A blogiversary banshee

I know dark clouds will gather round me,
I know my way is rough and steep,
But beauteous fields lie just before me,
Where gods redeem, their vigils keep.

-–“Wayfaring Stranger,” traditional American folksong

Eight years ago, I started on a journey. I had been laid off and was terribly depressed and needed a distraction. On August 17, 2010 I posted the first entry on my blog; the first step on a long journey. At the time, I wasn’t really sure of what I was doing, but I was enjoying it, nonetheless.

I’m still treading that path which is rough and steep, though it has ultimately been rewarding as I discover and explore marvelous Southern ghost stories. Also along this path I’ve been interviewed by newspapers and on radio shows, I’ve written a book, I’ve done speaking engagements, and I’ve led ghost tours in Birmingham. I’m truly grateful for the people I’ve met along the way who have shared their own stories and those readers who sit a spell and read what I have written.

Here on my 8th “blogiversary,” I’m sitting at my favorite Starbucks working on yet another outgrowth of my blog: storytelling. My home of LaGrange, Georgia, has always been supportive of the performing arts and over the last few decades, some of the leaders had the foresight to establish a storytelling here. The first weekend of March, nationally-known storytellers gather here to spend a few days spinning yarns at the Azalea Storytelling Festival.

With the inspiration from this vast array of tellers and the support of a noted teller that I have had the privilege to know for many years, I am pleased to announce I will be “spreading the Gospel of Southern Ghosts” at two upcoming events in October.

In searching for stories to start with, I returned to a story I have always loved from North Carolina: the Tarboro Banshee. When I first came across this story in Daniel Barefoot’s first volume of his “Haunted Hundred” series, I immediately thought this would be a great story to tell.

I have been looking into the story’s origins as well, trying to craft my own version. It seems that this story was first recorded as a part of a WPA folklore project in the 1930s. I have not been able to find any history to corroborate the events of the story, beyond this “very literary sounding text” that W. K. McNeil included in his 1985 Ghost Stories from the American South. The version here is a combination of the original WPA story, some details from Barefoot’s rendering, and my own research into the story’s circumstances.

Please note that this is a departure from my usual style of writing about haunted places. In keeping with the elements of oral tradition, I have made some adjustments to the story to suit my own tastes.

The Tarboro Banshee

In 1999, Hurricane Floyd slammed into Cape Fear, North Carolina. As well as damaging the coast, the storm brought torrential rains further inland causing many rivers and streams to swell. The Tar River, in the eastern portion of the state, rose beyond its banks flooding portions of the city of Rocky Mount and the downstream towns of Tarboro and Princeville. After the waters receded, locals recalled an old tale of a banshee along the river and wondered if she was still exacting vengeance for the death of David Warner.

A FEMA truck on a street in Tarboro following Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Photo by Eric Wedeking.

During the time of the American Revolution, Warner built and operated a mill at a bend in the Tar River, possibly near Tarboro. While most of his history is lost in the shifting sands of time, legend recalls that he was born an Englishman. After settling on the frontier, the British crown roundly abused him and his neighbors and many switched their allegiance to the democratic ideals being touted in Boston and Philadelphia.

As war broke out in 1775, Warner began working his mill to feed the Patriot army. Often, the waterwheel rolled late into the night with the scene lit only by the dim lantern light spilling out of the mill’s open door broken by Warner’s huge shadow as he labored.

On a humid August afternoon in 1781, Warner was busy in his mill when a neighbor stopped by with grave news. “The British are coming! Close your mill and hide! They know you for a rebel, and they will kill you.”

Looking at his thick wrists, built by the heavy labor of milling, Warner replied, “I’d rather stay and wring a British neck or two.”

“Surely you cannot fight the whole army single-handedly!”

“Then I’ll stay and be killed. What is my life?” Warner solemnly nodded and returned to his work.

Later that evening the waterwheel continued to groan as it turned. Like moths to a flame, the mill’s meager light attracted the attention of a party of five British scouts.

Knowing he was being observed, Warner remarked out loud, “Make certain you pack every precious ounce of flour to deliver to General Greene. I hate to think of those British hogs eating a single mouthful of gruel made from America’s corn.”

Rushing in, the scouts seized Warner, cursing and thrashing him as a traitor. It took the strength of all five of them to bring the huge miller to the floor. Once he was down, they began to bicker as to what to do with him. One of the scouts, who had a particularly evil bent, ghoulishly suggested that they should execute him.

Restrained on the floor, Warner spoke up. “If you take my life, hear me clear that a banshee will be summoned and will grieve over my death forevermore. In her despair she will hunt you down, as you did me, and she will see that every last one of you dies a terrible death.”

As boys growing up in Britain, the scouts had often heard tales of the terrifying banshees that would wail as death omens for certain Irish and Scottish families. These entities also protected family members as they traveled and settled throughout the world. Memories of these tales shook four of the scouts, and they argued that they should take the rebel to their commanding officer, but the evil one held fast.

“Why wait,” he said, “We have been sent to make the way safe. We will get rid of this rebel before he continues to make trouble.”

Deferring to the evil scout, the redcoats bound Warner with rope and escorted him to the river’s edge where they boarded a small rowboat. A millstone was found and secured around his neck. Warner stoically sat as the boat was rowed towards the middle of the river.

Without ceremony they pushed Warner overboard and hauled the millstone into the cool waters of the Tar. The millstone jerked him underwater pulling him towards death and the muddy river bottom.

The group watched as Warner’s final breath bubbled to the surface and all remained quiet. The warning of a banshee was just pure bluster.

Suddenly, from the watery grave a shrill scream began to emerge. The sound quickly grew into a wail and it began to echo up and down the river until the pines and hardwoods reverberated with the mournful, vengeful cry. The awful sound pierced the scouts’ brains with a sensation of utter terror. As they looked, dumbstruck, into the depths of the river, the darkness began to draw together into a shape.

A beautiful woman emerged from the inky blackness. Her dark clothing and long, blonde hair billowed around her. Her face was beautiful, though it was contorted into a grimace of pain and grief. Her mouth was pulled open as she wailed and keened.

Stumbling for the oars, the scouts hastily rowed their boat away from the terrifying scene. After bumping into the shore, they tumbled out of the boat and fled to the safety of the piney forest around the mill, their ears still filled with the horrible screams.

When the scouts’ army unit arrived the following day, they set up camp around the abandoned mill. Amongst themselves, the five argued if they should tell their commanding officer of the previous night’s events. In the end, the evil soldier stated that they should keep quiet.

That silence lasted until sunset. Once darkness fell upon the army tents, the mill, and the riverbank, the banshee’s wail began anew. The soldiers were intrigued by the spectral wails and gathered by the riverside to wonder at the odd scene, while the scouts huddled in their tents.

Two of the scouts finally had enough went to their commanding officer’s tent and confessed to having killed the miller. Outraged, the commanding officer called all five to his tent where he dressed them down and ordered that they remain behind to work the mill as punishment.

The army unit moved on the next day leaving the five scouts laboring in the mill and dreading the oncoming night. As night drew around them, the banshee began her wailing over the river and drew close to the rumbling waterwheel. The scouts were suddenly terrified to see the misty apparition in the doorway. Suddenly, two of the scouts stiffened and appeared to be in a trance. Slowly, zombie-like, the young scouts walked out of the mill into the darkness and vanished.

The remaining scouts continued working the mill the following day, worried of their fates come nightfall. Again, the banshee began her wailing over the river and drew close to the rumbling waterwheel. She appeared in the doorway as the scouts cowered in fear. Again, two of the scouts stiffened and appeared to be in a trance. Slowly, zombie-like, the young scouts walked out of the mill into the darkness and vanished.

The evil scout was alone now, and, with fright, he continued to work the mill. As night drew around the mill, he heard the familiar screaming coming from the river. As the screams continued to torment him, he began to lose his grip on reality and ran screaming into the forest calling the miller’s name. The next day his body was discovered floating, bloated and bloody, near where David Warner had been executed in the muddy waters of the Tar.

Since those dark days of revolution, Warner’s mill has disappeared, but residents along the Tar River say that on humid August evenings as the katydids chatter and the rain crow calls for rain, a shrill scream is still heard to echo up and down the river until the pines and hardwoods reverberate with the mournful, vengeful cry.

Sources

  • Barefoot, Daniel. North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred, Volume 1: Seaside Spectres. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2002.
  • Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, 3rd NYC: Checkmark Books, 2007.
  • McNeil, W. K. Ghost Stories from the American South. Little Rock, AR: August House, 1985.

Apollo Apparitions–West Virginia

Apollo Theatre
128 East Martin Street
Martinsburg, West Virginia

On August 21, 1927, a brief item from the Associated Press appeared in papers nationwide describing the death of architect Reginald Geare. In a room in his Washington, D.C. home, Geare’s body had been found with a gas tube next to it.

Five years previous, the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington collapsed under the weight of snow while an audience was inside watching a movie. With a death toll of 98, authorities questioned the integrity of Geare’s design of the building. Though he avoided prosecution for the disaster, the shame continued the crush the architect. That shame would also lead to the death in 1937 of the theatre impresario, Harry Crandall, who owned the Knickerbocker. It is believed that his spirit may roam the Tivoli Theatre in Washington, another of the theaters in his chain.

The Atlanta Constitution, 21 August 1927, Page 28.

Martinsburg’s Apollo Theatre was an early design success for Reginald Geare, in company with local architect Chapman E. Kent. It was the first theatre in the state built primarily for showing films, though the stage was large enough to accommodate live performances. After opening in 1913, the theatre underwent an expansion to provide for better live performance facilities. Throughout its history, the Apollo, named for the Greek god of music, has provided entertainment for citizens throughout the West Virginia panhandle.

Apollo Theatre, 2009, by Acroterion. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Stories of the Apollo’s haunted reputation have circulated for decades with some of the oldest stories dating to the mid-1970s. There are no records of deaths within the theatre, though the building may have been used as a hospital during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Apparently, there are several spirits here, two of which are known as Charlie and George. In 2008, a theatre board member told The Journal about his run-in with George in the early 80s. “During the curtain call I saw an old man in the back of the theatre, in a plaid shirt with a cigar. No one but me saw him and suddenly he was gone.” During the filming of Gods and Generals, a female reenactor using the restrooms at the Apollo let out a scream after encountering the same figure in the ladies’ room.

Charlie, one of the theatre’s other spirits, may also smoke cigars. A resident of a nearby apartment building may have seen Charlie once standing outside the theatre. The figure wore a fedora pulled down over his eyes and stood hunched over with the collar of his coat pulled up around him. The apartment resident was astonished when the figure suddenly vanished before her eyes.

Sources

  • Pauley, Michael J. and Rodney S. Collins. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for the Apollo Theater. 12 September 1979.
  • Racer, Theresa. “The Apollo Theatre.” Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State. 16 January 2011.
  • Strader, Tricia Lynn. “Halloween haunting is close at hand.” The Journal (Martinsburg, WV). 31 October 2008.
  • Swayne, Matthew. Ghosts of Country Music: Tales of Haunted Honky Tonks & Legendary Specters. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2017.
  • “Theater architect ends life with gas.” Atlanta Constitution. 21 August 1927.

Musical fireplaces—A White House Experience

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC

While on a book tour last year, the Bush twins, Jenna and Barbara, revealed that they had a possibly paranormal experience in the White House. One summer during their father’s administration the twins crawled into bed in their respective bedrooms. Jenna’s phone rang, and she woke up to turn it off. As she began to fall asleep again, she heard what she described as “opera, and a woman’s opera voice coming from the fireplace.”

North facade during the Lincoln administration.

After hearing the chilling singing, she fled across the hall to her sister’s bedroom. Two nights later, the twins were both asleep in Barbara’s room when they were awakened by the sounds of “1920s jazz music” emanating from the fireplace. They convinced themselves that their black cat, India, must have jumped upon a piano, though the music was good enough that the cat “would have had to have taken it up.”

This most important of houses has been described by many to be one of the most haunted houses in the nation. Certainly, its halls are haunted by the spirit of politics and have been so since John Adams first occupied it in 1800 and its corridors were crowded with hangers-on, lobbyists, and politicians of every stripe, but time has left those same corridors alive with spirits. Many residents and staff of the White House tell stories of things going bump in the night and, indeed, there are so many stories that Dennis William Hauck’s venerable Haunted Places: The National Directory provides a room by room breakdown of the possible paranormal activity.

North and South facades of the White House. Photos by Cezary p and MattWade, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Author Jeff Belanger examined the haunting of the White House in his 2008 children’s book, Who’s Haunting the White House? which, though written for children, provides a well-researched look at the panoply of phantoms that have made appearances here. Perhaps the most well-known spirit is that of Abraham Lincoln who has regularly been spotted in and around the bedroom named for him (that room served as his office). Among the witnesses to his spirit were First Lady Grace Coolidge; Maureen Reagan, the daughter of Ronald Reagan; Queen Juliana of the Netherlands; George W. Bush, during his father’s presidency; and various staff members.

Among the other spirits that have been identified in the White House include the spirit of Willie Lincoln, the young son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln; Presidents William Henry Harrison, Andrew Jackson, and John Tyler; First Ladies Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison; and a young British soldier carrying a torch. Reports of possible paranormal activity from these spirits have come from the Lincolns; Harry Truman; Eleanor Roosevelt; the Clintons; and Michelle Obama. Certainly, the Bush twins are in good company among the witnesses to the paranormal in the “People’s House.”

Sources

  • Belanger, Jeff. Who’s Haunting the White House? NYC: Sterling Children’s Books, 2008.
  • Hauck, Dennis William. Haunted Places: The National Directory. NYC: Penguin, 2002.
  • Johnson, Ted. “Is the White House haunted? Jenna and Barbara Bush share their ghost story.” 31 October 2017.
  • Peters, Lucia. “Is the White House haunted? Jenna Bush Hager & Barbara Bush just shared the creepiest story ever.” 31 October 2017.