Before My Time is about the ancestry and extended family of my four grandparents: John Samuel Krentz (Indiana/North Dakota), Margreta Tjode Hedwig (Gertie) Buss (North Dakota), Rosmer Pettis Kerr (Pennsylvania/Michigan), and Evelyn Elvina Hauer (Michigan), and other topics in genealogy and family history.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Girl in the Graveyard

'Twas a dark and stormy night--well, it wasn't night exactly, more like evening, so it wasn't quite dark yet but it was definitely darkening--and it wasn't so much stormy as it was oddly chilly--dank, really, as I hastened from headstone to headstone, hoping to find the grave of my great-great-grandmother, Kate Efner Pettis, before it was too dark to see. I had spent too much of the day poking around the town of Winona looking for documents and places relevant to her life here during the last half of the 1800s. Time had gotten away from me--well, you're a genealogist, I don't need to tell you how that is--so the cemetery office was closed when I arrived and there was no one to point me in the right direction. If I didn't find her grave before dark, I'd have to postpone my early-morning departure from this town.

I was about to give up when I spotted a large marker thirty or forty yards from where I stood. Even at that distance I could clearly read the name: PETTIS. I was pumped on adrenalin and covered with goosebumps as I ran toward the stone, but I stopped short when I got near enough to see that there was nothing else inscribed on it. No first name, no date, nothing. I couldn't quite believe my eyes. What did this mean? Was she buried here or not? I turned away briefly, rubbing the goosebumps on my arms and wondering what to make of it.

When I turned back to the stone, I was startled--truth to tell, I may have shrieked a bit, I don't remember--as there now stood before it a little girl maybe five or six years old. I'd been alone in the graveyard, or so I had thought, and now in the dwindling light stood this little girl, staring at me.

"What on earth are you doing here?" I asked when I'd recovered myself.

She didn't respond with anything but an unsettling stare, so I tried another question.

"Where are your parents?" And why, I wanted to add, would they let their daughter wander around a cemetery alone at this hour?

"Is your daddy here?" I asked again, as she hadn't seen fit to answer yet. Slowly she shook her head.

"What about your mother? Is she here?"


"Yes, your mama. Where is she?"


This little girl was really starting to creep me out, you know what I mean? There was something really strange about her. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but my goosebumps were getting goosebumps.

"Mama?" she said again, and I turned around to see if her mother was sneaking up on me from behind. I was a little jumpy, you know, and I didn't want to shriek again. As graveyard behavior goes, shrieking is just too cliche. I did not want to embarrass myself again.

I didn't see her mother or anyone else behind me though, despite a careful scan of the surroundings, so I turned back to the girl, but... she was gone. I was more than ready to leave too, if the truth be told, but the mother in me made me peek behind the PETTIS stone to see if the girl was there. She was not.

"Hey, little girl," I called, fighting down my shivers, but there was no reply. I ran to a small mausoleum that stood nearby and looked behind that too, to no avail.

"That's it, I'm outta here!" I said to no one but myself, and I hightailed it back to my motel as fast as I could. When I got there, my hands were shaking so hard I couldn't unlock the door to my room, so I headed for the office. I tried to compose myself before I went in.

"I think you should call the police," I told the desk clerk, stifling any telltale trace of irrational hysteria. "There's a little girl in the cemetery alone. She seems to be lost."

I was somewhat calmer once I'd handed over the girl's well-being to the proper authorities. I managed to let myself into my room and, still feeling chilled, I stood in a hot shower until I was plenty warmed up enough to get to sleep. There would be no morning departure as I'd planned. I wanted to revisit the cemetery in the bright light of day, and see if the office had any records to show whether my great-great grandmother was buried beneath the PETTIS stone. And, I must admit, I was curious to know whether the little girl was safely returned to her mother.

In the morning, after a continental breakfast consisting of a dried-out doughnut and two cups of coffee, I stepped out into the light of day which, as it turned out, was not bright at all but rather ominously overcast. Still, I went straight to the cemetery, thinking to have another look around the PETTIS stone until the office opened, but it was already open when I arrived. An elderly woman looked up from her desk when I walked in.

"Good morning," she said. "Can I help you?"

"Can you tell me whether Kate Efner Pettis is buried here?" I asked.

"Is she dead?" she asked.

"That or else she's 150 years old," I replied.

"I see,' she said, getting up from the desk. "I suppose I'll have to look that up." And off she went to the back room. After a few minutes, I took a seat to wait. By and by, I began to nod off, having slept poorly during the night despite the hot shower I'd had, due to some frightfully chilling nightmares.

Her voice jerked me back to consciousness when she finally returned and announced, as if I'd wondered, "She's dead."

"Uh-huh," I said, waiting for more.

"She's in lot 69-I. Been there since the 29th of May, 1914. Funny thing, though, there are six plots in 69-I. The Pettis family owned them all, but only the two of them were ever buried there."

"Her husband is there? Darius is there?" I asked in disbelief. From what I'd heard, Darius had gone to Montana and never returned, leaving his wife Kate to raise their daughter, also named Kate, alone.

"Darius? No, the name wasn't Darius" she said. "The name of the other one is Frankie, not Darius. Buried in November of 1867. Youngster. There's a separate little gravestone next to the big one. You'll see it."

"I was there last night," I said. "All I saw was one big gravestone with nothing on it but PETTIS. I didn't see any small marker next to it. Was I in the right place?"

She pointed at a map of the cemetery, but of course I wasn't sure if her finger landed where I'd been the night before. I'd been too distracted then to notice exactly where I was. Which reminded me to ask, "Do you know whether the police found that little girl who was lost here last night?"

"Oh, I'm sure there was no lost child here last night," she said. "My son investigated that himself. He's a policeman, you know. So, you're the one who called that in? My boy gave the place a thorough going-over and I assure you, there was no lost child."

I saw no point in pursuing the subject further with her. I had more important things on my mind. I was eager to find out more about this Frankie. I'd thought my great-grandmother was an only child, but now it seemed she'd had a brother. With a mental picture of the cemetery map in my head, I left the office, and in minutes I was standing once again in front of the PETTIS stone I'd found the night before. Frankie's stone wasn't exactly next to the big one, but it was there alright, set off a little, toward the mausoleum. It said only "FRANKIE" on the top, and if there was anything inscribed on the front of the stone, it was no longer discernible. I'd never have known Frankie was a Pettis by looking at this stone.

Clearly I would not be leaving Winona yet, as I now had to return to the library. I hoped to find something in the old newspapers about the death of Frankie Pettis.

Luck was on my side. The library was open and they had an obituary clipping file among their holdings. It didn't take me long to find what I needed, and when I did, it chilled me to the bone. Frankie wasn't a boy at all. It was her. Frankie was the girl in the graveyard.


There's still time!
Tomorrow, October 15, is the deadline for
Carnival of Genealogy, 58th Edition:
Halloween Hauntings
Fact or Fiction?

poster courtesy of footnoteMaven

Update: Fact or Fiction?

This carnival was great fun, and my story is all true, except for the following:
  • I didn't go to the graveyard in the evening, and there was no chill. It was a warm and sunny day.
  • The cemetery office was open, and the person who looked up the Pettis records for me was, to the best of my memory, neither elderly nor eccentric.
  • There was no ethereal Frankie by the Pettis gravestone. I don't rule out the possibility that she may have been elsewhere, but I didn't see or speak with her!
  • There was no motel clerk, no police, no nightmares, no stale doughnut, and I didn't drink coffee back then either.
  • There was no photograph of Frankie with her death notice.
For the real details and photos, click on this Tombstone Tuesday post.


Jasia said...

Good one, T.K.! You really had me going there!

I'm going to say this is partly fact but mostly fiction. It's good and eerie!

Apple said...

Great fiction!

Sheri said...

I didn't know how else to get ahold of you. You have been "Tagged" over on my blog, the Educated Genealogist -

Sheri Fenley

Carol said...

Ha! You had me going too! Good one. You tell a spooky tale. :) Thanks for coming by iPentimento today too and leaving a comment about the 4000 year old vessel.

Bill West said...

Hi T.K!

I'm going with Jasia here.It's a
great story but I'm saying fiction!


Msteri said...

Oh what a great story! I am going to saying fiction, but what a story!


Janet Iles said...

I am sure there are elements of truth in this great story but I am going to say fiction.

You certainly told a great tale.

T.K. said...

Thanks, visitors, for playing Halloween Hauntings: Fact or Fiction? This post has been updated with the answer to that question, and you can click here for a Tombstone Tuesday follow-up.

Blog Archive


Our Family in Books: A Bibliography

  • My Ancestors in Books (a library of resources and notes pertaining to Reverend Samuel Stone, Major General Robert Sedgwick, Elder John Crandall, and other early Americans in the forest where my family tree was grown)
  • The Zahnisers: A History of the Family in America by Kate M. Zahniser and Charles Reed Zahniser (Mercer, Pa. 1906)
  • History of St. James Lutheran Church [full title: A little of this and a little of that in the 141 year (1861-2002) History of St. James Lutheran Church, Reynolds Indiana] by Harold B. Dodge, published at Reynolds, Indiana, 2002; 170 pages.
  • Lisbon, North Dakota 1880-2005 Quasuicentennial, published at Lisbon, North Dakota in 2005; 391 pages.
  • The Paschen and Redd Families of Cass County, Indiana by Alfred Paschen, c. 2005 (Gateway Press, Inc., Baltimore, MD); 322 pages.
  • Sheldon Community History: Sheldon Centennial 1881-1981, published at Sheldon, North Dakota in 1981; 376 pages.
  • Sheldon, North Dakota 1881-2006 - 125th Anniversary: The Queen of the Prairie, published at Sheldon, North Dakota in 2006; 498 pages.
  • A Standard History of White County, Indiana, written under the supervision of W.H. Hamelle, c. 1915 (The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago and New York).
  • The Roots of Coventry, Connecticut by Betty Brook Messier and Janet Sutherland Aronson, c. 1987 (Coventry 275th Anniversary Committee, Coventry, CT); 206 pages.
  • "Elder John Crandall of Rhode Island and His Descendants" by John Cortland Crandall; New Woodstock, New York, 1949; 797 pages.
  • "The Descendants of Robert Burdick of Rhode Island." Nellie (Willard) Johnson, Pd.B.: H & L Creations, LLC.

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