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Grave Witchers Find Unmarked Graves of Early Pioneers and South Dakota Settlers

Before church and community cemeteries existed, when pioneers or early Dakota Territory settlers died, they were often buried in an unmarked grave near the home where their funeral was held.

And even in historic cemeteries, not all graves are marked.


This is where grave witchers can help.

Using nothing more than wire rods, these gifted individuals can locate unmarked graves. Some can even identify whether the bodies are male or female.

Whether you want to believe it or not, some have the gift of grave witching.

Thirty years ago, Freeman farmer Norman Hofer was not a believer … until he was.

“He knew that I wasn't believing a word of this. The man was very excited about it. Reuben was there, and then the man says “it worked for some people, but not for others. It might work for you.” So, they gave me those same wires and said, “just walk across and see what happens.”

“Walk from north to south.”

And I remember seeing Matt Dillon on television, the sheriff, as the new sheriff in town, how he could walk like that. I took those two wires and I knew I'm Matt Dillon walking with his two revolvers. … And I started walking slowly, being very careful that they pointed straight ahead. Darn things crossed. I backed up and they straightened out. I walked again and they crossed. I walked a little further. They straightened out and they crossed again,’” Norman Hofer said.


Hofer discovered his gift at the Odessa Reformed Church Cemetery. The church is long gone. There was only one marked grave in the century-old cemetery.

“It has nothing to do whether you believe it works or not, because I don't believe it works and I don't want it to work. But it simply does,” Hofer said.

Grave Witcher Marv Thum was a believer right away because he is among a small group of volunteers who donate hours to maintaining the historic Blaha German Cemetery. And he wanted to make sure even the unmarked graves were honored.

“Actually, I'm quite comfortable at a cemetery, because shortly I'll be there to,” Marv Thum said.

At 88, Marv Thum is a retired postmaster with deep roots in Bon Homme County.

“Well, all of my ancestors that came from Russia are buried there. And friends, parents and grandparents from our local farm area that are buried there,” Thum said.


Thum asked to learn how to grave witch and he discovered 30 un-marked graves the first day he gave it a try. Thum is able to determine if the grave’s occupant is male or female, adult or child.

“You stand to one side of the grave and use sidestep or cross it, and if the wires cross it's a male. And if they open, it's a female. And to find out if they are adults or children, you go to where the head would be and you start or you start until you get a hit and until the wires open again. If it's about five or six feet, it's normally an adult there. It's three feet or four feet It's a young person or a child so that's and that's all you could tell,” Thum said.

Overtime word got out that Marv Thum and Norman Hofer can grave witch. Before the Veterans Memorial was constructed in Freeman, Norman was asked to help locate unmarked graves that local lore said were on the land. And Thum has helped many area farmers identify the resting place of their lost relations.

“Funniest thing of all is, we could try with you. With you or with you. And with you. It works for some and not others,” Hofer said.

Videographer JR Rouse and I did give grave witching a try. JR has the gift, but I do not.

Lura Roti grew up on a ranch in western South Dakota but today she calls Sioux Falls home. She has worked as a freelance journalist for more than two decades. Lura loves working with the SDPB team to share the stories of South Dakota’s citizens and communities. And she loves sharing her knowledge with the next generation. Lura teaches a writing course for the University of Sioux Falls.