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Cave In Rock, Illinois : Pirates, Murders, and Ghost

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posted on Jan, 26 2012 @ 02:52 PM
Cave In Rock, Illinois and the surrounding area is filled with legends of outlaws, murders, and ghost. The cave that is the namesake of the town was home to many outlaws in the 1800's, and one of the most famous was a river pirate named James Ford.

Cave-In-Rock is a village in Hardin County, Illinois, United States. Its principal feature and attraction is a large nearby cave on the banks of the Ohio River. Cave-in-Rock was originally a stronghold for outlaws including; river pirates and highwaymen, Samuel Mason and James Ford, tavern owner/highwayman, Isaiah L. Potts, serial killers/bandits, the Harpe Brothers, counterfeiters, Philip Alston, Peter Alston, John Duff, Eson Bigsby, and the Sturdivant Gang, and the post-Civil War bandit, Logan Belt.

James Ford (1770?-1833) was an American civic leader and business owner in western Kentucky and southern Illinois at the turn of the 19th century. Despite his clean public image, as a "Pillar of the Community", he was also, secretly, a river pirate and the leader of a gang that would come to be known as "Ford's Ferry Gang". His gang was the river equivalent of highway robbers; they would hijack flatboats and Ford's "own river ferry" for tradable goods from local farms coming down the Ohio River. At one point, they used the "Cave-in-Rock" as their headquarters, on the Illinois side of the lower Ohio River, which is about 85 miles below Evansville, Indiana.

Legend has tied Ford to the James Wilson gang of pirates at the cave as well as to slave trader Lewis Kuykendall and kidnapper John Hart Crenshaw. Local historians such as Ron Nelson have discovered his ties to the Sturdivants.

Although some writers have described him as "Satan's Ferryman," his full story has never been told as it is still being discovered in documents forgotten in county court houses and state archives. Eventually his story will be told. Until then, read the books, "Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock," and "Satan's Ferryman."

One of James Ford's criminal partners was Isaiah Potts. Isaiah and his wife Polly (Blue) Potts were thought to be guilty of the muder of dozens or even hundreds of travelers who visited their tavern. It is said that when travelers reached the Inn, if they were thought to have valuables with them, they were robbed, and murdered if they resisted.

Isaiah Potts was, at least to a degree, a partner in Ford's ferry business, and on this basis might have been considered one of the "Ford Ferry Gang."

The following story does a good job of retelling the basic legend of Billy Potts and the Potts' Inn. Historians have not been able to prove the existence of Billy (the very nature of the story prevents that). However, the tavern really did exist and documentary evidence does link the tavern keeper, a man by the name of Isaiah Potts, to the outlawry occurring in the first third of the 19th Century.

The Potts Inn sat just off of the Ford's Ferry road which ran from the James Ford's ferry a few miles above Cave-in-Rock to the saltworks at Equality. The Golconda-to-Shawneetown road is believed to have intersection the Ford's Ferry road below Potts' Inn and then split off again above Potts' Inn, thus giving the inn a powerful crossroads location. Potts also owned the ferry across the Saline River nearby where the Golconda-to-Shawneetown road crossed the river.

It's not known when Potts built his inn, but a cabin stood on the site as early as the first decade of the 18th Century. Here, the male kin of a kidnapped/eloped young woman caught up to Moses Steagall and the would-be groom and shot the pair. In August 1799, Steagall had rode with the posse chasing the notorious Harpes after they killed Steagall's wife and son. After capturing Big Harpe, Steagall cut off the outlaw's head. Earlier that spring, after the Harpes escaped from the Danville, Kentucky jail they crossed over into the Illinois Country. They murdered two or three hunters on Potts' future plantation before joining the pirates at Cave-in-Rock.

The tavern was on the Vandalia Trail about ten miles from Ford's ferry, at the foot of a high rocky bluff, the first indication of the fact that the Ozark foothills would have to be taken into consideration by the weary traveler. Here, also, was a clear, cool spring, which was then and is now, a source of never failing supply of water, about which we will hear more later. The tavern was operated by a cheerful villain who bore the name of Potts.

Jim Ford owned the ferry and hired one Vincent Simpson to operate it. These three merry-gentlemen — Potts, Ford and Simpson — had an eye for business and were not bothered by any questions of remorse, if their business methods resulted in an untimely death for some of their customers. The dominating idea that the inspiration for this unholy alliance of three cut-throats; was that of separating the travelers from their worldly possessions, which they usually carried in their saddlebags or in a convenient "poke", fastened to a belt. As indicated above if, in the separating process, the surprised customers chose to take issue with them and point out that they were engaged in a nefarious enterprise, which if not illegal, most certainly could be classified as being rude and discourteous, they promptly dispatched him to another world as befitting one who was not versed in modern business and had made the unhappy mistake of talking out of turn, thereby revealing to them that such an uncouth person would not be missed in the circle of polite society of Hardin County.

In order to put their business of murder and robbery on a big dividend paying basis, they evolved the idea of hiring spotters and runners whose business it was to fall in with approaching travelers and make an inventory of their belongings, which they forwarded, together with a report of about how much resistance to expect from each victim to either Messrs. Ford and Simpson at the ferry or to Mr. Potts at the tavern,. This information, turned in by the spotters and runners, cut down to a minimum the useless knocking off of a penniless wayfarers, which could not result in any possible gain of any sort, and had the added disadvantage of cluttering up the landscape with a varied assortment of lifeless gentry that someone would have to bury, or at least drag off, out of the way of a not-so-very fast coming civilization.

This historical marker "disappeared" in 2003. This seems to be the story of more than one of our historical markers commemorating notorious outlaws and gangsters

edit on 26-1-2012 by isyeye because: (no reason given)

posted on Jan, 26 2012 @ 02:53 PM

The stories of Potts' Inn and Billy Potts have become integral parts of Southern Illinois folklore, and thus, to many people, somewhat sacrosanct. Regardless of historical veracity, they have taken on the mantle of historical truth in the minds of quite a few romantics. Many tend to take umbrage at historical researchers who, often in an attempt to authenticate the legends, fail to substantiate what is popularly believed to be part of the area's colorful history. The proprietor of Potts' Inn, and his wife, however, were very real historical characters and thus deserve a fair hearing in the context of history. Since they do occupy a place in our regional history, as well as folklore, perhaps we should know a little more about them.

Local legends say that the Pott's murdered many, many people and some where buried around the Pott's Inn. It is also rumored that James Ford used the Ferry to dispose of bodies on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. The area where Ford's Ferry landed in Kentucky is still undeveloped, and local law enforcement keeps most people away from the area. I have heard several different rumors regarding where some of the bodies where buried. I have heard that some where disposed of close to the ferry landing, and I have also heard that many bodies where secretly buried in a couple local cemeteries. There is also another rumor (which I don't think is true) that many years ago hundreds of bodies where discovered in a cave, and local people covered up the story because of the bad publicity that would come from it.

Pott's Inn is no longer standing, but a small house was built over the cellar in 1947.

Today, an abandoned house, built in 1947, occupies the site of Potts' Tavern. The old cellar is still beneath it.

View toward Potts' Hill from south, with "Potts' field" in foreground. House, near center, is on old tavern site. It is said that human bones were often uncovered in this field in early years. But it must be remembered that this had been the site of an Indian village, and the old trail itself a relatively recent "warpath" for both Indians and "Long Knives." Murders were known to have occurred here long before Isaiah came on the scene. The ancient trail itself had been considered "haunted" by many earlier travelers. State Route 34, unseen in this view, passes just to the right of the right margin of the photograph. The metal grain storage bin at right, other than perhaps the neatness of the cultivated field, is the only thing here which might not have fit the scene in the early 1800's. The old Ford Ferry Road would have been on the left side of photo

The ancient cellar beneath the Potts' Tavern, now beneath an abandoned house built in 1947

Where many a traveler is said to have had his last drink on this earth

The famous spring, reputed to have run red with the blood of numerous murder victims, still looks as it probably did in Isaiah's time, back-dropped against the unchanging, oak-shaded, rock bluffs that continue to lend an eerie aspect to the lonely scene. The spring is situated in a shallow cleft which forms sort of a miniature box canyon at the head of a small watercourse which originates therein. The rocks that line the spring on the three upper sides are green and moss-covered, lending to the sinister appearance of the place.

The land that Pott's Inn was on was rumored to be haunted long before the Pott's arrived. There are many local ghost stories about the site, as well as ghost stories surrounding the area in Kentucky where Ford's Ferry landed. James Ford's ferry and the Pott's Inn are one of the most controversial subjects in the area. Many old documents have been discovered in recent years that show the actual existence of both sites, and the crimes that were commited in the area. There is much more to this story to be uncovered, and quite alot on the subject can be found on the internet.

posted on Jan, 26 2012 @ 03:10 PM
I live in Illinois and have never heard of this before.
Very cool.!

posted on Jan, 26 2012 @ 03:23 PM
I want to thank you for adding to "My Bucket List of Paranormal Place to be Investigated". GGreat job with all the facts and stories. Even though just because a place has history doesnt make it haunted, but in this case I would say its a safe bet with all the violent history. I want to know if you have had any experinces out there. The info is solid and I am know putting on my teams calender. S&F

posted on Jan, 26 2012 @ 03:31 PM
reply to post by DeltaGhostHunter

Originally posted by DeltaGhostHunter
I want to thank you for adding to "My Bucket List of Paranormal Place to be Investigated". GGreat job with all the facts and stories. Even though just because a place has history doesnt make it haunted, but in this case I would say its a safe bet with all the violent history. I want to know if you have had any experinces out there. The info is solid and I am know putting on my teams calender. S&F

I haven't had any personal experiences at the Pott's Inn site, but I have only seen it from the road. It is watched pretty close from what I've heard, and is on private property, so you would need permission to get on the site. I have recently been to the area where Ford's Ferry landed and I have a few pictures that I'll post when I get home. There isn't much to see there though. It's mostly a muddy area with nothing there that I have been able to find, but I'm going back up there this weekend for another look, and I'm planning on trying to get to the Pott's Inn site. There are a few more sites in the area I can tell you about as well, and a couple well known cemeteries that are rumored to be haunted.


Here's a picture of the Ford's Ferry landing on the Kentucky side. Somewhere within a few hundred yards of here is where the ferry landing should be. The area is mostly woods and not much is out there. This area also floods alot, so anything from the area could have been washed away.

edit on 26-1-2012 by isyeye because: (no reason given)

posted on Jan, 26 2012 @ 04:56 PM
This is the earliest known statement about Potts Inn in 1854

In any case, Isaiah's establishment was of sufficient notoriety that in 1854, J. J. Williams, moving with his family from Keysburg, Kentucky to Missouri by covered wagon, noted in his diary entry for October 25th:

"...We came to the foot of Patz' hill about ten o'clock; there is a house at the foot of the hill where legend says many a man has stopped for the night and never been heard of more. It looks like a place for deeds dark and dreadful. The hills and rocks around have a wild and fearful look about and seem to be a fit place for the ghosts of the murdered dead, to howl in. It may be fancy, but the house itself has a forbidding appearance, every shutter was closed but those that were broken off and looked like they might have been shut for half a score of years..."(Illinois History Internet web pages by Jon Musgrave)

This mention, some eleven years after Isaiah's disappearance, is possibly the only "official," and earliest, recorded mention of Potts' Inn's reputation to come to the attention of the modern world. It would seem to verify the legends of Potts' Inn with which we have become familiar, and demonstrates that Potts' Inn had an early reputation.

Part of the legend of Potts Inn is about Billy Potts, the son of Isiah Potts. It's been debated if Billy was real or not.

Potts Inn
Billy Potts — Legendary outlaw that may actually have been real. As a teen-age member of the Ford's Ferry Gang was exiled by James Ford, then sheriff (and thus dates the story to 1825 or after). About five years later returned home to his parents at Potts Inn where they didn't recognize him. Instead, they killed him thinking him to be a wealthy traveler.

Isaiah L. Potts — Real father of legendary Billy Potts. Justice of the Peace, inn and tavern keeper of Potts Inn at the crossroads of the Shawneetown-Golconda Trail and the Ford's Ferry Road from the saltworks to the various ferries on the Ohio. Put up security for William M. Ford's bond when he received the license to operate the ferry formerly known as the Flinn's Ferry and later Prince's Ferry. Isaiah L. Potts operated Potts Inn on the Ford's Ferry Road in Illinois north of the cave where travelers checked in, but sometimes failed to check out. The legend of Billy Potts, the returning son murdered unknowingly by his father, likely took place in the months following Ford's assassination.

edit on 26-1-2012 by isyeye because: (no reason given)

Not knowing that the elder Potts had long since completed his graduate work and had been awarded a master's degree in the gentle art of preparing passengers for their journey across the River Styx, and acting as chief usher to them while en route, Potts junior strolled unwarily ahead of him down the path leading to the spring. Local historian have recorded the fact that this particular murder, because o its masterful handling, should be included in the upper brackets when compiling any kind of a list of deaths by violence in Hardin County. Some have gone as far as to say, without qualification, that its perfection had never been approached when viewed in the cool, analyzing way unprejudiced experts have of judging such matters.

When it was subsequently rumored that the last Potts' tavern guest who had been murdered and robbed in the order named, was in reality, young Potts, it irked the old man no end, To put a stop to such foolish outburst of woman's chitter-chatter, he without further delay diligently removed the shallow earth covering the body and hauled him forth to prove to all the known world and that part of Hardin County which had shown any interest in the matter, that he was not a citizens who would do such a dastardly thing as murder his own son, even when he was harassed by an unusual rush of seasonal business.

Here, though, he tripped himself, as he had not reckoned on his wife's remarkable memory. She happened to be dipping a bucket of water from the spring and saw her spouse uproot his latest business venture. She identified the remains as their son by a birthmark and some indentations in his skull, the latter a result of her having tried to correct him in his wayward youth, with an iron poker, usually kept near the fireplace, but had been pressed into use on one occasion as an emergency remedy.

It is thought by some historians that Billy Potts may have been created
from the stories of Isaiah Potts' brother.
edit on 26-1-2012 by isyeye because: (no reason given)

posted on Jan, 26 2012 @ 05:18 PM
Pirates? Ghosts? A cave on the river? Jinkies, this sounds like a job for Mystery Inc.

posted on Jul, 23 2013 @ 08:56 PM
I grew up in Hardin County where everything your'e talking about is at. I am also a descendant of James Ford and my cousins are descendants of Samuel Mason. I would be happy to answer any questions you have about these locations. My first job was at the Cave In Rock state park and I have been to the basement of Potts Inn.

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