BETHANY, W.Va. – When it comes to tales of ghosts, there’s hardly a more storied setting than the hallowed grounds of God’s Acre Cemetery. This graveyard, nearly two centuries old, sits on a hill and back into the woods just across the road from Alexander Campbell’s historic mansion in this college town in West Virginia’s northern panhandle.
God’s Acre, also known as Campbell Cemetery, serves as the final resting place for Bethany College founder Alexander Campbell, both of his wives, 13 of his 14 children, and many of their descendants, as well as many former Bethany presidents and professors.
Some believe that the reason for all the stories lies within the structure of the graveyard itself. While God’s Acre was established in 1820 after the death of Alexander and Margaret Campbell’s infant daughter, Amanda, a four-foot-high stone wall that now completely encloses the cemetery was not constructed until 1866, after the death of Campbell himself. It is said that because there is no break in the wall – which stands four feet above ground but also extends three feet below – the spirits of those interred in God’s Acre have no way of leaving the cemetery, thus trapping them in their graves and within the walls.
Campbell was the leading influence in America’s largest indigenous religious movement, known variously as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Churches of Christ, and the Christian Church. An innovative educator who founded Bethany College in 1840, Campbell was a leader in childhood and adolescent education and championed universal female education.
God’s Acre is home to more than 250 graves and, some say, almost that many spirits.
“You can feel the sort of presence you hear about in ghost stories when you go,” said Tess Parry, a Bethany College student who has visited the cemetery many times. “It’s a nice place, but it is pretty scary.”
Bethany, being an old and historic town, has plenty of ghost stories associated with it. Perhaps no other part of this area is said to be more haunted than God’s Acre. When a new school year begins at Bethany College, one of the first activities offered to students new and old is the annual telling of ghost stories by Dr. Larry Grimes in the old Campbell Cemetery. Grimes has been a fixture of Bethany College and the community for more than 40 years, and his tales of the supernatural even have the ability to shape how some students see both the school and the area.
Bethany student Sarah Smith attended Grimes’ storytelling event last fall, and she says it has affected both her emotions and her interest in Bethany’s history.
“I absolutely believe in the ghost stories of Bethany,” Smith said. “I knew about some of them before I got here, but the ones about the cemetery were all new to me, and I can really imagine them happening.”
Smith also said that even if the specific events Grimes spoke of were exaggerated, she still believed that “there are spirits that you can really feel whenever you go there.”
The mausoleum of Argyle Campbell is situated on a hill overlooking the rest of God’s Acre and falling under the shadow of a few very old trees. The tall, white-grey rectangular tomb with the green copper door is the most foreboding monument in the graveyard. It is no wonder there are stories about the tomb, considering its frightening appearance and a few details that one notices on closer inspection. The door of the tomb is inscribed, “Beyond this door is rest,” a sentiment that should put a mind at ease but instead seems to instill a sense of dread, and, underneath this, what must certainly be a bullet hole.
Two of the most popular stories about the Argyle Campbell tomb have to do with groups of boys from the college spending the night in the cemetery, only to wind up being plagued by strange dreams of the tomb they slept beside. One details a boy dreaming that he is trapped in the tomb and attempting to claw his way out, and when he awakes, his fingers are bloodied as if from struggle. Another, the story of the bullet hole, claims a boy who stayed in the cemetery overnight dreamed he was in the tomb being shot at by Campbell’s ghost, and when he and his friends next returned to the cemetery, there was the bullet hole, right where it would have been had it pierced the boy’s heart while he was attempting to escape the tomb.
Whether one believes in tales of the supernatural or not, the historical value and aesthetic beauty of God’s Acre cannot be denied. The enclosing wall serves as a perfect first impression for what it contains. It simultaneously screams “keep out,” while somehow managing to also draw the visitor in. The oddity of a completely enclosed graveyard gives one an eerie sense of adventure. Rather than simply walking in as with any other cemetery, one must consciously choose to scale the stone stairs, step over the wall, and enter God’s Acre.
An initial look around leaves one feeling both humbled and intrigued, wanting to read each and every gravestone and absorb every piece of history while battling the feeling that the entire place is something private that a visitor perhaps shouldn’t be intruding upon. Even when the rest of Bethany is perfectly warm, God’s Acre Cemetery feels perpetually as if it has been touched by an autumn chill.
The graves of Campbell and his family have stood the test of time (some better than others). Those looking for a touch of the supernatural feel the heavy silence and spend their visit wondering if there just might be something behind that tree or just beyond the wall.
How to get there: Visitors can reach God’s Acre from Washington by taking Route 844 west. Turn left on Route 88 just past the West Virginia line. Travel five miles, then turn left on Route 67. Drive past the main campus and playing fields. The entrance to God’s Acre is on the right just before the Campbell mansion, which is on the left.
Emma Shinn is a sophomore majoring in English at Bethany College.