors Grove.
Watch your Step.