Crossroads occur in folklore and legends all over the world. One of the most famous examples involves legendary blues musician, Robert Johnson. He claimed to have made a pact with the Devil at a crossroads, which explained his prodigious talent.
And don’t forget some of the strange folklore involving burying things at crossroads. One old remedy for warts involves rubbing the wart with a piece of raw meat. Put the meat in a bag and bury it at the crossroads. Your warts will be cured! (Apparently)
The crossroads provides an eerie backdrop to these tales. But why so eerie?
Where the roads actually cross is neither one road nor the other, so the crossroads is often referred to as a ‘liminal’ place. Owen Davies defines liminality as “the state of being on the border or threshold of two defined states of existence” (2007: 45). These places are neither here nor there, and represent places where worlds touch.
Where better to find supernatural spirits?
Folklore all over the world makes some mention of crossroads, but for the purposes of space, I’ll be sticking to English folklore in this post. Hit play to listen to the podcast episode or keep reading!
1. Crossroads Burials
Perhaps the most common association in the UK with crossroads comes via the tradition of using such sites for burials. Up until 1823, burials at crossroads took place for both suicides and executed criminals. Part of the reason was fairly mundane – no one wanted to pay for burying either group. The crossroads marked land that belonged to no one, so what better place to bury people denied a Christian burial?
Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson point out that authorities also used this extra punishment to make the afterlife more difficult. Depriving the individuals of ‘proper’ funeral rites hampered their attempts to get to heaven (2005: 195).
Naturally, folklore arose around the reasons for the location choice. Speculation arose that crossroads were required for such burials “to bewilder the ghost, should it attempt to return” (Westwood 2005: 195). Apparently the choice of roads to follow confused any spirits. It kept them at the crossroads while they tried to decide which way to go.
There’s also a crossroads grave on Dartmoor. Kitty Jay’s Grave lies on the road between Heatree Cross and Hound Tor. No one really knows who she was. But the tale related by Sally and Chips Barber says she may have been a local girl who got pregnant outside marriage and committed suicide (1990: 29). A workman discovered bones in a grave on the spot in 1860. After reburial in their current grave, fresh flowers kept appearing on the grave. No one knows who left them – some think it was local pixies, others think it was a local author.
The Barbers think “it is now most likely that her story has been told so often that people consider it a sign of good luck to leave a small posy of moorland flowers on her grave” (1990: 30).
Some claims linger about sightings of her ghost nearby, and people continue to avoid the spot. Meanwhile, there are other suicide burials on Dartmoor, but fresh flowers don’t appear on their graves.
According to Daniel Parkinson, the crossroads was also the favoured spot for the gibbet. Not only did they act as a gory reminder of the law, they would also prevent the executed person returning to annoy the living. It probably explains the location of the old Tyburn gallows, where modern-day Edgware Road and Oxford Street meet (now Marble Arch).
Parkinson also makes the point that the Burials of Suicide Act was only repealed in 1823 after George IV became involved. According to legend, a crowd gathered to watch a crossroads burial at Hobart Place and Grosvenor Place, holding up the king.
Annoyed at being made late by the crowd, George IV banned crossroads burials.
2. Vengeful Spirits
It’s hardly surprising that the spirits of those buried at crossroads would seek revenge. Stakes were driven through corpses at such sites, allegedly to keep the dead in their place. In 1760, murderer and suicide David Stirn was dissected before being buried with a stake through him at a crossroads near the Black Mary’s Hole area of Clerkenwell.
Owen Davies notes that in 1851, locals in Boston, Lincolnshire, believed the old hawthorn tree at their nearby crossroads had actually grown from such a stake (2007: 51). Hawthorn trees already have supernatural connotations, sometimes believe to be the gateway to Faeryland. Prophet Thomas the Rhymer apparently sat under a hawthorn when he met the Queen of Elfland. Mara Freeman notes its associations with witches, who apparently used hawthorn to make their brooms.
But burial records are scarce for crossroads burials, probably because they didn’t take place on church land. Davies notes that the number of crossroads used for burials is less than the number that feature in ghost sighting stories (2007: 52). Tales of phantom coaches, headless horsemen and other spirits often converge on crossroads, regardless of any burials there.
Perhaps their location on the parish boundary also makes the veil between the worlds a little thinner there.
The modern upgrading of old roads disturbs these burial places. Maybe workmen disturb more than just skeletons during building work?
It was these vengeful spirits that inspired ‘Where do the lonely demons go?’ in my collection of 3 tales of creepy crossroads, which you can get below.
Such spirits make their presence known in other ways. The grave at Vernditch, where Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset meet, allegedly belongs to a witch. No one knew which parish was responsible for her, so she was buried on the county boundary – splitting the cost three ways made it cheaper.
But Westwood and Simpson note the legend that “no birds sing in the avenue of trees leading to Kit’s Grave” (2005: 787).
The burial of witches at crossroads seems only second to suicides. In all likelihood, parishes probably buried old women at the crossroads to save money. Or maybe the parish wanted to disassociate themselves from such individuals.
Either way, the accused were denied a proper burial and the accompanying rites. If you believe the legends, that wasn’t always a bright idea. Let’s take Betty’s Grave as an example. You can find it just outside Poulton, Gloucestershire.
Stories vary as to who Betty really was, but most of the accounts name her as a witch. In some stories she is more malicious, causing miscarriages in animals, making gates fall off their hinges, spreading sickness among the local population, and so on. In another story, she’s more of a victim. Abandoned at the crossroads as an infant, she’s later burned as a witch and buried on the same spot.
Great British Ghost Tour gives her full name as Elizabeth Bastre, buried in 1786. They give further options as to the reasons for her burial at a crossroads; a witch, a suicide, a murder victim, or a hanged thief.
But in the version given to Westwood and Simpson, Betty randomly showed up in the village one night. Unable to tell them her name, or where she was from, Betty’s unusual behaviour caused the villagers to mistakenly assume her to be a witch.
The villagers tried to hang her twice, but each time she later climbed out of the grave and returned home. After their third attempt, she warned them she would only remain in her grave if they continued to leave flowers for her. They did so, and all seemed well, until the 1970s when the tributes stopped.
Betty’s ghost apparently appeared in Fairford shortly after. When the laying of flowers resumed, she disappeared.
4. Bogey Beasts
These creatures, also known as brags or boggles (also bogles) hang around crossroads and stiles at dusk. They entrap unwary travellers, but many of them leave their victims confused or bewildered after having their fun.
In Northumberland and County Durham, the Hedley Kow is one such beast. It hangs around in the vicinity of Hedley on the Hill. As a shapeshifter, it appears in various guises.
In one story, a poor woman finds a pot on the road, filled with gold pieces. She drags it home, but on the way, the pot turns into a lump of silver. She keeps dragging and it turns into a chunk of iron, then a rock. When she gets home, it changes for a final time, into the Hedley Kow.
Another story relates the tricks he played on courting couples. Two young men set off, heading to meet their girlfriends. They thought they saw the girls up ahead, and no matter how much they hurried to catch up, the girls stayed at a distance. A weird laughter rang out and the men found themselves in a bog. Luckily, they managed to escape and ran home, followed all the way by the Hedley Kow (Reynolds 1989: 11).
For creatures so fond of shapeshifting, crossroads must appear like the ideal spot to encounter unwitting victims for their pranks!
So if you’re looking to see something strange, consider going down to your nearest crossroads. Perhaps wait until dusk, when the veil between the worlds is thinner. Who knows what might appear when the world grows still?
Have you heard any tales or legends about crossroads in your area? I’d love to hear them!
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Barber, Sally and Chips (1990), Dark and Dastardly Dartmoor, Exeter: Obelisk.
Davies, Owen (2007) The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, Houndsmill: Palgrave Macmillan.
Freeman, Mara (no date), ‘Tree Lore: Hawthorn’, Druidry.org, available here.
Parkinson, Daniel (no date) ‘Crossroad Blues’, Mysterious Britain, available here.
Reynolds, Hazel (1989), More Ghosts and Legends of Northumbria, Morpeth: Sandhill Press.
Westwood, Jennifer, Simpson, Jacqueline (2005) The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, London: Penguin.
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