A haunt with a hammer in his hand–West Virginia

Big Bend Tunnel
John Henry Historical Park
3263 WV 3
Talcott, West Virginia


A Haunted Southern Book of Days–12 September

This article is a part of an occasional blog series highlighting Southern hauntings or high strangeness associated with specific days. For a complete listing, see “A Haunted Southern Book of Days.”


Guess I’ll die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord.
–“John Henry,” traditional folksong

Many stories, songs, and legends celebrate John Henry, an African American steel driver endowed with massive muscles and extraordinary brute strength. As a steel driver, John Henry wielded a hammer to cut holes in solid rock that were utilized for planting explosives to blast away the rock. His death came after a demonstration pitting his strength against a steam-powered rock drill. After beating the machine, John Henry’s heart gave out and he died.

John Henry lies dead after beating the steam drill Palmer Hayden
Painting “John Henry lies dead after beating the steam drill” by Palmer Hayden. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Most details of John Henry’s story have been lost as the story has passed into legend. Indeed, there is still disagreement about where his final labor was performed. Some scholars have suggested that it was here at the Big Bend or Great Bend Tunnel just outside Talcott, West Virginia. Near a large bend in the Greenbrier River, this tunnel was blasted through Big Bend Mountain for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad (C&O) starting in 1870. Completed in 1873, the tunnel extends roughly a mile and a quarter long though the mountain, preventing trains from having to navigate seven miles around the mountain.

Big Bend Tunnel
Big Bend Tunnel, 2023, by Theresa Racer-Cheshire. All rights reserved.
Interior of the Big Bend Tunnel, 2023, by Theresa Racer-Cheshire. All rights reserved.

The tunnel officially opened on 12 September 1873, though additional work was required on its interior. The inside was originally supported by timber beams, with the red shale constantly cracking and falling into the shaft. According to Rosemary Ellen Guiley, an entire train crew was killed by one collapse. Within several years, more work was ordered to shore up the walls by lining the entirety of the tunnel with six-million bricks.

Guiley tells the story of one of the brick masons working on the tunnel, Alfred Owen. As he finished work one afternoon, he began to hear the clink of a hammer. Looking around, he spied a dark figure swinging a hammer near the opening. As the figure continued to work, Owen attempted to sneak by towards the exit. After slipping on wet rocks, he looked up and the figure had vanished.

John Henry statue
John Henry statue erected next to the entrance to the Big Bend Tunnel in 1972. Photo 2007, by jpmueller99. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1972, a local civic organization erected a statue and plaque next to this tunnel honoring John Henry. According to local legend, not long after the tunnel opened reports began to circulate speaking of the sounds of the folk hero’s hammer striking the iron stakes. Sometimes the chant of Henry’s fellow workmen are heard continuing to encourage him. Even in death, John Henry is still swinging his hammer.


  • Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Big Book of West Virginia Ghost Stories. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2014.
  • John Henry (folklore). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 21 January 2024.
  • Lane, Ron “Great Bend Tunnel.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 13 February 2012.
  • Quackenbush, Janette. West Virginia Ghost Stories, Legends, and Haunts. 21 Crows Dusk to Dawn Publishing, 2017.

Ill Defined and Unknown Cause of Morbidity and Mortality–North Carolina

Broughton Hospital
1000 South Sterling Street
Morganton, North Carolina

A Haunted Southern Book of Days–12 April

This article is a part of an occasional blog series highlighting Southern hauntings or high strangeness associated with specific days. For a complete listing, see “A Haunted Southern Book of Days.”


The strange phrase, “Ill Defined and Unknown Cause of Morbidity and Mortality” is typed in all caps on Betty Jo Eller’s death certificate. Essentially, the doctors at Broughton Hospital has no idea why this “petite and attractive” 31-year-old died on April 12, 1962 in her bed at the psychiatric facility. A short time earlier, Miss Eller’s twin sister, Bobbie Jean, had been discovered dead in a different ward. The bodies of these women bore no indication that they had been injured or even murdered, both had apparently passed away at nearly the exact same time, sending doctors into a tizzy to determine the cause.

The two young ladies were born with a stillborn brother, Billie, on August 19, 1930, in the Wilkes County, NC community of Purlear. Their father, Adolphus Worth, presumably was prominent in the community as a Baptist minister, though the family is buried in a Methodist church cemetery. It appears that the twins were diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent time at the hospital previously. When they died, they had only been in the hospital for less than a month after being withdrawn and refusing to eat, classic symptoms of schizophrenia, at home.

Once their nearly simultaneous deaths were discovered, the Associated Press picked up the story which was published in papers across the country.

Avery Building Broughton Hospital Morganton North Carolina
Avery Building at Broughton Hospital, 2019. Photo by Warren LeMay, courtesy of Wikipedia.

As with many mental facilities, Broughton Hospital is no stranger to strange tales. It was the second mental institution established in North Carolina after the opening of the state’s first mental hospital in Raleigh. In the early 19th century, the treatment of mental conditions and disorders in this country was primitive to say the least. One of the first advocates for proper and modern care was the Maine-born Dorothea Dix. As a young educator, she was exposed to the harsh conditions imposed on the mentally ill when she visited a jail near Boston to teach a Sunday school class. Writing later, she was horrified to find, “Insane persons confined…in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience!” Within two years, she was addressing the Massachusetts state legislature and achieving success in the male-dominated political realm.

After finding success in Massachusetts, she began traveling the nation advocating for the mentally ill wherever she went. She arrived in Raleigh in 1848 where she began lobbying for a state institution. In North Carolina, she plead for $100,000, half of the state’s budget, to create a hospital there. She faced an uphill battle not unlike the battle she faced elsewhere, but here she found an in for her legislation. In the same hotel where Dix was staying in Raleigh, she discovered the wife of legislator James C. Dobbins who was dying. Dix sat with her, comforting her, and reading from the Bible. When she expressed that she was near death, Dix asked for her husband’s support for her hospital bill.

Following his wife’s death, Dobbins made an impassioned plea for support of the bill in a speech that is considered a “legendary oration” in the state. The bill was overwhelmingly passed and a mental hospital in Raleigh began to take shape. Dix’s efforts were not forgotten when that institution was later named for her.

In 1875, a new hospital was ordered to reach the underserved areas in the western part of the state. The Western North Carolina Insane Asylum opened 29 March 1883 on 283 acres in Morganton. When the main building was found to be insufficient, more buildings were added in quick succession to provide room for a rapidly increasing number of patients. In 1890, the superintendent, Dr. Patrick Livingston Murphy, succeeded in changing the name of the hospital to the State Hospital at Morganton to reduce the stigma of the word “insane.” In 1959, the name was again changed to Broughton Hospital to honor the 60th governor of the state, Governor J. Melville Broughton.

In the latter part of the 20th century, endeavoring to end the abuses and the negligence in the country’s mental institutions, the federal government ordered reforms to the system and Broughton’s population plummeted from several thousand to several hundred.

As with many institutions of its type, Broughton maintains a population of dead residents who remain in spirit. Although many of its stories have not been documented, one of the hospital’s nurses set out to change that. Margaret M. Langley, R. N. collected numerous stories from her fellow employees and staff members and published them in a series of three books. It seems that the old hospital and its sprawling campus provides fertile grounds for paranormal activity. Langley includes her first paranormal experience in her first volume.

While working in Ward 27 South, the geriatric division, with an LPN, Langley stopped at the ward’s nurse’s station. At this time, the ward was a large room with twenty-five beds arranged around the nurse’s station all separated by curtains. A hallway connected this ward with an adjacent ward. As the nurse and LPN talked, Langley looked down the hallway and stopped mid-sentence. The LPN looked up and down the hallway where Langley was staring. “In the middle of the hallway a large cloud of mist floated.” Stunned, the pair watched “the mist fade away and disappear.” While a large patient bathroom was located just off that hallway, no one was in it and the mist did not appear to be shower steam.

A travel nurse related a haunting story to Langley: Some years ago, an unstable patient in one of the Broughton buildings located near “the highway” found their way into a stairwell where they hanged themselves in one of the windows. Presumably, this is one of the buildings near NC Highway 18. For years thereafter, drivers have seen the image of a woman hanging in the window; the sight sometimes causing accidents. These accidents occurred so frequently that hospital officials boarded up the window.

Throughout the hospital’s grounds spirits are active everywhere. In the employee’s cafeteria building, staff members have had their names called when they were alone. One staff member reported working in the cafeteria shortly before her shift started. As she cleaned tables and chairs, she began to hear the sounds of a piano playing and the doors opening and closing. Freaked out, she retreated to the employee smoking shack until her shift started and she was no longer alone.

In the early 2010s, a new modern building was added to the hospital grounds. Two construction workers told Langley stories of hearing the screams of a woman as they worked. One worker was working in the utility tunnels underneath the building when he began to hear this sustained screaming. Frightened, he asked a co-worker to help him check out the noise. They checked all of the tunnel where they were authorized to go with no avail. No one else was found there. Another worker on the top of the building heard the screams of a woman while he was welding; screams that were loud enough to be heard through all his welding gear.

In 1962, the Eller sisters were admitted to Broughton. The doctors seemed to have determined that one of the sisters was dominating the other. One of them would begin starving herself, influencing and forcing the other to do the same thing. Just a day before their unexpected deaths, the sisters were separated. Bobbie Jean remained in Ward 8, while Betty Jo was moved to Ward 12. Around 1 AM, a CNA was making rounds when she discovered that Bobbie Jean was dead. The doctor who was summoned, quickly sent someone to check on her sister in Ward 12. Betty Jo was found in the repose of death.

Both young ladies were known to be mischievous and staff in both wards have suggested that the pair may be behind the paranormal activity taking place there. In Ward 8, where Bobbie Jean passed away, staff and patients have witnessed a small blue orb of light hovering outside the dayroom windows. Two patients reported seeing the light outside their windows playing among the branches of the trees before disappearing. Another patient felt someone touching her and one night was pushed out of bed by an unseen force. The same patient had something play with her anklet, pulling it and allowing it to snap back. On Ward 12, staff members, including Ms. Langley, were unnerved by a feeling of being watched. Hopefully, the sisters are finding fun in their phantasmic hijinks.

Broughton’s sister hospital is Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro which I have also covered here.


  • Anthony, Robert G., Jr. and Ruth E. Homrighaus. “Psychiatric Hospitals.” org. 2006.
  • Broughton Hospital. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 19 January 2024.
  • Connelly, Bill. “Identical twins had similar illnesses, unexplained affinity.” Winston-Salem Journal. 14 April 1962.
  • Langley, Margaret M. Haunted Broughton More Tales from the Graveyard Shift. CreateSpace Publishing, 2010.
  • Langley, Margaret M. Haunted Broughton Book III, History and Horror. CreateSpace Publishing, 2016.
  • Langley, Margaret M. Haunted Broughton Tales from the Graveyard Shift. CreateSpace Publishing, 2009.
  • North Carolina State Board of Health, Office of Vital Records. Certificate of Death for Betty Jo Eller. 12 April 1962.
  • Smiley, David L. “Dorothea Dix.” 1 January 1996.
  • “Twins may have ‘willed to die.’” Winston-Salem Journal. 14 April 1962.
  • “Wilkes Baptist Minister Dies.” Greensboro Daily News. 8 November 1966.

“The most gallant gentleman”—The Headless Horseman of Stones River

Stones River National Battlefield
3501 Old Nashville Highway
Murfreesboro, Tennessee

N. B. I have briefly covered this battlefield in Part I of my coverage of US 41.

A Haunted Southern Book of Days–31 December

This article is a part of an occasional blog series highlighting Southern hauntings or high strangeness associated with specific days. For a complete listing, see “A Haunted Southern Book of Days.”


Soon Ah will be done with the troubles of the world!
–African American Spiritual

On New Year’s Eve 1862 just outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, soldiers rang in 1863 not with fireworks and celebrations, but with gun and cannon fire and the misery of battle. Here, at the West Fork of Stones River, two mighty armies clashed, with Union General William S. Rosecrans attempting to wrest control of Murfreesboro from Confederate forces under General Braxton Bragg.

Rosecrans, situated in Nashville, to the west of Murfreesboro, had been ordered by Union General in Chief Henry Halleck to seize the town, saying, “the Government demands action, and if you cannot respond to that demand some one else will be tried.” On the evening of December 30, both armies were poised to battle just outside the town. As darkness fell, the bands on both sides began playing their evening music with soldiers singing along from their tents and pallets. One of the bands struck up the song, “Home, Sweet Home,” and the other band ceased, then joined the familiar tune. Of this moment, a Confederate soldier mused in his journal, “Who knows how many hearts were bold next day by reason of that air?”

The opening Confederate salvos of the battle were fired at dawn catching many Union soldiers while they cooked breakfast. For three days, until 2 January, the armies would batter each other, making this battle perhaps the bloodiest as both sides endured more casualties than in any other of the war.

Lt. Col. Julius “Jules” Garesché, chief of staff to General Rosecrans, knew he had a Sword of Damocles hanging over his time here on earth. Perhaps he knew going into battle that he would soon be “done with the troubles of the world,” perhaps not, nevertheless he believed he had been presented with premonitions indicating that his end would be violent.

Julius Garesche
Julius Peter Garesché.

He spent much of this first day of battle at Rosecrans’ side directing troops on the battlefield. Garesché had known Rosecrans since their time at West Point together. While Rosecrans was notorious for his outspoken and brusque manner, he and his chief of staff had no quarrels.

Garesché was born Julio Pedro Garesché de Rocher in Havana, Cuba in 1821 to French parents. As Catholics, his parents sent him to study at the Jesuit Georgetown College (now Georgetown University) in the District of Columbia where he anglicized his name. He was appointed to attend West Point after his graduation, where he met Rosecrans, who was about two years younger than him. After being stationed unhappily in various posts, he served with distinction in the Mexican-American War (1846-48).

While in Newark, New Jersey, he organized the local St. Vincent de Paul Society and wrote ardently defending Catholic values. His activism was honored when he was named a Knight of St. Sylvester by Pope Pius IX. Wearing his religion on his sleeve, one of Rosecrans’ biographers described him as seeming, “without earthly ambition, half mystic, half saint; he denied himself reasonable comforts to help the poor…the Confederates considered him the ‘most gallant gentleman in the army.'” In fact, he led his military superior, Rosecrans, to become a Catholic.

Yet, Garesché believed he was bound to die in a violent manner. Some years before, he was tasked by his father with patrolling some land in Missouri removing squatters. His small group found a precariously situated cabin perched above the Missouri River and settled in for the evening. During the night, the waters washed away much of the ground underneath the cabin and the three men fled just moments before the structure crumbled into the river below. His brother, Frederick in training as a priest, augured that that incident was an omen that he would die violently. Other incidents and arguments with superiors cemented that sense of foreboding.

In May of 1861 while talking with an acquaintance about relatives who had joined the Confederate cause, Garesché damned these kin to hell. Confessing his sin to his brother, his brother prophesied that he would die in his first battle.

The morning of the battle found Garesché celebrating mass with his fellow soldiers before cannon fire signaled the battle beginning. Early that afternoon he found himself overseeing the violence along the Murfreesboro Pike near area called the Round Forest. A short time later, he was seen entering the grove of trees and dismounting to read from his prayer book. Within minutes, Garesché was dead.

Cannon Stones River Battlefield
Cannon on the Stones River Battlefield, 2014, by Kenneth Everett. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As Confederate forces massed on nearby Wayne’s Hill covered the field with cannon fire, Rosecrans, his chief of staff, and two orderlies rode towards the railroad tracks to examine the scene. Noting the presence of the general on the field, Confederates took aim. A cannon ball whizzed past the general and struck his chief of staff in the head shearing off everything except for his lower jaw and parts of his beard. The mortal injury sprayed the surprised general with blood and brain matter. Garesché’s horse carried his rider’s body a short distance before he slid off.

An officer approached the general, splattered with his friend’s blood asking what he was doing, to which the dazed general muttered, “I am very sorry. We cannot help it, brave men die in battle. This battle must be won.”

Burial of Lt. Col. Garesché on the Stones River Battlefield
An etching of the night burial of Lt. Col. Garesché’s remains on the Stones River Battlefield. From Frank Leslie”s Illustrated Famous Leaders and Battle Scenes of the Civil War, 1896. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Later that evening, Brigadier General William S. Hazen recovered his comrade’s body describing it in a later letter, “I saw but a headless trunk: an eddy of crimson foam had issued where the head should be. I at once recognized his figure, it lay so naturally, his right hand across his breast. As I approached, dismounted, and bent over him, the contraction of a muscle extended his hand slowly and slightly towards me. Taking hold of it, I found it warm and lifelike. Upon one of the fingers was the class ring, that (to me) beautiful talisman of our common school.”

Garesché’s body was transported to Washington, D.C. where he lies with his wife in Mount Olivet Cemetery.

Julius Garesché's grave in Washington's Mount Olive Cemetery
This monument with its toppled obelisk marks Julius Garesché’s grave in Washington’s Mount Olive Cemetery. Photo by Duke, 2015. Courtesy of Find-A-Grave.

Since those horrific days at Stones River, visitors, locals, and railroad employees have had experiences with what one local ghosthunter described as the “thousands of spirits” residing on the battlefield. Among them is the headless spirit of Julius Garesché astride his horse. According to a longtime park employee, “Garesché is the ‘star’ among all our reported sightings. We have a dramatic increase in tourists and inquiries each year as Halloween approaches.”

According to Allen Sircy’s 2020 Southern Ghost Stories: Murfreesboro: Spirits of Stones River, the stories of the headless horseman have become legendary in the area. He notes that some witnesses have heard the hoofbeats of a horse only to see the spirit nearby. Others have reported seeing a headless soldier pacing near the Round Forest or the National Cemetery located on the battlefield, perhaps Garesché sometimes returns without his mount?

One may wonder, in imagining his death, did Garesché imagine spending his afterlife as a specter on this notoriously haunted battlefield?


  • Daniel, Larry J. Battle of Stones River: The Forgotten Conflict between the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Cumberland. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2012. eBook edition.
  • Julius Peter Garesché. Catholic Encyclopedia at NewAdvent.org. Accessed 6 January 2024.
  • Julius Peter Garesché. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed Accessed 6 January 2024.
  • National Park Service. “The Battle of Stones River.” Stones River Battlefield, Tennessee. Accessed 6 January 2024.
  • Pittard, Homer. “The Strange Death of Julius Peter Garesche.” LatinAmericanStudies.org. No date.
  • Sircy, Allen. Southern Ghost Stories: Murfreesboro: Spirits of Stones River. Amazon Kindle, 2020. eBook.
  • Whittle, Dan. “Part II: Ghostly Encounters.” Murfreesboro Post. 14 October 2013.

A New Year’s Beast–A Haunted Southern Book of Days

A Haunted Southern Book of Days–1 January

This article is a part of an occasional blog series highlighting Southern hauntings or high strangeness associated with specific days. For a complete listing, see “A Haunted Southern Book of Days.”

In the last days of 1953 in rural Bladen County, North Carolina, something began attacking dogs, killing them, and leaving their mutilated remains and a mystery behind. Not far from Bladenboro, a resident of Clarkton saw a “sleek, black, about 5 feet long” creature skulking away after killing a dog on the 29th of December. On New Year’s Eve two dogs were “torn into ribbons and crushed” in Bladenboro. On the 1st of January 1954, two more dogs were found in Bladenboro killed in a similar fashion. As the strange deaths added up over the next couple weeks, hunters from all around attempted to kill the mysterious creature.

Throughout the swamps and woodlands of Bladen County, the hunters pursued a monster without really knowing exactly what it was. The local bobcat population suffered a bit as they were thought to be to blame. However, others doubted that a small bobcat could have caused the devastation wrought on the canine victims. Some suggested a mountain lion or a panther, as some of the descriptions seemed to point to, though there was still some doubt.

Beast of Bladenboro Robeson County North Carolina
A front page article reporting the mysterious killing of five pigs and three chickens in nearby Robeson County. From The Robesonian, 15 December 1954.

Once the deaths seemed to cease, interest in the “beast” went with it. Late in 1954, a farmer in Robeson County (adjacent to Bladen County) found five pigs and three chickens crushed and mutilated like the dogs that been killed earlier, though new attacks were not forthcoming. And more attacks were reported. Local newspapers again took up the crusade against the creature, peppering the news with speculation which soon came to an end. The story is now mostly forgotten outside of the paranormal community and Bladen County.

Beast of BladenboroWikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 1 January 2024.
• Hotz, Amy. “The Beast of Bladenboro.” Wilmington Star-News. 29 October 2009.
• Price, Mark. “A vampire-like beast is called NC’s ‘creepiest urban legend’.” Charlotte Observer. 7 February 2018.