I didn’t choose to walk through Wisconsin Dells’ Spring Grove cemetery in the dark. Today’s long car ride prevented me from getting in my daily hike, and this was my first chance to exercise.
The cemetery’s paved roads have no traffic, an advantage for walking in twilight, but when tree branches cast eerie shadows on headstones, I swallow hard and regret my choice. It doesn’t help my anxiety that I’d recently read Rose Clark’s “The Legend of Bloody September,” https://bit.ly/3S7voys. From September 13th to September 25th, 1869, four men in the Dells, Portage, and Necedah areas were murdered and two others were hung by mobsters. Were the killers buried here as well?
I turn on my phone’s flashlight. Its light catches Schuyler Gates’ lichen-covered gravestone. “Murdered,” one line says. I don’t dare creep closer.
I decide to walk past quickly, but the bloody historical details still tap me on the shoulder.
Schuyler was the father of the well-known Dells river pilot LeRoy Gates. Schuyler and his much younger wife (there is a lot of juicy speculation concerning Mary Ann) were camping on an island in the river near Arena when two masked bandits attacked them. The bandits pistol-whipped Schuyler and left him unconscious. They assaulted Mary Ann, tied her to a tree, and made off with the Gates’ money, $2200. Mary Ann struggled free and helped her husband.
Gates recovered and was able to testify that he and Mary Ann had been attacked by the notorious Pat Wildrick and his partner, Pat Welch.
Pat Wildrick was arrested and found to be carrying $1,100. Wildrick’s case was due in Juneau County Circuit Court during the 1869 fall term. But that was not the end of this dark tale.
Early on September 13, 1869, Schuyler crossed the bridge to Sauk County. Shortly after, two cohorts of Pat Wildrick also crossed the bridge.
At 8:00 a.m. a Reedsburg farmer reported a body on the road. It was the murdered Schuyler Gates. H. H. Bennett, the famous Dells photographer, took a picture of the dead body. You can see this picture and others in The Dells Country Historical Society Press’s Others Before You…The History of Wisconsin Dells Country.
Questions about the photo pop into my head, but rustling in the nearby woods sways my decision to look up the photo tonight. I can wait for daylight.
Schyler’s murder isn’t the only creepy story echoing in my head. I head downhill where many Native Americans are buried. Swishing tree branches and rustling leaves help stir my imaginings. I recall a story Bob Hall, Spring Grove’s sextant, had heard. Years ago, ghost hunters visited this section. One of the investigators, a woman, suddenly became sick and felt like someone had punched her. When the group got back up to their vehicle to leave the area, she had the welt of a handprint on her face.
The wind whips my hair in my face, and I speed-walk back to my car. To get to it, I need to pass the monument for Belle Boyd, the renowned Confederate spy. The plaque mentions that on May 23, 1862, Belle, then 18, ran across the battlefield between the firing lines with information for the Confederate general, Stonewall Jackson. Belle led a colorful life and is well worth researching. My flashlight picks up the glow of numerous coins people have left. Bob Hall met one of these visitors—Bell Boyd’s great-great grandson. He’d traveled all the way from Virginia to see the marker.
As a cloud moves across the moon casting eerie shadows, I recall another story Bob heard. The former sextant, Fred, was mowing near Belle Boyd’s grave. Fred caught sight of 4 or 5 men dressed in Confederate uniforms walking up to where she was buried. He blinked and suddenly realized he could see right through them.
Shortly after that, Fred drove to city hall and turned in his keys.
Was seeing the ghostly vision the reason? I don’t know, but tingling sensations are running down my spine. I realize my imagination is on overload, but I’m fairly sure I just got blasted with a pocket of cold air.
I hurry into my car, lock the doors, and drive home. I’m spending the rest of the night in my nice, cozy living room. With all the lights on.