Friday, February 28, 2014

Lovelorn Light

Have you ever suffered the pain of being in love with someone who doesn't love you back? Those unfortunate souls know precisely what the term "holding a torch" means. For how long, though, does one continue to hold this torch? For some, like Ed Wilson, the answer is forever.

North entrance to Yellowstone near Mammoth Hot Springs
In 1885, Ed came to Yellowstone Park just 13 years after it was established. There were very few visitors to the park yet, especially during the bitterly cold, snow-bound winters. The U.S. Army guarded the park and there were few if any park amenities established other than the Army camps. Ed hired on as an Army scout. His duties were to guard against poachers and to provide the camps with fresh meat which he was authorized to hunt and kill. By all accounts, he was good at his job and took his duties very seriously. After catching and turning in several soldiers he had caught illegally hunting or shooting animals for sport, a few of the men didn't particularly care for him, but everyone respected him. He didn't make close friends with anyone as far as can be found. He had a reputation as being strange because he spoke of the mysterious and the unseen and, unlike the other scouts, he preferred to travel in the wilderness alone and at night. During the darkest and fiercest storms when everyone else would stay inside their shelter, Ed would always venture out to scout and never return until the storm had passed.

Mr. G. L. Henderson, a widower with 4 daughters and a son, was hired in 1891 as the Assistant Park Superintendent. He moved to the park with his children and established the Mammoth store and the post office within the park which his children managed. Ed met and fell in love at first sight with Mary Rosetta, Mr. Henderson's youngest daughter. In his own way, Ed tried to court Mary Rose to win her hand, but she didn't return his affections. She had no doubt heard the strange stories about Ed and being in his late 30's, he must have seemed ancient to the young and very beautiful Mary Rose. With her beauty and the lack of females in the park, Mary Rose had the pick of any young soldier and it soon became obvious to everyone that Ed had no chance.

On a warm day in July, Ed walked up the hill behind the Henderson's store and he didn't return. He had told nobody he was leaving and no one saw him go. Given his peculiar habits and his comings and goings while performing his duties, no one knew he was missing for several weeks. When it was determined he had not checked in and nobody had seen him for almost a month, his quarters were searched where his guns and other items he would have carried with him while out scouting were found. A group of soldiers was organized and a search was begun. After several weeks of intense searching and another month of looking with no results, the official search was called off due to the winter weather setting in.

The hill behind the store where Ed's remains were found and
where his light can still be seen.
A year had passed when one day several soldiers decided to enjoy the nice weather and a day off by hiking to the top of the hill behind the store. There they stumbled upon Ed Wilson's skeleton. Next to his remains still clutched in his bony fingers was an empty bottle of morphine. It was determined that Ed had committed suicide by poisoning himself.

Now, almost 125 years later, there's an unexplained faint light that many people have seen on the top of the hill behind the Mammoth Hot Springs Village store. Both employees and visitors have regularly reported seeing it, most of whom have never heard of Ed Wilson's story. Oh, it's not there every night, but sometimes when the clear night sky is especially dark and it seems there are a million twinkling stars shining, a door from Wilson's dimension opens into the dimension of the living. The light on the hill is where Ed sat and with a heavy, broken heart, decided it would be impossible to live without his beloved Mary Rose.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Fiddler

Henry Albright moved to rural Arkansas when he was just a baby. As the only child of a middle-age couple who farmed and raised a few cows, chickens and pigs, he was terribly lonely as there were no neighbors or relatives with small children nearby. He played by himself, mostly with sticks and stones which he used to build make-believe castles. What Henry most liked to do though was read. 

His father had been a city man with a decent job at one time, that is until he lost his job and most everything else in the stock market crash of 1929. Unable to find work anywhere, he had moved his wife and baby son to the small frame house on a few acres of farm land which had been left to him by his grandparents upon their death. They could at least eek out a living and raise their own food there.  He had brought with them a number of books from the library he had owned when times were better and it was these books which became Henry's friends. He taught himself to read by sounding out the letters, asking his mother for help when he was stumped. By the time he started school, he was far ahead of his classmates. As he learned to better comprehend what he was reading, he went back and re-read all his father's books again.

Henry proved to be a very bright, avid student and almost always made the highest grades in his class. Unfortunately, he remained mostly alone as the other kids never could figure out what to make of him. He rarely took part in the games the other kids liked to play at recess and mostly spent his time in school sitting alone away from the others, reading books his teacher would bring him. When school was not in session and he was not needed to tend the fields at home, Henry roamed the hills and forests and noted all the things that change with the changing of the seasons.

One Monday in the fall of Henry's senior year, due to a teacher's convention, school would not be in session. As the crops had been gathered, he was not needed at home so Friday afternoon Henry packed his pup tent, a lantern, beef jerky, and a small cooking pot and set out for a few days of camping in the woods. As he left home, the air was clear and crisp, the sun bright and warm.

It was late afternoon and a number of miles from his home when Henry came to a small clearing in the woods and decided to camp for the night. He was only a mile or so away from Jeb Gibson's shack where he could buy some eggs and milk for his breakfast in the morning. Everybody knew and loved "Old Jeb," a life-long bachelor who had lived in his little house "since God invented dirt." Darkness had set in by the time Henry had finished his meal of the ham sandwich he had packed from home. With only a small sliver of moon in the night sky, he lit his lantern and began to read a book on philosophy his teacher had recently loaned him.

As his eyes began to tire, Henry turned out his lantern and lay down to sleep. Just as he got comfortable though, from out of the woods behind him came the sounds of a violin, sad, haunting clear notes that seemed to tremble in the air. At first he thought he must be imagining it as there was no house for miles around except for Old Jeb and he didn't play the violin. Henry climbed out of his tent and looked around. There was no light anywhere, but the music seemed to get louder, more insistent, drawing him to seek out the source. Who in the world would be out here in the cold, dark woods wondering around playing the violin?

For some reason Henry could not explain, he was compelled to find the source of such haunting music. He had walked a short way into the woods when he found a deer path. He followed it on silent feet, around boulders, deeper and deeper into the forest. At times, the music seemed to be right in front of him, but then in the next instant, it seemed to be further down the trail. Finally, in the distance, Henry saw a dim, stationary light. It became larger as he slowly crept up on it, until he came to a slight rise in the trail. He could see clearly now that it was not a circle of light as he had thought, but a rectangle which seemed to be glowing through an open door. He strained to see the building itself, but he could not make out walls, windows or even a roof. Yet from somewhere near the light came the sounds of the violin. It seemed to surround him, coming coming down from the night sky, from the trees, from the very ground he now laid on.

All of a sudden, the music stopped. Henry could see two women step into the doorway, one older, stooped with gray hair, the other young and beautiful. They were oddly dressed even for these Ozark backwoods, in long, full calico skirts and tight bodices with lace inserts. The young one reached over and placed a protective arm around the older one's shoulders. Somewhere off to the side, Henry heard an unseen horse whiny loudly. Both women looked toward the woods with a look of confusion on their faces. It seemed they were looking straight at Henry.

As he was contemplating whether they could actually see him or not, a shot rang out! Then another and another! The night was filled with the wild shrieks of the horse and a single scream from one of the women. Suddenly, there came another loud report and a blinding flash of fire. As Henry looked on with wide open eyes, he heard another shot and the young woman fell to the ground. The old woman seemed to bend down to help the young one, but another shot rang out and the old woman was also felled. Both lay in stillness that only death can produce. And then, appearing as if from nowhere, a young man ran into the doorway, leaping over the bodies of the women only to come back out a few seconds later holding a rifle. He shot again and again into the woods and as Henry lay there in fear, he heard the sounds of snapping twigs and the rushing footsteps of someone trying to run away. After a few seconds, Henry raised his head just in time to see the male defender fall to the ground next to the bodies of the women.

Henry hurried back to his camp, his mind playing over and over what he had seen. He intended to find someone in the morning to report the awful crime. Tired from the hike and with the adrenaline slowly reduced, he finally drifted off into an uneasy sleep. As the sun rose over the horizon, Henry was startled when he opened his eyes to find Old Jeb standing over him. Old Jeb sat down a quart of milk and 6 eggs next to him, said, "I figured you could use these" and walked away back toward his cabin. 

After breakfast, Henry began to doubt himself, to doubt what he had seen. Perhaps it was all just a dream and wouldn't he look the fool to report such a story to the authorities if it wasn't true. He decided to go back to ensure it wasn't just a trick of a tired mind. Although it wasn't easy, he managed to find the almost hidden deer trail again and then followed his tracks. By early afternoon he had found the cabin from the night before. At least he found what remained of the cabin. It had been a low, long structure with one room and a lean-to kitchen. The ridge pole was broken and the roof had caved in long ago. The remains of the door, its old buckskin hinges shredded with age, leaned open against the wall. Henry carefully stepped inside and found the floorboards rotten with weeds growing through the cracks. The fireplace mantle was covered with moss. Desolation and decay were everywhere. It was obvious nobody had lived there for many years.

Henry left and made his way back to his camp. He arrived just before the sun went behind the trees. In confusion, Henry ate several pieces of jerk and drank a cup of water from his canteen. After dark, he listened for the music, the sweet, haunting notes of the violin, but none came before exhaustion overtook him with sleep. The next morning, Henry awoke to find Old Jeb sitting on a log on the other side of the fire pit. He had once again brought milk and eggs for Henry's breakfast and this time he had brought enough for himself as well. After eating, Old Jeb brought out two corn cob pipes and a small sack of tobacco. He handed one of the pipes to Henry and after both men had gotten a good fire glow going, he sat back down on the log, looked Henry straight in the eye and said, "You heer'ed the music did'n ya?" 

Henry didn't know what to say so he remained silent. "You been to tha cabin in tha woods too, ain't ya?" Henry nodded in reply. "Course you don't know tha story 'cause you ain't really hill folk. My kin've been here many a year. I'm the last of the old un's. I reckon since you see'd it, maybe you won't think I'm just a crazy ol coot so I'll tell ya the story." 

"A hundred years ago a boy child was born in that cabin. His name was Daniel, but he was a strange one and never seemed to fit in anywheres. He hated farm chores and everythin' bout these hills. His kin worried bout him, but didn't rightly know what to do. Daniel always wandered 'round like he was dreamin or somethin, all fidgety-like ya know? Like he was always lookin' for something. And he hardly ever talked to nobody. He was a strange one, that's fer sure. Then one day he spied his dad's fiddle hanging over the fireplace mantel. He stood on a chair, got it down, and started playing that thing like he was born to it all natural like. He played such haunting melodies that the animals in the forest went quiet. The whippoorwill stopped callin', the wood dove stopped cooin', and the crickets stopped chirpin'. It was real strange how that boy could play like that and nobody could understan' it. 

Then one day a outsider fella came to the woods. Said he'd heer'd 'bout Daniel's ability an he told him about colleges and places to study music and such. Places an' things folks in this holla didn't know nuthin 'bout. Daniel got all kinds of excited 'bout it and his pappy said he could go. But then the sickness came through and his pappy caught it and died. Daniel had to stay to tend to the farm and help his mama. Daniel did what he had to do, but his fiddlin' took a turn. It sounded all sad an mournful, like he was poring out all his sadness and disappointment into his music. It 'bout drove his mama crazy and she would go hide out in the woods when she couldn't take it no longer.

A while later, one mornin' Daniel went to the barn and found a newborn colt one of the horses had given birth to the night befor'. For some reason, Daniel took a shine to that colt. They formed a real bond those two did, like they was growing up together. That colt grew into a beautiful filly and Daniel loved it more than jus' about anything. And Daniel's music turned all happy again and it made his mama happy and the animals got quiet to listen to it again.

Daniel didn't give up his dream of freedom from the farm and being able to make a livin' playing his fiddle, but as time passed, he found another love, a girl named Hattie from the next holla over. It was like he knew from the start he was s'posed to marry her and I reckon she did too. He knew if they married he'd never leave this hill country, but he din't pay it no never mind. He figured after they married, he'd play love songs through the cold winter nights and when the babies come, he'd put them to sleep with lullaby songs. Folks said it was just like God had planned it all along.

"Cept another man already loved Hattie. A mean bear of a man who promised a day of reckonin' if'n Hattie turned him down. But Hattie was a real hill girl, Henry, and they have no fear of nuthin. She told him outright she wasn' goin to marry him and she thought no more of it, didn' even tell Daniel.

The weddin' day came in October and after they was hitched, they went to Daniel's mama's place to live until they got a place of their own. They spent the evenin' laughin' and singin'. While Daniel played the tunes, Hattie sang the words in her beautiful voice. Come dark and Daniel and his bride were gettin' anxious to head to bed and enjoy each other's private company when all of a sudden a terrific noise came and like to shook that cabin all ta pieces! And then Daniel heer'd a horrible sound. A loud cry from his beloved filly was what it was. He rushed outside and found her dying, lying on the ground in a pool of her own blood. She'd been so scared of all the noise that she tried to jump the fence and a wood stake had driven' right through her. 

Noises came from the woods and Daniel figured out quick what was happening. It was a mob of men like them gangs of Baldknobbers or bushwackers that used to ride through the countryside killin' and burnin'. Nobody knew who they were or where they'd strike next. Praise ta God there ain't no more of that nowadays!"

Henry knew the rest of the story as he had seen it all himself with his own eyes, but he sat there still and quiet as Old Jeb knocked the spent tobacco from his pipe, carefully loaded it up again and got it fired before continuing.

"Daniel was real skeered, a course, for his loved ones and he ran back toward the cabin. Jus' as he rounded the corner though, he heer'd a shot and a flash of fire. Then he saw Hattie drop to the ground. Before he reached the doorway, there was another shot and his mama dropped beside Hattie. Daniel kept running until he reached the door of the cabin. He jumped inside, grabbed a rifle and came out shootin'. They say he musta opened fire in all directions, just firin' again and again in all directions. 

The next day, my pappy who had heer'd all the shootin' and commotion, and two other men crept in to tha woods to investigate. They got to tha cabin and found Daniel laying dead by the door next to his women folk with his rifle by his side. Evidently, the loss of everythin' he loved was more than he could stomach and he used his last bullet on himself. Five more dead men were found in the woods 'round the cabin with Daniel's bullets in 'em. One of 'em was the fella that'd made the threats, the one Hattie had turned down.

That cabin's full of haints now. It don't happen ever night, but when there ain't much moon and the wind is jes right, I can heer'd that fiddle music all the way down ta my cabin and then I can heer the shootin' an I know them haints is a livin' it all over agin. I reckon they's doomed to it till they ain't no more of these hills."

Without another word, Old Jeb knocked the ashes from his pipe, gathered up his milk bottle and began slowly walking back to his cabin. Henry packed up his belongings and headed back home. He wanted to be far away from these woods before the sun went down and sad, sad music from a haunting violin could be heard again.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Old Book and the Graveyard Elm

Peoria State Mental Institute
The Peoria State Mental Institute For The Incurable Insane was in operation from 1902 until 1973. In its first 25 years, over 13,500 patients had been housed there. Many of them died there. Because there were so many deaths, burial detail teams were established. This was made up of 1 staff member and 6 strong male inmates who, although insane, were competent enough to dig the graves and assist with the burial.

One of the gravediggers was a large, but very gentle man known as A. Bookbinder. He had suffered a mental breakdown while working at a printing house which had left him unable to effectively communicate. The police officer who had taken him in wrote on his report that the man was "a bookbinder" and a court clerk had written "A. Bookbinder" as his name on the intake form. Being unable to communicate, that is how he remained named for the rest of his life. After a while, he had gained the respect of the staff and everyone began to just call him "Old Book" or simply "Book."

Book was soon assigned to the burial detail. The staff found he was especially suited to the work. Normally, after digging the grave and placing the coffin on 2 cross beams over the hole, the workers would stand back a respectful distance until the funeral ended. They would then lower the coffin into the grave and fill it in. Almost every person who died was virtually unknown to the staff or other patients and if they were buried on the property, it meant no family claimed them. The funeral was mostly held out of respect for the deceased who were usually buried with only a patient number on their headstone since most arrived at the hospital with no known name. For this reason, everyone was surprised when at the first funeral he worked, Book removed his cap and began weeping loudly for the departed. He did the same thing at every funeral he worked; first removing his cap then he walked over and leaned against an old elm tree at the center of the cemetery and begin to loudly weep. When he did this several times in a row, he was assigned to each and every funeral and without fail, he would cry his eyes out while leaning against the tree.

A few years later, having attended several hundred funerals, Old Book himself passed on. The staff decided it was only fitting to bury him under the spreading limbs of the old elm tree where he always cried at the funerals for others. The news of his death got out and since he was well liked and had done such an excellent job on burial details, over 100 of the nurses, 50 of the male staff, and 200 patients attended the service for Book. The head of the facility gave the eulogy. When the service was over, 4 men each took the end of the ropes under the casket and prepared to lift it off the 2 crossbeams to lower the casket into the grave. At a signal given by the staff leader of the burial detail, the 4 men gave a mighty heave on the rope ends to lift the heavy coffin a few inches into the air so the other two men in the detail could remove the crossbeams. However, they were instantly all laying on their backs as the coffin easily lifted up as if there was no body within it! 

Of course this caused a huge commotion. The nurses screamed, the male staff was stunned, a lot of the patients began crying or hitting themselves in the head or simply fell to the ground moaning as nobody had seen anything like this happen before. Suddenly, above all the commotion, the people heard a mournful voice keening in despair and loudly crying. They all looked over toward the trunk of the Graveyard Elm where the sound was coming from and over 300 people witnessed Old Book, standing as always against the tree, weeping and crying out with even more earnestness than ever before.

After some seconds to recover from total shock and now convinced that Old Book absolutely could not be inside it, the doctor who had given the eulogy ran over to the coffin and ordered the 4 rope handlers to remove the lid. As soon as it was lifted, the wailing and crying completely stopped. Inside the coffin, seen by more than 100 nurses, staff and the head of the facility, lay the body of the very dead Old Book. When everyone looked back at the tree, the apparition was gone.

Only a few days later, the large old elm which had stood for over 100 years, began to die. Specialists were brought in to save it, but all of their efforts were in vain and within a year, the tree had died. The director ordered it cut down and removed. Three separate teams of men tried to cut it down, but all returned from their task saying they couldn't do it because every time they began to saw, the tree would cry out as if a human were in great pain. The city's fire department was hired to burn it down, but after 2 tries, the firemen stated they had to put out the fire as soon as they lit it because it sounded like a human inside the tree was screaming in agony and a human figure could be seen in the flames. After this, the tree was left alone.

 Over the years, the limbs of the tree rotted and dropped one by one until there was little left except the trunk. Shortly after it was announced the hospital was to be closed, lightning hit the trunk and all but a stump exploded and burned away. 

The buildings are vacant and abandoned now, the grounds deserted. There are No Trespassing signs posted on the property, but that doesn't stop everyone. Those brave enough to be in the cemetery at night have reported hearing a sad wailing and crying which seems to come from the area of the Graveyard Elm stump. A hasty retreat is always the result. Evidently, Old Book is still crying for all the unnamed patients buried on the grounds of the asylum.