Wednesday, December 24, 2014

COLUMN: Death Curve Pt. 1

I love my house. Have I said that enough over the past couple years?

I was Halloween-level terrified at the prospect of owning my own home. Before, I was perfectly happy spending the remainder of my days throwing money at a landlord and proudly wearing the title of Tenant For Life. But it was my then-girlfriend who kept needling me to get my own place, eventually blindsiding me with a full-on realtor intervention.

I don't miss the needling one bit, but I don't exactly hate the outcome. I'm typing this in MY living room in MY house (just don't tell MY cats, because I'm pretty sure they think it's THEIR house and I'm just the human servant who came with it.) I even lucked out and found a place I can afford that's barely a decade old.

There's only one problem with owning a newer home: there's a seriously disappointing lack of ghosts.

I like to think of myself as somewhat an expert on the paranormal. This is because I watch both of the paranormal reality shows on TV. There's SyFy's "Ghost Hunters," where plumbers try to communicate with the undead, and there's "Ghost Adventures" on the Travel Channel, where douchey frat guys try to pick fights with the undead. Both are entirely ridiculous, scientifically implausible, and completely compelling and addictive. There's no logical reason to believe in any of it, but I've never let logic stop me before.

After watching countless investigations, though, one thing becomes painfully obvious: For a location to be good and properly haunted, it needs to be super old, extra creepy, preferably abandoned, and almost always has to feature some sort of tragic back story of murder, death, and sadness.

My place doesn't come with any of that. It's just too new. The only tragedy that's occurred in my house was the day the internet went out for six hours. To my knowledge, only a couple people lived here before me, and neither of them appear to have been brutally murdered. Based on the mail I get, I do believe one of them owes money to a collection agency, but the spirit world doesn't seem to care so much about fiscal responsibility. As much as I like a good ghost story, I'm just not going to get one here unless this house was unknowingly built atop an ancient burial ground or something. So far, that seems unlikely. My sump pump has yet to burp, let alone issue any shrieking cries from the pits of Hell.

My house is ghost-free. Good thing, then, that one of the most purportedly haunted locations in Illinois is just a few miles away.

Ever hear of the legend of Death Curve? If you live near Cambridge, you probably do. At its surface, it's a local ghost story like any other. Most small towns have them. You know, a weird local legend with an ever-evolving backstory that gets handed down and scared up from one generation to the next.

But here's the thing about the Death Curve of Cambridge: It's roots are real. And real spooky at that.

Our own Stephen Elliott wrote about it for this paper back in 2007, and even came across the original article that was published in the Rock Island Argus on a fall day back in 1905. That was when terror came to Henry County.

Julia Markham, her husband Clarence, and their seven kids all lived in a farmhouse tucked away down a country road just southwest of Cambridge. But on Sept. 29, 1905, something went horribly wrong. That morning, while Clarence was toiling away in a nearby field, Julia Markham grabbed an axe and murdered all seven of her children, aged 5 months to 8 years, before attempting to slit her own throat with a butcher knife.

When her suicide attempt failed, she went inside the house, doused the entire place in kerosene, and lit the home ablaze. When neighbors saw the smoke and rushed over, they found her crawling out of the house badly burned and bleeding from the neck. When the authorities arrived, Julia Markham confessed to killing her seven children before finally succumbing to her injuries.

According to a 1905 article in the Cambridge Chronicle that Stephen Elliott dug up, a postman then discovered a suicide note left in a nearby mailbox.

"Dear Clarence," it read, "This is to say goodbye to you. Some give their souls for others, and I will do this for my children... they will all die happy in the arms of Jesus. I will meet them there and someday you will join us, too."

Julia Markham was buried in the nearby Rose Dale Cemetery in an unmarked grave. Her children are buried beside her, their bodies all in one adjacent grave. As for Clarence, it's said that he was "nearly prostrate" upon returning home to find the carnage. He eventually moved away from the Cambridge area and is said to be buried somewhere near Bishop Hill.

Now THAT is one authentically sad and creepy tale, and the Markham family tragedy remains one of the worst murder-suicides in Illinois history. The former site of the Markham home is now known as the Cambridge Death Curve. Several locals claim to have stood on the site and witnessed the translucent glowing image of a white-clad woman wandering through the nearby fields. Some say it's the ghost of Julia Markham, visiting the fields she once tended. Others believe it's Markham attempting to make her way to her children at the cemetery down the road.

One thing's for sure -- enough folks have claimed to witness the apparition that it merits a professional investigation by real paranormal researchers. Too bad I don't know any. Ergo, I did the next best thing: grabbed my friend Jason and last weekend, the two us headed out to Cambridge and spent midnight at the legendary Death Curve.

Did we see the ghost of Julia Markham? Make contact with the other side? Get stopped by cops wondering just what two grown men were doing parked on the side of a country road in the pitch middle of the night? Find out next week, same spooky page, same spooky newspaper.

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