There’ll be parties for hosting,
Marshmallows for toasting,
And caroling out in the snow.
There’ll be scary ghost stories,
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago. –“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” (1963) Edward Pola and George Wyle.
There has been much effort lately, mostly among the writers and bloggers in the paranormal community, to revive the ancient tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. To do my part, I’m attempting to post a story every day of the Twelve Days of Christmas.
The tradition of telling ghost stories around a fire on cold winter nights stretches back hundreds of years to the celebration of the winter solstice in Pagan Europe. As these ancient peoples were very much in tune to the rhythms of nature and the seasons, the moment when the northern pole of the earth was tilted at the furthest point away from the sun, sometimes described as the “shortest day.” Marking the mid-point of winter was a time of celebration and feasting, which also included storytelling.
Among the stories were oral sagas, especially among the Norse peoples, that would tell of ghosts, monsters, and other scary creatures. Their mid-winter celebration, called the Yule, has been celebrated for centuries and is the origin of many Christmas traditions including the Twelve Days, which last from December 25th to January 6th.
Not only has this storytelling tradition produced an abundant array of literature, but also a myriad of references. Shakespeare’s romantic comedy The Winter’s Tale references this tradition when Hermione begs Mamillius to tell a tale in the first scene of the second act.
Hermione: Come, sir, now
I am for you again: pray you, sit by us,
And tell us a tale.
Mamillius: Merry or sad shall’t be?
Hermione: As merry as you will.
Mamillius: A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
Hermione: Let’s have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down: come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites; you’re powerful at it.
After Shakespeare’s time, the celebration of Christmas began to decline. Oliver Cromwell, who ruled over England with a tough hand after the execution of King Charles I, considered the holiday to be out of line with Puritan mores and banned it. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century also took its toll on the working classes’ recognition.
Perhaps the greatest reference to the telling of ghost stories at Christmas comes to us from Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol. A tale of holiday redemption, the story includes three spirits who whisk the crotchety Ebenezer Scrooge off to explore three facets of his life. This story, which also serves as a social commentary on the begrudging of Christmas by industrialists and businessmen, helped lead to a revival of holiday celebrations in Britain and throughout the English-speaking world.
For the next twelve days enjoy some Southern chills for Christmas!
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.
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.
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, 3rdNYC: Checkmark Books, 2007.
McNeil, W. K. Ghost Stories from the American South. Little Rock, AR: August House, 1985.
I know dark clouds will gather round me, I know the pathway is rough and steep, But beauteous fields lie just before me, Where God redeems, his vigil keeps.
–“Poor, Wayfaring Stranger,” Traditional American Folksong
Five years ago this evening I was sitting in my local Starbucks, my favorite place to write, preparing to hit the publish button to launch this blog. I said a little prayer and hit the button that started me on this wonderful journey. Like the folksong’s “poor, wayfaring stranger,” I was setting off towards the horizon with no specific goal in mind but to write about Southern ghosts and hopefully make a better situation for myself. As one who has always had trouble completing things, I wasn’t sure how long I’d keep up with blogging, so reaching this fifth “blogiversary” is quite an achievement. But outside of the blog, my writing has taken me to other places: I’ve written for the local newspaper, interviewed people throughout the South, been interviewed for The Daily Beacon at the University of Tennessee and on Columbia, SC’s “Evolve with Tzima” on The Point Radio. I was published in a Southern horror anthology and I have plans to write some books.
I’m sitting here in Starbucks again and my writing almost caused me to miss this blogiversary. This past weekend I had copies of my first book printed and those have distracted me. These are just for editing, but it’s very exciting to see my book in print for the first time. My book, Southern Spirit Guide’s Haunted Alabama: A Guide to Ghostlore, Legends and Haunted Places in the Heart of Dixie, will be published, God forbid and Creeks don’t rise, as an eBook next month. I’ve been dreaming of writing a “ghost book” since I was a kid collecting books of ghost stories, so, this makes this anniversary ever more poignant.
I stumbled across this article while searching for ghosts in back issues of The Anniston Star. Without the influence Mrs. Windham’s wonderful books, this blog would not exist. A friend who knew Mrs. Windham was supposed to have gives me an introduction to her in March 2011 when she came to LaGrange for the Azalea Storytelling Festival. Unfortunately poor health prevented her appearance at the festival and she passed away a few months later. I wrote a memorial here as soon as I heard of her passing.
Though she’s not present with us on this physical plane, her spirit and influence is still flitting like a bird reminding us of the ghosts around us.
The Anniston Star 21 September 1975
Writer says that ghosts necessary for heritage
By Tom Gordon Star Staff Writer
We need ghosts in order to keep our heritage, says Alabama’s own ghost-writer, Kathryn Tucker Windham.
Our heritage is a mixture of history, folklore, bits of good-natured nonsense and cold-hearted truth. Mrs. Windham, who lives in Selma with her ghost friend Jeffrey, says the heritage is being lost because persons are not taking the time to relax and enjoy life as they once did.
Speaking with intense enthusiasm, Mrs. Windham says that more and more Alabamians are growing up without having their lives enriched by tales and lessons once passed from generation to generation. This high-speed automated age has made it difficult and sometimes unnecessary for people to gather on front porches or in front of fireplaces to talk and learn from each other, she says.
“WE DON’T know who we are or what we are or where we come from,” she says. “We’re not talking about it the way we used to.”
The need to talk about and preserve our heritage, even that part which includes ghosts, was the message Mrs. Windham repeated several times Thursday in a short talk to a noon luncheon of the Anniston Kiwanis Club.
She has repeated it elsewhere—in schools, luncheons, newspaper interviews and on television and radio programs—and in four books of ghost stories she has written in the past few years. The first was “Thirteen Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey.” Other books have presented 13 ghost tales from Mississippi and Georgia, and elsewhere around the South.
MRS. WINDHAM, a former reporter for the Selma Times-Journal, spends a lot of her time tracking down ghost stories and other folklore. “All you’ve got to do is listen” she says, because tales are everywhere. She even comes across many interesting tidbits in her work as a community services coordinator for the Alabama-Tombigbee River Planning and Development Commission’s Area Agency on Aging.
She grew up in Thomasville, in South Alabama’s Clarke County, and her childhood was filled with the church homecomings, family reunions, tall-tale telling, romance and other features she says make the South unique, even today.
She doesn’t remember the first ghost story she was told, but she says she has had a latent interest in spirits and scary stories since her youth. Much of her early ghost learning, she says, came from Thurza, her family’s black cook.
THAT INTEREST was stirred she says, by “Jeffrey”—the name she uses for whoever or whatever it is that walks the floors, slams the doors and scares the cat in her Selma home.
Jeffrey and two ghost stories figured prominently in her Kiwanis Club talk. One story, about the “Jumbo light,” dealt with a man who lived in the now-dead Chilton County community of Jumbo. The man was killed by moonshiners he surprised in some woods one night while making his way home with the aid of a lantern.
LONG-TIME AREA residents still say they see a moving lantern near the old Jumbo community to this day, she says. A Times-Journal photographer traveled to the Jumbo area to take a picture of the phenomenon, she says, and became scared. He was even more started when the pictures he developed showed not only a swinging light moving along a road, but a pair of empty shoes moving along with it.
Whether a ghost tale is true or not matters little to Mrs. Windham. The tale teller’s feeling about the story is more important.
“I can’t get interested in the stories unless I feel they are true to the people who are telling them,” she says.
When I was doing summer theatre a number of years ago, one young actor with little musical experience found himself cast in the pre-show choir. After a few days of relentless rehearsals and hours of trying to acquaint himself with music theory he blurted out, “Singing’s hard!” much to the delight of the rest of the choir.
I can honestly say, “Blogging’s hard!” Not that I expected it to be easy, but it’s definitely much more involved than I imagined it to be: keeping up with other blogs and bloggers, research, writing, more writing, organizing, editing, catching up with the blogs you missed out on because you were researching and writing, posting entries, more researching and writing followed by more catching up on blogs, Facebooking (I cringe that that is now a verb), Tweeting (I cringe again), more catching up and everything endlessly cycles through. Oh, and I forgot the worry and stress that I get when one or more of those things fall behind or isn’t accomplished.
Today is Southern Spirit Guide’s first birthday and just a few days ago I finally reached 100 posts. I’m very surprised I’ve even gotten to this point. When I started this blog a year ago, I had that all too common worry that this would turn out like so many other projects I’ve embarked upon: unfinished. There’s always a fear that I will start with grandiose plans and only see them through halfway. So far, though, this blog has not fallen victim. In fact, it recently gave birth to another blog. Oh God, they’re breeding and multiplying, run for your life!
I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished and plan to continue another year and see where this leads me. There is an ultimate goal in mind of a book, though the actual subject still remains unclear. I definitely have tons of research I can rely on, though I find that the more research I have, the more I need. At least I usually feel that way.
Ok, I’ve patted myself on the back enough, there are some people I need to thank as well. I’ve said my thanks in a few previous posts, so I’ll be brief about it. My family and friends are very dear to me and have put up with endless discussions of ghosts, ghost stories and even accompanying me to haunted places. The bloggers who have so graciously helped me along: Jessica Penot, Courtney Mroch, Sharon Day and Pamela Kinney, without their support, this blog would be dead, not just about the dead. Finally, my readers and fans, thank you for reading, enjoying and commenting. Thank you! You all mean the world to me.
Ok, now what?
Well, I have some thoughts for the future. I’m slowly working to make sure that I have good coverage for each state. Georgia, my beloved home state, is still leading with the most entries. I’d like to catch most other states up, especially Washington, DC and West Virginia which I’ve seemed to ignore. I’ve discovered a good deal more information on West Virginia that I can use in the near future.
There are some entries that I really would like to revisit, revise and expand. I started doing that with the haunted college and university building entry but I got distracted halfway through.
Dear readers, if you have any suggestions, please leave comments or email me. In addition, if you come across information that may be helpful in my research, please let me know!