The Mysterious Southern Illinois Healer & Her Lost Treasure Cave
Picture courtesy of Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) SIU, Carbondale
By Troy Taylor
One of the greatest mysteries of southern Illinois involves a woman named Anna Bixby (or Bigsby, according to some accounts). There are so many stories and legends, and various versions of the legends, about this woman that it is impossible to know what to believe. According to the census records of southern Illinois, she was a real person though and it has been generally accepted that she discovered a cure for what was then called "milk sickness". Amazingly, she did so almost 70 years before the medical establishment acknowledged that the source of the sickness was the plant that Anna had discovered long before.
Among the myriad of legends that still exist about Dr. Anna in southern Illinois is that of a cave in Hardin County, a lost treasure -- and of course, a ghost.
Anna Bixby was a doctor who lived years ago in southeastern Illinois. She was a talented midwife and healer who visited the sick, tended the wounded and traveled around the area to help those who were sick. She likely had no real medical education and even more likely was unable to read or write, as would have been common at this time. Because of the work that she did and the discovery of the root that was causing milk sickness, some historians refused to believe that she would have done all of this with no formal education. Perhaps for this reason, an alternate version of the story of Anna Bixby came to be. According to this version, Anna was the daughter of a wealthy pioneer named Norman Pierce, who came west to Illinois from Philadelphia in the early 1800's. Thanks to her family's wealth, she was able to train as a doctor in Pennsylvania (which would have been fairly unheard of at the time) and also as a school teacher.
This is unlikely though. Most recent historians believe that Anna was a midwife from Tennessee who came to Illinois with her husband, Isaac Hobbs. According to the census records, they were already married when they came to Illinois, which disputes the version of the story that says they were married after she went to medical school. Anna's medical training came from her study of herbs and healing techniques and she traveled widely to assist those in what would have been a wilderness at that time. When a strange disease began to break out in the region, which was killing both people and cattle, Anna was baffled. She watched, treated as best she could, observed the illness and studied the habits of those who were stricken. As hard as she worked though, she was unable to stop the scourge.
The number of deaths increased alarmingly and whole herds of cattle were wiped out. The superstitious came to believe that the illness was caused by a poison that was being scattered by a witch. There was even talk of retaliation against various persons who were suspected. Anna did not believe the witch theory though and felt that the cause of the illness was likely a plant that the cattle were eating and then passing on through their milk. The milk cows themselves did not fall ill but the other cattle, and the people, who drank their milk fell victim to the malady. Anna spread the word to the surrounding communities that they should refrain from drinking milk until after the frost in the autumn. Her warning saved many lives but did not save the young cattle, which the settlers depended on. Greater tragedy had been avoided for the time being, but the sickness was sure to return in the spring. Anna was determined to solve the mystery of the disease and became even more so after her husband fell ill and died from the milk sickness.
Anna puzzled over the illness through the winter and when spring came, she set off into the woods and fields to look for the plant that had caused so much misery. The solution to the problem came almost by accident when she chanced to meet in the woods an elderly Native American woman that the local people called "Aunt Shawnee". She was also a herbalist and healer and showed Anna a plant that we now call "milkweed", which had caused the same symptoms as the milk sickness did in her own tribe. The plant had killed many of the Shawnee cattle and she told Anna that it was probably what she was looking for.
Anna again spread the word and according to tradition, troops of men and boys prowled the woods, destroying the plant, for many years afterward. The plague was finally wiped out and in 1928, more than 60 years later, medical scholars acknowledged Anna's find as the cause of the ailment. For this reason, she has long been considered something of a legend in southern Illinois as a healer and medical worker --- but this was not the end of her story.
While the story of Anna Hobbs Bixby's solution for the milk sickness mystery has been accepted as truth, there are elements to the story (such as how much medical education she actually had) that remain open to question. The same can be said for the next great incident in Anna's life, which took place during her second marriage to Eson Bixby, who it is believed was involved in a number of criminal enterprises. The legend does have some elements of truth but unfortunately, much of it turned out to more fancy than fact. The legend originated in the book The Ballads of the Bluff by Judge W.M. Hall, who allegedly had a diary that belonged to Anna Bixby. Historians have since disputed much of the story, although it was believed that Hall was simply passing along stories that he had heard. Here is the basic version of the story:
Legend holds that John Murrell and his gang, along with James Ford and other disreputable characters, distilled whiskey and made counterfeit money in a headquarters in Hardin County that has since become known as Bixby's Cave. Enos Bixby, Anna's husband, took over after these men were driven out or killed and continued their operations, along with committing robberies and stealing timber. Bixby married Anna when she was an old woman because he hoped to steal her money from her. Finally, he attempted to kill her by tying her up with ropes and heavy chain and pushing her off a bluff. As it happened though, she fell into a tree and managed to escape. Not long after, Anna died suddenly and she was buried with the rope and chain that her husband tried to kill her with. Her ghost has haunted her burial site ever since, often appearing as a shimmering light.
But, despite the popularity of the tale, it only contains elements of the truth. The time period when all of this allegedly occurred seems to be the biggest problem with the story. Bixby's Cave did (and does still) exist, however after 1811 it is unlikely that it would have been big enough to house a moonshine distillery and certainly not a counterfeiting operation. The cave was heavily damaged in the earthquake that rocked the New Madrid Fault at that time and afterward was much less accessible than it had been before. Several of the men who were involved in the criminal aspects of the story were dead long before Anna married Eson Bixby and others who allegedly worked together were children during the time of the opposite criminal's heyday. If the story had involved these men, then it would have had to have taken place in the 1820's. This seems odd since Anna's first husband died in 1845 and Anna survived into the 1870's.
On the other hand, recent historians believe that the story may have occurred in some fashion but it was told and re-told using well-known outlaws as the key players in the tale, when the real culprits may have been much lesser known. There were counterfeiters operating in Hardin County at the time and it has been learned that Anna's second husband was involved with criminals.
In 1935, the Hardin County Independent newspaper published what was likely a more accurate account of Anna's escape from her murderous husband. The writer of the account, Charles L. Foster, had left Hardin County in the 1880's but had grown up in the Rock Creek area, a few homes away from Anna Bixby. He had been born in 1863 and vaguely remembered Eson Bixby when he was alive, which seems to date the escape to the late 1860's, in the years following the Civil War.
According to the account, a rider came to the Bixby household late one night during a terrible thunderstorm. He called out to the house that someone needed Anna's medical skills and of course, she immediately came out. She mounted the rider's second horse and they rode into the woods. The trail was shrouded in darkness, thanks to the heavy storm clouds overhead, and Anna soon became disoriented and unsure of their route. However, at one point during the ride, she looked over and when a flash of lighting illuminated the night, Anna saw the identity of the mysterious rider -- it was her husband Eson.
When he realized that she had discovered his identity, Bixby brought the horses to a halt and he quickly bound her hands and gagged her. It was obvious that he intended to do away with her and Anna began to panic. When she heard the jingle of chains being removed from his saddlebags, Anna became so frightened that she began to run, dashing into the dark woods. As she plunged into the forest, her fear became even stronger as she realized that she had no idea where she was. The storm continued to rage, sending rain lashing down on her and causing the wind to whip through the trees in a wild fury. Anna ran for some distance and then suddenly, the ground beneath her vanished and she tumbled over a large bluff and crashed to the ground far below. The fall broke the ropes that bound her hands but also broke some of her bones, seriously injuring her. Nevertheless, she managed to crawl a short distance to a fallen tree and slithered in behind it.
A few moments later, a light appeared in the darkness at the top of the bluff and Eson Bixby came into view carrying a burning torch. He climbed down from the top of the rocks and searched around for Anna, but he did not find her. After a few minutes, he returned to his horse and rode away.
Once he was gone, Anna began crawling and stumbling out of the forest. It took her until sunrise to find a nearby farmhouse but when she reached it, she found herself at the doorstep of friends -- only a few houses away from her own. They quickly took her in and she told them the story of what had happened.
Bixby was soon arrested and taken to the jail in Elizabethtown. He escaped though and vanished for a time. He was later captured again in Missouri, but once again, he escaped. This time, he disappeared for good and was never seen again.
Anna lived on in the Rock Creek community of Hardin County until the 1870's and when she died, she was buried next to her first husband and only a simple "A" was inscribed on her tombstone. But there are those who believe that Anna, or at least her spirit, lives on.
The legend of Anna Bixby states that her husband wanted to do away with her because of a fortune that she had managed to collect over the years. What may have amounted to a "fortune" in that day and time may have been much smaller than what we would consider to be one today but most believe that it was a large amount of money. The legend further states that when Anna learned of Eson's greed, she hid the money away somewhere, just before he attempted to do away with her. It is believed that the hiding place for the treasure was the cave beside Rock Creek in Hooven Hollow, which was also said to have been the hiding place of the outlaw gang.
The cave is still known as Anna Bixby Cave today and it is along the bluff, in the vicinity of the cave, where people have reported seeing a strange light appear over the years. The large, glowing light moves in and out of the trees and among the rocks, vanishing and then re-appearing without explanation. It is believed that the light may be that of Anna Bixby, still watching over the treasure that she hid away her years ago.
One of the most detailed accounts of the Bixby ghost light was collected by folklorist Charles Neely in his 1938 book Tales & Songs of Southern Illinois. The story of the spooklight was told by Reverend E.N. Hall, a minister who once served the Rock Creek Church and who had a number of the brushes with the uncanny in this part of Hardin County. One evening in his younger days, Hall and a friend of his named Hobbs, walked over to a nearby farm to escort two of the girls who lived there to church. When they got to the house, they found there were no lights on. It appeared that the girls left without them and the two young men stood around for a few moments, wondering what to do.
They stood at the edge of the yard as they talked and looked toward the darkened house. The house itself stood on a short knoll with a hollow that ran away from the gate to the left for about 100 yards and then joined with another hollow that came back to the right side of the gate. Hobbs was looking eastward along the bluff when he saw what appeared to be a "ball of fire about the size of a washtub" going very fast along the east hollow.
At first, the young men thought that it might be someone on a horse carrying a lantern, then realized that it was moving much too fast for that. The light followed the hollow to the left of the gate and along a small curve where one hollow met the other. It followed the opposite hollow and came right up the bank where the two men were standing. It paused, motionless, about 30 feet away from them and began to burn down smaller and smaller and then turned red as it went out. Finally, it simply vanished.
The two young men decided not to go to church. They went directly to the farm where they had been working and went to bed. The next morning, at the breakfast table, they told Mr. Patten, the farmer they had been working for, what they had both seen the night before. He laughed at them and said that it had just been a "mineral light" carried by the wind. He had no explanation though for how fast the light had moved or for the fact that there had been no wind the previous evening. He could also not explain why the light seemed to follow the two hollows and then stop in place and burn out.
Later, Hall had the chance to speak with the woman who owned the farm, a Mrs. Walton, and to ask her what the light might have been. She then told him the story of Anna Bixby, who had owned the property before she had, and explained that to protect her money from her criminal husband, she had hidden her fortune in a cave that was located on the property. Mrs. Walton always believed that the spooklight was the ghost of Anna Bixby checking to see that her money was still hidden away. She had seen the light herself on many occasions, always disappearing into the cave.
Hall asked her, if she knew so well where Anna's money was hidden, why she had never bothered to go and get it. "I would," Mrs. Walton answered, "if I thought that Granny Bixby wanted me to have it."
Anna Bixby's Cave is located near the former Rock Creek Community, a short distance from Cave-in-Rock. It is located on private property, so permission must be obtained before visiting. It is also not recommended to go to the cave during the summer months because the hollow is infested with rattlesnakes.
© Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.