Sawmill Specter

Newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries often printed ghost stories. This comes from an 1896 edition of the Atlanta Constitution. David Lake is located east of Mount Vernon, Alabama, in northern Mobile County, and feeds into the Mobile River. I haven’t been able to determine exactly where the sawmill in this article was located.

Please note that this article is typical for its period in its regard for African-Americans and uses language that would be considered racist today.

Atlanta Constitution
20 September 1896


An Alabama Sawmill Made Worthless by a Spook

From The St. Louis Globe Democrat.

In the bottoms of the Tombigbee river, a few miles above its confluence with the Alabama, is a deep, lagoon-like lake, locally known as David’s lake. On the western shore of the lake are a shingle mill and a row of a half dozen shanties, intended as houses for the mill hands, all the property of the Seaboard Lumber Company, at Fairford, a few miles away.

The mill has been idle for some time and the shanties untenanted, owing to a depression in the market for cypress shingles. It has been necessary, however, in order to preserve the validity of certain insurance policies to keep a watchman constantly in charge there. Up to a short time ago the watchman was a certain crippled negro named John James.

A sawmill in Covington County, Alabama, circa 1911. Courtesy of the Hoole Special Collections Library, University of Alabama.

John James’s job was a negro’s ideal of a soft job. All the work he had to do was to light a lantern in the mill at dark, blow it out in the morning, and never under any circumstances to leave the mill unguarded. The company paid him $10 a month, furnished a dwelling, a mule and a plow, together with just as much land as he might want to cultivate. The lake was full of fish, toothsome and easy to catch.

Therefore, John James was much envied by his fellows. But on an unlucky evening about sundown he paddled his boat out in the lake to set some lines for big catfish. His wife saw him start, and when she looked again a little later there was the upturned boat, but no John James. The neighbors were hurriedly called and in the gathering gloom they dragged the bottom with grappling irons and brought to the surface the downed body of the watchman. How he happened to lose his balance or why he made no outcry will in all probability never be known.

Of course, the company over at Fairford regretted the affair, paid the widow John’s back salary, at once sent another negro as watchman and things seemed to move along about as before.

In a few days a company official chanced to go to David’s lake, and was surprised to find the new watchman gone, and also the company’s mule. The animal was found later at a station over on the railroad, where the operator stated it had been ridden early morning by a greatly agitated negro, who had left on the first train.

This thing mystified the company and was vexatious, because if the mill should burn in the absence of a watchman no insurance could be collected, and unguarded buildings have an unfortunate way of catching afire in that country. Another negro was at once sent down to the lake as watchman, and informed that if he wanted at any time to quit his job to give notice, so there would be interregnum. No. 2 went to David’s lake, and next the news came that he, too, was missing. Neither he nor his predecessor ever called for salary due them, nor has any trace of either been found.

At this the power that ruled the company held a serious conference. Something was scaring the negroes away, and it must be put an end to. So William Potlatch, one of the company’s most reliable negroes, was sent to the shingle mill with a six-shooter, which he was instructed to use should anything bother him.

William returned the very next morning. He was the worst scared negro in the state of Alabama. He told a confused story that no one could make heads or tails of about ghosts and John James. There was no confusion in his statement that no money could ever induce him to go back again.

Meanwhile stories began to float around to the effect that John James’s ghost was haunting the mill and lake. Of course, the company officials scorned such an idea, but for all its absurdity there was a serious side to the matter. If the place ever gained the reputation of being haunted no negro would work there and the mill would have to be torn down, as negro labor is the only available or possible to be procured. The company determined to lay the ghost at once and forever, and to that end sent down a party well equipped with all proper material for exorcism. The party was composed of Tom Smith and Henry McIntosh, white men of known bravery and coolness, also two negroes, whom the presence of the whites might induce to stand firm in the presence of danger. All were armed and carried a supply of food and whisky [sic].

They reached the mill at David’s lake in the afternoon, taking possession of the shanty next to and almost adjoining the one formerly occupied by John James. After supper, when the dark came, they lit a lantern and all sat out on the little gallery of their quarters. There they gossiped, told tales and drank whisky [sic] until they were in a proper mood to defy the natural or the supernatural. After the supply of tales had run out they took to shooting craps down on the floor.

It must have been near midnight.

One of the negroes was praying energetically to all the powers controlling fortune that he might throw a nine-spot, and thereby win the mean to buy his gal new shoes, when suddenly the door of John James’s shanty opened and shut violently. The players looks up at once. A piece of a moon over in the far west gave dim light. One of the negroes exclaimed:

“Lamb o’ God, looky yondah.”

From out of the shadow in front of the James shanty came the form of a man, walking as though lame and carrying a long pole. Both the negroes at once broke for the woods. Smith and McIntosh stood their ground like the nervy men they were. The shade neither looked to right nor left, but hobbled straight on across an open space and toward the lake, where several skiffs were moored. As through with one impulse and movement, Smith and McIntosh fired at the thing, but with no more apparent result than if they had shot at the stars. There was only the plunge of their bullets heard out in the lake.

“Spook or no spook, I’m going to run that feller down,” said Smith, and as he started McIntosh followed him.

They saw the ghost loosen one of the skiffs and paddle out into the lake. Its motion had seemed to be a slow walk, and yet, running hard as they could, they did not catch up with it. They, in their turn, jumped into a skiff and paddled fiercely after. About where John James’s body was found the first boat stopped, and its mysterious occupant began to shove the long pole down into the water. The pursuers drew nearer and nearer, until there was barely a boat length between them and their object. All at once they heard a terrible, awesome cry, shrilled and piercing. Simultaneously each man felt a shock as though from an electric battery—a shock so severe and overpowering that they collapsed and fell unconscious in the bottom of the skiff.

It was daylight when they revived. They had floated at least two miles below the mill. They were so weak and nervous, so numbed and dazed, they had barely strength to paddle to shore, nor has either one fully recovered to this day.

Now, for one who doubts these things, or who is curious about them, here are the lake and the mill, and the Seaboard company anxious to assist investigation. Also, the position of watchman is open. Who wants it?