It’s a story of the outsider. There’s a nearly abandoned cemetery sitting in the middle of an orange grove, misplaced among the rows, too small and lost to stand out. There are three graves that bear the names of children laid to rest among people who are not their family and who never knew them. Then there is the story, told by some to explain why these babies, taken too soon in a town known for its weirdness, that reveals more about the people of the town than it does the ghosts that are said to play there. Each layer is about the something detached from the world around it, but there is one thing that bonds them all together. In Arcadia, Florida, even the slightest mystery can give birth to a story about a curse.
The Lotts were a typical family in most respects. He was a big strong man, born for the hard work of a farm. She was beautiful and wanted nothing more than to start a life with the man she had found. They had gotten married young and somehow managed to get a modest house and some land in the town of Arcadia. She was pregnant with their first born, and things were going well. So well in fact, that when a travelling stranger came around asking for work, Luther Lott hired him to get some things done around the farm, taking advantage of the cheap labor and the wagon the man had. At some point though, maybe as he watched his wife knowing they needed every dollar for the coming baby, he changed his mind. When it came time to pay the stranger, he refused.
Lott made two mistakes that day. He should have paid the meager wage. Work is work and karma is karma. The second mistake, and direct cause and effect of the first, is he should have inquired more about the man’s background before hiring him. The drifter was a gypsy, not an uncommon sight in the area for the time. Maybe Luther had hired him thinking ahead of time that he would cheat him because of this. The stranger thought first of standing up to Lott and demanding what was his. He knew there was no law in the town that would side with him if he dared complain, and as he looked up at the towering Lott, he knew the money was lost. He would get his revenge a different way. He turned his wagon and began down the dirt driveway, but before he left the property he turned around to look at the pregnant Mrs. Lott.
With that, a curse was laid upon the Lotts. The baby girl, Mary Lucile, was born healthy, but died just before her first birthday. Mrs. Lott became pregnant again, only to lose Nellie Ray in her eleventh month. The third, Freida Mae, survived her first year, but then died before her sixteenth month. The only way they could see to break the curse was to move away, leave the land which had made them a decent living in those nine years and leave behind the children they had buried in a small plot on the adjacent land. And like that, the Lotts abandoned Arcadia. Their children have remained, cursed but connected to the land.
You can visit them in Coker Cemetery if you can find it hidden among the orange groves, down a winding dirt road, somewhere just west of the middle of nowhere. People who have, often those working the land, have said they can hear a faint baby crying in the early morning hours or right before the sun sets over the trees. Balls of light dance around the headstones of the children, about the size of softballs, playing with each other. Shadows lurch and move, and although there are other children and adults laid to rest in the small, personal family plot, everyone says it’s the Lott Children, reunited after death and finally about to play with each other. Then there is the oddest story people tell, maybe as a nod to the horrible misfortune that came to their parents. If you leave coins on the graves of the Lotts, good luck will come to you.
Ghostly legends are usually created out of some true paranormal experience. People witness moments can’t quite process and the closest story that makes sense, even if it’s a ghost story, takes hold. There may be something in the small cemetery in Arcadia. Coker is not your typical burial plot. Established in 1881, there are maybe three dozen graves, a combination of new looking stones not yet worn down by the Florida elements, broken stones illegible for the most part, and unmarked plots where local historians and people who care have discovered people have been buried. Most of the dead belong to the Cokers and their relatives the Aldermans and Hamptons, but no one has been buried there in decades.
The land once belonged to the family but has since been sold to orange growers who basically built their grove around the headstones. It was land that could not be plowed under, but it also did not need to be maintained and fell into disrepair. It was not until recently, according to town historian and writer Carol Mahler, that the fence was built to mark it off and a sign put up to tell those looking to show their respects were they are. Even with the new attention it has been given, Coker is basically forgotten about.
Except by those working nearby who whispered about the lights and shadows.
The Lott children were perfect candidates for the ghosts, even if not all of the lore that has developed around them makes sense. Town records show there is no family connected between the children and the Cokers. No one has a memory of why they were buried there. Arcadia is a town that prides itself on its attention to it history, but that story is lost even though Frieda was only buried in 1925, not ancient history by Arcadia standards. Yet there in the middle of the cemetery in the middle of a grove in the middle of farmland are three children buried with no other family members. It only makes sense people would attribute the story to these out-of-place kids whose souls must feel some sort of disconnect that does not allow their spirits to rest.
The best candidate for the parents of the children are Luther and Mabel who were born at the turn of the century. With so few Lotts listed in the Arcadia records, they seem to fit the age and area. They are actually buried in Fort Myers, which would fit into the story that they moved to try and break the curse. There are two issues however. The first is that those same records show a baby boy being born in April of 1924, a month after Frieda was born. There could be an issue with the dates and the two were twins. Luther Jr. is buried in Fort Myers as well and died in August of that year while Frieda died in July of 1925. It would seem odd they would go back to bury her in the old cemetery, although it is worth noting all of the children of the Lotts in Coker are female. Perhaps the first two children solidified the curse and they left only to have their son die as well. Then when their daughter passed, they buried her with her sisters.
Piecing the rest of it together says something more about Arcadia than the actual supernatural. Among the five reasons folklore exists are the ideas it can be used to explain something we do not understand or to teach people a lesson. Coker has both. The story that has developed around the children is really the story of the outsider. There are different versions where the curse is laid out by a different kind of person, from a Jewish wanderer to a local African American who moved on after the incident, but the theme remains the same. Communities, especially small communities, need to be careful of the outsider. They are the ones who are coming to disrupt what normal is, and crossing them brings nothing but misfortune. You deserve it though; you allowed them into the circle. In some cases, Mrs. Lott has an affair with the stranger, representing an even deeper betrayal of the unspoken community oath to not allow those from the outside to disrupt and reveals a deeper fear. The outsider is coming for our women.
Inspired by the writing of David Hoes writing on the Web site Phantoms and Monsters, I started looking into the story a few years ago while trying to get some perspective on the Richardson Children and some of the other stories coming out of Oak Ridge Cemetery. There were references all over the Web about the story, many of them sightings or other ghosts said to be connected to Coker. It would seem the road leading to the cemetery had its share of ghostly walkers and phantom hitchhiker types and odd dark figures rising from the swales. The exact location of the cemetery was somewhat lost, and page after page talked about similar shadows and ghost lights only to give a different location in Arcadia. The town is like that. Once you drive outside of the historic downtown district of the town, it’s easy to get lost within the acres of groves and backroads.
I went to the town in hopes of talking to Carol Mahler and getting a handle on the story and any truth to the legend. I was also hoping to find out where it actually was. I came upon her at the John Morgan Ingraham House Museum leading a group of high school students who were cleaning historical documents from the 1960s outside and spent enough time there to help her shut the museum down and bring the artifacts inside of the old Cracker house. According to her, the restoration of the cemetery was fairly recent, but the story of it was known, although she admits the ghostly legend is not as well known. For her, the enduring legend of Coker is the man who used to have a house on the property and was quick to bring a shotgun out for people who chose to trespass.
Given her directions, I made my out there, careful to look for signs identifying the owner so I could call and avoid gunshots. After a few hours I had given up. No name of a property owner and no cemetery, although didn’t know that I was standing less than a football field away from it when I slammed the car door, defeated for the day.
It would be six months before I made my way out there again, this time armed with a better map and Deanna Mulhern on the road for her first legend trip. On the way we stopped at a bookstore I had always wanted to go into but she had visited a few times. Not knowing all the details of the story yet, the early childhood teacher purchased The Man in the Moon, one of the lesser known books in the Rise of the Guardians collection. By the time we entered Arcadia, we had decided she would read the book to see if we could get the children to respond.
We arrived about an hour before sunset, and although the directions were still unclear as to the exact location of Coker, we were not more than 20 yards into the field before we saw the fence and headstones rising out of the horizon. Mahler had undersold the amount of work that had been done on it. Although there were headstones that had obviously suffered damage, some of these had been replaced with newer stones and the whole place had been cut and maintained well. The first thing that hit me, outside of the fact that everyone in there was a Coker or an Alderman or a Hampton, was that there were an unusual amount of the children. This was not an ancient burial place, yet it hinted at an alarming mortality rate for a place that saw its heyday post World War One. The best word to describe it was peaceful.
After exploring for a bit (the sun was setting quickly and I did not want to be caught out there after dark), Deanna sat with the Lotts, positioned in an odd central area, and read the book. Darkness came on very fast. It was clear there were animals, especially birds, that could account for some of the odd sounds.
Yet as she read, several times tiny shadows close to the ground seemed to scurry from some of the headstones of the other children, as if something was coming to get a better view of the pages as she held them up to the graves. Towards the end there was a noticeable change in the vibe of the area, which came on almost as quickly as the sun left. By the time she was finished and we were packing up, there was a very real sense we were no longer welcome there. The moment was over, but something had happened.
We cherish our children. There’s a reason why so many ghosts of children exist in the lore and legends of haunted places. It might have something to do with science or with child psychology, or it might just reveal our worst fears. Children are not supposed to die. We are meant to outlive our kids, and with our modern mindset even the common occurrence of a small one’s death is unsettling. But in legends and ghost stories they can live on. If we are upset by them, they must be distressed in death, feeding into that romantic idea that most ghosts have unfinished business. They are bound to the places of death because there is no peace for them. In an odd way, that comforts us while keeping us firmly grounded in hidden idea that we have no control. The curse of the Lotts remains a mystery, but there is nothing mysterious about why we still tell the story.
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