A BOTTLE OF GHOSTS: The Natural History of Bachelors Grove Cemetery, one of the World's Most Haunted Places

     I have been visiting the tiny cemetery at Bachelors Grove (pictured above in the iconic photo by Matt Hucke of www.graveyards.com) just south of Chicago for over thirty years, drawn like so many others to this abandoned settler's burying ground with the staggering supernatural reputation.  You can read all about the seemingly endless paranormal encounters that have been reported at the Grove on my website, Bachelors Grove Forever. But while so many know about the hauntings of BG (as obsessed fans call it), few bother to explore the truly wondrous natural beauty of this surreal spot. 

One person who knows it intimately is my friend, Chicago naturalist Joey Cavataio.  When I began to write my book, "Haunted Bachelors Grove," I knew I wanted to include Joey's observations of the Grove as part of the book, and so I invited him to write about it for the volume, and he did.

Just as the first ghost story I ever wrote was about Bachelors Grove, so the first fragrance I ever created was inspired by this place as well. In making it, I closed my eyes and imagined myself there, on one of the many day-long visits I had made.  I saw the tiny sprays of forget-me-nots, the rocks making their path across the fabled creek that runs through the woods, and I smelled the sage that visitors often burn when they visit, in their attempts to banish the spirits said to wander this storied site. 

This is what Joey observed at Bachelors Grove, and I hope it transports you to his beautiful place when you read it.  Even more, I hope it inspires you to travel to this magical place on your own someday.

-Ursula Bielski

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Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery (BG) is a small cemetery located within the Rubio/Everden Woods preserves in southwestern Cook County.  The cemetery, like the forest preserve property immediately surrounding it, is considered highly degraded and of low natural quality.  The majority of the woodlands south of 143rd Street is second growth, having been logged and farmed long ago.  Invasive shrubs and pole trees (tall, skinny trees stunted by a dense canopy) dominate the landscape.  There are few mature native trees, though the cemetery itself was spared of some of its large hardwood trees such as oaks, as those were considered visually pleasing to cemetery visitors and provided shade on hot days.  Prominent invasive plant species include common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), wild grape (Vitis spp.), and garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), as well as a host of others. 

            The overabundance of invasive woody shrubs and trees results in a very closed-in, claustrophobic experience.  Visitors who decide to veer off the path that leads to BG from 143rd Street may find themselves pushing their way through a nearly impenetrable wall of thorny, woody invasive plants.  Large, native trees such as oaks take long to grow and mature, and invasive species can easily rush in and populate an open area much quicker, eventually killing oak saplings as they suffocate in the invasive understory.   Within BG, much restoration has taken place recently, which would allow for the successful reproduction of native hardwood trees.  However, the cemetery succumbs to large groups of visitors, many of whom have carelessly damaged or destroyed much of the native plant life there.  A professionally-planned restoration plan and regular volunteer-driven workdays would, over time, transform the surrounding woodlands into a healthier ecosystem that would more accurately resemble a pre-settlement landscape as well as attract native wildlife and improve the overall balance of the preserve.  Restorative activities would include the removal of buckthorn, garlic mustard, and other invasive species, the application of herbicide to stumps, prescribed burns, and supporting young or stunted native trees such as oaks and hickories by caging them from deer.  A restored woodland surrounding BG could boast beautiful ephemeral wildflowers such as bloodroot and Trillium, and potentially many others.

            Additional notes on buckthorn:  Common buckthorn is native to Eurasia.  It was first introduced to the United States during the late 18th or early 19th century for its use as an ornamental plant.  Its specific name, cathartica, is a reference to its fruit – small, deep red or black berries that are very cathartic (http://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/kings/rhamnus-cath.html).  The berries ripen during the fall and are eaten by many types of birds.  As the birds pass the seeds in their droppings, they land on the ground – along with a convenient supply of fertilizer – and quickly re-colonize elsewhere.  The plant itself – leaves, stems, etc. – are toxic, therefore, most deer will avoid eating it unless they are desperate.  Common buckthorn grows in dense stands and out-competes native trees and plants.  It allows little to no light to reach the woodland floor, eliminating the possibility of native grasses and wildflowers in most cases.  In addition, it alters the chemical makeup of the underlying soil through an allelopathic chemical in its roots and has been known to negatively impact the development of larval amphibians (http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1670/12-066).  All of these symptoms of the spread of common buckthorn are evident in the woods surrounding BG.  Buckthorn can be identified by its scraggly stems, which grow singly or often in multiple “clumps”.  Where there is one, there are usually many more, as they grow in thickets and create monocultures.  They are easiest to identify in early spring and late fall, since they are one of the first plants to produce leaves, and one of the last to drop those leaves (http://www.ecolandscaping.org/12/invasive-plants/common-buckthorn-an-exotic-invasive-plant-fact-sheet/), ( http://removebadplants.com/buckthorn/).

the hateful buckthorn is a contagion in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois…

the hateful buckthorn is a contagion in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois…

            Perhaps more relevant at BG/Rubio Woods than at other preserves, is the idea that buckthorn has the potential to increase incidents of crime (http://removebadplants.com/buckthorn/).  Buckthorn creates barriers beyond which little to nothing can be seen.  Illegal activities are nothing new to BG, and the abundance of buckthorn might facilitate fly dumping, vandalism, gang activity (including spray-painting), or ritualistic activities than can cause harm to both humans and nature.  Buckthorn is most evident along the path that leads to BG from 143rd Street.

            A persistent ground cover plant that many regret ever planting in the first place is lesser periwinkle (Vina minor).  Extremely common in gardens and graveyards, this plant consists of green, waxy-looking, oval-shaped leaves and small, beautiful lavender flowers that bloom spring to mid- or late-summer.  Though attractive, this species grows in clonal colonies (interlinked through roots) to create dense mats, in which little else can grow.  Despite recent restoration in the cemetery which resulted in the destruction of many other plants, lesser periwinkle lives on and probably will for a very long time.

            A few notes on other species seen either in person or through YouTube video tours/older photos:  goldenrod (Solidago altissima/canadensis) is a native and sometimes invasive wildflower common in the open parts of both BG and the path that leads to it; it attracts all sorts of butterflies and insects.  Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is another common native, famous for hosting the larval form of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).  Queen Anne’s Lace, or wild carrot (Daucus carota) is an invasive tall plant with tiny white flowers, and it can be seen along the path where it savors the sun.  Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is a commonly-occurring invasive that is often seen in old fields or roadsides.  It was encountered along the path to BG.  It is of some importance due to its toxic nature; if the plant’s juices somehow end up on your skin (from breakage, etc), and it’s sunny, the sun activates chemicals that cause phytophotodermititis, a condition that includes red sores and blisters on the skin.  The sensation has been likened to the rash caused by poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), but the resulting redness/discoloration can remain on the skin for up to two years ( Brenneman, William L. (2010). 50 Wild Plants Everyone Should Know. AuthorHouse. p. 38. ISBN 978-1-4520-4637-2.).  It’s important to learn how to identify the flowers and leaves of wild parsnip before you veer off the path.   Poison ivy has also been seen, in large amounts, growing as vines on trees along the path that leads to BG.  In short – it is NOT recommended veering off the path.

Beautiful but toxic, the wild carrot or “Queen Anne’s Lace” is best admired in passing…

Beautiful but toxic, the wild carrot or “Queen Anne’s Lace” is best admired in passing…

            The trees within the perimeter of BG tell a great story of how the cemetery was planned and considered long ago.  In it are both trees that are native and non-native/cultivated by man – trees that were maintained as aesthetic components, sources of shade, etc.  Examples of native trees include oak, hickory, black walnut, and black cherry. Mulberry and white cedar constitute two of the more prominent non-native tree species.

              Oaks (Quercus spp.) are among the most coveted and mighty trees on the Illinois landscape.  Long appreciated for their valuable timber, oaks have experienced a decline since European settlers arrived and exploited them for their benefit.  Oak wood is very versatile and was/is used in frame home construction, furniture, barrels, and many other items.  Ecologically, oaks are considered keystone species (Paine, R.T. (1995). "A Conversation on Refining the Concept of Keystone Species". Conservation Biology 9(4): 962–964. doi:10.1046/j.1523-).  They have a profound influence on the shaping of their respective biomes.  Often associated with wisdom and strength, oaks are one of the more symbolic organisms one might find in a woodland ecosystem.  They are hardy, long-lived, and highly resistant to the fires that helped shape their habitat before fires were suppressed by man long ago (restorationists now consider fire one of the most useful tools in bringing damaged habitat back to life).  It is likely that the oaks in BG either pre-date the cemetery or were planted early in the life of the cemetery.

            Along with oaks, hickories (Carya spp.) are one of the more defining hardwood trees in the area’s woodlands.  And like oaks, their wood is used for the construction of a multitude of items.  Hickory trees produce fruits that contain nuts, some of which are edible (http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ecoph8.htm).  These nuts can be found littering the cemetery, sometimes embedded in the ground after being stepped on.  Squirrels and chipmunks love them.  There are large examples of hickory in BG (exact species unknown), and they, like the oaks, have persisted for a long time through, and sometimes despite, all of the tragedies inflicted upon the cemetery by vandals.

            Black cherry (Prunus serotina) and black walnut (Juglans nigra) are two other native species found in BG.  Both black cherry and black walnut are considered pioneer species – species that are first to colonize previously disrupted ecosystems (Duram, Leslie A. (2010). Encyclopedia of Organic, Sustainable, and Local Food. ABC-CLIO. p. 48.ISBN 9780313359637.).  It is likely that these two species prosper here due to the open, biologically-disturbed nature of the cemetery.  They may have developed naturally here or they may have been transplanted/cultivated at one time.  They love sunlight, and they both produce fruit that attracts wildlife, cherries and walnuts, respectively.

            As far as I can tell, the mulberry trees present in BG are white mulberry (Morus alba), but could possibly be another related species.  They are native to Asia and are considered naturalized in the US (naturalized differs from invasive in that a naturalized species cannot reproduce independently and spread unabated.  It only exists where it is due to continued influx from somewhere else [ Warren L. Wagner, Derral R. Herbst, and Sy H. Sohmer. Manual of the Flowering Plants of Hawai`i, Revised Edition, 1999. Bishop Museum Press: Hololulu]).  Mulberry trees are relatively short-lived and are widely cultivated, often in cemeteries (I have personally seen examples in other older cemeteries such as Union Ridge Cemetery in Chicago).  They produce edible, sweet berries in summer.  Oftentimes, the fallen fruit ferments on the ground, and in the heat of the day, attracts flies and bees.

            Perhaps the most identifiable trees in BG are the large white cedars (Thuja occidentalis) just past the front gate of BG.  White cedars are sometimes known as the eastern arborvitae, meaning “tree of life” in Latin (http://www.conifers.org/cu/Thuja_occidentalis.php).  In reality, these are not cedars at all, but rather in the Cypress family.  As an evergreen conifer, it is green year-round.  The white cedars really stick out at BG during the winter months, as they are the only evergreens in the area (view the cemetery on Google maps – you’ll see what I mean).  Though the white cedar’s range extends south to the Chicago area from its core range in Canada, the specimens at BG are almost certainly cultivated, probably in the early 20th century.  They are an extremely popular choice for cemeteries, parks, and yards (http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/trees/plants/white_cedar.html).  These are long-lived trees, and assuming the ones in BG are “only” about a century old, they could live another seven to eight hundred years, if conditions are favorable. Interestingly enough, the two large white cedars near the front gate of the cemetery are clearly discernable in a 1939 aerial photo on http://www.historicaerials.com/ - the only two trees that can be identified with a great deal of certainty!

This famous photograph of Bachelors Grove cemetery by Matt Hucke (Graveyards.com) shows the bases of the two famous white cedar trees which still stand on the grounds…

This famous photograph of Bachelors Grove cemetery by Matt Hucke (Graveyards.com) shows the bases of the two famous white cedar trees which still stand on the grounds…

            In and around BG, there are numerous ash trees (Fraxinus spp.) that have been ravaged by the invasive emerald ash borer (Agrilis planipennis), a green beetle native to eastern Asia.  The beetle’s larvae lives and feeds within the phloem, cambium, and outer xylem layers of a tree – thin layers between the bark and the heartwood.  This disrupts the transfer of water and nutrients, and in most cases, an afflicted ash tree dies within a few years.  Green ash trees (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) alone make up 5.5% of the Chicago region’s 157,142,000 trees (https://www.itreetools.org/resources/reports/Chicago_Region_rb_nrs84.pdf).  Afflicted ash trees are typically removed by the respective county, but relatively little attention has been given to those in the Rubio Woods preserves.  Therefore, an increased number of dead and dying trees around BG has resulted in yet another “haunted” aspect of the area. 

the emerald ash borer

the emerald ash borer

            One of the very few upsides to the emerald ash borer explosion has been the accompanying increase in various woodpecker species.  Woodpeckers, which search for insect larvae in dead wood, have enjoyed a bounty of food over the last decade in the Chicago region.  Woodpeckers can be heard rapping on trees throughout Rubio Woods, doing their part to both help eliminate the larvae and create an uneasy, spooky sound to those unfamiliar with the habits of such birds, particularly city-dwellers. 

            Of course, many other species of birds are found in Rubio Woods.  A few of the birds I have personally observed have been European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), American robins (Turdus migratorius), various sparrows (family Passeridae), northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata), mourning doves (Zenaida macroura), black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis), American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), Cooper’s hawks (Accipiter cooperii), red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), various ducks (family Anatidea), owls (Order Strigiformes), and American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) (the latter two of which, again, can contribute to the eeriness of the woods at the right times).  A more thorough bird survey of BG and Rubio Woods would undoubtedly result in a longer list.

American bullfrogs are plentiful in the old quarry pond at Bachelors Grove…

American bullfrogs are plentiful in the old quarry pond at Bachelors Grove…

            Herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) of BG and the surrounding woods is limited in variety, though a few species are common to abundant locally.  Bullfrogs (Lithobates catebeianus) are the frogs often seen and heard in the quarry pond adjacent to the cemetery.  Bullfrogs are the largest species of frog native to the Chicago region and one of the largest, if not the largest, in the United States.  They are extremely adaptable and are highly tolerant of a relatively high degree of pollution and disturbance.  They are known to be aggressive feeders, eagerly consuming prey ranging from small insects and fish to other bullfrogs, small rodents, and even birds that come to the water for a drink.  Bullfrogs in the region typically breed during late spring to mid-summer, during which time the males’ distinctive “rum…rum…rum” bellows can be heard.  I have found juvenile bullfrogs along Tinley Creek, which flows alongside BG and through Rubio Woods.  American toads (Anaxyrus americanus) are the common toad species found in and around BG.  Toads are much less reliant upon water than the bullfrogs; they head to ponds in the spring to breed and lay their eggs, but once done, they head back into the woods, where they live a secretive lifestyle.  They spend most of their time hiding under logs and leaf litter, emerging at night or during rain events to hunt insects.  The toad tadpoles metamorphose during the summer, leaving the water and remaining hidden as best as possible.  I presume that the resident bullfrogs eat a significant amount of young toads during the summer, while the toadlets are exposed and vulnerable.

            Notes on toads:  Contrary to old wives tales, American toads will not give you warts if you pick them up – not even BG toads!  They will, however, urinate on your hands in the hopes that they will be released. 

            I am uncertain whether or not there are salamanders living near BG, though they are found in surrounding preserves, including some areas north of 143rd Street.  A more thorough survey of the area is needed.

            Snakes can be found in and around BG – mostly Chicago garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis semifasciatus).  The Chicago garter snake is a subspecies of the common garter snake, and it differs from many other common garter snakes by possessing a slightly different pattern.  Averaging between one to two feet in length, Chicago garter snakes are abundant and extremely adaptable, though they prefer open woodlands, woodland edges, savannahs, and sometimes open fields or prairies.  Much of Rubio Woods is closed canopy, which creates challenges for the garter snakes, since a shaded woodland offers little to no sunlight for the snakes to bask in.  BG is an exception, as it features a more open canopy.  BG’s proximity to the quarry pond is also advantageous for the garter snakes, as they will hunt and eat small bullfrogs, bullfrog tadpoles, leeches, worms, and other organisms associated with a wet or watery environment.  The Chicago garter snake, like all garter snakes, is completely innocuous to humans and poses no threat to the hiker or cemetery visitor.  When approached, they will either remain still to avoid detection, or slither away very quickly.  Only when cornered or handled might the garter snake defend itself by writhing wildly, squirting an acrid-smelling musk, or biting.  A bite from a garter snake causes more harm to the garter snake than it does to the handler – a reason these animals should be viewed from a distance and allowed to go on their way without harassment.

              A close second in abundance is probably the midland brown snake (Storeria dekayi wrightorum).  Also known as the Dekay’s brown snake or just Dekay’s snake, this tiny snake, which rarely grows longer than twelve inches in length, can be found throughout Rubio Woods and in and around BG.  The midland brown snake is mostly fossorial, which means underground-dwelling, though it can often be seen crawling about along the forest floor, particularly during the spring and fall.  It is a light brown to grey snake that has an interesting diet – slugs and snails, mainly, along with the occasional small worm.  Like the garter snake with which it shares its range, it is a harmless, non-venomous, and shy snake that tries all it can to avoid people.  When handled, it is much less likely to bite than the garter snakes, but it nevertheless will not hesitate to coat your hands in a very offensive-smelling musk meant to deter predators.

            An interesting variety of mammals inhabit Rubio Woods and BG.  They range from tiny mice, voles, and shrews to bats, and from the all-too-familiar opossums, skunks, and raccoons, to deer and coyotes.  Mice, voles, and shrews, all members of the rodent family, are important members of the ecological balance of the woods, and are readily stalked by hawks, owls, and coyotes.  Opossums (Didelphis virginiana) are North America’s sole representative of the marsupial family.  They are extremely unspecialized and can be found anywhere from pristine nature to alley dumpsters in downtown Chicago.  Though often regarded as a pest, they actually play an important role as an omnivore, eating both plant and animal material.  They are solitary as adults, and mostly nocturnal.  They have an interesting strategy for protecting themselves from predators, which is “playing possum”.  When approached by a dog or other predator, they will collapse and lie on the ground with their mouths open.  This deters a lot of predators, who prefer not to eat something already dead.  Shortly after the predator leaves the scene, the opossum will revive itself and go on its way.  Unfortunately, opossums haven’t grasped the concept of automobiles, and playing dead in front of an approaching vehicle most often does not end well.  It is not uncommon to see road-killed opossums along 143rd Street at BG, or any road for that matter.

            The raccoon (Procyon lotor) is similar to the opossum in that it is an unspecialized, cat-sized, omnivorous, nocturnal mammal.  But the raccoon does engage in social behavior to a somewhat higher degree than the opossums do.  The raccoon is a faster runner and as a result, is seen more alive than dead alongside roads.  It is a more efficient hunter than the opossum and probably better utilizes the pond and creek for hunting for food.  If it can catch a frog, toad, or crayfish, it will eat it.

            Skunks (Mephitis mephitis) are very common around BG.  Best known for their infamous odor, they lumber about in woods and urban areas with a certain cockiness that can only be attributed to their mode of defense.  A skunk’s spray can be smelled for several square miles under the right conditions, much to the disgust of humankind.  Like opossums and raccoons, skunks are nocturnal and omnivorous.

            The prevalence of bats in and around BG can only bode well for those who expect a haunted experience.  Though it is unclear which species of bats are found near BG (a survey would help), there are seven species of bats in the Chicago area.  The largest of the seven, the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), usually weighs about three-quarters of an ounce.  This tells you that any bat seen is going to be small.  Small, but extremely efficient as a natural form of pest control.  Bats eat mosquitoes among other insects, reducing the likelihood that you will be bitten by the potentially disease-spreading bugs.  Still, most people have a fear of bats, and those fears usually stem from two misconceptions – that bats will fly into your hair, and that bats will give you rabies.  First, bats are extraordinarily good flyers.  Watch as a colony of bats skillfully flies about without contacting each other.  This is due to their use of echolocation – “bio-sonar” that aids them in their hunting and communication as well.  Flying into someone’s hair does not benefit a bat in any way, shape, or form, so people shouldn’t worry about that happening.  The second fear people have isn’t completely unwarranted.  In the United States, between 1997-2006, there were a reported nineteen cases of naturally-acquired rabies - seventeen were associated with bats.  However, rabies overall is extremely rare in the US, with only one or two cases per year on average (http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/bats/education/).  Almost all instances of bat-related rabies were the result of intentional human-bat interactions (such as someone removing a bat from a home).  Suffice it to say, it is completely safe to be in the presence of bats, as long as they are respected.  Since bats are nocturnal and mostly seen around dusk, most visitors will probably not witness them at BG, but pay attention to the sky later in the afternoon or early evening before dark, and you may witness the flight of one or more of these amazing mammals.  The quarry pond is a mosquito factory, so perhaps focusing in that direction could yield a sighting.

A little brown bat…

A little brown bat…

            Additional note on bats:  The phrase “blind as a bat” is a misnomer.  It isn’t fully clear how that phrase came to be, as bats can see quite well.  It could be, perhaps, because a bat’s echolocation and hearing are better-developed than its vision, but that shouldn’t negate the fact that they can in fact see well enough to get by (http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2011/02/bats-are-not-blind/).

            Aside from squirrels, probably the most commonly seen mammal in and around BG is the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus).  White-tailed deer are one of the most widespread large mammals in the Western Hemisphere, ranging from northern Alaska south to South America.  They can be found in both wooded and open landscapes.  In high densities, deer can cause serious damage to the ecosystem (http://wwx.inhs.illinois.edu/resources/inhsreports/may-jun99/deer/).  Such a problem exists in the Chicago suburbs, including Midlothian and Rubio Woods.  As human development steadily replaces deer habitat, the deer become concentrated in smaller preserves with well-defined boundaries.  The deer eat copious amounts of plant matter (but again, usually not buckthorn) and can ravage an ecosystem of its biomass in short order.  Over time, their actions can completely reshape the forest structure, leaving the forest floor bare and vulnerable to succession by invasive pioneer plant species.  A large deer population can quickly eliminate an entire season’s worth of acorns, allowing no chance for the mighty oaks to witness their progeny take hold and begin the next generation.  Plans to manage the deer populations in the Chicago area have been met with stern opposition by many citizens (http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/pets/ct-pets-deer-0123-20150123-story.html).  Though deer are beautiful and graceful animals, culling is the only way to maintain healthy populations, and it reduces the likelihood of ecological destruction, inbreeding, and vehicular-related deer strike.

coyote.jpg

            A summary of the mammals of BG/Rubio Woods would not be complete without the inclusion of the coyote (Canis latrans).  The region’s premier land predator, the coyote is much like a ghost itself around BG – elusive and enchanting.  The coyote is enjoying a resurgence in the Chicago area after being extirpated long ago.  At one time, it was joined by other large land predators in the region – bobcats, wolves, and black bears.  It is now the sole representative of a group of often-maligned animals that actually perform priceless ecological services to humans.  Coyotes in and around BG are primarily hunters of small game – rodents and other small mammals, birds, snakes, frogs, and even young or sick deer constitute its natural diet.  However, as opportunistic feeders, they will even ransack human garbage for food scraps and occasionally make off with an outdoor cat or even a small dog.  They are often heard more than they are seen in some areas, their classic whines, yelps, and howls carrying across the landscape like disembodied voices from afar.  Coyotes are not usually a threat to humans, though it would be wise to avoid approaching one if one is seen.

Joe Cavataio

Chicago, 2016

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