EAGLE CREEK TWP. -- The townfolks walked away from the abandoned gypsy campsite, their pants damp and stained with the color of blood.
They hadn't welcomed the gypsies with open arms and the gypsies, even in the 1820s, had powers beyond the comprehension of ordinary men.
The gypsies were told to leave what would later become Crown Point because townspeople had heard tales of pagan rituals and disappearing livestock.
When an influenza epidemic hit the gypsy campsite southeast of town, the townspeople refused to help or provide medicine to the gypsies, many of whom died and were buried in earthen mounds near the campsite.
Because of that, the townspeople and their descendants would forever pay a price for their inhospitable attitude -- the gypsies had cursed the city and their dead haunted what would later become South East Grove Cemetery.
Today the cemetery, also known as the "Gypsies Graveyard," seems serene and peaceful. But, visitors say it takes on a different feel at night with spirits that come to life.
Schererville police officer Diane Peifer knows.
When she visited the cemetery in August with her 8-year-old nephew, Patrick, and her dog, Peifer saw two statues - one of Jesus and another of an angel - that she had not noticed before. She moved slowly closer to the angel, which she said was wearing Mardi Gras-type beads.
"It was just like a strange feeling, a sensation, like you've stepped into a cool pocket," she said. Her dog froze in its tracks and refused to leave her side, even when her nephew called for it.
Peifer had known of another statue there, as she and Patrick had visited the cemetery a half-dozen or so times, but that one had mysteriously disappeared, she said.
The statue, she said, was of a woman carrying flowers or fruit in her arms. Wearing a long, flowing gown, the statue reminded Peifer of a gypsy.
Peifer isn't the only one who has noticed strange happenings at the cemetery.
Several people have posted Internet messages this year that give credibility to the 180-year-old myth. One person in the Chicagoland Ghost Club discussion group on Yahoo! said when people walk behind the cemetery's fence, blood appears on their pants.
Even Mike McDowell, president of the Indiana Ghost Trackers, conducts tours at the "Gypsies Graveyard" at least twice a year. He said he has seen white balls of light, called orbs, and paranormal activity such as ectoplasms, or strange white mists or shapes.
One time, McDowell said, a person in his group felt something tugging at his belt. When McDowell looked to see what it was, he said he saw a white orb.
Does that mean that all the creepy feelings, cold breezes and perceived apparitions really equate to a haunted cemetery?
Residents whose families have lived in the area for generations say no.
"There ain't no gypsy graveyard around here," said Ronnie Breneman, who lives just up the hill from the cemetery. "There's no gypsies buried here."
Breneman has been the chief caretaker at South East Grove since his son 16-year-old son Joseph died four years ago in a car accident. Joseph is buried there.
He said the only gypsies thought to have been in the area were transients who briefly worked for a neighbor by the name of Abramson and that man died decades ago.
Breneman said he knew a couple of gypsies had died while in the area, not of influenza but pneumonia, and the other gypsies took their dead home rather than burying them near Crown Point.
Besides, the story of townspeople shunning the gypsies is historically inaccurate, as the first people to settle in Lake County did not come until the mid-1830s.
As for the mysteriously appearing and disappearing statues and their curious bead necklaces, Breneman has an explanation for that, too. He said he has put three statues and a stone bench at the cemetery since his son died. The beads, he said, were actually rosary beads placed at the site by a local Catholic group.
Rampant vandalism over the years has lent an aura of creepiness to the cemetery.
Clarence Bradley, the former Eagle Creek Township Trustee who was in charge of the cemetery's care for 28 years until 1994, said young people would drive into the cemetery and topple the memorials with their four-wheel-drive vehicles. He said one person returned a headstone he had found three miles south of the cemetery.
When reached at his home, current township Trustee Jim Morrow said he preferred not to comment because stories about the cemetery attract more vandals, particularly around Halloween.
People still come to the cemetery to look for ghosts, and Breneman blames a book that describes the cemetery as haunted as the fuel that keeps the myth alive.
Breneman said he doesn't mind the ghost hunters because they just like to take pictures and be spooked. But, the devil worshippers who also are drawn to the site concern him.
He said one time about six years ago an occult group dug up a box of bones belonging to a baby girl and strung them from a tree with a mutilated goat and cat. Breneman said they smeared the girl's bones with the animals' blood. The girl, meant to symbolize a virgin, was their offering to the devil, he said.
That story meshes somewhat with one told by Kara Dokupil, who was taking pictures for a college class recently at the cemetery. Dokupil, who is from Hebron, said she heard a group called the "Misfits" would dig up bones at the cemetery and steal the heads.
Breneman said another time a group made a devil's mask and placed it over the head on the Jesus statue, which stands directly behind his son's grave. He said there is a book about the cemetery that says apparitions can be seen above Joseph's burial place, so the group worships on top of it.
"It doesn't make me feel good because they always want to have seances on my son's grave," he said.
The Lake County Sheriff's Department has been called to the cemetery, but Breneman said the visitors have police scanners and can tell when officers are on the way.
Breneman and his father-in-law, Hanley Chapman, have some of their own fun at the cemetery when people come looking for scary stuff, and their antics could be a reason people keep coming back for more.
Chapman said he keeps a washing machine drum and a coffee can in the woods that he uses to make sounds like a growling animal.
Last Halloween, Breneman said he filled a white suit from his job at a Gary steel mill with hay, tied a rope around its neck and buried it in the leaves near where people are known to look for ghosts.
Once visitors arrived, he and Chapman threw a stick their way to get their attention. Then they yanked the rope and the stuffed suit went flying into the air, sending the visitors scurrying for their cars.
Breneman said they'll be in the woods again tonight, but he isn't sure what stunts they'll pull this time.
"You never know," he said. "It depends on how I feel."
Return to Lowell History