Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Unsettled Souls of Fort Smith Cemetery

The Fort Smith National Cemetery in Sebastian County, Arkansas played an important role in the western expansion of the United States. By the early 1800’s, white settlers were moving into the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1805. As the settlers moved onto land inhabited by the Indians, tensions naturally began to rise. The U.S. Army began building military posts to protect the settlers. Fort Smith was the first and most western of these forts. As a wild and lawless town grew around the fort, it became the last “civilized” place for outlaws, bandits, and renegades to acquire supplies before entering Indian Territory.
In 1823, out of the 200 troops stationed there, 51 died and the first official cemetery was created and dedicated on the site just outside the stockade where there had already been 3 burials. In 1824, Fort Gibson was constructed and Fort Smith was closed. Between 1824 and 1838, when the army returned to re-open Fort Smith, a number of men, most of whom died due to the lawlessness of the town, were haphazardly buried there. The army rehabilitated the cemetery and began overseeing internments.
When the Civil War began, Confederate forces took over the fort. When the Union forces re-captured it in late 1863, over 475 Rebel soldiers, most of them men who had fallen in battle, had been buried in the expanded cemetery.
The war ended in 1865 and by 1867, the bodies of so many fallen Confederate soldiers had been removed from hasty graves dug on battlefields and reburied in the Fort Smith cemetery that it was increased in size to over 5 acres. It was officially made a National Cemetery in late 1867 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
Over the years, the cemetery has been expanded to cover over 33 acres and include almost 14,000 burials. Probably the most famous person buried here is Isaac Parker, the “Hanging Judge.” During his 21 years in Fort Smith, he sentenced 160 men and women to die with a noose around their necks. 79 of those 160 actually met their fate on the gallows.
During the 1860’s, as the bodies of more and more soldiers who had suffered horrible deaths during battles were being dug up from their resting places and reburied in the cemetery, stories began circulating of strange sounds emanating from the grave yard at night; cries of anguish, sometimes a painful scream, and a persistent rumor of hearing what sounded like a young man crying out for his momma. Sometimes strange, bobbing lights would appear, float around the headstones and then vanish. Soldiers who were assigned night duty of standing guard at the cemetery’s gate refused to do it alone and would not enter the grounds.
By the early 1900’s, it seems things in the cemetery began to settle down. Although still spooky after dark, stories of the unexplained sounds and lights virtually ceased. In the late 1990’s however, for some unknown reason, it seems the forever occupants of the Fort Smith cemetery became uneasy. Once again, strange lights began to be seen floating around in the dark. Cemetery caretakers began reporting tools left amongst the graves overnight would be moved when they reported back to work the next morning. Sometimes the tools would simply be moved from one side of a grave marker to the other side of the same marker and other times a rake or shovel would be moved several graves away from where it had been left.
In 1998, on a cold December night, one of the groundskeepers had been performing maintenance work around Isaac Parker’s grave. He had left a spade and clippers next to the grave when he had been called away to help on another task. It was dark when he returned alone to retrieve his tools and put them away in a shed. After gathering up the tools, he turned away heading toward the shed when he heard something behind him. Thinking it was just a leaf being blown along the grass, he didn’t think anything of it. A few steps later though, he realized the noise had not gone away; in fact, it seemed now like it was the footsteps of someone following him. He pulled a flashlight from his tool belt and turned it on as he quickly turned around. Illuminated by the flashlight stood an old man with white hair and a white beard, wearing an old-fashioned black suit. The man was just standing there looking at him. The groundskeeper asked him what he wanted and the man began moving his lips as if he was talking, but there was no sound. It was then the groundskeeper realized that in the beam of his flashlight, he could see right through the man to the headstones directly behind him! Dropping the flashlight and the tools he had retrieved, the groundskeeper ran directly to his car without looking back and sped home.
Having worked and been in the Fort Smith Museum and having seen the pictures of Isaac Parker numerous times, the groundskeeper had no doubt the eerie apparition had been the Hanging Judge himself. The story goes that when the groundskeeper came in the next day, his salt-and-pepper colored hair had turned completely white. He told his supervisor of his encounter and then, with trembling hands, gave him his letter of resignation and walked out.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Haunted Lighthouse

Most folks have seen and been entertained at one time or another by a player-piano - a self-playing piano containing a mechanical mechanism that operates the piano through pre-programmed music recorded on perforated paper. Watching the piano keys moving without the assistance of human fingers however, is pretty spooky; like there is an unseen ghost sitting there on the bench playing tunes. So just imagine how spooky it is to hear piano music in a place where there is not only no pianist, but no piano either. Visitors to the Seguin Island lighthouse often have just such an experience.

About a mile off the coast of Maine near the mouth of the Kennebec River is a finger of land named Seguin Island. The recorded history of this small island is a long one, at least by American standards. In 1607, two small ships, "The Gift of God" and the "Mary and John," came to America from England and dropped anchor near the island. The settlers on board hoped to establish the first English colony in North America. They built a small town along the banks of the Kennebec River and planted a few crops. Unfortunately for them, they had arrived too late in the growing season for this area and many of the settlers perished due to the cold winter and starvation. As soon as the weather allowed, they got on their ships and high-tailed it back to England.

Even the local natives usually steered clear of the boiling waters pounding on the rocks along the island's edge. The name "Seguin" is an English corruption of an Indian word which loosely translated means "place where the sea vomits." After those first settlers departed, the island was left to the natives and largely undisturbed until the late 1700's. In 1795, with numerous ships having met their untimely end on the island's rocks, George Washington gave the order to build the first "watch tower" on the island. A year later, the lighthouse was put into operation.

Congress had appropriated $6,300 (a right tidy sum in 1795) for sturdy construction of the lighthouse using the most modern methods known at the time. The owner of the construction firm which was awarded the contract though built the tower of wood and cheap materials and absconded with the rest of the funds. Wooden towers do not long survive the wet environment and winter storms of the island and by 1819, the lighthouse had been virtually demolished and had to be rebuilt. It was rebuilt according to plans with stone and only cost $2,500.

The original lighthouse keeper was Count John Polersky who was born to a noble family in Europe and had immigrated to America where he served as a major in the Continental Army. Living alone on the uninhabited island proved to be a severe hardship. From the very first, his keeper's shack and the wooden tower were battered by the waves and weather. He built several barns to hold a few head of livestock, but storms destroyed them soon after they were built. Other storms destroyed or sank three different boats he had built to transport him back and forth to the mainland. The wet, salty air killed his garden and ruined his health. One day, after not hearing from Polersky for several weeks, a shopkeeper rowed out to check on him and found him dead on the floor of his little house.

A number of other lighthouse keepers were hired, but none stayed for long. The isolation and terrible conditions always drove them away. About 1850, a young man accepted the keeper's position. He was engaged to a young city girl and soon after accepting the position, the two were married and the young bride moved with her new husband to the isolated lighthouse home where their only neighbors were the seals and seabirds.

It didn't take long for the lively, socially outgoing bride to become bored without the interesting conversation and stimulating entertainment she had enjoyed in the city. Her husband was a quiet man who believed in hard work, but he loved his wife dearly. In an effort to lift her spirits, he purchased a piano in the city and with great effort, floated it across the inlet on a raft, hoisted it up the steep slopes of the island and installed it in the parlor of their home.

The wife very much appreciated the effort and lengths he had gone to for her and she began to practice. Unfortunately, she proved to be very musically challenged. With nothing else to do though, she practiced every day, hour after hour. She eventually managed to learn one small tune and in an effort to perfect her playing of it, she played that same tune over and over again. Her husband hinted that she should try to learn another tune, but she was either unable or unwilling to try anything but the tune she already knew. Day and night, she played the same little tune until her husband demanded she stop playing it, but apparently she had become seriously obsessed, so much so that her husband was worried about her sanity. He should have been worried about his own.

Wherever he went in the lighthouse he could hear the notes of that one maddening song repeated again and again. He could hear them in the kitchen as he made himself something to eat. He could hear them while he worked with the equipment. He could hear them as he worked with the supplies. He could hear them when he went to the top of the lighthouse. Eventually he could hear them even when his wife had left the piano and went to bed. It wasn't long before he couldn't sleep because of that damnable tune playing over and over in his head.

One day the poor keeper could stand it no longer. As his wife was playing that infernal tune yet again, he went to the tool shed, retrieved an ax and marched to the parlor where his wife sat on her stool. He lifted the heavy ax high above his head and with a mighty swing, brought it down onto the piano. The piano splintered, but he couldn't stop himself. Swing after swing rendered the piano into kindling, twisted strings and shattered ivory keys. His poor wife, too astonished or too afraid to move, was still sitting on her stool when the keeper turned the ax on her.

Amidst the piano debris, the pieces of his dear wife and the massive amount of blood, the keeper fell to the parlor floor. Coming to his senses and unable to live with himself and what he had done, he lifted the ax high in the air once more and let it fall, splitting his skull wide open.

There is no written proof of such a horrible deed happening at the lighthouse. Some say it is only a legend, but others say records were destroyed and the matter covered up or else hiring other keepers would prove to be impossible. But tourists visiting the lighthouse in the summer months very often report hearing piano music. Numerous keepers who came along later, their wives and children included, also report hearing piano music, always the same tune. They report it can be heard in the house, within the walls of the tower, and even standing outside. Many also say they have heard a soft, male voice when there is no one around. Several keepers abruptly left the island, refusing to return because of the whispering voice they heard when they were all alone. Could it be poor, lonely Count Polersky still yearning for companionship?

A few times, keepers have reported seeing ghostly figures, a man and a woman, walking hand-in-hand along the top of the cliffs at twilight, long after all visitors have left the island. It's probably just fanciful stories, but it seems more agreeable to believe it is the unfortunate husband and wife, unwilling or unable to leave the place where their lives came to such a gruesome and premature end, reunited and reconciled in the afterlife.