This article was originally published in 2017.

* * *

NEBRASKA CITY — She saw the bodies hanging by nooses from the trees, their chests blown open by gunshots.

Seven hung there, dangling above the graveyard in the woods.

The other people walking with her on that day two summers ago saw only trees and leaves.

But to Cheryl Ann Fletcher, this was no hallucination.

“It was clear as day, as if it were you and me standing right here,” said Fletcher, a medium based in Lincoln. “There were seven bodies, males and females mixed. The one that captured my attention was a little boy who was blonde, he was about 7 years old.”

Fletcher’s account is one of many you’ll hear from those around Nebraska City who’ve visited the site near Seven Sisters Road. For some, it’s a ghost story to tell the kids, something to send a chill down the spine. For others, it’s much more than just a scary story.

During her first visit to the site, Fletcher said she felt the young boy’s fingers wrap around her arm. When she looked down, she saw white depressions form on her skin, then felt a tug.

The spirit pulled and gripped tighter, leading her toward a gravestone without inscription. There, at the weathered stone, the little boy introduced himself: Matthew. The two conversed until Fletcher left the graveyard and went home.

“It took me a couple of days to recover after the first initial meeting of the afterlife there,” Fletcher said. “But the second time ...”

Fletcher returned, this time with a crew tasked with trying to document any paranormal activity.

The property owner led Fletcher through the trees, beyond Matthew’s grave, to an open field. There, they stopped, and the landowner turned around, pointed to a tree with a small hunting stand and shared a story.

It was at this spot one quiet day before dawn, where, armed with a bow and arrow, he watched as a creature walked upright, slowly, as if a wolf were stalking prey, directly toward him. Through the fog, he saw only the beast’s glowing red eyes, shining like rubies.

Then the creature broke east and headed off over the hill and out of view.

As his story progressed, Fletcher said she began to feel hot breath on her neck. Petrified, she stood still.

“I knew I would be face-to-face with something demonic,” she said. So she walked away, never turning around, and hasn’t been back since.

* * *

The legend of Seven Sisters Road has a few iterations, as local tales do. The most enduring one starts with a farmer who lived along a road with seven hills a few miles southeast of town.

One night, the farmer snapped. Some say he suspected his wife of cheating. Others say he was a drunk or just downright deranged. One by one, he dragged his daughters out of the farmhouse and onto the hilltops, stringing them up from the trees by their necks, one atop each hill.

If you visit the spot at night, you may hear screams; many say they do. They’re loud and nearby, yet just out of reach. And these high-pitched, piercing screams aren’t the only phenomena associated with this legend.

Headlights dim, speedometers freeze, windows roll up and down on their own. Cell service drops. The wind changes, and shadowy figures dart in the darkness.

Some have heard bells. Others have seen red eyes in the shadows.

In November 1968, a series of strange reports were made along this road. Every night for a week, a deputy responded to calls about a monster in the hills.

Around 11 p.m., the monster would come alive, according to a Nebraska City News-Press account from that year. At 6 feet tall, the monster was said to resemble a bear with a wolf face.

One account, told by locals and referenced in the 1968 article, was particularly jarring.

A group of teenagers were partying in the area when they saw glowing red eyes in the distance. They tore off down the gravel road, kicking up rocks as they sped off. The beast, barreling after, grabbed hold of the bumper and stopped the car with such force that the back window shattered, locals say.

According to the article, one person reported that a boy was grabbed by the monster, scratched up and thrown in a ditch.

Half a century later, the legend is still alive.

* * *

At Nebraska City High School, steps away from Arbor Lodge State Historical Park, guidance assistant Dawn Leu beeps into the intercom.

“Attention students, anyone who has a story about Seven Sisters needs to report to the guidance office.”

Students came running. Soon, a crowd had formed around Leu’s office, including 16-year-old Natalie Sturm. Her name was one of the first on Leu’s list.

Sturm’s family owns the land alongside Seven Sisters Road, with “No Trespassing” signs posted around the perimeter. Deep into the woods on a muddy, winding trail, sits a private graveyard atop a hill, the same one where Fletcher says she saw the bodies hanging.

The Sturms don’t like intruders on their property, and it’s difficult to find the graveyard on your own. The Sturms lead tours for friends, family and most curious passers-by. Natalie’s dad estimated that he has given the same tour 100 times.

Many of Natalie’s high school classmates have taken those tours. Some think the ghost stories are cool. Some don’t believe them.

“When people say it’s not haunted down there, it makes me mad,” Sturm said.

She and her friend Sarah Sullivan have heard the bells, the screams and the muffled whispers in the forest countless times. So often that they’re almost used to it. Almost.

One Halloween, Natalie’s parents, Nate and Becky, were in the forest after dark. Changing winds, voices, shadows — they can handle all of that. They’ll usually stick it out. But this night, they fled when they heard a scream at point-blank range.

“It was curdling,” Nate said. “It was not a bobcat, it was definitely a woman screaming. It was crazy.”

Just this month, Becky’s truck stalled in front of their property, refusing to go even with a jump-start. But in the morning, it fired right up. It’s far from the first report of this phenomenon.

On occasion, the Sturms tend to the graveyard, raking, pulling weeds and clearing the gravestones. It’s some way to try and keep the peace.

They know the stories about this place, and they’ve done research. They can’t find concrete evidence of exactly what happened here, but one gravestone could offer hints.

The largest and most ornate stone in the cemetery, which has broken from its base and sunk into the grass, bears the names John and Julia Warden. Julia died in 1880. John in 1901.

Genealogy records show that the Wardens had seven daughters and one son. Seven daughters.

Is he the madman? The one who fired the shots and strung the rope?

Probably not.

There’s no report of such a horrible incident ever occurring. And even in the late 1880s, when Warden homesteaded the property after arriving from Virginia, incidents of this magnitude didn’t go unreported.

There’s another catch. Each Warden daughter has a different date of death. One, Letha Warden Wilhelm, lived to be almost 90.

“There are a lot of questionable tales in the Warden and Wilhelm families, but I’ve never heard this one connected to them,” said Barbara Boardman Wilhelm, who married into the family and has studied its genealogy.

There are no reports of hangings ever occurring along this stretch of road. Others buried in this private cemetery have no reasonable connection to such a story, either.

Otoe County Sheriff Jim Gress, who grew up less than a block from Seven Sisters Road, said there’s no record of anyone getting seriously hurt or killed along the road.

“It never did scare me,” Gress said. “I know people, before they cut the hills down, they would go over the hills pretty fast because they could get airborne with them. That was scary.”

But just because there’s no evidence of a crime doesn’t mean the tale is entirely fabricated. Legends can warp over time in fireside games of telephone. Names change. Locations change. Details are embellished.

* * *

There might be a way to explain the legend of Seven Sisters Road.

In the late 1800s, angry mobs of masked vigilantes began taking justice into their own hands. No rural town in Nebraska had more lynchings than Nebraska City during that time. Five men were hanged between 1866 and 1887.

One of those lives lost was a homesteader who lived not far from this road.

That man was Lee Shellenberger, who sat in the courthouse jail awaiting trial for murder. Shellenberger was accused of slicing his 11-year-old daughter Maggie’s throat, according to an Omaha Daily Bee account at the time.

The masked mob is said to have stormed the jail, overpowered the guard and carved through the floor above Shellenberger’s cell. They pulled him out and tied a rope around his neck.

Shellenberger’s final words reverberated: “I’ll haunt you sons of bitches if I can.”

Seven Sisters Road is an inherently creepy trail. Tall, looping hills, shaved down in later years, create mystery with each coming valley. Twisted trees creak in rural silence. Whether or not ghosts and beasts truly haunt this land, it’s the kind of place that deserves a backstory.

It’s possible that the culture of hangings and the Shellenberger story somehow evolved into the legend of the Seven Sisters. Over the years, each telling could add or confuse a detail, and somehow a slit throat became a lynching. One daughter became seven, perhaps to better link the story to an already spooky place nearby.

It’s not unreasonable to believe retellings transformed the story bit by bit over the last century. That the backstory can’t be entirely proved or disproved adds to the mystique, helping keep the legend strong all these years.

Seemingly everybody in town has a Seven Sisters story. And those who don’t should go back for another visit, Natalie Sturm says.

“The second time is when it all starts.”


Photos: Halloween history in Omaha

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