Monday, November 27, 2017

Peace Cemetery - Haunted Grounds

Outside of Joplin, Missouri is where you will find Peace Church Cemetery. One of the oldest graveyards in Jasper County, it dates back to 1855, ten years before the Civil War. There was a church next to the cemetery originally, but Peace Baptist Church burned to the ground long ago and now the dead and buried are all that remain.

For many years after the church burned, the cemetery was abandoned and forgotten. The old gravestones were covered in weeds that reached 6 feet tall. Briars and thick brush made it almost impossible to enter. Locals told of strange sounds and a feint, bobbing light late at night that could be seen through the trees. Along with the weeds and brush, the stories helped ensure everyone stayed away.

Eventually, the building of new homes and stores in the area have led the 2-lane road in front of the cemetery to become very busy. Most of the drivers passed right on by, intent on their daily lives and never knowing the intriguing stories of Peace Cemetery.

On July 5, 1861, the Civil War began in Missouri with the Battle of Carthage in Jasper County just a few miles from Peace Cemetery. Before the war ended, hundreds of men from the area were dead and most of the locals were forced to leave the county. A large number of men killed in area fighting were buried in the graveyard, sometimes multiple bodies were buried together with nothing but a small pile of rocks to mark the location. One of the most gruesome events happened on May 18, 1863 at the farm of a family named Rader, less than 300 yards down a dirt road from Peace Cemetery.

Major Thomas Livingston was commander of a Rebel guerrilla unit of about seventy men that ambushed a Union foraging party that was holding the Rader family at gunpoint and taking all the corn from the Rader Farm to feed soldiers at Fort Blair in Baxter Springs, Kansas. African American soldiers from Fort Blair, commanded by white soldiers of a Union artillery battery, were moving the corn from the barn to wagons when Livingston’s soldiers attacked from the woods as they came up from Peace Church Cemetery. The whole area was a field of bloodshed as Union soldiers scrambled desperately for their weapons, sought cover or tried to escape from the devastating surprise attack. Half of them would be gunned down. The Rebel troops, in desperate need of provisions themselves, stripped the bodies of clothing, shoes, weapons, and canteens. In their anger and battle frenzy, some of the dead bodies were mutilated.

A few Union men escaped and made their way back that night to the Baxter Springs outpost. The next morning, seeking retribution, hundreds of Union soldiers rode through the cemetery to the site of the ambush. Their commander, Colonel James Williams, was enraged to find some of the bodies of his ambushed troops mutilated. Because of the warm weather, the colonel decided it would be best to simply cremate the gory remains. The corpses were placed in a pile inside the Rader house, but before the flames were ignited, one of the Rebels who had apparently participated in the ambush the day before was captured and brought before the colonel. The colonel had him marched into the house, shot and thrown on the pile of mangled soldiers. The whole house was then set ablaze. Unfortunately, the Rebel prisoner had only been wounded and his screams of agony were heard until the roof of the burning house fell down.

Since then, there have been numerous reports in the area of moaning sounds, agonized screams, shadows that seem to move quickly from tree to tree and even ghostly apparitions appearing to be dressed in civil war uniforms. Perhaps the events at the Rader farm were so gruesome that the poor victims have been damned to never have peace, to forever wander the area in eternal suffering.

In late 1928 or early 1929, just outside Joplin near Peace Cemetery, William Cook was born. The last of 8 children born to an alcoholic father and an abused mother, Cook had a deformity in his right eye which caused it to be an odd shape and the lid would never close, even when he blinked or slept. His family and others soon gave him the nickname "Cockeyed," a name he hated, but was stuck with throughout his brief, troubled life.

At age 5, Cook's long suffering mother died and his dad moved all 8 children into a cave. A year later, his father deserted them, leaving the kids to make do as they could. The children were discovered by the authorities and moved into an orphan home. His brothers and sisters were all adopted, but Bill's eye, which caused him to look sinister, and a bad temperament prevented his adoption. Eventually he went to live with a foster mother, but she only wanted the money the state provided for his care and vacillated between abusing and ignoring him, often neglecting even to provide food for him. Two years in a row, he was given a bicycle for Christmas, which he proudly showed the caseworker who came by to check up on how he was being treated. Both times, the bike would soon be repossessed for lack of payment.

Before his 13th birthday, Bill began running around the streets at night, stealing various items. He was arrested and told the court he wanted to go to reform school rather than back to his foster mom. Six months later on the same day he was released, he robbed a cab driver of $11. He was found and arrested that night and spent the next 5 years back in reform school. He often got into fights with the other kids because they made fun of his droopy eye. He almost beat one kid to death and so was transferred to the Old Missouri State Prison. While there, he got into another fight when an inmate joked about his eye and Bill beat him so bad with a baseball bat the man spent a month in the hospital. 

Released in 1950 at age 22, Bill went back to Joplin and looked up his father. Being rejected by him again, he then traveled cross-country to California. He managed to stay out of trouble for a few months, working as a dishwasher, but it wasn't long before he acquired a .32 caliber handgun and began traveling around the country and into Mexico. His method of travel was to kidnap people and make them drive him from one place to another. For reasons he never really explained, some of the people he would kill, but others he let go without harm. 

In New Mexico, the auto he had stolen from one of his kidnapped victims ran out of gas. A car driven by Carl Mosser with his wife and three children stopped to help the stranded motorist. Bad mistake. Bill pulled his gun and made the family drive him all the way back to his old stomping grounds in Joplin. Along the way, he robbed stores and gas stations and shot anyone who tried to stop him. Once back in Joplin, Bill ordered the family out of the car and shot all five of them, finishing them off, even the children, with a shot to the head. He then threw the bodies down an abandoned mine shaft near the cave where his father had abandoned his children.

Bill took the Mosser's car and headed back toward California. The car broke down and he kidnapped a deputy sheriff who had stopped to help him. He left the unharmed policeman handcuffed in a ditch a few miles later. Changing cars in the next town, he shot and killed the new car's owner. He drove this car to California where he shot and killed several more men, taking their cars. He headed south, robbing along the way, until crossing into Mexico where the police chief in Santa Rosaria recognized him from a wanted poster. Casually walking up beside him, he suddenly pulled Bill's gun from the waist of his pants and arrested him without a fight. Sent back to California where he was tried for his crimes in that state, he was found guilty and executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber on December 12, 1952. 

The area outside the cemetery fence where "Cockeyed" Cook
is supposedly buried in an unmarked grave.
"Cockeyed" Cook's body was sent back to Joplin for burial, but once there, nobody claimed it and no cemetery would allow him to be buried in their consecrated grounds. An agreement was finally made with Peace Cemetery for him to be buried outside the graveyard's fence with no marker to indicate the location. The graveside service and burial was held in secrecy under the cover of darkness with the aid of flashlights and lasted less than 10 minutes. It is said that just as the last shovel of dirt was thrown over his grave, the cry of a small child was heard whereupon the preacher and grave diggers hurriedly left.

Today, through the supreme efforts of a few volunteers, Peace Cemetery is once again accessible. The underbrush has been cleared, the weeds are kept mowed and the old gravestones are visible. Along with the souls of the civil war damned, does  Cook’s lonely, pain-ridden ghost haunt Peace Church Cemetery? Stories of the supernatural still abound in the area. Visitors still report seeing strange lights and hearing disembodied voices at night. Some claim to have seen what looks like a man standing in the woods outside the cemetery fence watching them. Many believe the mysterious man is the ghost of Billy Cook trying to make it into the cemetery and finally find some peace. Who knows for sure? Only the ghosts themselves.