Turnpike Terror—West Virginia

West Virginia Turnpike—Interstate 77
Between Princeton and Charleston

N.B. Part of this article was originally published 22 December 2014 as part of my article, “13 Southern Haunts You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.” This article has been revised and expanded.

If there was ever a place for a ghost, it’s that two-lane holocaust.
–Terry Marchal, “Always on Sunday,” Charleston Mail Gazette, 12 September 1971

The West Virginia Turnpike was plagued with problems from the very beginning. In the early 20th century the very mountains that made “The Mountain State” unique also cut off much of the state’s population from the outside world. To rectify this, the state looked into a major north to south thoroughfare between two major cities.

After a route was chosen, construction involved literally moving mountains at tremendous cost. By the time it opened in 1954, the project’s price amounted to $133 million—around $1.5 million per mile—over two years. But, the staggering statistics do not stop there; construction required the movement of 33 million cubic yards of earth, 16 million pounds of dynamite, 60% of excavation through rock, 116 bridges within the road’s 88 miles, and, sadly, five lost were lost during the project.

As it opened, some even deemed the highway “88 miles of miracle,” though that positive image did not last. Criticism followed with the two-lane road being called “the road to nowhere” by The Saturday Evening Post. As it became packed with the increased traffic brought to it by the Interstate Highway System, even more scorn was heaped upon the highway.

West Virginia Turnpike 1974
A two-lane section of the turnpike in 1974. Photo by Jack Corn for the EPA.

With the traffic and congestion also came a sharp increase in deaths on the road. Terry Marchal’s 1971 quip about the turnpike being a “two-lane holocaust” was apt considering the huge death toll. By 1975, the toll stood at 278 fatalities.

During the late 1970s and into the 80s, the road was expanded into a four-lane highway, which has eased some traffic woes, though congestion remained a problem. Another issue that arose—although the state government could not have foreseen such a thing—was ghosts.

congestion on the West Virginia Turnpike
Modern congestion on the turnpike in Raleigh County, 2006. Photo by Seicer, courtesy of Wikipedia.

By 1971, tales had been told for years about ghostly hitchhikers along the road’s route, when an article appearing in the Martinsville Bulletin of Virginia stirred some interesting commentary among West Virginia newspapers.  The article reports that the Associated Press reported that a West Virginia radio station reported (many people are reporting on others’ reporting in what might be a classic example of the telephone game) that witnesses have encountered a ghostly hitchhiker on the turnpike.

Columnist Bob Wills in the Raleigh Register (in Raleigh, West Virginia) pointed out this farcical reporting in his column on September 20, 1971, describing it as “another case of ‘I know a man who etc…’” Wills reprints the original Martinsville Bulletin article to show how ludicrous it is. The original article in the Martinsville Bulletin takes a humorous turn with the author suggesting several “answers to the mystery of the vanishing hitchhiker,” including “Anything can happen in West Virginia…and will on the West Virginia Turnpike.”

Despite the article’s skeptical tone, it seems that the story itself may still bear a kernel of truth, especially when compared to more recent stories from the turnpike. Wills reprinted the entire Martinsville Bulletin article in his column of which this is the most interesting part, my own notes are provided in brackets:

According to the AP, as reported by a West Virginia radio station, 22 motorists on the turnpike between Princeton and Bluefield [this is the southern end of the turnpike] have reported they picked up a hitch-hiking man who later vanished from their cars. [I can find no evidence of the Associated Press coverage of the hitchhiker, though this may simply be due to the fact that many papers from this period are not yet available online.]

You read that correctly. The man just vanished from their vehicles—in some cases while they were traveling at 65 miles an hour.

Some motorists even reported the car seat belt was still hooked together on the front seat after the man disappeared.

According to the radio station, the neatly dressed man got into the cars when motorists stopped, but said nothing.

But in cases he later spoke one sentence—“Jesus is coming.”

And with that he vanished.

Earlier that month, Bob Wills reported on a message the newspaper received on its reader tip line:

This is Charley Jackson, City Councilman at large, Beckley, West Virginia. Something happened to me not too long ago and people have been asking about it since. Also, it was announced on the radio that I was one of the witnesses that could explain it…it happened on the West Virginia turnpike…Well, this is it:

I was going down the Turnpike and I saw a hitchhiker. I picked up this hitchhiker and I had reached the climax of 60 miles an hour when this gentleman said to me, he said, “Jesus is coming soon.” And then he disappeared. Where he went to, how he left, only God knows. But I do know that it is mighty strange. There were no witnesses, no warlocks, no magic; but something is going on. There is a change that should be made in everyone’s life—and that is my story.

Wills says that the reporters who listened to the recording were well familiar with Councilman’s Jackson’s voice and the voice on the recording was not his.

While they also noted that the story was “a thin tale with an evangelistic bent” the story does seem to bear the hallmarks of more recent stories from the turnpike. In the intervening years, several state troopers have reported experiences here including one who discovered a little girl who appeared lost and wandering on the side of the road. After picking up the unusually quiet child and putting her in the backseat of his car. During the drive the trooper glanced in his rear-view mirror and was shocked to discover the child had vanished.

Another trooper encountered a pedestrian along the turnpike and arrested him as pedestrians are forbidden from walking along the road. Placing the handcuffed man in the back seat of his patrol car, the officer headed back to headquarters. At some point during the drive, the trooper looked in the rear-view mirror to find the back seat was empty. The pedestrian simply vanished leaving the handcuffs on the seat.

ghostly hitchhiker haunted West Virginia Turnpike
West Virginia Turnpike as it passes through Fayette County. Photo 2006 by Seicer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Blogger Theresa Racer writes in her blog of her own experience. She and her mother were traveling along the turnpike when they passed “a scraggly looking young man wearing dark clothing and carrying an olive green army-like sack” standing in a particularly lonely area of the interstate. After passing him, they looked in their rear view mirror to see the figure had vanished. They turned their car around and did not see anyone along that same lonely stretch of interstate.

Folklorist Dennis Deitz posits in his The Greenbrier Ghost and other Strange Stories that the road cuts across two creeks where tragedies have occurred. Along both Paint and Cabin Creeks there were many mines where miners were killed in accidents. He also notes that both creeks have experienced flooding that has killed residents in the area. During the turnpike’s construction in the 1950s there were also a number of old cemeteries that were moved, perhaps these hitchhiking spirits are trying to find their way back to their earthly remains?

For further stories of ghostly hitchhikers in West Virginia, see my article on Fairmont’s Old Grafton Road, and  WV Route 901 in Berkeley County.

Sources

  • Deitz, Dennis. The Greenbrier Ghost and Other Strange Stories. South Charleston, WV: Mountain Memories Books, 1990.
  • Gavenda, Walter and Michael T. Shoemaker. A Guide to Haunted West Virginia. Glen Ferris, WV: Peter’s Creek Publishing, 2001.
  • Monday, Christopher R. “The West Virginia Turnpike: “88 Miles of Miracle.” West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly. Volume 11, No. 2.
  • Racer, Theresa. “WV Turnpike.” Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State. 2 March 2011.
  • “West Virginia Turnpike History.” West Virginia Parkways Authority. Accessed
  • Wills, Bob. “The Turnpike Ghost turns up on tape.” The Raleigh Register. 14 September 1971.
  • Wills, Bob. “Virginian enlarges TP ‘Ghost’ tale.” The Raleigh Register. 20 September 1971.

A host of stories—Georgetown, South Carolina

Heriot-Tarbox House
(formerly Harbor House Bed & Breakfast, private)
15 Cannon Street

N.B. This article was originally published as part of my 2011 article, “Ghosts of Georgetown, SC.”

Atop a bluff overlooking the Sampit River is the Heriot-Tarbox House topped with a distinctive red roof that can been seen from Winyah Bay. Constructed around 1765, the house was the home of Dr. Charles Fyffe, a Scottish-born physician and planter who also constructed the brick warehouse across the street. Just past the house is a small marina that was created by him as well.

Heriot-Tarbox House Georgetown South Carolina ghosts haunted
The Heriot-Tarbox House from Cannon Street. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

During the dismal days of the American Revolution, Dr. Fyffe remained loyal to the British crown and oversaw a loyalist hospital for refugees in Charleston. After the British surrender at Yorktown, the doctor faced deportation for his loyalties. In his appeal, he argued that he had treated wounded Patriots as well. He was allowed to stay, though his estate and property was seized. Remaining loyal to the Crown, he made his way to Colonial India where he served as a physician before succumbing to madness. He was committed to a mental asylum in Calcutta (now Kolkata) where he lingered until his death in 1810.

A couple years after Dr. Fyffe’s death in India, his former home and docks became entangled in another legend. In December of 1812, the lovely Theodosia Burr Alston, the wife of the newly sworn governor of South Carolina, Joseph Alston, may have stayed in the home before boarding the schooner, Patriot, headed to New York to visit her father.

Theodosia was the daughter of the disgraced former Vice President Aaron Burr. Serving under President Thomas Jefferson, Burr was suspected of treasonous acts and was arrested in the wilds of the Alabama territory. He was carried to Richmond, Virginia where he was put on trial. Though he was acquitted of the charges, Burr sought refuge in Europe for several years before returning to New York in 1812, just before the outbreak of war between the Americans and the British.

Theodosia Burr Alston painted by John Vanderlyn.
Contemporary portrait of Theodosia Burr Alston painted by John Vanderlyn.

Burr’s daughter, married to wealthy South Carolina planter, Joseph Alston, remained in America during her father’s exile in Europe. Theodosia waited until December, after her husband’s inauguration as governor, to travel to New York to see him. After the birth of her son, Aaron Burr Alston, Theodosia’s health had deteriorated, but that was worsened with his death from malaria in June 1812 at the age of 10. Therefore, travel for Theodosia would be difficult on her health, not to mention the risks of travel. While the two-week carriage ride from South Carolina to New York would be extremely taxing, travel by sea also proved dangerous, especially now that the country was at war with Britain. Indeed, stormy winter seas and the threat of pirates also presented their own dangers.

As Governor Alston could not leave the state during wartime, he engaged a friend, Dr. Timothy Greene, to accompany his ailing wife on her journey. Passage was secured on a schooner, the Patriot, which had been working as a privateer, in other words, the vessel carried guns and was authorized to attack British ships.

Before her departure on New Year’s Eve, 1812, Theodosia, accompanied by her husband, Dr. Greene, and servants, traveled to Georgetown from her husband’s plantation, The Oaks, on the Waccamaw River. Local legend tells that the group was feted at the Mary Man House (528 Front Street) that evening. Where the group stayed the night, however is a matter of speculation, and stories point to them staying at Dr. Fyffe’s former home.

The next morning, she boarded the Patriot at the docks just outside the house for her journey. The ship sailed out of Winyah Bay past the Georgetown Light on North Island into oblivion and legend. Whatever became of the Patriot and Theodosia after leaving Georgetown is unclear. Stories abound as to the fate of the Patriot and its passengers often involving romantic hallmarks like piracy, plank-walking, murder, wreckers on the North Carolina coast, and suicide. According to Richard N. Côté’s Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy, recent research has uncovered facts relating to a severe storm off of the North Carolina coast just days after the departure of the Patriot from Georgetown.

Since her disappearance, tales have swirled about her tragic figure making appearances in spiritual form from the Charleston Battery, up the coast to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. In Georgetown, these tales are rife, with Theodosia supposedly making appearances at the Mary Man House, where she may have been feted the night before her final journey. Legend holds that she also makes appearances in and around the Heriot-Tarbox House as well as being seen near Charles Fyffe’s brick warehouse across the street.

Heriot-Tarbox House 1963 HABS Library of Congress
Heriot-Tarbox House in 1963, taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The house, however, also hosts another legend involving the daughter of a later resident. This young lady, which sources do not identify, like so many other local ladies, fell in love with a sea captain. As fathers of this period were wont to do, he disapproved of the relationship. His daughter did find a way to communicate with her lover by placing a lantern in one of the top floor windows of the house.

Though the couple never married, the woman continued to hang the signal lantern hoping for her lover’s return. By the time the Civil War, the woman lived alone as a spinster surrounded by a pack of loyal dogs. She used the lantern hung in her high dormer to signal to blockade runners after the Union bottled up the bay. Not long after the war, she grew more and more reclusive. One evening after her dogs were heard baying through the night, concerned neighbors broke into the house to find her body surrounded by her beloved dogs. Her wraith is still supposedly seen followed by spectral dogs while the light still appears in the dormer window.

Heriot-Tarbox House 1963 HABS Library of Congress
The river elevation of the house. The ghostly light is supposed to appear in one of the upper dormers. Photo taken 1963, for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

According to author Elizabeth Huntsinger, the high dormer was later used during Prohibition to signal to rum runners at work in the bay. Part of me wonders if perhaps the story of the lantern in the dormer window is an invention of those smugglers. Certainly, it is a reason for locals to not question the odd light. Ghost stories are sometimes used to keep the curious at bay; perhaps this is at work in this house on the bay.

For further ghosts of Georgetown, see my article, “Ghosts of Georgetown, South Carolina.”

Sources

  • Côté, Richard N. Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy. Mount Pleasant, SC: Corinthian Books, 2002.
  • Huntsinger, Elizabeth Robertson. Ghosts of Georgetown. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1995.
  • South Carolina Picture Project. Heriot-Tarbox House—Georgetown, South Carolina. Accessed 10 July 2019.
  • Theodosia Burr Alston. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 8 July 2019.
  • Zepke, Terrance. Ghosts and Legends of the Carolina Coasts. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 2005.

The scarab’s sting—Georgetown, South Carolina

Cleland House (private)
405 Front Street
Georgetown, South Carolina

N.B. This article was originally published as part of my 2011 article, “Ghosts of Georgetown, SC.”

Standing proudly on the corner of Front and St. James Streets among the oak and moss shaded residential section of Georgetown, the Cleland House is among the oldest houses in town, having been built in 1737. From this corner it has witnessed the whole panoply of American history, some of it even passing over its thresholds.

During the American Revolution, the Prussian General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben; French generals Baron Johann de Kalb and Gilbert de Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette; made visits to the house while they were giving aid to American forces. Later, Vice President Aaron Burr stayed at the home while visiting his daughter, Theodosia.

Cleland House Georgetown South Carolina ghost haunted
The Cleland House, 2011, by Lewis O. Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The story behind this house reads very much like an old-fashioned ghost story. Anne Withers, possibly related to John Withers who is listed on the historical marker in front of the house as one of the owners, fell in love with a dashing sea captain. After one of his voyages he returned to Georgetown, and presented his fiancée with a rare gift, an ancient Egyptian bracelet, which featured a series of scarabs.

The scarab, an Ancient Egyptian amulet representing the common dung beetle, is found throughout the ancient world. Some scarabs were used as ornaments, while others were used as seals. During the era of the New Kingdom (1535-1079 BCE), scarabs began to be included in the wrappings of mummies. To the ancient Egyptians, the lowly dung beetle symbolized resurrection and new life as it laid its eggs within animal dung which it rolled into a ball. In the ancient religion, the beetle, personified as the god, Khepri, was believed to roll the sun into the sky.

Ancient Egyptian Scarabs
A selection of Ancient Egyptian Scarabs in the Bibel + Orient Museum, Freiburg, Switzerland. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Anne Withers, the blushing bride, saved the bracelet to wear on her wedding day. After putting on her wedding gown, she placed the bracelet on her wrist and carried on with her other preparations. Just as she was about to descend the staircase of the Cleland House, the bride let out a scream and fell down the stairs. By the time she tumbled to the floor at the foot of the stairs, she was dead.

Rushing to her side, her family discovered blood dripping from underneath the bracelet. When it was removed, the scarabs were found to have tiny legs that had dug into the bride’s pale flesh.

Leaving Georgetown soon after his fiancée’s death, the heartbroken took the bracelet to London where it was examined by a chemist. He discovered that the legs on the scarabs had been rigged to open by the warmth from human skin. Each leg contained poison that would be injected into the hapless victim. He surmised the bracelet had been made to afflict the person who stole the artifact from a tomb.

Ever since Anne Withers’ wedding day death, her form, still wearing nuptial white, has been seen in the gardens of the Cleland House.

A search of cemetery records on FindaGrave.com does not bring up a burial for Miss Withers.

Sources

  • Huntsinger, Elizabeth Robertson. Ghosts of Georgetown. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1995.
  • Roberts, Nancy. Southern Ghosts. Orangeburg, SC: Sandlapper,1979.
  • Scarab. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed 6 July 2019.

A firebrand phantom—Athens, Georgia

T. R. R. Cobb House
175 Hill Street
Athens, Georgia

Several years ago, a visitor to the T. R. R. Cobb House was touring the upstairs alone when his cell phone rang. Answering it, the gentleman stepped into the room that had once been T. R. R. Cobb’s bedroom. Suddenly, he heard a voice shushing him.

The gentlemen quickly headed back down the stairs. After sheepishly apologizing to the museum’s staff, the guest discovered that none of them had been upstairs or had shushed him. Perhaps Mr. Cobb wanted some undisturbed sleep.

Portrait of Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb by Horace James Bradley 1860
Portrait of Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb by Horace James Bradley, 1860.

Cobb certainly may need sleep after living a vigorous life. Born in Jefferson County, Georgia, Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb moved with his family to Athens at a young age. After graduating from the University of Georgia at the top of his class, he married the daughter of Judge Joseph Henry Lumpkin, later the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, and served as a reporter for the same court, producing the 15-volume Digest of the Statute Laws of the State of Georgia in 1851. In the tension-filled days leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, Cobb’s legal scholarship heartily defended the institution of slavery in his massive volume, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America.

Angered by the election of Lincoln as president, Cobb vociferously denounced the Federal government and began preaching the gospel of secession throughout the state. After the state’s secession, he became a member of the Confederate Congress and set to work writing the Confederate constitution as well a new constitution for the state. Despite his effort in creating the constitution, Cobb resigned from the congress in frustration from the lack of cooperation. He set about forming a military regiment that became known as Cobb’s Legion.

He led his legion the Seven Days Battles, the Second Battle of Manassas in Virginia, and Antietam in Maryland. While defending the infamous stone wall at Marye’s Heights south of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Cobb was mortally wounded when a Union shell exploded nearby. With his femoral artery severed, he bled out at a field hospital as his troops continued to hold their position behind the meager stone wall.

Years later, Woodrow Wilson described the fiery Cobb, “One figure in particular took the imagination and ruled the spirits of that susceptible people, the figure of Thomas R. R. Cobb. The manly beauty of his tall, athletic person; his frank eyes on fire; his ardor…given over to a cause not less sacred, not less fraught with the issues of life and death than religion itself; his voice…musical and sure to find its way to the heart…made his words pass like flame from countryside to countryside.”

Thomas Cobb’s majestic home has led a life that’s equally as twisting and turning as the firebrand who lived there. The house started life as a much plainer Federal-style home around 1839. It was purchased in 1842 by Cobb’s father-in-law who presented it, according to family lore, as a wedding present to his daughter and son-in-law. It was Cobb who added octagonal additions and columns, elevating the home’s appearance in 1852.

HABS T. R. R. Cobb House Athens Georgia 1939
The Cobb House in its original location on Prince Avenue, 1939, by Thomas Waterman. Photo taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the house saw a variety of residents and uses ranging from a boarding house to a fraternity house. It is from this period that the earliest report of paranormal activity was documented regarding the house. Collected as part of the WPA Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. That account recalls the spirit of “a gentleman wearing a gay dressing gown” who is seen descending the stairs and sitting in front of the fire in the drawing room.

In 1962, the house came under the ownership of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, who used the structure as a parish house, rectory, and offices for St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. During that time, two priests and several nuns living in the house had encounters with a man in grey who entered the library and stood by the fireplace.

One priest recalled a fascinating moment in the house. The priests tended to accumulate newspapers on the back porch. After reading the papers, they were consigned to a stack that soon reached from floor to ceiling. One day, the papers erupted into flame. While the papers burned, the house remained untouched and the fire extinguished itself miraculously.

After serving the church, the dilapidated house was sentenced to demolition in 1984. Instead of resigning the house to the wrecking ball, the house was dismantled and moved from its original Prince Avenue location to Stone Mountain Park, just outside of Atlanta. The park intended to restore the home as part of its Historic Square, which contains a number of historic structures collected from throughout the state along with their accompanying ghosts. Instead, the Cobb House was put up on cinder blocks and sat unrestored for nearly twenty years.

With funding from the Watson-Brown Foundation, the home was returned to Athens, having taken the scenic route from Prince Avenue to its new location on Hill Street, but not without some controversy. A 2004 article in the New York Times stirred the pot by enumerating Cobb’s ardent positions on slavery and race, positions that do not mesh with the current atmosphere in modern Athens. Despite protests from throughout the city, the house was returned and restored.

T. R. R. Cobb House Athens Georgia 2011 ghosts haunted
T. R. R. Cobb House, 2011. Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Throughout two house moves and a major restoration, spirits have remained active in the home. Staff members regularly hear the sounds of people entering the home during the day only to discover that no one is there. They are also regularly treated to the sounds of footsteps and laughter when the house is quiet. One of the more amusing incidents took place late one afternoon when an older couple was touring the house.

Their tour was led by the education director who politely answered the question about if the house is haunted. The lady who asked, responded that she would be freaked out if she saw a chandelier swinging on its own accord. Lo, and behold, the chandelier in the front parlor was swinging so wildly when the trio entered that the education director had to physically stop it herself.

An antique armoire in the hallway of the house has a door in its side that opens on its own. The furniture, which is original to the house, has an opening in the side that reveals a coat hook. At certain times of the year when the wood expands and causes difficulty in opening the door, it is found open anyway.

There are also apparitions that have been seen by visitors and passersby including an elderly black woman and a little girl. No reports as to whether the grey-clad man has been seen in the house. Perhaps the firebrand phantom is too busy trying to rest in his bedroom.

Sources

  • Adkins, Tracy L. Ghosts of Athens. CreateSpace Publishing, 2016.
  • Battle of Fredericksburg. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 23 June 2019.
  • Brice, Plott. “Cobb House bears weight of history.” Atlanta Constitution. 28 June 2004.
  • Day, Kathleen A. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for T. R. R. Cobb House. 25 March 1975.
  • Jacobs, Andrew. “Athens Journal; A Symbol of Slavery, and a Storm, Shall Rise Again.” New York Times. 28 April 2004.
  • Killion, Ronald G. and Charles T. Waller. A Treasury of Georgia Folklore. Atlanta, GA: Cherokee Publishing, 1972.
  • Miles, Jim. “Weird Georgia: T.R.R. Cobb Haunts Athens Home.” Brown’s Guide to Georgia. Accessed 18 June 2011.
  • Nash, Steven & Matthew Bailey. “Thomas R. R. Cobb (1823-1862).New Georgia Encyclopedia. 18 March 2005.
  • Reap, James K. Athens: A Pictorial History. Norfolk, VA: Donning Company, 1985.
  • T. R. R. Cobb House. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 18 June 2011.

The Giving Tree—Athens, Georgia

Tree That Owns Itself
277 South Finley Street
Athens, Georgia

…the Tree was happy…
–Shel Silverstein, “The Giving Tree,” 1964

When I read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree as a child many moons ago, I found the story disturbing. There is more than a bit of sadness in this story of altruism, and I found that disquieting. Perhaps this was one of my first introductions into that grey area where noble ideals spar with reality, morality and immorality square off, or the dramatic tension begrudgingly lies between the blacks and whites of good and evil.

Tree That Owns Itself Athens Georgia
The Tree That Owns Itself in 1910, by Huron Smith for the Field Museum.

The legend of Athens, Georgia’s Tree That Owns Itself exists in this same grey realm of fact and legend. When I stumbled across this 1916 article while browsing the historic newspaper collection of the Digital Library of Georgia, I was happy to be able to add this story to my collection on Athens. Unfortunately, the bottom corner of the paper has been torn and part of the paragraph describing the phantom is lost. 

The Daily Times-Enterprise
Thomasville, Georgia
July 1, 1916
Courtesy of the Digital Library of Georgia

GHOST HAUNTS TREE THAT OWNS ITSELF
_____
AT LEAST THAT IS STORY COMING
OUT FROM ATHENS, AND
THERE IS MUCH SPECULATION
OVER REPORT.
_____

Atlanta, July 1—Has the ghost of William Jackson come back to haunt the Tree That Owns Itself?

That’s the tale they are telling in Athens, Ga., where on a big hill in the center of the city stands a giant white oak, the only tree that owns itself, trunk, twig and leaf, together with eight feet of land on all sides.

Early in the nineteenth century William Jackson was one of the largest plantation owners of Clarke county. Under the white oak, which is four or five hundred years old, he used to sit and direct his slaves at work. When he died, this paragraph was found in his will:

“For and in consideration of the great love I bear this tree and the great desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet of the tree on all sides.”

Now comes the report that a phantom has been seen beneath the Tree That Owns Itself.

[page torn]…mist of a man, fading is-
[page torn]…a man with powdered
[page torn]…a broad hat
[page torn]…and laces and frills sitting there under the tree, with one hand resting gently on the bark.

Was it the ghost of William Jackson?

Ask the boys of that college town—they don’t know.

A surprisingly thorough article on Wikipedia examines the legend and its inconsistencies, noting that the first documented version of the tree’s legend appeared in the Athens Weekly Banner in 1890. That article, couched in the heroic language of the period, describes the tree as seeming to “stand straighter, and hold its head more highly and proudly as if we knew that it ranked above the common trees of the world.” The 1890 article continues with the history of the tree but noting that the tree’s deed of ownership is mysteriously missing from the county’s records.

Postcard of the Tree That Owns Itself Athens Georgia
The original Tree That Owns Itself shortly before it fell in 1942. Postcard from the Boston Public Library.

Since 1916, the original tree succumbed to rot and fell on October 9, 1942. The Athens Junior Ladies Garden Club took up the cause of the tree and replaced it with a sapling grown from one of the original oak’s acorns. The current tree sometimes deemed “Son of the Tree That Owns Itself,” continues to flourish from its space on South Finley Street. The tree is now surrounded with a retaining wall and a chain barrier with a plaque denoting the tree’s ownership of itself. Perhaps Col. William Jackson still appears on occasion to rest beneath the stately branches that he gave so much for?

Son of the Tree That Owns Itself Athens Gerogia
Son of the Tree That Owns Itself, 2005, by Bloodofox, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sources

  • “Deeded to itself.” Athens Weekly Banner. 12 August 1890.
  • “Ghost haunts tree that owns itself.” Daily Times-Enterprise (Thomasville, Georgia). 1 July 1916.
  • Tree That Owns Itself. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 19 June 2019.

Exploring “ghost-ridden territories”—A Review of Haunted Charlottesville

Haunted Charlottesville and Surrounding Counties
Susan Schwartz with photographs by Cliff Middlebrooks Jr.
Schiffer Publishing, 2019

In her introduction to this book, Pamela K. Kinney succinctly describes the Charlottesville region as being among the many “ghost-ridden territories” in the state of Virginia. Susan Schwartz sets out to prove this in her book, Haunted Charlottesville and Surrounding Counties. Covering some familiar haunts and many that are unfamiliar, Schwartz has laid out a brilliant new guide to this most important region.

Not far from the geographical heart of Virginia, the Charlottesville area encompasses a historically important region within state and national history. Before the arrivals of Europeans, this area was the homeland for several noted Native American tribes and afterwards became one of the first frontiers for new settlers. The growing pains of nationhood were distinctly felt here in the form of military action during the Revolution and the Civil War. Among these hills and valleys lived presidents, planters, statesmen, scholars, industrialists, and many others who may remain in spiritual form.

Prior to this book, the region’s spiritual fabric has only been described in one book, L. B. Taylor’s 1992 Ghosts of Charlottesville and Lynchburg…and nearby environs. While Mr. Taylor’s numerous volumes on the ghosts of Virginia are excellent, his book is nearly 30 years old. Ghost stories need regular tending, with information being updated to include not only new encounters, but fresh historical research which may shed light on these hauntings. Indeed, new stories should also be added as they come to light.

Schwartz masterfully navigates readers to some 77 locations in 12 counties. In the process of this tour, Schwartz examines some familiar hauntings such as Castle Hill Manor, Tuckahoe Plantation, and Gordonsville’s Exchange Hotel with stops that she serendipitously discovered as she traveled the backroads in search of ghosts. From abandoned roadside stores to a small deli in the community of Troy in Fluvanna County, Schwartz provides a fresh and lively commentary on these newly discovered haunts.

cover Haunted Charlottesville and Surrounding Counties Susan SchwartzAs she guides readers to these locations, Schwartz does well to cite her sources by including in-line citations. Often, I’m left to puzzle over where an author got their information, but Schwartz sees to it that there is no question. Her bibliography forms an excellent guide to the foundations of her book and is exceedingly useful for researchers like me.

Overall, this book is a spectacular guide to these “ghost-ridden territories” in central Virginia for everyone from the paranormal dilettante to the serious, academic researcher and provides well-marked trails for all to follow to explore the haunted past of the Charlottesville region.

Haunted Charlottesville and Surrounding Counties is available on Amazon.

Strange LaGrange: Ghosts, Legends, & Spirited History—A Walking Tour

There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in proportion.
–Edgar Allan Poe, “Ligeia,” 1838

The South is a very strange place. Even after years of researching and writing about the South, I continue to find masses of odd stories, not just from ghostlore, but stories regarding cryptids, UFOs, aliens, dreams, premonitions, and other high strangeness. While the South isn’t any more active than any other region in the world, it seems that Southerners, who are natural storytellers, have created a stranger version of their world through their storytelling.

Lafayette Square LaGrange Georgia
Lafayette Square in downtown LaGrange, Georgia. Photo 2012, by Rivers Langley, courtesy of Wikipedia.

My hometown of LaGrange, Georgia has its own strange and storied landscape. Growing up here, I heard stories and tales of haunted places, but was never able to confirm much of this. After starting this blog, I have pursued some of these stories, but rarely with much success. When I got the call from the director of the Troup County Historical Society several months ago, asking if I would be interested in creating this tour, I jumped at the chance. It has always been a dream to create a ghost tour locally, but I never had the backing of such an august group.

As cliché as it may be to say, this tour is a labor of love. Not only has led me to ponder local history, but my own personal history here, as well as reinforcing my love for this little West Georgia town.

The tour winds through downtown LaGrange stopping by a number of historic and haunted locales as well as other places of strangeness, which doesn’t just include ghostlore. During the mid-1990s, this area was the scene of a large number of UFO sightings, leading ufologists to dub it the “Troup-Heard Corridor.” During this time, locals not only witnessed strange things in the skies, a few even had some very close encounters with possible aliens.

Indeed, the strangeness also includes the discovery, in the late 1960s, of an ancient Sumerian tablet, now known as the Hearn Tablet. Discovered by a local housewife in her garden, this apparent ancient receipt in the form of a small lead tablet is certainly out of place and produces many questions as to how it ended up here in West Georgia.

Hearn Tablet ancient Sumerian tablet found in Troup County Georgia
The Hearn Tablet, an ancient Sumerian tablet found in Troup County, Georgia. Photo courtesy of the Troup County Historical Society and Archives. All rights reserved.

From downtown, the strangeness extends all the way to the august halls of LaGrange College, the oldest private institution of higher learning in the state. Recently, a pair of young ladies were working in the college’s Smith Hall late in the evening. The first entered and was walking towards her office when she suddenly tripped over something. Looking around, she tried to identify what she had tripped over, but nothing was there. She realized that it felt as if someone had stuck their leg out to purposefully trip her. Shrugging off the incident, she continued to her office and set to work.

Smith Hall LaGrange College ghost haunted
Smith Hall ,LaGrange College, 2010, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The second young lady arrived a few minutes later, entering the office with a curious expression. She noted that she had had a strange thing happen to her on her way in, describing being tripped in the same manner that the first had. The pair returned to work, now wary of the prankster spirit that has haunted the halls of this building for years.

Stories have circulated for years about a spirit within Smith Hall, but many of the stories don’t exactly add up or stand up to historical scrutiny. Nonetheless, students and staff continue to have experiences here and within several other college buildings. All of these stories contributing to make LaGrange very strange.

Stops on the tour also include the LaGrange Art Museum, whose peculiar history I have examined closely in my article, “Its hideous use—LaGrange, Georgia.”

Strange LaGrange Tour Georgia ghost tour
The Strange LaGrange tour stops in Hill View Cemetery. Photo by Ashley Blencoe, courtesy of VisitLaGrange. All rights reserved.

The Strange LaGrange Tour steps off at 7 PM on Friday nights from the Legacy Museum on Main, 136 Main Street, in downtown LaGrange. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, $15 for kids ages 5-12, and can be reserved at the tour’s Eventbrite page. Each tour will last approximately 2 hours and will involve quite some walking, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothing. Come walk with us!

 

Grey-Garbed Ghost of the Governor’s Mansion–Georgia

N.B. This article was originally published as part of “Apparitions of Atlanta,” 28 October 2013.

There was a time when even the august pages of The New York Times published ghost stories. In 1908, this curious item appeared:

The New York Times
2 June 1908

GHOST IN GOVERNOR’S HOUSE
__________

Wife and Daughter of Gov. Smith of
Georgia Say They Saw It.

Special to the The New York Times

ATLANTA, Ga., June 1.—The ghostly gray-garbed figure of a young woman, which appears at all hours of the night, is causing the inmates of the Executive Mansion of Georgia much perturbation.

Gov. Smith is away nearly all the times engaged in a heated contest for re-election, and the mysterious ghost has been appearing to Mrs. Smith and her daughters.

The gray-garbed lady is said to be young and very beautiful. She was first seen by Miss Mary Brent Smith about three weeks ago, about 12 o’clock at night, as the latter returned to the mansion. When Miss Smith entered that hall she noticed the gray figure before a long mirror. Miss Smith approached, but the figure melted away.

Miss Smith in alarm told her mother, but the latter ridiculed her daughter. A few nights later, as Mrs. Smith and her daughter were together, the gray-gowned woman appeared to both of them. Mrs. Smith and her daughter were so overcome they fainted. To a physician Mrs. Smith related the story of the vision. Since then it is said the ghostly woman has appeared frequently.

The negroes say the figure is the ghost of Miss Price, the niece of Gov. A. D. Candler, who died in the mansion when her uncle was Governor. It is said Miss Price was very happy in the mansion, and when dying said she would revisit the place, where she was so happy while in this life.

Old Georgia Governor's Mansion before 1923
Postcard of the Old Georgia Governor’s Mansion which was torn down in 1923.

There are several interesting things to note about this article, first off, I find it interesting that the residents of the Governor’s Mansion are referred to as “inmates,” perhaps it reflects on the status of women in this period? Secondly, it’s noted that the lowly, unnamed reporter who wrote this story evidently sought out local African-Americans to comment on the apparition, something that doesn’t often happen with articles of this time.

As for the historical context of this article, the governor in this article is Hoke Smith, who made his name as the owner of the Atlanta Journal. During that time he used his position to back Grover Cleveland during the presidential election of 1892. Following his election to the presidency, Cleveland appointed Smith as Secretary of the Interior. Returning to Georgia in 1896 after serving as secretary, he allied himself with the now notorious populist firebrand politician, Tom Watson. Smith was elected governor in 1907.

Hoke Smith, governor of Georgia.
Gov. Hoke Smith of Georgia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

While he worked hard to appease Watson by disenfranchising the vote of African-American Georgians, Watson was still not pleased and in 1908 threw his support behind Joseph M. Brown, son of Georgia’s Civil War governor, Joseph E. Brown, thus necessitating long absences from his wife and the governor’s mansion.

The spirit is identified as Miss Price, the niece of Governor Allen D. Candler. A search of period papers brought up a notice of Miss Alice Price being ill on January 4, 1899. Ten days later, on January 14, there is a notice that Miss Price passed away. She was related to the governor through his wife and was visiting from Macon “to assist with the social honors at the executive mansion.”

Alice Price niece of Georgia Governor Allen Candler
Alice Price, as pictured next to the notice of her death in the Atlanta Constitution,. 14 January 1899.

Notably, young Miss Price died from typhoid fever which, according to the paper, she acquired from poor sanitation at the governor’s mansion.

The illness of Miss Price was caused by the poor sanitary arrangements which existed in the executive mansion at the time of Governor Candler’s inauguration. Before the days of the Atlanta waterworks a windmill supplied the mansion with water, the pipes being distributed through the house from a tank.

When the windmill was discontinued this tank was allowed to remain, and it is thought the decaying wood caused the illness of the young lady. After she became ill plumbers were put to work, and the water now reaches the mansion without passing through the tank.

Postcar view of Old Georgia Governor's Mansion before 1923
Postcard view of the Old Georgia Governor’s Mansion before 1923.

This indicates a misunderstanding of how typhoid is spread. Decaying wood does not cause typhoid, it is spread by water contaminated with human fecal material from someone carrying the bacteria, which speaks to the early problems of water utilities and sanitation. It should also be noted that the governor’s mansion was torn down in 1923 because of the building’s poor condition. The site of the old mansion is now occupied by the Westin Peachtree Plaza at 210 Peachtree Street, NW.

Westin Peachtree Plaza Atlanta Georgia occupying the site of the Old Georgia Governor's Mansion
One of the more notable structures in the Atlanta skyline, the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel now occupies the site of the old Governor’s Mansion. Photo 2013, by Robert Neff, courtesy of Wikipedia.

This house is not the first Georgia governor’s mansion to be haunted, the Old Governor’s Mansion in Milledgeville is also known to be haunted.

Sources

  • “Ghost in Governor’s House.” New York Times. 2 June 1908.
  • Maysilles, Duncan. “Hoke Smith (1855-1931).” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 22 August 2013.
  • “Miss Alice Price Died Yesterday.” Atlanta Constitution. 14 January 1899.
  • “The Sick List.” Atlanta Constitution. 4 January 1899.

“Its hideous use”—LaGrange, Georgia

LaGrange Art Museum
112 Lafayette Parkway
LaGrange, Georgia

N.B. Starting on Friday, June 7th, I will be giving ghost tours of my hometown, LaGrange, Georgia. “Strange LaGrange” will cover all types of oddities, ghosts, UFOs, and strange history throughout downtown. This location is one of the primary stops.

In the January 1, 1892 edition of the LaGrange Reporter, an article appeared hailing a new structure that would be constructed later that year; “the new building will be an ornament to the town – barring its hideous use – and an honor to the county.”

The phrase, “barring its hideous use” is quite curious, though apt when you consider that this building, now dressed in a penitent’s white, opened as the Troup County Jail. This building recalls the cruel history of executions at a time when they were carried out by local governments, rather than at the state level as they are now.

LaGrange Art Museum formerly the Troup County Jail ghosts haunted LaGrange Georgia
The tower of the LaGrange Art Museum is popularly thought to have been used for executions, though executions were only conducted in the cellblock. Photo 2019, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The Pauly Jail Building Company of St. Louis, Missouri, which today remains in the business of constructing correctional facilities, designed and built this jail along with hundreds of similar structures across the South and throughout the country.

The contract to build the jail was awarded in January of 1892 for the sum of $13,500. Construction likely commenced shortly thereafter and was completed by September.

To test the quality of the steel cells, the Troup County Commissioners summoned a machinist and tools from Georgia Tech to test the steel cells. The LaGrange Reporter notes that Mr. Frank Hudson “entered the steel cells with his compliment of tools, and, after boring, sawing and chiseling for two hours, without making an appreciable impression, desisted.”

interior Troup County Georgia stockade
The interior of the Troup County Stockade is likely similar to the interior of the jail. The sparseness of the facilities provides scant hope to the incarcerated. Photo by Snelson Davis, courtesy of the Troup County Historical Society and Archives. All rights reserved.

On September 15th, the “county’s boarders,” as they were deemed by the paper, were moved into the new building. They were given haircuts, a bath, and new uniforms to correspond with their new quarters. The paper continues:

It was a gala day for these unfortunates, and they greatly enjoyed the change from the close, dark, and generally uncomfortable cells in the old structure to their bright, white, clean quarters in the new. It was like going into another and a better world, although they are more prisoners than before, so far as means of escape are concerned. They left their filth and much of their gloom behind. Light, air and larger space will make their confinement henceforth more endurable.

About five years after the jail opened, the Atlanta Constitution took the Troup County Commissioners to task in a brief article on January 1, 1898:

Recently, it has been published that the commissioners of Troup county, in order to provide against the public execution, and with the view of saving the city of LaGrange from the usual crowd which an execution draws together, decided to erect a gallows inside the jail building, where it would be in full view of the two condemned men who were to be hanged therefrom.

The LaGrange Reporter very sensibly urges the commissioners to meet and change this order, taking the ground that the prisoners have some rights as well as the citizens, and that they should not be compelled to pass several days in constant view of the dread instrument which is to execute the sentence of law.

It is hoped that the views of The Reporter will be listened to by the county commissioners, and that some other plan should be adopted. To have a private execution it is not necessary that the jail corridor be used.

[The “two condemned men” in this article were George Gill and Will Smith who were sentenced to death for murder. They were supposed to have been executed on January 7, but their sentence was suspended for 30 days, and later commuted to life in prison by the governor.]

The Troup County Commissioners did not take heed of the opinions of the LaGrange Reporter or the Atlanta Constitution and change their decision to hold executions inside the jail.

Troup County Jail LaGrange Georgia now the art museum
A view of the jail, probably in the 1920s. Photo by S. Hutchinson, courtesy of the Troup County Historical Society and Archives. All rights reserved.

The first execution to take place inside this building was that of Edmund Scott, August 2, 1901. Scott, an African-American, was put to death for the deaths of Lena and Carry Huguley in West Point, Georgia (in southern Troup County) in 1900. He claimed the shooting was accidental and that one of the young ladies had been his sweetheart.

According to articles in both the LaGrange Reporter or the Atlanta Constitution, Scott was “ready to go.” During his confinement, he had met with pastors from the Methodist Church and the pastor of the Presbyterian Church met with him the morning of his execution. The Constitution provides a good description of the hanging:

The hanging took place inside of the jail at 12:18 o’clock. The gallows is built over the space between the iron cages and the brick wall of the building. Thirty or forty persons saw the hanging. Scott was dressed in a black suit with a standing collar and black tie. He walked up the ladder to the top of the cells without assistance and was calm. He had but little to say and spoke in a low voice. Rev. J. Kelsey, pastor of the colored Baptist Church, offered an earnest prayer. The black cap was then placed over his head. As the noose was being arranged Scott asked:

“Who is placing the rope about my neck?”

The sheriff’s deputy replied:

“Sheriff Brady.”

“The man,” said Scott, “who places the rope about my neck will die.”

The sheriff sprung the trap and Scott’s body went down. Death came in fifteen minutes and the body was cut down in sixteen minutes from the time it dropped. His neck was not broken.

The note that Scott’s neck was not broken is particularly cruel. The use of a drop in hangings is meant to provide a relatively quick and humane death to the condemned with the short, sharp, shock of a jerk of the rope. However, this requires some mathematical calculations involving the height and weight of the condemned and a specific length of rope. If the rope is too short, the condemned will strangle to death. If it’s too long, the condemned could be decapitated.

The next man to die here was Ingram Canady, Jr. who was executed here for the rape of a white woman. Canady, or Canida as his name is sometimes rendered, was hung March 20, 1908. His last words were recorded by the Atlanta Constitution:

I don’t know anything in the world about it; I am ready to meet death, and know my soul will be saved. I don’t know a thing in the world about the crime, and am innocent. All be good; expect to meet you in heaven.

Just before the trap was sprung he said, “The old Master will straighten all mistakes.”

The Reporter noted that again, his neck was not broken. Canady died of strangulation after sixteen minutes.

On January 2, 1909, Lucius Truitt was hanged for the murder of Dock Tatum during a robbery and home invasion. Walter Thomas died here on June 10 of the next year for the rape of a child.

The final man to die here was 22-year-old John Marvin Thompson, who was hanged in July 26, 1918 for the slaying of Troup County Sheriff William Shirey. The sheriff led a raid on an illegal liquor still in the southern part of the county. Thompson, who owned the still, opened fire on the raiding party and the sheriff was killed.

Before “a small crowd of friends of Thompson, his father, and the newspaper men,” Thompson ascended towards the fateful noose. His last words were recorded by the Atlanta Constitution:

I want all of you to know that I am dying innocent of what I am accused of. I have done things that I ought not to have done in my life, and God will forgive me for all I have ever done and take me home.

To his father he said, “Tell all of my people good-bye for me, papa.” His father responded, ““I am sorry for you, John; I wish I could go with you.”

The reporter for the Constitution notes that, “No struggle whatever occurred after the trap was spring, his neck evidently having been broken by the fall.” Thompson was the first and only white man hung in the county as well as being the last man to die a state sanctioned death in the jail. Several years later, the state revoked the privileges of localities to conduct their own executions and executions were removed to state correctional facilities.

With the construction of a new jail facility, the inmates were moved elsewhere in 1939, and the structure was converted to use as an office for the local newspaper, The LaGrange Daily News.” The building also served as a furniture store until the local Callaway Foundation granted funds to convert the building into an art facility.

LaGrange Art Museum formerly the Troup County Jail ghosts haunted LaGrange Georgia
The jail probably around the time it ceased being used as a jail in 1939. Photo by S. Hutchinson, courtesy of the Troup County Historical Society and Archives. All rights reserved.

I’m still trying to understand the original layout of the building. So far, research has pointed to this first section as being used as a residence for the jailer and his family. I have been told that there was no interior connection between the buildings, therefore to reach the cellblock, the jailer would have to leave his residence and use an outside door to enter.

It should be noted that there is no evidence that the building tower, which resembles a finger uplifted in moral admonishment, is not a “hanging tower.” In the newspaper accounts of executions in the building, all of the hangings took place within the cellblock, and not in the jailers’ personal space.

LaGrange Art Museum formerly the Troup County Jail ghosts haunted LaGrange Georgia
Oblique view of the museum building. The section of the building in the foreground was added when the building was converted into a museum. The middle portion with the bricked up windows was the cellblock. The galleries now occupy that portion. Photo 2019, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The second section contained the cellblock. This section was also two stories and prisoners were separated by race. Contemporary sources say that white male prisoners were held on the first level with women, juveniles, and people of color being held on the second. On a recent tour of the building, I was able to see the basement space located underneath this section. As we closely looked at the original brick walls, we were able to see names carved into the brick, perhaps by restless inmates.

The conversion to an art museum, reconfigured the building to include office space in the front section with connecting doors between the two buildings. In a space where inmates wiled away their sentences, visitors now contemplate works of art. Sighs of the condemned have been replaced with the joyful chatter of children enrolled in the museum’s educational programs. Growing up here, I spent time at the museum attending an arts camp and classes.

With my curiosity about ghosts, I’d always wondered if the museum was haunted. A co-worker reported to me that she had seen faces peering from the tower windows at night. When I worked for the LaGrange Daily News some years ago, I interviewed the museum’s director and asked about activity. She responded that there were often odd sounds, especially at night.

When I started work on my upcoming ghost tour of downtown, I talked with the current director. She shared with me that she would frequently smell the odor of tobacco smoke in the entrance hall of the museum, which is a smoke free facility and has been for many years. I also spoke with the maintenance man who said he regularly heard footsteps in the building when he was alone at night. He noted that he would walk throughout trying to find the source, but to no avail.

In preparation for my tour, I visited the museum with a sensitive friend. As we walked up the front steps he noted that there were three spirits in residence. Upon entering the gallery portion (which had once been the cellblock), he saw an African-American man standing against one of the walls. He attempted to communicate, but the spirit didn’t want to talk. Walking to the other side of the gallery, we felt a chill in the air where the sensitive detected the presence of a hunched back man.

We attempted communication with the first spirit again. This time, he was a bit more forthcoming and revealed that his cell had been at the back of the space. He proclaimed his innocence, saying that he was defending himself. Still, he was reticent to speak.

LaGrange Art Museum formerly the Troup County Jail ghosts haunted LaGrange Georgia
Second floor of the gallery which occupies what was once the cellblock. Photo 2019, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Heading to the second floor of the gallery, we encountered a feminine presence, which the sensitive noted was related to a man incarcerated here, “either a mother or an older sister.”

LaGrange Art Museum formerly the Troup County Jail ghosts haunted LaGrange Georgia
The old jail, now dressed in a penitent’s white, provides educational opportunities to many local children, some of whom are featured in murals that currently adorn the building’s brick wall. Photo 2019, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

This building, which once was so hideous, now rings with the chatter and laughter of children, or the silent contemplation of adult art patrons. It is my sincere hope that whoever the spirits are in this old building, they have finally found the peace.

Sources

  • “The Contract Given.” LaGrange Reporter. 8 January 1892.
  • “Edmund Scott Hanged.” LaGrange Reporter. 9 August 1901.
  • Hanging. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 27 May 2019.
  • Hearn, Daniel Allen. Legal Executions in Georgia: A Comprehensive Registry, 1866-1964. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2016.
  • “John Thompson hung for Murder of Sheriff.” Atlanta Constitution. 27 July 1918.
  • Johnson, Forrest Clark; Glenda Major, and Kaye Lanning Minchew. Travels Through Troup County: A Guide to its Architecture and History, LaGrange, GA: Family Tree,
  • “Negro Hanged at LaGrange.” Atlanta Constitution. 21 March 1908.
  • “New Jail Received.” LaGrange Reporter. 16 September 1892.
  • “Scott Hanged in LaGrange.” Atlanta Constitution. 3 August 1901.
  • “That Jail Corridor Hanging.” Atlanta Constitution. 1 January 1898.
  • “To Be Hung To-day.” LaGrange Reporter. 20 March 1908.

Courthouse Creepiness—Caswell County, North Carolina

N.B. This article was originally published 6 April 2011, but not reposted when this blog moved. This article has since be edited and revised.

Caswell County Courthouse
Courthouse Square
Yanceyville, North Carolina

There is a room in the Caswell County Courthouse with a door that opens and shuts on its own accord. According to two different sources–though I think one source is likely referencing the other–that is the only unknown phenomena reported in this magnificent edifice. But then again, the story behind it is just as fascinating.

The Caswell County Courthouse is the fourth courthouse and was constructed between 1857 and 1861. The architecture is unusual for a government building of the period in that it employs the Italianate style; a style quite different from the other period, Greek Revival buildings in the area. The courtroom located on the second floor is noted in one description as one of the most beautiful in the state with carved benches and partitions and an ornate plaster ceiling.

haunted Caswell County Courthouse Yanceyville North Carolina ghosts spirits
The Caswell County Courthouse, 2009, by NatalieMaynor, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Within this marvelous structure a heinous act occurred; an act indicative of the area’s rough transition following the Civil War. Reconstruction was a difficult process for much of the South. Nearly everything was in upheaval: the economy, cities and plantations lay in ruins, the social order, and African-Americans suddenly thrust into a new social standing. Add opportunists into this mix, especially Yankees with a carpet bag in hand and a glint in their eye, and you have an explosive combination.

It is against this turbulent backdrop that 34-year-old John Walter Stephens made his arrival in Caswell County. He is described as a difficult fellow, but of course, that all depends on who you talk to. Stephens was born in North Carolina and had worked as a tobacco trader as well as being active in the Methodist Church. Apparently, shortly before his move to Yanceyville, he had been involved in a scuffle with a neighbor whose chickens had wandered onto his property. Stephens killed the chickens and the neighbor had him sent to jail. After getting out, Stephens confronted the neighbor with a gun and in the fight that broke out, two bystanders were wounded. This incident provided Stephens with the nickname, “Chicken.” It was something that he would never live down.

While continuing to work as a tobacco trader, Stephens also worked as an agent for the Freedman’s Bureau and was a member of the Republican affiliated Union League, which helped to control the African-American vote in the South. Needless to say, these things were politically unpopular with the white citizens of Caswell County. Through the efforts of the Union League and the African-American citizens of the county, Stephens was elected to the North Carolina State Senate in 1868. Slanderous gossip was spread through town and Stephens received death threats, but he staunchly remained in his position.

Per the affidavit of John G. Lea, Stephens was tried in absentia by a Ku Klux Klan jury, found guilty, and sentenced to death. This death sentence was carried out on May 21, 1870 in a storage room on the ground floor of the courthouse. Stephens, who was attending a session to nominate county officers and members of the legislature, was lured downstairs and taken into the storage room where a group of KKK members awaited. After Stephens was disarmed of his three pistols John Lea rushed in. Lea, the last of the conspirators to die when he passed in 1919, described the scene in an affidavit sealed until after his death:

He arose and approached me and we went and sat down where the wood had been taken away, in an opening in the wood on the wood-pile, and he asked me not to let them kill him. Captain Mitchell rushed at him with a rope, drew it around his neck, put his feet against his chest and by that time about a half dozen men rushed up: Tom Oliver, Pink Morgan, Dr. Richmond and Joe Fowler. Stevens was then stabbed in the breast and also in the neck by Tom Oliver, and the knife was thrown at his feet and the rope left around his neck. We all came out, closed the door and locked it on the outside and took the key and threw it into County Line Creek.

The turbulence, already boiling in the area, rose to a fever pitch after Stephens’ murder. The Ku Klux Klan stepped up its terror of African-Americans and their white allies throughout the region. In the town of Graham in Alamance County to the south, an African-American town commissioner was lynched in a tree on the courthouse lawn. Republican Governor William W. Holden, upset over the uproar in the area and the political threat to his seat from the mostly white Democrats, declared Caswell County to be in a state of rebellion and sent some 300 troops under the leadership of George W. Kirk to march on Yanceyville. Under the governor’s orders, some 100 local men were rounded up and jailed. With the suspension of habeus corpus, these men were held for some time and quite possibly mistreated during their incarceration. The event, which ended later in 1870, became known as the Kirk-Holden War, despite the distinct lack of fighting.

With the August 1870 election, the Democrats swept the legislature. The governor was tried on charges of corruption for his participation in the Kirk-Holden War and removed from office. The New York Times reported in 1873 on a bill in the state legislature to give amnesty to the murderers. It describes a Republican representative giving an explicit account of the murder on the House floor. The bill passed, but I have not discovered if it was ever signed into law.

Things quieted down in Yanceyville, but there is still discussion of this turbulent bit of local history. And still, the door to the storage room on the courthouse’s ground floor opens and closes by itself. Is John Walter Stephens still seeking justice?

Sources

  • Barefoot, Daniel W. North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred, Vol. 2, Piedmont Phantoms. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2002.
  • Caswell County Courthouse.” Caswell County Historical Association. Accessed 5 April 2011.
  • Kirk-Holden War (1870).” Caswell County Historical Association. Accessed 5 April 2011.
  • Senator John Walter Stephens.” Caswell County Historical Association. Accessed 5 April 2011.
  • Lea, John G. The Ku Klux Klan Murder of John G. Stephens. 2 July 1919.
  • “Life in North Carolina: The Murder of Senator John W. Stephens—A Terrible Scene—Shall His Assassins be Amnestied?” New York Times. 26 February 1873.
  • Stone, Jason. “The Ghost of Chicken Stephens.” CreepyNC.com. Accessed 5 April 2011.