The sleepy town of Stull, Kansas
My grandmother always told me never to be afraid of cemeteries. She said it wasn’t ‘dead folks’ one needed worry about, it was ‘the live ones you have to watch out for’. Armed with that knowledge, I spent many happy hours by her side in cemeteries across the United States. She was a self-styled historian of sorts and I was a willing traveler; I would accompany her to visit civil war battle fields, old west cemeteries and locations of different family burials.
I have always found cemeteries fascinating; the ritual and symbolism that we attach to death. I have never seen a ghost in my life, but I have ‘felt’ things. If you don’t know what I mean by that statement, then I can’t explain it. I have been in more than one cemetery that didn’t ‘feel’ right and I have to admit, there’s something about being spooked that is a major turn on for me. Maybe it’s just my adrenaline junkie side, but so little scares me, I am drawn like a moth to the flame to any danger, real or imagined, just as long as it makes those tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
As you can imagine, when I learned that I lived only 10 miles from the supposed Gates of Hell, I had to seek it out. For two weeks, I avidly researched everything about it, sorting through the fact and the fiction until I finally found time to visit it during daylight hours and shoot some images for myself. That’s right folks, one of the most infamous gateways to hell itself is purported to be right here in good old Kansas.
Let’s put aside the irony that our state capital – just a few miles from this cemetery has the distinction of area codes that start with 666 and take into consideration that in all of this great world, all of the cities filled with sin and degradation, the dens of inequity, Satan chooses to make his presence felt in a cemetery in a small unincorporated town in Kansas. Okay, I’ll bite, but only if you will take the time to consider this great piece of ocean front property I have in Arizona.
According to local legend, which is considerable, the devil appears in the Stull Cemetery on Halloween, in the ruins of the old church there. Legend also has it that glass won’t break if thrown against the stones of the church. The stories get wilder from there. There are those that believe Lucifer had a child by a witch in Stull and it is buried in this cemetery. Some around here will tell you about the story that appeared in the early 90s in Time Magazine about Pope John Paul II. According to the story, the pope asked that his airplane route be changed so he did not fly over the ‘unholy ground’ in eastern Kansas. Another modern myth is that the band the Cure refused to play in Kansas because it brought them too close to the hell-gate. For years, stories of witchcraft, ghosts and supernatural happenings have surrounded the old graveyard and the old stone church.
It was claimed that despite not having a roof, no rain would fall inside the old church on the hill. The decrepit cross on the wall would invert at midnight. People said they have been subjected to a strong wind that held them down on a still night and sinister growls that came out of thin air encircling passersby. Almost everyone you speak to has a story about how ‘something’ happened to them at Stull. Almost everyone that is, except for the 30 or so residents of Stull, Kansas. They claim the only thing special about that cemetery is the fact their loved ones are buried there. They find it annoying that so many believe the stories and they are tired of their cemetery being vandalized and being the scene of gatherings of unruly college kids and so-called Satan worshipers.
Tracing it back, it all seems to have gotten out of control in the 1970s. An article appeared in the Daily Kansan, the student newspaper for the University of Kansas in Lawrence (which is only 10 miles due east). At the time, the cemetery atop Stull’s Emmanuel Hill and its crumbling church were rather neglected. As with any deserted cemetery, it became the subject of rumors and speculation. Like so many other locations of this type, it was linked with devil worship and witchcraft. According to the article, Stull was “haunted by legends of diabolical, supernatural happenings” and the legends asserted that the cemetery was one of the two places on earth where the devil appears in person two times each year – both on Halloween and again on the spring equinox to gather all the wicked souls of the newly departed to him.
The article went on to say that the cemetery had been the source of many legends in the area, stories that had been told and re-told for over a century. The piece said that most students learned of Stull’s diabolical reputation from their grand-parents and older individuals, but that many of them claimed first-hand encounters with things that could not explain. One student claimed to have been grabbed by the arm by something unseen, while others spoke of unexplained memory loss when visiting the place.
According to Prairieghost.com, the students seized the idea of greeting the devil as a great excuse for a beer bash, and on a spring night in 1978 over 150 people gathered in the small cemetery to greet the devil. More rumors circulated that witches and others that died violent deaths would rise from the grave to serve their dark master. According to all accounts, the devil was a no-show, just a lot of beer & wine consumed and a cloud of marijuana smoke encircled the hill. From then on, the gatherings seemed to grow until the town took measures and had a fence erected around the property and on Halloween, 1989, 500 visitors were turned away and the crowd controlled by local sheriff’s deputies in order to thwart some of the vandalism and desecration that was occurring. It is this that has sparked more rumors claiming the citizens of Stull are a coven of witches, refusing to discuss the matter and keeping the public at bay.
Local papers have since ran many stories about Stull, including the Kansas City Star and Lawrence Journal World. They reported legends of witch hangings in a big old pine tree that has since been cut down. There are stories of murder and bloodshed in the church itself, while the stories vary in detail, the consensus is that the church contains a portal to Hell. Supposedly, the gateway is a stairway that is located just inside the church itself that descends downward into the abyss. According to legend, shortly after you begin your descent, you will feel an unseen force pulling you downward. Those that have supposedly been on the stairs claim they walked down for just a minute or two, but their ascent took more than 45 minutes.
Other stories focus specifically on the old tree in the cemetery. In the early 1900s, a local man went missing. He was found hanging from that very tree with his neck broken. Of course, this occurrence caused a great amount of fear and speculation in the community. Legend now has it on certain nights a coven of witches would encircle the tree and perform various rituals. The story also maintains that this tree is the very one that was once used in the town’s early days to hang those suspected of witch craft. There was a big tree in the cemetery about halfway up, but the townsfolk cut the tree down in 1998, just before Halloween. Check out this link for pictures of the cemetery with the old Church standing and the Pine tree – Old Church
Even the popular show Supernatural had a seen play out for a season cliffhanger in a make believe set of Stull Cemetery.
After reading everything I could online and at the local library, I packed up my gear and drove the 10 miles west to see for myself just what all the fuss was about. I will confess however, in the spirit of an old Vincent Price movie, I did slip a big crucifix into my camera backpack along with my 38 special, extra battery packs and lenses. A girl can never be too careful. Wink, wink.
I drove the relaxing scenic drive through the rolling hills until I came upon the peaceful and sleepy town of Stull, tucked safely away from the main highways. The town itself remains unincorporated and it little more than a couple buildings, a couple homes, a church and of course, Stull Cemetery. The tiny town was founded in the mid 1800’s and named after Sylvester S. Stull, the town’s first post master in the early 1900’s . Founded by Pennsylvania Dutch, the town was originally referred to as the Deer Creek Community. Descendants of the town’s founding fathers still reside there.
In 1859, the Evangelical Emmanuel Church was organized and the settlers had collected enough funds by 1867 to construct a one room stone church on land donated by Jacob Hildenbrand for that purpose and a cemetery. Until the early 1900s, the sermons were preached in German. It was during this time period the town had two great tragedies, the afore mentioned man hanged in the pine tree with no explanation and a young boy who was found burned to death after his father finished burning off a field. There is no record of any bloodshed in the church, or of any civil hangings on the premises. The church remained in usage until 1913 when the frame church in town was finished.
The old church has stood there, alone, at the top of the hill for the best part of the century unused. It could be seen from the town below. By the 1980s it was no more than a shell, and shortly after the millennium, one of the exterior walls collapsed. On Good Friday, March 29, 2002, the old church was reduced to rubble for once and all. The gateway to hell, if it ever existed, was no longer accessible.
Pulling into the cemetery, I was taken at first by the appearance of the place. I guess I didn’t realize how old the photos on the web were; this cemetery looked not at all like the one I thought I was coming to see. Neat and well kept, the grave stones for the most part were very modern, all twentieth century or so. Here and there one can see a stones from the turn of the century period, but they were few and far between. I drove to the top of the hill to where the church stood. I was surprised to find all the rubble and the foundation intact. The big tree that stood next to it had been trimmed down to a stump and a lamp post stood guard a few feet away to illuminate it during the night. A wire fence had been constructed along the roadside to prevent access, but too many trespassers’ curiosity had flattened the fence and made a trail alongside the church into the woods and beyond.
I walked around the old church and took pictures. No creepy feeling pervaded my senses; I felt no wind, only the slight chill of a storm blowing in from the west. I climbed to the top of the rubble, feeling rather self-conscious standing atop a hill visible from the highway taking pictures of the portal to hell. I walked amongst the graves, past the proud American flag waving over the graves of the veterans buried in the cemetery. No sense of foreboding, just a peaceful Saturday afternoon. I had been warned that the locals were quick to investigate or to call the authorities, but no one came, no one even gave me a second glance. I guess my jeans and my pick up truck made me fit right in.
From my studies I had learned that although this was the cemetery of popular lore, there was an older cemetery in Stull, one that most people other than residents were unaware of. A cemetery where an entire coven of witches were burried. I had studied the Google aerial maps and had located the graveyard, called Mound Cemetery about a mile off the main road. It was one of those places that if you didn’t know where to look, you wouldn’t know it was there, although it was overlooking the road that many drove down each day. About 2 minutes later, I was turning onto a dirt road and taking another immediate turn up a much less travelled road, straight up a hill and to a locked gate. From there I grabbed my backpack and hiked the rest of the way up the hill. To my surprise, in the middle of this cemetery stood a very old and very ominous pine tree; one very similar to the one described as the witch’s tree. Most people assume that the oldest trees are those that are the tallest, but that isn’t so. Really old trees are like people, they begin breaking down and this tree had all the hallmarks of old age, a thick trunk, twisted and broken branches, a frayed top that had maybe seen one too many lightning strikes. Could this be the actual cemetery of the legend? As I approached, I noticed as small marker directly in front of the tree, one so old that all the lettering was worn off.
The rest of the small cemetery was filled with headstones dating back to the mid 1800’s. Many of the graves had sunken downwards – from simple wooden caskets collapsing 6 feet under the earth, an occurrence not uncommon in old cemeteries. Curiously, some of the headstones were newer and unweathered, but marked deaths in the 1920’s. With the grass neatly mowed and flowers on some of the graves, I assume that these are family sites and the old markers had possibly been stolen or destroyed by vandals. As with Stull, and I have noticed the main cemetery in Lawrence, the lack of any crosses or crucifixes is most obvious and slightly perplexing, but a couple of the graves did have symbols featuring hands reaching upward, which was often used in the Victorian period as a symbol to those souls reaching to heaven.
Reading the headstones, there was a very human story told, one of great struggles in a rural community in what was then an unsettled and harsh country. As a mother, I felt sadness viewing the five stones in a row, of young children, all of the same family, dying close together, 1887, 1890, 1893, 1895 and 1900; one noting that the child had died of chickenpox. I wondered at the resolve of those adults buried in this cemetery, and the courage they had to overcome what they must have.
I did not meet Satan on my visit to Stull, nor did I find the gravesite of his child. I did not cross the path of any witch covens. I heard no growls and the only wind I felt was that of the north, with it’s icy grip reaching for the plains in November. I saw and felt nothing that would lead me to believe this was any place other than a resting area of bones of those that had gone before us. Those pioneers of the plains, who carved a life out here and built the towns we all take for granted from the dirt up. A couple of the headstones reflecting what must have been true love, that of the Scoutens, she died in 1866 and he followed later, in 1881. Her marker with a ladies hand reaching to heaven, labeled ‘There is rest‘, his next to hers with a hand reaching in the direction of her grave holding flowers, relaying the rest of the message, ‘In heaven‘.
I sat amidst the headstones at the top of that lonely hill in Kansas and had my lunch, pondering why so many thought the place so evil and it occurred to me. Maybe Stull, Kansas, was a cursed place; a curse that had brought thousands of unholy on-lookers and rubber-neckers; exploitation to a peaceful little town and destruction to cemeteries and grave sites of loved ones and family, all in the name of the Lucifer. The real joke of it all: how gossip and rumors really are the tools of the devil. One small, peaceful little town and one big practical joke, perpetrated by Satan himself and a population of scared humans, who only want to believe there is some greater evil than man, himself.
To view these photos and some color photos from my visit to Stull full size, go to my flickr account here.