‘Witch’s grave’ legend destroying family cemetery, real history
By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
The legend has traveled through high school hallways to ghost hunting blogs: a cracked gravestone in an abandoned cemetery north of Liberty Hill marks the spot where a woman, a slave, was hung, cut down and buried over 100 years ago for the mortal sin of witchcraft.
But historical researchers and modern day relatives of Elizabeth Simpson, the woman buried there at the Bittick Family Cemetery, tell a very different story.
“Virtually everything in Elizabeth Simpson’s so-called ‘legend’ is pure fiction – just miserable excuses to have a place to drink and vandalize private property,” said Johnny Bittick, a living descendant of the original Bittick family with whom Elizabeth belonged to. “There is no excuse for senseless destruction of historical artifacts.”
At the Bittick Family Cemetery, re-discovered and maintained by the family since the early 1980s, one finds surrounding the stump of the tombstone the litter of crushed beer cans, cigarettes, toy cars and figurines, coins, flowers, stuffed animals and used condoms.
These are the “offerings” said to be required by the crude warning once carved on her grave: “And remember as yo ar pasin by yo must die as well as I”.
Once carved because the grave by this point has been almost completely destroyed by late-night visitors, who chip the headstone for souvenirs of their claimed encounter with the supernatural. Five years ago, one individual took a large tool to the stone and drove a gash through the middle.
“There’s no historical or factual information, whatsoever, that would give anyone reason to assume she was a witch,” said Randy Jones, an in-law to the Bitticks who played an integral role in the family’s own extensive genealogical research predating the first known appearances of the legend.
The real Elizabeth Simpson bears almost no relation to the myth of “Elizebeth Simpson” (as her name is often spelled in retellings).
When settlers Johnathan and Jinsy Bittick moved to the Tejas territory of Mexico, they brought their extended family. Later, Elizabeth Simpson traveled from Louisiana to join them. A complicated series of blood and marriages made her what could be called a niece-in-law to Jinsy Bittick. She died at age 30 in 1864, and was buried in the family cemetery.
As a white woman, she was not enslaved. Nor was she hung for witchcraft, or horse thievery as it is sometimes said. Additionally, she is not even buried under the gravestone. The family moved it to the front after the fifth or so time that sheriff’s officers had returned it after being stolen. This, it was thought, would cut down on the amount of vandalism on the other graves, which have also suffered vandalism and theft.
The “Witch’s Grave” myth is an example of modern folklore passed through internet boards, said Anita Dalton, a Pflugerville resident who, though unrelated to the Bitticks, has researched the legend extensively for her blog, “Odd Things Considered.”
“My research shows that the stories of the witch grave really started to get traction in the last 20 years or so, and have been spread through ghost hunters who visit the cemetery at night to talk to the dead witch and assorted ‘weird’ sites that tell ghost stories,” she said.
Between 2007 and 2010, Dalton said, the “legend really got legs.”
“The popularity of ghost hunting, especially given the success of paranormal television shows, is, in my opinion, behind the explosion of the Liberty Hill Witch,” she said.
Despite the lack of any information supporting the historical occurrence of the legend (and the abundance of records about the real Elizabeth Simpson), an entry on findagrave.com has appeared for the site, which lists “Elizabeth Simpson” [sic] as a black woman, hanged for witchcraft, as buried there. The entry subsequently was used as a source for an Ancestry.com entry on the same mythical person, spelled the same way, again marked as buried there.
The only interesting part, Dalton said, was the gravestone’s epithet: “And remember as yo ar pasin by yo must die as well as I”.
Though Dalton notes that such ominous messages were not uncommon in the time period, “what is bizarre to me is how misspelled the inscription is on the headstone. No other extant stone in this cemetery was subject to such miserable spelling.”
This, she said, might be the original inspiration for the notion that the grave was haunted in some way.
“Due to the ephemeral nature of the Internet, I don’t know if anyone will ever be able to trace this story back to its source, but that one comment so long ago shows that the story of Elizebeth was nascent back in or around 1997-1999.”
Jones said that chip marks began to appear on the grave in the early 1990s.
“Little pieces as big as a quarter at first,” he said. “Then it got worse and worse. About five years ago, it looked like someone had a crowbar or something, and they made a huge gash in it.”
According to local historian Gary Spivey, a relative to the Bitticks who has several ancestors buried in the cemetery, a UT professor in the art department, who teaches gravestone repairs as a part of a class, has expressed interest in restoring the gravestone as a class project, provided that the Bittick family supply the stone.
Jones was part of the family genealogical research effort that re-discovered the cemetery in the early 1980s. Some had traced Johnathan and Jinsy Bittick to Williamson County, in the vicinity of Georgetown. At the Georgetown Library, a book listing all the cemeteries had one entry for the Bitticks— though at the time the cemetery was listed by a different name.
The book pointed to a location that was at that point a cow pasture. The cows, recalled Jones, grazed on the grass between the tombstones, and had over the years knocked many over.
Dalton pointed to the cows, still surrounding the plot though separated by a fence, as the source of the mysterious sounds often used as evidence by ghost hunters for the site’s “haunting”.
The cemetery, which spans an area slightly larger than a typical backyard swimming pool, contains the remains of many who lived during the time of the Republic of Texas.
Though the pasture containing the cemetery had since been bought by another family, the actual cemetery plot still belonged to Williamson County and the Daughters of the Republic. The modern Bitticks, together with the local Spivey and Gardner families (who are tied to the Bitticks), put together enough money to restore the plot and enclose it with a fence.
Johnathan Bittick’s headstone had fallen and split in two. One man took it home and cemented it together. A few years later, another family member came and set the tombs flat, and laid them in with concrete.
As the years passed, and damage to Elizabeth Simpson’s grave began to accrue, other tombstones at the site began to see impacts. The grave of one child, born October 29th, has also seen coin offerings similar to those left at Elizabeth’s. At least two spires have also been stolen before. One was found years later in a dry creek bed, and returned to the family by law enforcement officers. Another was then given to the Williamson County Historical Commission.
Spivey believes the story might have roots in an account given by local teacher Harold Asher, as recorded in Dr. James Gordon Bryson’s 1964 book Culture of the Shin Oak Ridge Folk.
Bryson recalls a walk he had with the teacher through the cemetery some years before. After Asher points out the strange message written on Simpson’s grave (“as classical as one could find in the old New England churchyards of two centuries ago”), he motions to the oak tree down the road. That, he said, was the hanging tree.
“He had talked with people who had told him they remembered seeing a bit of rope around one of its limbs,” Bryson wrote.
Asher had been told that two black men were hung there for stealing horses, which Bryson does not believe at the time but later finds more plausible.
Later in the text, Asher says that Elizabeth Simpson was a slave. This would be the first known instance in which the claim was made, although Simpson had died a century prior to the book’s publication.
Though several key elements of the “Witch’s Grave” legend are missing, the close proximity of his two claims could have laid the groundwork for the myth that would appear decades later. Bryson concluded his account with “I am not going to write off anything that Harold Asher tells me without digging a lot deeper than the eye can see.”
No evidence exists to link the tree to any individual named Elizabeth or Elizebeth Simpson, but the proximity of the tree, down the road from the cemetery, might have helped lay its groundwork.
Dalton said that it likely was influenced by similar ghost stories about women who died as slaves in the 19th Century, such as “Chloe,” who also has been shown to be largely fictional, and Marie Laveau, who was real — in life, at least.
Though even false legends can shed light on real historical suffering, Dalton said, the story of “Elizebeth Simpson” is “a bad ghost story that doesn’t really add to the lore of Texas or depict social issues of the past so much as it contributes to wholesale vandalism of historical sites.”
“Without working very hard I was able to find the records of over 15 black women who were actually lynched in Texas, and they were killed after the Civil War. None were accused of being witches, none angered their masters – they were free women who were executed outside of the judicial system because of the color of their skin,” he said.
Descendent Johnny Bittick took a different perspective on the myth’s relation to history, as he wrote in an email to The Independent.
“Just a thought – those senseless, brain-addled ruffians who have destroyed her tombstone should hope that Elizabeth is not a witch. If she is, they may – in the next life – have to pay a high price for what they’ve done to her tombstone!”