Local stone carver recreates headstone for ‘witch’s grave’


By Kristen Meriwether

An internet search for “witch’s grave Liberty Hill, Texas” will show countless tales of a “witch” buried at the Bittick Family Cemetery.

According to the most popular version of the legend, Elizabeth Simpson was a Black slave accused of being a witch. Simpson allegedly stole a horse in an attempt to escape, was captured and hung from a nearby tree.

Her headstone, which features numerous misspellings, gives an ominous warning: “And remember, As yo ar pasing By yo must dy, As well as I”.

The story has captivated generations around Liberty Hill since at least the 1960s, with kids going out to the cemetery to light candles, leave tokens and scare each other. As the story began to be spread online in the 1990s, the legend grew, bringing ghost hunters from around the country to the small, privately family cemetery.

The problem is, other than the woman’s name, nothing about the tale is true.

Elizabeth Simpson was a white woman who was related to one of several families buried in the Bittick Cemetery. She was not a slave. She was not a witch. And as far as anyone can tell, failing to leave an “offering” at Simpson’s headstone does not bring bad luck.

Despite the legend being discredited by The Independent as recently as 2017, the story continues to gain traction and grow online through blogs. Ghost hunters and curious looky loos travel from all over to place offerings at the grave.

But visitors today will only find a stump of a headstone. After the headstone had been stolen and returned multiple times in the 1980s, family members decided to set the headstone in concrete in an attempt to keep it in the cemetery.

The concrete kept the entire headstone from being stolen, but in the early 1990s visitors began to chip away pieces of it. It started as small, quarter-sized pieces, but as the years went by larger gashes were made. Over time the headstone finally became the stump on display today.

Thanks to Central Texas stone carver Matthew Johnson, Simpson will be getting a new headstone. Using a photo of the original, Johnson is recreating an exact replica of the headstone, misspelling and odd spacing included, using a piece of local limestone.

“We’ve been talking about it for years,” local historian Gary Spivey said. Spivey’s family is also buried at the Bittick Cemetery and he is a distant relative of Simpson.

“We decided that since it was a significant cemetery, we would try to put it back because it is part of our history,” Spivey said. “She’s not a witch, but it is a good story.”

Johnson, who owns and operates Bartlett Stone in Florence, said he likes to try and get into the mindset of the original carver when replicating pieces.

“The challenge on this project was not the actual carving itself so much as trying to get into the mindset of the carver and trying to think about what their approach would have been,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he believes the original was done by a stonemason, not a stone carver, which may explain the misspellings and odd spacing. He also believes the year of Simpson’s death was added after the original words, which is why it’s crammed in at the end.

For an artist who normally strives for perfection, the headstone project tested what he could let go.

“Most of my career has been trying to strive for perfection. So the challenge of this was to back off of that and just allow things to happen,” Johnson said. “But I didn’t want to just let things happen randomly. I had to let them happen in the same places where they’d happened before.”

Johnson will unveil the new headstone on Oct. 29 from 8 a.m to 3 p.m. at the Lions Foundation Park pavilion. The event is being hosted by the Liberty Hill Development Foundation, which normally hosts an annual sculpture festival.

The pandemic curtailed the event in 2020 and there were too many uncertainties this year to plan a grand event. So the Foundation decided to put on the artist display with a fun twist on a local legend instead.

As in past years with the sculpture festival, LHISD students will visit the park during the event. Johnson is expected to have the new headstone as well as a second piece of limestone that is blank so he can demonstrate the process.

“We want the school kids involved and develop an interest in art,” Foundation President Craig Hanley said.

Hanley said the organization hopes to continue the momentum they had prior to the pandemic by hosting a much larger event next year that will get back to the roots of the original International Sculpture Festival held in 1976.

The 1976 event featured 25 sculptors from across the globe. For two months Liberty Hill residents opened up their homes to the artists who ended up creating more than 20 monumental structures. The pieces are now housed on the campus of Louine Noble Elementary School.

“We are just trying to make the community aware of what’s here in Liberty Hill,” Hanley said. “Come out and enjoy the sculpture park.”