Monday, November 27, 2017

Peace Cemetery - Haunted Grounds

Outside of Joplin, Missouri is where you will find Peace Church Cemetery. One of the oldest graveyards in Jasper County, it dates back to 1855, ten years before the Civil War. There was a church next to the cemetery originally, but Peace Baptist Church burned to the ground long ago and now the dead and buried are all that remain.

For many years after the church burned, the cemetery was abandoned and forgotten. The old gravestones were covered in weeds that reached 6 feet tall. Briars and thick brush made it almost impossible to enter. Locals told of strange sounds and a feint, bobbing light late at night that could be seen through the trees. Along with the weeds and brush, the stories helped ensure everyone stayed away.

Eventually, the building of new homes and stores in the area have led the 2-lane road in front of the cemetery to become very busy. Most of the drivers passed right on by, intent on their daily lives and never knowing the intriguing stories of Peace Cemetery.

On July 5, 1861, the Civil War began in Missouri with the Battle of Carthage in Jasper County just a few miles from Peace Cemetery. Before the war ended, hundreds of men from the area were dead and most of the locals were forced to leave the county. A large number of men killed in area fighting were buried in the graveyard, sometimes multiple bodies were buried together with nothing but a small pile of rocks to mark the location. One of the most gruesome events happened on May 18, 1863 at the farm of a family named Rader, less than 300 yards down a dirt road from Peace Cemetery.

Major Thomas Livingston was commander of a Rebel guerrilla unit of about seventy men that ambushed a Union foraging party that was holding the Rader family at gunpoint and taking all the corn from the Rader Farm to feed soldiers at Fort Blair in Baxter Springs, Kansas. African American soldiers from Fort Blair, commanded by white soldiers of a Union artillery battery, were moving the corn from the barn to wagons when Livingston’s soldiers attacked from the woods as they came up from Peace Church Cemetery. The whole area was a field of bloodshed as Union soldiers scrambled desperately for their weapons, sought cover or tried to escape from the devastating surprise attack. Half of them would be gunned down. The Rebel troops, in desperate need of provisions themselves, stripped the bodies of clothing, shoes, weapons, and canteens. In their anger and battle frenzy, some of the dead bodies were mutilated.

A few Union men escaped and made their way back that night to the Baxter Springs outpost. The next morning, seeking retribution, hundreds of Union soldiers rode through the cemetery to the site of the ambush. Their commander, Colonel James Williams, was enraged to find some of the bodies of his ambushed troops mutilated. Because of the warm weather, the colonel decided it would be best to simply cremate the gory remains. The corpses were placed in a pile inside the Rader house, but before the flames were ignited, one of the Rebels who had apparently participated in the ambush the day before was captured and brought before the colonel. The colonel had him marched into the house, shot and thrown on the pile of mangled soldiers. The whole house was then set ablaze. Unfortunately, the Rebel prisoner had only been wounded and his screams of agony were heard until the roof of the burning house fell down.

Since then, there have been numerous reports in the area of moaning sounds, agonized screams, shadows that seem to move quickly from tree to tree and even ghostly apparitions appearing to be dressed in civil war uniforms. Perhaps the events at the Rader farm were so gruesome that the poor victims have been damned to never have peace, to forever wander the area in eternal suffering.

In late 1928 or early 1929, just outside Joplin near Peace Cemetery, William Cook was born. The last of 8 children born to an alcoholic father and an abused mother, Cook had a deformity in his right eye which caused it to be an odd shape and the lid would never close, even when he blinked or slept. His family and others soon gave him the nickname "Cockeyed," a name he hated, but was stuck with throughout his brief, troubled life.

At age 5, Cook's long suffering mother died and his dad moved all 8 children into a cave. A year later, his father deserted them, leaving the kids to make do as they could. The children were discovered by the authorities and moved into an orphan home. His brothers and sisters were all adopted, but Bill's eye, which caused him to look sinister, and a bad temperament prevented his adoption. Eventually he went to live with a foster mother, but she only wanted the money the state provided for his care and vacillated between abusing and ignoring him, often neglecting even to provide food for him. Two years in a row, he was given a bicycle for Christmas, which he proudly showed the caseworker who came by to check up on how he was being treated. Both times, the bike would soon be repossessed for lack of payment.

Before his 13th birthday, Bill began running around the streets at night, stealing various items. He was arrested and told the court he wanted to go to reform school rather than back to his foster mom. Six months later on the same day he was released, he robbed a cab driver of $11. He was found and arrested that night and spent the next 5 years back in reform school. He often got into fights with the other kids because they made fun of his droopy eye. He almost beat one kid to death and so was transferred to the Old Missouri State Prison. While there, he got into another fight when an inmate joked about his eye and Bill beat him so bad with a baseball bat the man spent a month in the hospital. 

Released in 1950 at age 22, Bill went back to Joplin and looked up his father. Being rejected by him again, he then traveled cross-country to California. He managed to stay out of trouble for a few months, working as a dishwasher, but it wasn't long before he acquired a .32 caliber handgun and began traveling around the country and into Mexico. His method of travel was to kidnap people and make them drive him from one place to another. For reasons he never really explained, some of the people he would kill, but others he let go without harm. 

In New Mexico, the auto he had stolen from one of his kidnapped victims ran out of gas. A car driven by Carl Mosser with his wife and three children stopped to help the stranded motorist. Bad mistake. Bill pulled his gun and made the family drive him all the way back to his old stomping grounds in Joplin. Along the way, he robbed stores and gas stations and shot anyone who tried to stop him. Once back in Joplin, Bill ordered the family out of the car and shot all five of them, finishing them off, even the children, with a shot to the head. He then threw the bodies down an abandoned mine shaft near the cave where his father had abandoned his children.

Bill took the Mosser's car and headed back toward California. The car broke down and he kidnapped a deputy sheriff who had stopped to help him. He left the unharmed policeman handcuffed in a ditch a few miles later. Changing cars in the next town, he shot and killed the new car's owner. He drove this car to California where he shot and killed several more men, taking their cars. He headed south, robbing along the way, until crossing into Mexico where the police chief in Santa Rosaria recognized him from a wanted poster. Casually walking up beside him, he suddenly pulled Bill's gun from the waist of his pants and arrested him without a fight. Sent back to California where he was tried for his crimes in that state, he was found guilty and executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber on December 12, 1952. 

The area outside the cemetery fence where "Cockeyed" Cook
is supposedly buried in an unmarked grave.
"Cockeyed" Cook's body was sent back to Joplin for burial, but once there, nobody claimed it and no cemetery would allow him to be buried in their consecrated grounds. An agreement was finally made with Peace Cemetery for him to be buried outside the graveyard's fence with no marker to indicate the location. The graveside service and burial was held in secrecy under the cover of darkness with the aid of flashlights and lasted less than 10 minutes. It is said that just as the last shovel of dirt was thrown over his grave, the cry of a small child was heard whereupon the preacher and grave diggers hurriedly left.

Today, through the supreme efforts of a few volunteers, Peace Cemetery is once again accessible. The underbrush has been cleared, the weeds are kept mowed and the old gravestones are visible. Along with the souls of the civil war damned, does  Cook’s lonely, pain-ridden ghost haunt Peace Church Cemetery? Stories of the supernatural still abound in the area. Visitors still report seeing strange lights and hearing disembodied voices at night. Some claim to have seen what looks like a man standing in the woods outside the cemetery fence watching them. Many believe the mysterious man is the ghost of Billy Cook trying to make it into the cemetery and finally find some peace. Who knows for sure? Only the ghosts themselves.

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. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Buried Alive

A universal fear of all humans, a fear that crosses distance and different languages, is the fear of being buried alive. In the early 1800s, Samuel Jocelyn lived in Wilmington, North Carolina. As the son of a well respected local lawyer, Sam enjoyed a great amount of respect himself. The young man was best friends with another young man named Alexander Hostler. The two men shared many interests and were always seen together.

During a discussion one day with a group of friends, the idea arose of returning from death and making your presence known. While the rest of the group laughed at the idea, Sam and Alexander both defended it. While discussing the matter later, a deal was struck between the two men that the first one to die would come back and make his presence known to the other. They would not have to wait long.

Sam loved horses and had a stable of fine steeds. He found great pleasure in taking to the wooded trails on one of his fine horses and forget any troubles. One afternoon as Sam was out for a ride, tragedy struck. No one knows what happened, but Sam was found unresponsive in the middle of a trail near his home, his horse a few yards away grazing.

He was taken back home where everything medical science had to offer was tried in an attempt to wake the boy from his coma, but it proved to be no use. Two days later, Sam Jocelyn was declared dead and was buried in St. James Church cemetery. The funeral was a massive event with hundreds of people from the area in attendance.

Alexander was beside himself after his friend's death. Many thought he might die of grief. As Alexander lay in bed two nights after Sam's burial, a ghostly vision suddenly appeared. It was his friend Sam. "How could you let me be buried when I am not yet dead?" the ghost asked Alexander. Horrified both by what he saw and the prospect of burying his dearest friend alive, Alexander stuttered "Not dead?". "No, I was not. Open the coffin and you will see that I am not in the same position you buried me in." And with that, the ghost of Sam Jocelyn faded away.

The next morning Alexander doubted that what he saw was real. Through the day as he thought about it, he decided it was nothing more than grief that had caused him to imagine the ghost. That night saw the ghost of Sam Jocelyn come back though and once again ask of his friend "How could you let me be buried when I am not yet dead?" This time the spirit's tone was more urgent, begging even.

Alexander then realized that what he saw was real, but afraid of people thinking him insane, he decided to say nothing. Not until the third night anyway when the ghost of Sam appeared again. This time the ghost pleaded with the living Alexander "How could you let me be buried when I am not yet dead?" Alexander decided right then to investigate the claims of the spirit as the ghost slowly vanished into nothingness.

The next morning, Alexander found his other friend, Louis Toomer, and told him everything. Toomer agreed to help Alexander only because he thought it might save what was left of Alexander's sanity. They went to Sam's family and sought permission to dig up his casket. Seeing how upset Alexander was, they agreed, but with the stipulation it be done in private. 

Late that night, Toomer and Alexander snuck into the St. James cemetery with shovels and began to remove the still fresh earth from the grave. Before long, their shovels met with the coffin. They opened the lid and lowered a lantern. There in the coffin was Sam, but as the ghost had said, he was not in the position they had placed him in. He was face down. Deep scratches were on the inside of the casket and the struggling, no doubt terrified young man had managed to loosen one side of the lid. Death had not come from the accident on the road, but suffocation from being buried alive.

Until the day he died just a year later, Alexander Hostler would sit in front of the grave of his friend all night muttering over and over "I'm sorry, I didn't know. I'm sorry, I didn't know".

Monday, May 8, 2017

Devil Horse Hoof Prints

The story of the Devil Horse Hoof Prints in Bath, North Carolina is much more than just a ghost story or tale of a haunted place. This is a warning about the evils of betting on the Sabbath, drinking to much and disrespecting your wife. Don't believe in ghosts, you say? This tale comes with proof.

Jesse Elliot was a free-spirited, hard living, hard drinking, profane man who loved to race horses. He was also an obnoxious drunk who, being a large man, was intimidating as well. It was known far and wide that he was willing to take on any challenger at any time and any place as he was positive he owned the fastest horse in the county. 

On a quiet Sunday morning in the early fall of 1813, a black-clad rider no one had ever seen rode up on a coal black stallion and challenged Jesse to a race that day. He confidently bet $100 that his horse would beat Jess's. Accepting the bet and agreeing to meet at the local racetrack in one hour, Jesse left to get his horse.

When Jess arrived home, his wife warned him of betting on the Sabbath, but rather than ignore her, he gave her a hard slap across the face and began preparing his horse. Before riding away, he downed two shots of whiskey. As he rode off to the race, he cursed his wife who then yelled at him "Jesse Elliot, I hope you go to Hell this very day!"

Jesse arrived at the track where a few of his obnoxious friends and the dark stranger was waiting. The man was calm, perhaps a little too calm for someone who was about to lose a large amount of money. Jesse was bothered by the man's demeanor, but he shook it off as the two riders agreed on the terms of the race.

The race began with a pistol shot and both riders shot out from the starting line. Jesse soon took the lead as the stranger began falling behind. With his self-confidence brimming, he uttered his last words. "Take me in a winner or take me to Hell". At that moment, as he went around a curve in the track, His horse twisted his head, reared up and dug it's hooves into the ground. The violent move sent Jesse flying from the saddle head first into a pine tree, instantly killing him. The mysterious dark rider rode past the dead man and disappeared over a rise with Jesse's horse following. No trace of them was ever seen again.

Some folks say it was the Devil who was atop the other horse and Jesse Elliott went to hell at that very moment, taken there by the stranger on the black stallion. For almost a year, hair from Jesse's head remained buried in the tree. Within a few days, the tree turned brown and decayed on the side where Jesse's head had hit. The hoof prints the horse left in the loamy soil are still visible over 200 years later. 

News of the incident spread and the local citizens took it as a warning from on high. Sabbath-breaking in the region diminished significantly. The preacher in the little country church declared the hoof prints were left by "a man on his way to hell." 

There are certain qualities to the depressions which have baffled experts and mystified people for generations. The holes are  not sheltered, but they remain free of grass, leaves, pine needles, or debris of any kind. If they are filled with dirt or anything else they are soon found to be empty. 

For many years, an old decayed stump of what was once a large pine tree was visible near the depressions, the rotting remains of the tree which took Jesse Elliott's life.

Historical photo from 1950's
In the 1950's, a newsreel crew came to investigate and get pictures of the strange indention's in the ground. Old-timers in the area told them that chickens would eat corn from all around the holes, but they would not touch kernels that were actually in the depressions. Curious, the crew filmed an experiment with a flock of chickens and corn. The result was as the locals stated. The birds ate all the corn from around the holes, but even after the surrounding ground had been picked clean, the kernels within the indention's were ignored. 

One of the reports the crew heard was from a 93-year-old man who had lived in the area his whole life. He told them about how he and his brothers would fill the pits with different items on their way to school, only to always find them empty on their way home. The crew decided to construct another experiment. They collected dirt, leaves, and small stones and proceeded to fill the depressions. They then laid multiple strings of black thread over the mounds. They watched and filmed for a few hours, but when nothing had happened and the late night hour made filming impractical, they retired for the night. A few hours later at daybreak, they returned to find the holes were clean of all the debris, yet the nets of string lay undisturbed. 

 Is there some strange natural explanation for the so-called hoof prints to remain visible for so many years? Why do they remain empty? Why do animals not eat food laying in them? 

Perhaps there is no natural explanation because the story handed down from generation to generation is true - the marks actually were left by a horse whose rider was on his way straight to hell.

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.