As the Research Archivist for the Troup County Historical Society, I am regularly asked to write about local history and I was overjoyed to be asked to write about one of our local celebrities. The fact that I’m able to address a figure with a paranormal bent added to my excitement in putting this article together. This article has just recently been published in the October 2022 edition Highland Living Magazine.
“A dollar and a dime—will buy the Spirit’s time!”
Miss Mayhayley Lancaster, the Oracle of West Georgia
Lewis O. Powell, IV, Research Archivist, Troup County Archives
For decades in the early 20th century, locals in search of something: an answer, a missing item or loved one, or just sheer entertainment, crowded the rough roads of rural Heard County seeking out the services of Miss Mayhayley Lancaster. Day after day, visitors lined up in her front yard for a few minutes with the self-proclaimed “Oracle of the Ages.” After pressing a dollar and a dime into her sister Sallie’s hand, the guests would be ushered into a room in the cramped cabin where they would meet with the enigmatic seer. Surrounded by walls covered in newspaper, books, knick-knacks, and other detritus, Miss Mayhayley would dole out cryptic advice over the course of about twenty minutes. While the advice was often vague, the patrons would usually leave satisfied, which was only compounded when, more often than not, the customer discovered that she was right.
In these parts, whenever Miss Mayhayley Lancaster is spoken of, her name is often qualified with the Southern honorific “Miss.” Indeed, she was unmarried, but this title affords her a good deal of the hard-earned respect and dignity that she amassed in her long and fruitful life. While she may have not always been successful in her endeavors, many of which extended outside the realm of accepted occupations for a woman of her time, she sought these pursuits with a tenacity that was unmatched, even among her male counterparts.
Miss Mayhayley came from a line of formidable women. Her great-grandmother, Mahala Whaley Lancaster, came to Troup County after drawing several lots here in the 1827 Land Lottery. Her husband’s death while racing horses enabled her and her children two draws in the lottery. With a number of children in tow and imaginably, quite a bit of fortitude, she settled her family in the primeval wilderness that was the county in its earliest days. They persevered and planted roots in both Troup and Heard counties. Decades later, a family member intimated that Mayhayley was not the only family member with that name to tell fortunes.
Mahala Lancaster passed away on the eve of the Civil War. Her great-granddaughter, who was named for her, entered this world fourteen years later in 1875. Miss Mayhayley’s parents were John W. B. Lancaster and his wife, Eliza Harriet Thaxton. The Lancasters and the Thaxtons were neighbors in Heard County and the families remained close after their marriage with John’s sister Nancy Mahala also marrying a young Thaxton boy. Miss Mayhayley was John and Harriet’s third child of eleven, and the only one born with a caul.
In European folk tradition, the caul, a piece of the amniotic sac that is found covering an infant’s face after birth, was taken as an omen that the child would go on to accomplish great things. Some traditions also suggested that the caul indicated the child would be a seer and possess a “second sight.” Miss Mayhayley would proudly proclaim that it was that that provided her abilities. While her abilities were well-known throughout the region, they were not the only things that made Miss Mayhayley special.
Like her many siblings, Miss Mayhayley attended the local public school in the Walnut Hill and Frolona communities of rural Heard County. She proved an apt student and even received an award on her graduation. She always had a mind for business and throughout her life engaged in buying a selling everything from land to livestock to seeds. Throughout her life she would frequent sheriff’s sales on the steps of the local county courthouses and by the time of her death she had amassed nearly 600 acres in several counties. Willis Hemmings, who grew up just down the road from Miss Mayhayley, recalls that he first met her when she visited his mother selling vegetable and flower seeds. Mrs. Hemmings purchased some squash seeds with Miss Mayhayley’s promise that they were the best seeds that money could buy. The fine crop produced by the seeds endeared the eccentric neighbor to the family.
Within her community, Miss Mayhayley looked after many of the children serving as a teacher and a mentor. She would often hire young people, like the young Willis Hemmings from down the road to work for her, paying them with a dime for their services and teaching them the value of hard work and money. After attending law school in Atlanta in 1911, she began to practice law throughout the region and was one of the earliest female lawyers in the area. Running on a progressive platform, she ran unsuccessfully three times for the state legislature. Within her busy schedule, she also found time to write a column for the local newspaper where she expounded on issues of the day. During the infamous 1915 trial of Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan, a young factory employee, she supported Frank’s claims of innocence against the waves of anti-Semitism and public furor aroused by the case, even producing the ire of populist editor Tom Watson. When Frank was ultimately lynched by a mob in Marietta, she was reportedly devastated.
Despite her eccentricities, Miss Mayhayley was a beloved figure in the region. She would often visit town attired in gaudy dresses decked out with costume jewelry and crepe ribbons, fanciful hats, feather boas, with the look rounded out by outdated, high-topped Victorian style boots. At other times her clothing might be confined to an old military jacket and moth-eaten Army hat with an assortment of dirty aprons and colorful feed sacks. Her strange appearance only added to her reputation.
That reputation as a fortune teller and seer got a tremendous boost when she appeared at the Coweta County Courthouse in Newnan to testify against John Wallace in 1948. A frequent customer of Miss Mayhayley’s, Wallace was accused of the murder of one of his sharecropper’s, Wilson Turner. When Wallace consulted the seer to find the whereabouts of a stolen cow, she provided Turner’s name. On Wallace’s orders, Turner was arrested and then released from jail, at which point Turner was chased by Wallace and his cronies down the road towards Coweta County. At a tourist court, just over the county line, Turner was attacked by his pursuers and pistol whipped by Wallace. The body was taken back to Meriwether County where Wallace disposed of it in an old well.
When Wallace discovered that the sheriff of Coweta County was investigating, he revisited Miss Mayhayley seeking her help in finding Turner’s body on his vast property as he had forgotten where he stashed it. As everyone, including miscreants, visited the oracle, law enforcement frequently visited her as well to gather information that was revealed during her meetings with clients. After finding that Wallace visited Miss Mayhayley regularly, the sheriff consulted her and discovered that she knew about as much about the murder as Wallace did. When Wallace faced a jury for his crimes, the seer was brought in as an expert witness for the prosecution. Her testimony was considered key to his guilty verdict and brought her nationwide fame.
Visitors from around the country began to flock to her packed-earth front yard wanting her assistance. Even the rich and famous began to visit her cabin. Alabama-born actress, Tallulah Bankhead visited her while she was staying with a friend in nearby Carrollton. Bankhead had lost a valuable diamond ring and Miss Mayhayley exclaimed “Sunset!” after hearing her story. She went on to describe a quilt in which the ring had fallen. Upon her return to Carrollton, Bankhead quickly packed her bags and returned to Sunset, her family’s home in Alabama. There, in a trunk in the attic was her precious ring folded up in a quilt matching the fortune-teller’s description.
Not only was she instrumental in finding lost rings and murderers, but she was helpful in providing aid to the living. A local sheriff’s deputy and friend recalled seeing a car with Alabama plates pull up to the cabin during World War II. A family stepped out with the grieving matriarch. She had been told that her youngest son had gone missing in Europe. The family was quickly ushered inside and after a long while they emerged looking relieved. One of the family members told the deputy that, according to Miss Mayhayley, the son was alive and that he would call his mother within a few days. Several weeks later, the family returned to report that the son had indeed called and would be returning to Alabama shortly.
During this same time a couple ladies from LaGrange decided to take the journey out to the ramshackle house for fun one afternoon. During their consultation, Miss Mayhayley asked if they knew a particular lady, and one of the ladies responded she was her neighbor. She was asked to carry a message to her to let her know that she needn’t worry about her son, who was serving in the war.
Years of successful business-deals and fortune telling left Miss Mayhayley a very wealthy woman. Just prior to her death in 1955, she built a magnificent new home in Franklin. Shortly after moving in, she experienced a heart attack and died a few days later. A large crowd filled the small Caney Head Methodist Church in the community of Roopville for her funeral and she was laid to rest in the cemetery there.
Her grave still draws visitors today who will leave a dollar and a dime in front of her marker which bears the words, “Neither did His brethren believe him.” Though, even today, people still believe in Miss Mayhayley.