84 years ago, a boy was born in the prosperous town of Martinsville, Indiana. Without even opening his eyes, this little man took a few shallow breaths and was still. His young parents only had a moment with him, and he had lived just long enough to earn a name: Paul Lester.
This was a too-common tragedy in 1937, when 6% of American children didn’t make it past their first birthday and sulfa drugs remained the first-line treatment for infection. Modern medicine has lowered that to about .6%.
There’s no comfort in those numbers for the young parents of this baby boy: Olethia (sometimes spelled O’leathia and later, Alicia) and Harley Lester who, at 16 and 21 years old, were barely adults themselves.
The grieving couple buried their boy at Stepp Cemetery*, just off State Road 37. Established in the mid-1800s, the Stepp Cemetery (sometimes spelled Steppe or Step) has become one of the most popular sites in Indiana. Not from significant historic significance, but from the folklore surrounding the burial ground.
*Not to be confused with 100 Steps Cemetery, another Indiana site infamous for “hauntings.”
A Google search on “Baby Lester” produces hundreds of hits, but almost all refer to the ghostly lore of the cemetery. Sifting through the history of Baby Lester and the Stepp Cemetery is like panning for gold. Even the greatest prospector might find a few flakes and nuggets, but mostly they’ll find sludge. That’s exactly what happened to this little boy. His real history is buried under tons of ghost-hunting, paranormal sludge.
The stories surrounding Stepp Cemetery and Baby Lester are numerous, overlapping, and often contradicting. Here’s a handful…
He died in a car wreck. He died in a fire. His mother returns nightly to exhume him, cradle his corpse, then inhume him again. A popular legend claims a shrouded figure as dark as an oiled shadow (“the Black Lady“) rocks him gently on the sheered remains of a tree. People report screams in the night. Weeping in the shadows. Whispers and hollers and talking voices.
And Bigfoot sightings.
Stepp Cemetery is often associated with the defunct Christian cult, the Crabbites. This group supposedly once held rituals at the Stepp Cemetery (long before Baby Lester’s birth). Verified history on this religious group is very sparse, but gossip is there to fill in the gaps. As it always is.
According to legend (and local papers), this group conducted rituals that included snake-handling, animal sacrifice, a square Earth, speaking in tongues, drinking, dancing, and, uh, all night orgies. Religious zealotry is nothing new in Indiana or the USA, and almost every Crabbite ritual can be found in other denominations at one point or another.
The only thing Baby Lester has in common with any of those legends is their proximity in Indiana. There is no great mystery surrounding Baby Lester. The mystery lies in why people subscribe to the nonsense instead of the well-documented truth.
The stories don’t trouble what remains of Paul Lester’s family today. In 2006, two of his living relatives spoke with Martinsville’s Reporter-Times, saying while the urban legends didn’t bother them, the near-constant vandalism did.
While Olethia Lester (who remarried and became Alicia Walls) learned of her deceased son’s association with the Black Lady, she was horrified and disgusted. Rightly so. Her family cared enough to filter stories of vandalism from reaching her until 2007, when she passed away.
Without delving into the entire history of the grave’s vandalism, there’s one picture folks will no doubt want to address. Was the grave burned? Yes, two years ago. Someone on Facebook had posted a horrifying video of Baby Lester’s grave burning, fueled by the piles of old, dried-out toys. Comments and shares flooded in.
After an hour or two, someone raised a good point: of all the times the post’s author could have walked into Stepp Cemetery, which is typically empty, this person came right when the fire was burning brightest? Well, the author threw out a couple weak explanations, stammered…then never said another word.
It could have been a candle flame flickering too close to some polyester or nylon, but that’s unlikely. Maybe. More likely the author came up with a thoughtless but effective way of going viral and it worked…which is why I am neither linking to or sharing the video and post.
Whether or not you believe Baby Lester’s ghost haunts Stepp Cemetery is your own business. If you prefer to believe in ghosts and ghouls and orbs that glow in the night, you have that right. I don’t, but I respect your choice.
Burying a newborn’s grave under old toys, handfuls of change, burning candles, or broken glass bottles does nothing to honor or preserve his memory. It just disturbs an already too-disturbed grave. It is not peace.
We may disagree on what’s above ground at this fading Martinsville landmark, but we do not disagree on what’s below—the remains of a little boy who took his last breaths while his parents watched.
The best way to show Baby Lester respect is by learning his story…and leaving his grave alone.
Want to Know More?
Check out the article “Stepp: A Small Rural Cemetery That Looms Large In Hoosier Lore” by Indiana Public Media reporter Tyler Lake. It offers a succinct history of Stepp Cemetery while avoiding supernatural explanations.