#35 – Virginia Meets Russ Burrows – 1986

Written by Virginia Hourigan

As it happened, someone offered me a good deal on a “new” used motorcycle and I bought it. I had come home earlier then usual and had some three weeks to myself before I would have to go back to work. I decided to try out the bike with a trip to Vincennes to take better pictures of the cave stones so that I could give the experts a better idea of them the only trouble was that I’d never taken that kind of photographs and didn’t really know how.

I telephoned Malcolm Pearson in Massachusetts. He is a professional photographer with a lot of experience in recording inscriptions; his work was featured in America B.C. When he realized my ignorance (which didn’t take long) he invited me to come up for some personal help, and I spent a day there on the long way around to Vincennes. His “short course” in photography was invaluable, and he even lent me a tripod and made me a portable light stand in his workshop. That the pictures turned out all right is mostly thanks to his advice.

Jack Ward had agreed to my taking individual photos of the artifacts, to my meeting the man who found the cave, and to my seeing the cave for myself, but as to the last he said he couldn’t be sure, it depended on the owner of the property. I decided to take my chances about that, but it seemed essential if people were to believe this story. I wasn’t sure I believed it myself without seeing the cave. Jack said we would all meet at 9 a.m. at his house, and I checked into a mom-and-pop motel.

About 10 p.m. the phone rang, and it was Russell Burrows, calling from his home in Olney, about 30 miles away. He wanted to meet me for breakfast before going to Jack’s place to size me up, I said to myself. No problem. I wanted to size him up, too.

I hadn’t noticed that I’d passed a time change going west, so I was an hour too early and was half through eating breakfast at the counter in the coffee shop when I realized a man was standing behind me. I knew who it was – I’d have picked him out anywhere as the sort of man who finds caves and explores them. He wore a black leather motorcycle jacket and an aura of suppressed energy, but he wasn’t riding a motorcycle. (I have nothing against leather jackets, but I never wear one.) How did he pick me out? I suppose I look like the sort of woman who might ride a motorcycle, but he’s never said. He certainly seemed straightforward, but how could I tell?

At nine o’clock we all sat down in Jack’s living room. I turned on my tape recorder, and they launched into the most bizarre tale I’d ever heard – the tale you’ve read in this book. Several times I asked myself how I could believe a yarn like this, and then I’d look at the stones and say that such crazy artifacts had to have a crazy yarn to go with them. The more I looked at them in the days ahead, the more convinced I became that no one, not even a maniac, would have thought of making things like this in these times, or even a hundred years ago. Russell said he had brought out about 4,000 stones altogether, and I photographed 290 there, each one unique. There were just too many for fraud.

The next day as I was taking pictures I looked closely at one stone Jack had translated and noticed that he didn’t have all the characters right. When he came in I told him about it and he said. “Oh, dear!” I offered to draw what I saw and he said that would be nice, but though I was there nearly two weeks more he never mentioned it again, and I realized he didn’t want to know, or maybe he already knew. On another stone he had simply left out some characters. But I was inclined to believe him when he said he had been in the sand and gravel business for fifty years and he could testify that the types of stone used for the artifacts weren’t to be found in Illinois or in any of the neighboring states. As to his ideas of where it did come from, he might be right or he might not.

What they didn’t tell me was how glad they were to see me, or someone like me, who would take an interest in the stones. They did tell me about Jack’s having shown some of the stones to archaeologists at several universities and seeing them all but recoil, shoving them back into his hands and wishing him a good day. A very hot potato indeed. Russell had no better success in getting the state archaeologist to look into it. They gave me copies of the letters from Field Museum experts claiming to have examined the stones and declaring them fraudulent. They told me that the owner had offered the cave and thirty acres of land plus a building to the Sonoftobac Museum trustees, and how the trustees had conferred privately and then refused the offer and asked Jack to take his things out of the museum. They didn’t even thank him for the 14 years in which he had done all their tax work and correspondence, spending six days a week at the museum, all for free. He was upset and hurt by that, and I didn’t blame him a bit.

Neither did I blame Jack for saying in that case they could do without him altogether. He was taking his exhibit down while I was there photographing, and if I’d gone to the museum a month later I wouldn’t have seen the cave stones at all. If I’d gone there two years earlier, (the time I forgot about it) I wouldn’t have seen them either, because he didn’t have them yet. Some pretty deep things in this world depend on coincidences like that.

The Sonoftobac Museum was closed after Jack left. I heard later that the game was really about a real estate deal someone wanted the museum property in order to bulldoze the mound for a housing project but nothing has yet been built there and the museum stands empty. I heard other explanations too, but I don’t know what the truth is.

Russell kept saying he was going to take me to the cave, but he kept putting it off. I kept impressing on him the importance of someone, preferably me, being able to back up his story. I shuddered to think of trying to convince anyone of the truth of this tale without any personal investigation. For a while he said the owner wouldn’t agree. Then he said maybe he would. When it came down to the end and I was finishing up, Russell said he would take me the next day, so I stayed over an extra day.

He never showed up. By the time I realized he wasn’t coming it was too late to pack my things and get on road, and I didn’t bother to telephone him in Olney because I was sure he wouldn’t be home. He’d never intended to take me there at all. I was furious.