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, 3rd NYC: Checkmark Books, 2007.
- McNeil, W. K. Ghost Stories from the American South. Little Rock, AR: August House, 1985.