Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Billy Bergerone and the Boo Hag

Way down in the dark, gator-infested backwater swamps of southwest Louisiana lived a young man by the name of Billy Bergerone. Billy was a good looking Cajun boy, maybe a little slow, but still, he had gone all the way through the 8th grade. For some reason though, he sure had a hard time finding himself a bride. His daddy owned a store on a little spit of land in the bayou where the local old-timers would come to sit for a spell in the cool shade of the store's front porch to trade gossip and swap lies and tell tales.  When Billy's name came up, that's what they all said, "Billy Bergerone sure is having a real hard time finding himself a wife."

It wasn't for lack of trying. It wasn't even for lack of a yes. The first time, Billy's bride-to-be got cold feet and backed out just before going into the church. The second time Billy's mother-in-law-to-be got cold feet and convinced her daughter there were better prospects to be found and moved away with her daughter all the way over to New Orleans. There was a third time, but that time Billy's bride-to-be got warm feet for another fella and ran away with him two days before the wedding. Billy Bergerone sure was having a real hard time finding himself a wife. 

There was an ancient old woman who lived way back in the swamp in a run-down house surrounded on 3 sides by an old, rusted metal fence to keep the gators from sneaking up on her and on the fourth side was the barely moving warm water of the snake infested swamp. Nobody, not even the oldest of the old-timers, knew her name, but everyone knew her by sight. She was just about the ugliest old woman anyone had ever seen. She only had two teeth in her mouth and a wrinkled, pointed nose. A few wisps of snow white hair poked out the sides of the dark scarf she always wore around her head. It was said she ate most any old nasty thing that lived in the swamp, catching critters by hand, and for dessert, she bewitched the honeybees in the Tupelo trees and stole their honey with not even one sting.

Once every month she came to Billy's daddy's store in her pirogue to get things the swamp couldn't provide - coffee and flour and such. Late one evening she rowed up and Billy's dad was glad to see her as she owed for two months worth of groceries and he wanted to talk to her about it. When he asked for payment, she told him, "I ain't got no money cause the skinner ain't shown up to buy my gator skins yet. I need my groceries though, so I tell you what I can do for you. You give me a boat-load of groceries and forget about what I owe you and in return I'll bring a beautiful bride for your son, Billy Bergerone. I hear tell he's having a hard time finding himself a wife." Billy's daddy thought on it for a few seconds. He loved his son and didn't want him to be lonely anymore and besides, he had been looking forward to a passel of grandchildren. "I reckon we can do that. OK, we got an agreement." He loaded her little boat with what she needed and tore up her bill. As she pushed off from the pier into the low-lying fog she said, "Have Billy here tomorrow night and he'll meet the woman of his dreams."

The next evening, Mr. Bergerone was counting up the money from that day's business after closing the store and Billy was sweeping the dirt out the back door when the corner of his eye caught movement down at the pier. As he watched, a little pirogue drifted up from the dark swamp and silently glided to a stop. In the feeble glow of his lantern, Billy could just make out the face of a beautiful girl emerging from the shadows. As she slowly walked toward him, he found she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. With glowing eyes of green, cherry red lips and skin like alabaster, Billy Bergerone was immediately smitten. With a lovely whispery voice, she said she lived way back in the swamp with her mother and she was tired of living a lonely life. They talked a while and just before getting back into the little boat, she agreed to meet Billy at next month's barn dance.

When Billy came back into the store and told his father what had happened, Mr. Bergerone wouldn't look him in the eye, but Billy didn't notice. "Was she beautiful?" "Oh my yes, Poppa, she was the most beautiful girl I've ever seen! I'm supposed to see her next month at the barn dance. I can't wait!" "Well," Billy's daddy said, "maybe, just maybe, you have found a bride." But for some strange reason, a cold chill went down his spine as he said it. 

For the next month, Mr. Bergerone told everyone who sat on his porch about the girl Billy had met. When he told them of the agreement with the old swamp hag, a few of the old-timer's brows furrowed as if they had a painful thought and to be honest, the cold chill that wouldn't quit going up and down his spine seemed to be particularly worrisome whenever he spoke of the girl.  

For Billy, it seemed to take forever, but four weeks finally passed and the night of the barn dance arrived. He put on his best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and stationed himself at the barn door to be sure he didn't miss her when she arrived. For hours, the band played and everyone danced and drank spiked punch, but they all kept casting glances at the door where Billy patently waited for his lovely date to show. Right at midnight, she walked in and with a smile, headed straight to Billy. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. The band began playing again, everyone smiled and began dancing as Billy and his girl joined them. With the way the two of them smiled at each other, it sure seemed like Billy Bergerone had finally found himself a bride.

A few weeks later, Billy asked for her hand in marriage and she said yes. There wasn't a church near the little swamp community, but a traveling preacher stopped at the store once a month to hold a service. When Billy said they could get married at the store the next time the preacher came through, his bride-to-be said, "I ain't having nothing to do with no preacher man. Take me across the state line into Beaumont and we'll get married by a judge in the courthouse." And Billy, being totally smitten, agreed to do just that.

Billy's daddy found a rent house about a mile from the store. It was a small, frame structure with a window in the attic, a wooden swing for two on the front porch and big trees all around. The owner agreed to three months rent free if Mr. Bergerone painted the house so when the happy couple returned from getting married in Beaumont, the house was newly painted a light gray with dark gray trim.

On the wedding night, Billy carried his beautiful bride across the threshold. When it got really dark, he was ready for bed and anxious to seal the wedding vows, but his bride simply sat in a cloth-covered chair with a quilt around her shoulders. He tried coaxing her to the bedroom, but she said she was tired and wanted to sit for a spell and relax. It had indeed been a busy day and as Billy sat across from his bride looking into her beautiful green eyes, he found himself becoming sleepy. He tried to fight it, but his eyelids began to close and he fell sound asleep. He woke later only to find his bride gone. He was so tired, he simply crawled into bed and fell back asleep, resigned that he had lost another bride.

The next morning however, with the sun peaking over the horizon, Billy woke up as his wife crawled into bed. He reached over and found her to be sweaty and warm. "Where have you been?" he asked. "Don't ask me no questions, Billy Bergerone," she replied. "No questions."

The next night, his wife cooked him a wonderful meal and then sat in the chair with the quilt over her shoulders. With a full belly and a fire in the fireplace casting heat, Billy couldn't keep his eyes open and went to bed. Again, the next morning as the sun arose, his wife, warm and sweaty, crawled into bed. When he looked at her with questioning eyes, she told him once more, "Don't ask me no questions, Billy Bergerone. No questions."

After the third straight time it happened, Billy was working in the store when the old preacher came to hold his service the next day. Billy was naturally upset and he didn't know what to do so he started talking to the preacher. "She don't hardly speak to me at all," he said. "She always cooks wonderful meals for me and she's a beauty to look at, but every night she sits in her chair until I fall asleep. Just as the sun comes up, she crawls into bed with me. I know she's been out somewhere, but I don't know where she's been or why. She won't let me ask any questions about it and she won't tell me."

  "Billy Bergerone, I'm thinking you've got yourself a whole heap of troubles. More troubles than you can imagine," the preacher replied. "We need to know for sure if what I'm thinking is what it is though, so tonight, if it happens again, don't look her in the eye and pretend to fall asleep. Then when she leaves, follow her to see what she's doing, but be real careful she don't see you, Billy Bergerone. Remember, you had a real hard time finding yourself a bride."

Sure enough, that evening as they sat at the table eating supper, Billy reached for her, but she just smiled and said, "You're a really sweet boy, Billy Bergerone, a sweet boy. Finish your supper and we'll go sit by the warm fireplace for a while." Later, with Billy laying in the bed across the room from his wife who was sitting in her chair, he looked at her, but didn't look into her eyes. She smiled at him and began to quietly hum a little tune Billy had never heard before. He closed his eyes and started to softly snore, pretending to be asleep. With a slight peek from under hooded eyes, he saw her looking at him and then her smile disappeared. She threw off the quilt and silently crept upstairs to the attic. Quietly, so very quietly, Billy followed her.

Peeking above the stairs, he saw her open the attic window shade and in the moonlight that shone through, Billy saw a spinning wheel. His wife took off her all of her clothes and sat naked in front of the wheel. She was so beautiful Billy almost gasped out loud, but then she closed her eyes and leaning back, began to sing, "Spin, spin, take my skin. Spin, spin take my skin." He watched in fascination as she pricked her finger with a needle and then stuck her finger in the spindle. "Spin, spin, take my skin. Spin, spin, take my skin" she sang and as the wheel turned, her skin began to stretch and slide off her body! First the finger, then the hand, then the arm, then the head and finally the skin pulled away from her entire body and fell into a heap at the foot of the spinning wheel. Her body now was nothing more than bright red muscles and blue tendons and bloody meat. She looked absolutely hideous; so hideous Billy couldn't stand to look at her and then with an eerie, cackling laugh, she opened the attic window and flew out into the night.

Billy staggered back to his bed and crawled in, covering his head with the covers. He lay awake all night, shivering with utter fright, wondering just what kind of awful creature he was married to and scared it would come back and kill him. Finally, at first light, he heard the attic door creak open and then his wife, beautiful as ever, joined him. Quickly crawling out of bed, he claimed he had to get to the store early to open that day. He barely paused long enough to put on clean clothes and shoes.

When he reached the store, he found the preacher waiting for him. After telling everything he saw, the preacher said, "This is worse than I feared, much worse. This is so bad that I can't do anything about it, but I know someone who can. I'll put out the word and she'll come to you. You can't go to her and I don't know when she'll come, but you will know her when she arrives. Don't be afraid of her and do everything she tells you. Everything. I'm sorry, Billy Bergerone, but there's nothing more I can do. I wish I could help as I know you've had a really hard time finding a bride." The preacher man preached an unusually short sermon that morning and barely stayed long enough to pocket the meager collections before grabbing his hat and hurrying on his way.

For the next seven nights, Billy ate his delicious supper and fell asleep listening to his wife humming a song as she sat in her chair. Even though he found it hard to sleep, he kept his eyes closed and endured because anything was better than seeing those muscles and pulsing veins and raw, bloody meat. On the eighth day, Billy was working at the store when he heard a commotion outside. "Conjure woman! Conjure woman coming!" shouted an old man as he hobbled by as quick as he could.

Several minutes later, sure enough, conjure woman came, moving slow as the tide until she came to the porch of the store where Billy stood. All the other's ran away, but Billy knew she was coming for him so he stayed. In a dry, raspy croak, she said, "Billy Bergerone, let's sit a spell so I can rest these weary bones and you can tell me everything. From beginning to this very day, everything." And that's what Billy did. 

When he finished, conjure woman told him, "Billy Bergerone, that woman is not your bride for she is married to another. You done gone and married yourself a Boo Hag. She may feel a small amount of affection for you cause you're a good boy, but if you get in her way or try to impose a husband's will on her, she will kill you, Billy Bergerone, kill you dead. Every night, way back deep in the swamp where few dare go, she meets with her Boo Daddy. You have to stop it or one night soon, she will bring him to you and if that happens, not even I can help you." In a quivering voice, Billy assured her he would anything and everything exactly as she told him. "OK, son, here's what you gotta do. Get yourself some blue paint and after that Boo Hag has gone for the night, you paint around every door and window frame except for one little window. Nail that window so there's just a small opening. Then when you've done that, sprinkle a good amount of salt and pepper on that pile of skin she leaves behind. You see, a Boo Hag can't go through a door or window painted in blue. She'll have to crawl through that one little window you left barely open. With her bare skin, it'll hurt bad as she scrapes through, but she'll do it cause the sun will be coming up and she can't stand to be in the sun with no skin. When she gets in, she'll run up the stairs to the attic and crawl into her skin. With all that salt and pepper under her skin, she'll go away and never return. You'll be rid of your problem. I know you hate to do it this way, but you got no choice. It's the only way. Even way back where I live, everyone say's you've had a real hard time finding a bride, Billy Bergerone."

Having told him what to do, conjure woman slowly went back the way she'd come. By now, the sun was sitting low, but she didn't cast a shadow. If it had been anybody other than conjure woman, Billy wouldn't have done it as he had fallen deep under the spell of his beautiful wife; deep under the spell of a Boo Hag.

That evening, Billy quickly ate his supper, delicious as always. Claiming to be overly tired, he crawled into bed earlier than normal. Knowing that after tonight he would never see his beautiful bride again, he slyly watched her sitting in her chair for almost an hour. Then, with barely hidden tears glistening in his eyes, he pretended to be asleep and began snoring. Within seconds, she threw the quilt to the floor and ran upstairs to the attic. She didn't even try to be quiet about it. "Spin, spin, spin my skin. Spin, spin, spin my skin" she sang. And then Billy heard the attic window open and a barely suppressed cackling laugh fading into the night. 

Quickly rising, he opened the can of blue paint he had brought from the store and began painting around all but one of the windows and doors. Just to be sure, he double coated each one. He then nailed a window downstairs so there was just barely an opening. After running upstairs to pour salt and pepper in the skin that felt exactly like snake skin after being shed, he hid behind a big chest of drawers and waited. And he cried. In despair, he wondered why all these things had to happen to him. He didn't have much time to think this though as a glow began in the eastern sky.

With a swish in the air, the Boo Hag returned to the attic window. With a howl that made Billy's skin crawl, part lonely owl and part angry panther, her heard her retreat from the window bordered in blue. Frantically, she flew from window to window, from door to door, only to be repelled by each until she came to the barely open window. She frantically began  pushing and pulling her way through. The wooden frame splintered and ripped and tore her raw skin as she forced her way in. Before getting all the way through, her feet began smoking as the sun came over the trees and shined on them. Crippled by the terrible pain, she made her way upstairs to the attic. With the sun beginning to shine through the window, there was no time left as she hurriedly pulled her skin on, stretching it tight across her face, then her shoulders, arms, body and legs. For a few seconds, Billy saw his beautiful wife again, but then, her alabaster skin began to turn yellow and her face began to blister and smoke. Slowly, like a newspaper catching fire, her skin began to crinkle into flames, blackening and then falling away in ashes. Only bright red muscles and blue tendons and bloody raw meat was left. With a horrible scream of pain, the creature threw herself against the window pane so violently that it shattered. Billy ran to the window and watched her fly away. Smoke billowed from her body, sparks flew from her fingers and her head was enveloped in orange flames. The Boo Hag  flew over the swamp, spinning and howling until she exploded in the air. Bits of charred meat fell into the brown waters and the alligators enjoyed an early morning feeding of barbecue.

Billy moved back in with his poppa. The gray rent house has never been rented again and it sits empty with a broken attic window. The old timers returned to Mr. Bergerone's store to sit for a spell in the cool shade of the front porch to trade gossip and swap lies and tell tales. For a long while, the main topic was the disappearance of Billy Bergerone's wife, the fire and explosion over the swamp, the preacher man and the conjure woman. They each had their own opinion as to what it meant, what exactly had happened. There was one thing they always agreed on though, Billy Bergerone sure had a hard time finding himself a bride. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Haunted Granbury Opera House

The opera house in Granbury, Texas was built in 1886. It was a grand structure which shared space with a saloon. In 1911, along with a number of other establishments, it was forced to close by the Women's Christian Temperance Union which wanted to abolish all drinking of alcohol. It remained closed and unoccupied for the next 63 years. It was about to be demolished when a group of citizens took it upon themselves to began restoration. It was almost too late - the roof had fallen in and the interior had been basically gutted.

When it re-opened in 1975, patrons were astounded at the quality of the restoration work. Such attention to detail left them feeling as if they had walked through a time portal back into the nineteenth century. Soon, rumors began circulating that the old building was haunted by perhaps the most notorious American actor of that century.

Employees and patrons often reported they had seen a translucent apparition of a man who was wearing a white shirt, black waistcoat, black pants, and high black boots. Several employees said they had been frightened while closing up at night by the apparition suddenly appearing on stage and reciting lines from some Shakespeare's plays. Numerous actors, theater workers and even the managing  director have reported hearing unexplained footsteps walking back and forth along the balcony when no one was up there.

The ghost seems to be rather mischievous as he often will flush a urinal at one end of the row in the men's room while it is occupied by only one person who is standing at the other end. Ladies sometimes walk into a cold spot outside the ladies room even when the air conditioning is not on, but evidently the spirit is a gentleman as nothing strange ever happens inside the room. Often, after the crew has cleaned up and are preparing to lock the doors and leave for the night, the last call light will turn off by itself. Tom, a long-time worker has sworn that one night as he was walking toward the last call light to turn it off, the switch flicked off by itself and he heard a man's voice whisper, "I got it, Tom."

Some say the ghost is the spirit of a man who went by the name of John St. Helen. St. Helen arrived in the nearby town of Glen Rose and landed a job as a school teacher. He also ran an acting school for the children of upper-class families. John fell in love and became engaged to the daughter of a well-known local politician. He wanted them to have a quiet ceremony, but the bride had other ideas and began the planning. Due to her parent's status and money, the wedding was to be a splendid affair with many high-powered politicians and elected officials in attendance. When John was shown the guest list, it included a number of soldiers and the U.S. Marshal  for the Eastern District of Texas. St. Helen immediately called off the marriage and left town. 

John St. Helen or John Wilkes Booth?
(Historical photo)
A full year later, St. Helen showed up in Granbury where he got a job as a bartender at the saloon adjoining the theater. He stood out because of a distinctive limp, a southern accent, and his strange habit of reciting lines from Shakespeare while having a conversation. Nobody ever saw him take a drink except on April 15, the anniversary of Lincoln's assassination, when he became roaring drunk and spent the night sleeping it off in a back room of the saloon. He would often attend plays at the opera house, sitting quietly and intensely watching throughout the performance. When the director decided to perform a Shakespearean play, John tried out and won the leading role. Everyone was extremely impressed with his acting ability and he was requested to be in other plays, but he always refused except for Shakespeare plays.

St. Helen had lived quietly in Granbury for several years when he became severely ill. The local doctor examined him and said he would soon die from the disease. The next day, John called for his friend and lawyer Finis L. Bates to come to his deathbed. In a weak, barely audible voice, St. Helen confessed to Finis that he was actually John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. He then gave Bates several of his possessions and instructions for his burial. 

A few days later St. Helen and the doctor were surprised when he woke up one morning feeling much better. After several more days it became evident he would survive his "terminal illness." Summoning his friend Finis again, John told him that the leader of the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln was Vice-President Andrew Johnson and the identity of the man mortally wounded man in the Garrett tobacco barnwas a plantation overseer by the name of Ruddy St. Helen. Booth had asked Ruddy to fetch his papers, which had fallen out of his pocket while crossing the Rappathannock River. Ruddy was able to retrieve Booth's papers, and while still in possession of them, Ruddy was mortally wounded in the Garrett barn, thus leading his captors to believe that he was Booth. The next night, John abruptly left town without telling anyone where he was going. When Finis heard he had left, he opened the small chest that St. Helen had given him and found a Colt single-shot pocket pistol wrapped in the front page of a Washington, D.C. newspaper dated April 16, 1865, the day after Lincoln's assassination.

Nothing more was heard of John St. Helen until 1906 when Finis heard about an alcoholic named David George who had committed suicide in Enid, Oklahoma. A house painter, George had an affinity for quoting Shakespeare. For reasons known only to himself, he purchased strychnine from several druggists and ingested the poison. When neighbors in the rooming house where he was living heard loud moans coming from his room, they broke in to find him writhing in pain on his bed. They summoned a doctor who arrived within 10 minutes. 
As he lay dying, he told the doctor that he didn't want to be buried under a false name. He claimed he was actually John Wilkes Booth and told the doctor numerous very specific details of the night President Lincoln had been killed.

Finis immediately traveled to Enid and was shown the unclaimed body in question. After a careful and thorough examination, Finis concluded that it was indeed the body of his former friend John St. Helen due to matching scars and features. He had the body embalmed and then invited government officials to examine it for authentication that it was indeed the body of the infamous John Wilkes Booth. The government officials declined and repeated the story that Booth had been shot and killed by Boston Corbett, a Union soldier, on April 26, 1865.

Mummified body
of John
Finis kept the mummified body in his garage for a while, but then began touring it in circus sideshows until after World War 1 ended. In 1920, he rented the body to the showman William Evans for $200 per month to be exhibited as a sideshow attraction. Evans still had the body when Finis died in 1923 so he purchased it from the widow Bates for $1,000. The body spent years traveling all around the country with various circuses until the 1950's when a man named R. K. Verbeck purchased "John" from a female landlord in Philadelphia who had held it as collateral from a man who had died owing her rent. By the time Verbeck was able to travel to Philadelphia, the entire neighborhood had been razed and the body had disappeared. "John" turned up for the last time in the mid-1970's once again touring in a small carnival. The carnival went out of business in the late 1970's and the body has never been found.

According to the many reports coming from Granbury, Texas though, the mysterious man's spirit has found its way there and is content to spend eternity in the Granbury Opera House.