Chapter 5: Springdale Cemetery

Haunted Central Illinois

PEORIA, Ill. — Springdale Cemetery was founded in 1855 and is one of the largest in the state.

Spreading over 225 acres of land, there are 15 private mausoleums, nine public statues, and multiple other public monuments. The cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places back in 2004.

Over 70,000 people are buried there, meaning over time, some urban legends began to form.

One of the most well-known legends is the “Witches Circle,” also called “Cole’s Circle.” The secluded circle, hidden in the prairies, is said to be a popular area for trespassers to have performed witchcraft and satanic rituals. It is the burial site for a circle of graves, all members of the Cole family, who worked to open the first distillery in the city.

“There is a circle of tombstones, and it’s one of the wealthiest families of the time,” Springdale Cemetery Tours storyteller Brian “Fox” Ellis said. “He built this huge monument [for] his family. So the Witches Circle is probably the most popular story, but there is no truth to it that I know of.”

Additionally, there have been mentions of people hanging themselves from the foreboding sassafras tree.

But there are more than just whispers of witches in the cemetery; it is a major location regarding the first Peoria serial rapist.

A young woman’s body was found naked and sprawled across a fallen tree in Springdale Cemetery back in the 1930s. Her murder sparked fear around the city, and it was not until another victim, who survived, came forward and helped get murderer and rapist Gerald Thompson behind bars.

A journal Thompson kept identified named at least sixteen victims, and helped police find their bodies, according to records from the Peoria Public Library.

Edwin V. Champion, a lawyer at the time, helped the surviving woman bring Thompson to light. The suspect’s trial lasted around a week and he was ultimately found guilty. He was sentenced to death row on Oct. 15, 1935.

“Champion was the prosecutor who did finally believe her,” Ellis said.

Champion is buried in the Springdale Cemetery and is one of the handfuls of famous memorials that are able to be visited. He went on to become the Peoria County state’s attorney and was elected as a Democrat to the 75th Congress. After his time as a U.S. representative, Champion went back to Peoria and continued to practice law.

“I think it’s intriguing that Edwin Champion, the champion of young women, is buried in the mausoleum,” Ellis said.

Anyone wanting to stop by the cemetery will definitely find some interesting history, but maybe – just maybe – they will also find a ghost or two.

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