Written By: Shane Hampton
The tale of the American Witch has enchanted storytellers since the mid-1600’s. Alse (Alice) Young was the first recorded colonist to be hung for witchcraft in what is now Hartford, Connecticut in 1647. The infamous Salem witch trials began during the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. As a wave of hysteria spread throughout colonial Massachusetts, a special court convened in Salem to hear the cases; the first convicted witch, Bridget Bishop, was hanged that June. Eighteen others followed Bishop to Salem’s Gallows Hill, while some 150 more men, women and children were accused over the next several months.
Here is Where Our Story Begins:
More than two hundred years later and one thousand miles to the south, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia; the legend of the American Witch continues with the story of Elizabeth Jane Tilley Bradley. As the story goes, Elizabeth was of Creek Indian descent and served the Tilley Bend Community as a healer in the late 1800s. Elizabeth and her husband, Jason Bradley, had eight children; six daughters and two sons. During the early 1900s, the Tilley clan became embroiled in a bitter feud with their closest neighbors, the Stanley’s. Elizabeth’s family was caught in the middle as one daughter was married to a Stanley and the other to a Tilley. The feud escalated and one Sunday morning, while the Tilley Bend Community was attending church services, the Stanley’s came. Stanley men shot into the church and killed several of the Tilley’s, including Elizabeth’s eldest daughter. In retribution, the Tilley’s gathered up a posse and raided the Stanley Settlement while they slept.
During this raid, Elizabeth pregnant daughter, who was married to a Stanley watched as her husband was slain. She and the baby died in childbirth. Heartbroken and enraged, Elizabeth cursed both settlements and proclaimed that no child would live to either family. The clans buried their dead and life went on as usual but with one exception; during the following year, every single child born in either settlement was either still-born or died within the first year.
Our Visit on Sept 19, 2017
With the above story fueling our curiosity, Fran and I made the trip to Tilley Bend. As with most legends, I suspected that it was more fiction than reality. The church had been refurbished some time ago, but allegedly, Tilley family descendants have pictures of the original whitewashed church with bullet holes and all, as evidence of the Stanley Massacre.
The first thing you notice is the large tree, just left of the center of the graveyard. It’s the only tree within the confines of the graves. Naturally, I made my way to the tree and a strange sensation came over me as I saw with my own eyes, the weathered headstone of Elizabeth Jane Tilley Bradley. Right there under the tree, just as the legend says. The headstone, however, was facing toward the west just like all the other graves. Admittedly, I was disappointed. But the more I looked around the area, I noticed other strange things. Behind the headstone (where the body of Elizabeth would be buried if the stories were true) was a pile of blackened ash. Someone had recently burned something on the grave. I also noticed that there isn’t another grave in the same area. She lies alone.
I noticed there was a footstone, but it was much more modern than the old weathered headstone. It had been placed rather recently. Much to our daughter, Julia’s delight a spider had taken up residence in the “E”
The footstone was right up against the tree trunk therefore; I began to imagine the length of a casket (or even the length of the average woman) and found that it was not physically possible for a body to be buried in that direction so close to the root system of the massive tree. Indeed, the grave would have had to be dug all the way to the base of the tree. The last thing I noticed was that the dirt around the headstone was piled fresh as if someone had dug it up and turned it around the other way. I was convinced, Elizabeth was buried facing the west, just as the legend stated. The church (or someone) recently turned the headstone around with the intent of concealing this fact.
Here is a video showing that the headstone was facing West until recently when someone turned it around. The stone is shown at 48 seconds. It also appears it was shifted slightly to the right of the tree
More shivers. I looked around the graveyard for Fran, we had split up and she was walking around taking pictures and I noticed that the clear majority of the graves had flowers laid on them. Someone was taking care to tend to the dead. I absently looked back at Elizabeth’s resting place and noticed she had no flowers. Shivers. Furthermore, the area around the headstone was quite barren. A stark contrast to the thick, green grass that carpeted the rest of the graveyard.
Fully convinced that I had discovered the grave of the infamous Blue Ridge Witch, I found Fran and we began to discuss the legend. I pulled up other photos of the grave and saw clearly that people had taken photos of the headstone and it was indeed facing West. What we were seeing was a headstone that has purposefully been turned around. We began to discuss Elizabeth’s sister-in-law but couldn’t remember her name. I searched the internet and found her name. Mary.
We remembered that Mary was hung and buried one year to the day and we quickly began to search for her grave. We found it only to discover only to discover that when we entered the graveyard and Fran and I split up, that was the very first picture Fran took without even knowing who it was. She was drawn to this headstone first as it was a small stone cross with moss growing on it, she didn’t pay attention to the name, only the beauty of the cross. Knowing that she was drawn first to this particular headstone spooked her a little.
In the very back of the graveyard were maybe a dozen or more graves marked only by large rocks. Some with very crude and undiscernible carvings on them. We later discovered that these were the graves of still-born children. Shivers.
We left Tilley Bend Church that day, fully convinced that we had seen the grave of a bonafide witch. Maybe, maybe not. I have never been in a situation where there was so much physical evidence to support a legend. Of course, there could have been any number of reasons for so many children to be still-born, but the idea of a curse is so much more interesting.
P.S. One last creepy note: Oddly, we noticed that both Elizabeth and Mary headstones state they shared the same birthdate 2-28-1846 as well as death date 10-26-1906. That’s odd. But Legend states they died 1 year apart to the day. Mary’s headstone is also rather new looking doncha think? Were the years changed to reflect the same birthdates as well as death dates or is this a fact, did they enter the world on the same day and both perish on 10-26-1906?
P.P.S. We recently met a few awesome Stanley folk and while talking to them, they said they never heard of this story, but as children, they were not allowed to play up at Tilley Bend because “it was haunted“.
They also stated, “We don’t talk much about the Tilley’s…“