As a woman born and raised in the South, I’ll be the first to tell you that the spirits of our loved ones are never far away. Whether they visit in the night, the way my husband’s dead relatives tend to do, or whether they leave a symbol of their presence, such as a penny from Heaven, we always know they are with us.
Last year saw the passing of my father. He was my rock and meant everything to me. I was lost without him. The heartache from losing my father, along with my son leaving for boot camp was almost more than I could handle. My days were long, and my nights were even longer.
My son’s graduation was December 19th, our big extended-family Christmas party was December 20th and my 50th birthday, despite my best efforts to ignore it, was fast approaching. I hoped our busy schedule would soften the sharp edges of what was ahead of me – my first Christmas without my father. The sadness was unbearable
It was then that my niece Ashley, who had also lost her father, told me about her pennies from Heaven. She told me that she believes that the random pennies she finds, sometimes in the oddest and most unlikely of places, are her father’s way of letting her know that he is still with her. This brings comfort to her, and also to her children. They love thinking about their Pawpaw every time they find a penny.
My father worked for the Coca Cola Company and for years drove a big 18-wheel Coke truck. Every time I see one of those big trucks on the highway I think about him and wonder if it’s his way of giving me a sign that he is with me.
Then one night during my evening prayers I asked my father if he could send me a penny the way Ashley’s father sends them to her. But as the weeks passed and no penny showed up my hope began to wane. Maybe my father’s way of speaking to me would just have to remain with the big Coke trucks and not with pennies.
Then it happened. I came downstairs on Father’s Day with a heavy feeling in my heart knowing that it was going to be a very long day. There on my kitchen floor was a bright, shiny 2015 penny. I knew then that my dad was showing me that he is still with me. It was exactly what I needed. There on the floor was my penny from Heaven.
So when you find your penny from Heaven remember that heads up or tails up doesn’t matter because it’s not about luck. When you find your penny remember that it’s about love, the love you have for that special person whose memory you hold close in your heart. Let your penny serve as a reminder that the spirits of our loved ones are never far away, and that oftentimes they will make their presence known just when we need them the most.
In April of 1862, Union and Confederate armies met in southwestern Tennessee near the town of Shiloh. It would be the bloodiest and most costly battle of the Civil War up to that date, and it would produce a ghostly legend that came to be known as the “Angel’s Glow of Shiloh”.
Almost 25,000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate, gave their lives during the two day Battle of Shiloh. The Union emerged victorious but suffered a higher death toll than the Confederates they opposed. When the battle was over, General Grant had a foothold in Tennessee, the western flank of the Confederacy.
As the wounded and dying men lay on the Shiloh battlefield, a strange thing started to happen. When night fell their wounds began to glow in the dark. No one at the time, including the medics, had any idea why a soldier’s wounds would glow in the dark. Medicine at the time was anything but modern and the medics, unable to come up with any sort of explanation, dubbing the condition the “Angel’s Glow”.
And to make matters even more mysterious, many of the wounded soldiers that had the glowing wounds began to heal and improve at a faster rate than those that didn’t have glowing wounds. This baffled the already bewildered battlefield medics. Since the wounds glowed in the dark, which was strange enough at the time, and many of the soldiers with glowing wounds enjoyed a higher survival rate, the medics had no other explanation than to assume that a higher power was involved, hence the nickname “Angel’s Glow”.
The legend of the Angel’s Glow survived for almost a hundred and fifty years until two high school students participating in a science fair found out what had caused the soldiers’ wounds to glow in the dark. It turns out that the two students discovered that a bioluminescent bacteria known as Photorhabdus Luminescens had most likely taken up residence in the wounds of the Shiloh soldiers. These bacteria glow a soft blue color when alive.
The trouble with the theory however, is that it is well established that Photorhabdus Luminescens cannot survive at the temperature of the human body. So how could it be possible to attribute the glowing wounds to the bacteria if the normal body temperature of the soldiers would have killed it off?
It turns out that since the Battle of Shiloh was so intense and resulted in so many casualties in such a short two-day period, that many of the soldiers on both sides ended up lying on the battlefield for days with little or no help from the medics, who were overwhelmed to say the least. Since the Battle of Shiloh occurred in April, it was still very cool weather in that part of Tennessee. As a result, many of the wounded soldiers went into a state of hypothermia, which lowered their body temperatures enough to allow the Photorhabdus Luminescens bacteria to survive in their wounds.
Once the living bacteria took up residence in the wounds, they began to eat the other more harmful bacteria, such as the type that causes gangrene. That’s a good thing since the cure for a gangrene infected limb in those days involved a saw. Once a soldier’s condition started to improve, their body temperature would return to normal and kill off the Photorhabdus Luminescens bacteria.
While modern science has explained the Angel’s Glow of Shiloh, it pays to remember that in the minds of the soldiers saved by it on the Shiloh battlefield, it was nothing short of the handiwork of the angels above them.
Located on Magazine Street in one of the oldest parts of Charleston, lies the Old Charleston Jail. Built in 1802 and operated until 1939, the jail hosted its share of notorious criminals over the years, not to mention a slew of Civil War prisoners and those caught up in the slave revolts of the time. Given this distinguished guest list it is not hard to believe that the Old Charleston Jail is haunted. Just ask anyone who has visited the place.
In its heyday the Old Charleston Jail was not only used to house violent criminals, it was also used as a place to execute them. Out in the jail’s backyard visitors can see the remnants of the old gallows, including the small shed that was used to hide the iron weight that served to break the neck of the condemned man unlucky enough to find himself on the wrong end of the rope. Instead of falling through a trap door like with most gallows of the day, the condemned man stood on the ground with the noose around his neck. A trap door underneath the iron weight was then triggered and the falling weight did the dirty work. Great skill on the part of the executioner had to be employed when choosing the amount of slack played out in the rope. It had to be based on the weight of the person being hanged. Too much slack and the iron weight would yank the head clean off of the condemned man, which tended to horrify the onlookers. Too little slack and the weight would not do its job in a humane way, resulting in the condemned man suffocating while he danced on the end of the rope. Again, this tended to horrify the onlookers.
One of the most notorious criminals housed at the Old Charleston Jail was a woman by the name of Lavinia Fischer, who is believed by many to be the first female serial killer in the United States. At least the first one ever caught, anyway. She and her husband were both convicted of highway robbery, which at the time was a capital offense, and hanged in 1820. The legends differ as to whether or not Lavinia Fischer ever actually killed anyone. But nonetheless, her ghost is said to still wander the halls of the Old Charleston Jail.
One year while on vacation, my family and I visited the Old Charleston Jail on one of the ghost tours operated in the area. As with any ghost tour there were strange sounds and other creepy occurrences that we all took with a grain of salt. The tour guide’s job was to entertain us and he succeeded greatly at it, scaring my kids out of their wits even though we all knew that any real ghosts would not be so punctual as to conveniently show up during a ghost tour. But as I walked through the darkened hallways of that old jail, I asked myself what it would be like to be alone in those rooms in the dead of night, with no one else around. No tour guide, no fellow tour takers, no one.
Something told me that if I had found myself in that kind of situation, with no one else around, that I might have found out the hard way that no one is ever alone when they are inside the Old Charleston Jail.
When my wife was in high school she was convinced that she lived in a haunted house. Her mother felt the same way. Small objects in the house would vanish without a trace, never to be seen again, and the only explanation they could come up with was that their house had to be haunted.
Since there were only three people living in the house at the time – my wife and her two parents, they were convinced that a thieving “haint” had taken up residence in their house. Being from the South, they all knew that ghosts were real and that it was perfectly reasonable to assume that the ghost of a dead relative had decided to pay them an extended visit. And maybe, just maybe they reasoned, that ghost had sticky fingers. As a result of this my wife and her mother dubbed the ghost “the thieving haint of Belshire Lane”, after the name of the street they lived on at the time.
The problem was that every time my wife’s mother would buy fingernail polish, the bottle would vanish within a day or two. She would often sit in her chair in the living room and paint her nails while the whole family watched TV and when she was done she would leave the bottle of fingernail polish on the coffee table. The next day the bottle would be gone, never to be seen again.
At first my future mother-in-law accused her daughter, the girl who at the time had no idea that she was destined to be the love of my life, of stealing the bottles of fingernail polish. My wife always denied stealing the fingernail polish and would often show her unpainted fingernails as proof that she was not the thief. This went on for several years. My future father-in-law could only look on in amazement as his wife and daughter fought over the missing bottles of fingernail polish. Oftentimes he would try to lighten the mood by showing them his unpainted fingernails as proof that he was also not the thief.
Finally my mother-in-law gave up and resigned herself to the fact that she would at best get only one use from a new bottle of fingernail polish. No matter where she left the little bottle – the coffee table in the family room or the nightstand in her bedroom, the bottle always vanished within a day or two of her using it.
The mystery of the thieving haint of Belshire Lane was finally solved one evening during my wife’s senior year of high school while the family was watching TV together. A brand-new bottle of fingernail polish was sitting on the coffee table when Jellybean, the family dog, walked into the room. The family then watched in amazement as “the Bean”, as they called her, got up on her hind legs at the edge of the coffee table and took the fingernail polish bottle into her mouth. Then the Bean strutted across the living room to the couch and dropped the bottle of fingernail polish on the floor. She then laid down on her side and took her paw and pushed the bottle of fingernail polish underneath the edge of the couch.
The family could only look at each other in amazement. My wife’s father then got up, walked over and lifted up one side of the couch. Hidden underneath was a large collection of fingernail polish bottles. Dozens of them.
The thieving haint of Belshire Lane turned out to be a Kleptomaniac Lhasa Apso with very sticky paws. After that night my mother-in-law always placed her new fingernail polish out of the reach of the Bean and as a result the bottles stopped vanishing. But anytime something else vanished, like the car keys, a makeup compact or the latest copy of Reader’s Digest, everyone knew that the thieving haint of Belshire Lane was back, and that the first place to look for the missing item was underneath the couch.
Most people have heard the story, in one form or another, of the legendary Delta Blues guitar player who went by the name of Robert Johnson. Legend has it that on a dark October night sometime in the late 1920’s, Johnson traveled to the intersection of Highway 8 and Highway 1 in Rosedale, Mississippi and struck a deal with the Devil himself.
According to the legend, when Johnson arrived at the crossroads the Devil was sitting on a log by the side of the road. The Devil was accompanied by a hairless dog, described in local folklore of the time as a “Hellhound”. As Johnson approached, the dog began to make a sound unlike anything he had ever heard before. The Devil, being the shrewd businessman that he was, recognized the look in Johnson’s eyes when he heard the wailing sounds of the dog.
“The dog is mine, but that sound he makes is called the blues and it has a price if you are willing to make a deal,” replied the Devil as Johnson listened to the sorrowful sounds of the dog howling as its eyes glowed yellow in the moonlight.
The Devil then took Johnson’s guitar, tuned it and handed it back to him. Then the Devil explained the terms of the deal. In exchange for his soul, Johnson was given the ability to play the guitar beyond the ability of any of his fellow bluesmen that roamed the Mississippi Delta playing on street corners and in the Juke Joints of the day.
Robert Johnson died at the age of 27 near the town of Greenwood, Mississippi after drinking whiskey laced with poison given to him by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had been friendly with. It is said he died on his hands and knees barking like a dog. His half-sister came for his body several days later and took his guitar and other possessions with her after she took care of having Johnson buried. There are currently three grave markers in different locations that bear his name. Even his exact burial place is unknown.
Little else is known of Johnson’s short life. He left only a handful of recorded songs and his guitar has never been found. But his guitar skills are undisputed. Decades later, when Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards first heard one of Johnson’s recordings, he asked who the guitar player was playing along with Johnson on the record. Johnson’s picking was so complex that it sounded as if two guitars were being played together. To this day, no one has been able to match Johnson’s style and the tunings he used on his guitar are still undecipherable.
There is no shortage nowadays of guitars owned by famous guitar players. And very few of them have any sort of mystery tied to them. The whereabouts of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitars, as well as those of Jimi Hendrix are all well known. Even Buddy Holly’s famous Stratocaster is owned in a private collection. No mystery there. Walk into any Hardrock Café and you will see more than a few famous guitars on display.
But the most famous guitar of all time, the guitar played by a man who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his extraordinary playing skills is still shrouded in mystery almost 80 years after Johnson’s death.
Perhaps it is best that Johnson’s guitar remain lost forever. Who knows what kind of sound would come out of it were it were ever played again. And what would happen to the person bold enough to strum a chord across its strings?
Some things are best left alone. Maybe Johnson’s guitar vanished for a reason. Maybe it is not meant to be played by anyone other than the signatories of that infamous deal, namely Johnson and the Devil.
In one of Johnson’s songs, he sings of a Hellhound on his trail. His sad voice and intricate guitar playing match the soulful wails of the Hellhound present when he made his deal on that moonlit night at the crossroads.
If Robert Johnson’s guitar is ever found the person who finds it should proceed with caution. The sound from that guitar may very well conjure the Devil himself.
Back in the late nineteen eighties I had to good fortune to make my living as an elevator mechanic. The company I worked for had service contracts with dozens of old textile mills all across the Carolinas and some of those mills were almost a hundred years old. My fellow mechanics and I worked hard to keep the old freight elevators in those mills working as best we could, and oftentimes this meant driving to some remote small town in the middle of the night to troubleshoot and repair a downed elevator.
Late one night I was called to an old textile mill known at the time as Rock Hill Printing and Finishing. It was a huge textile mill in the town of Rock Hill, South Carolina that at one time had probably colored and printed enough fabric to clothe half of America. But by the late nineteen eighties it was on its last leg. Huge portions of the mill were sitting idle and as I walked along carrying my tool bag through a portion of the mill that was no longer in use I couldn’t help but feel that I had been transported back in time to a bygone era. That part of the mill was dark and musty and I swear I could feel the wandering souls of the former workers moving in the shadows around the abandoned machinery.
The elevator I had been called to work on was an old freight elevator that was over fifty years old. Once I fixed the problem, which turned out to be a broken door interlock on the 3rd floor, I decided to go to the basement so that I could check the elevator’s machine room. I wanted to make sure everything was okay so that I wouldn’t have to come back again later that night.
I didn’t think anything about going down into the basement as far as ghosts were concerned. My old man had always told me not worry about the dead, and that it was the living that I needed to watch out for. I thought about this as I rode the elevator to the basement.
The basement of an old textile mill in the middle of the night it not a place for the fainthearted, but it didn’t really bother me. I had seen countless machine rooms in dark basements and it was just something that came with the job. When I stepped off the elevator into the basement I closed the safety gate and doors so that the elevator would be able to respond if it was called from one of the floors above me.
Once in the machine room I opened the elevator controller, which for this particular elevator was an ancient contraption full of chattering relays and lots of wires. I knew better that to dust off any of the relays, touch any of the old components or otherwise disturb anything in the controller unless I absolutely had to. Old freight elevator controllers are temperamental animals that prefer to be left alone. I wanted to hear the pump run so I took the pencil out of my shirt pocket and used the back of it to push in the 1st floor call relay. The pump roared to life and promptly sent the elevator on its way.
The machine room fell silent as soon as the elevator reached the 1st floor. Out of the corner of my eye through the open door of the machine room I could see the heavy steel doors of the elevator. Unlike passenger elevators doors, freight elevator doors open up and down, not side to side. I could see the call button on the wall to the right of the closed doors.
Just as I was about to look back at the controller the hallway call button lit up. This was followed by a loud click as a relay on the control board energized to open the valves. I listened to the hissing noise as the oil began to drain into the tank as the elevator slowly descended to the basement.
Something had called the elevator to the basement. I looked at the energized basement call relay and knew that I hadn’t touched it with my pencil.
I walked out of the machine room and over to the steel doors. I could see the elevator car through the small window on the upper door. It was empty. I walked back into the machine room and used my pencil to push in the 3rd floor relay. Once again the pump roared to life and the elevator took off to the 3rd floor. Once it was there the machine room again fell silent.
To my surprise, the call button on the wall lit up again and the elevator returned to the basement. I stood there dumbfounded. As I had done before I used my pencil to push in another relay, this time sending the elevator to the 2nd floor. But the elevator didn’t stay at the 2nd floor for even a minute before the basement call relay clicked shut right before my eyes. I looked out of the machine room door to see the hallway call station button glowing brightly in the dim light of the basement.
I spent the next two hours trying to figure out why the elevator kept coming back to the basement. I unfolded the old wiring diagram and checked every circuit possible before finally giving up. The elevator was working fine but for some unknown reason it wanted to stay in the basement. It was late and I was tired and wanted to go home. I had no idea why the elevator was behaving like it was and I made sure I told this to the lady in the tool room on the first floor that had the job of signing my service ticket.
“I could have saved you some time, young feller,” the old woman said as she signed my ticket. “That’s just Old Harold playing around. He does that from time to time.”
“Who?” I said. It was two in the morning and I wasn’t much in the mood for a mill story but I knew I had to hear this one. I knew I had been alone in the basement. No one had been down there with me.
“Who is Harold?” I asked again.
The woman gave me an understanding look. “Bless your heart,” she finally said. Then she decided to tell me the story.
“Old Harold had a heart attack and died down there in the basement way back in the late forties. He was trying to work on that old elevator and didn’t know what he was doing, or so the story goes. So every now and then he likes to call the elevator to the basement. But we don’t pay him any mind. We just let Old Harold have his fun. He’s not hurting anyone.”
I looked at the old woman and tried to figure out if she was serious. It seemed to me that she believed what she was telling me.
The next day I mentioned the elevator to my coworkers. All of them knew about Old Harold and how he loved to call the elevator to the basement anytime someone was down there working. Every last one of them had seen the basement hall button light up, pushed by Harold’s unseen finger.
Three months later I was called back to that mill to work on the same elevator. Just as he had done before, Old Harold’s ghost returned and called the elevator to the basement over and over while I was down there working. When I was finished, I collected up my tools and returned them to my tool bag. As I walked towards the closed elevator doors I smiled when the call button lit up just as I was about to reach for it. Then I smiled to myself.
When it comes to haunted places in the Deep South, two cities often come to mind. They are Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. If you’ve ever been to either of these two cities you’ll understand why. They just look haunted, to be honest. And considering their history, how could they not be? Given the bloodshed of the Civil War as well as the horrible Slave Trade, it is easy to understand why these two cities carry a reputation for harboring the souls of the dead.
But there is another haunted place in the Deep South, one that is brimming with wandering souls and restless “haints”. It is known as Andersonville.
If ghosts are your thing look no further than the 26 acres nestled deep in the heart of the Georgia countryside near Sumter County. There you will find the former location of the Civil War prison camp known as Andersonville. The actual prison camp is gone now, but most of the ghosts of its Union prisoners remain, and they can often be seen wandering in the area.
Living conditions were so bad at Andersonville, also known as Camp Sumter, that over 13,000 Union prisoners of war died there from 1861 to 1864. There were no buildings at Andersonville, only crude tents that provided little protection from the weather. A swamp ran through the middle of the prison and this contributed greatly to the squalid living conditions in the camp. Scurvy, diarrhea and dysentery were rampant among the prisoners. There were no latrines or clean drinking water, and little food was supplied to the camp.
And if the horrible living conditions weren’t enough, prisoners also had to fear “the dead line”. Any prisoner that crossed the dead line, an imaginary line that marked a boundary between the tents and the stockade wall, was shot immediately by the sentries in the guard towers.
Conditions were so inhumane that the Confederate officer that commanded Andersonville, a Swiss-born man named Henry Wirz, was hanged for war crimes after the war ended. In what some would say was a fitting end, the hanging did not break Wirz’ neck and thus spectators were treated to the image of his body dancing on the end of the rope until he finally suffocated. The ghost of Captain Henry Wirz can often be seen walking along the roads that lead to Andersonville.
People who visit the location of the Andersonville Prison, now preserved as a national historic site, routinely report seeing Union soldiers walking in the woods and fields around the site. When the sun goes down or the weather darkens, cries of agony can often be heard wafting across the grassy fields and through the rows of tombstones that mark the final resting places of the thousands of former prisoners buried on the site.
It is a well-known fact that both sides treated their prisoners horribly during the Civil War. We as a nation can only hope that such grim times never visit us again. The wandering souls of Andersonville should serve as a reminder of how dark the human spirit can become when calmer heads do not prevail.
Legend has it that Lieutenant George Dixon of the 21st Alabama Infantry Regiment was quite a lucky man. Shot at the battle of Shiloh, the ball from a Union soldier’s musket hit that him in the thigh should have taken his life, or at the very least his entire leg. Serious arm and leg wounds during the Civil War were often treated by amputating the affected limb, the practice of which required nothing more than an ether-soaked rag over the nose and a surgeon’s saw.
But Lt. Dixon’s wound would require none of this because when the musket ball struck him in the leg it was deflected by a $20 Double Eagle gold piece that he kept in his pocket as a lucky charm. The story has been passed down through the years that the gold piece was given to him by his true love as a token of her affection.
Whether or not this is true is beside the point. The coin was where it needed to be when fate struck regardless of who gave it to him. Instead of dying on the battlefield at Shiloh, the lucky lieutenant walked away with both legs and nothing more than a permanent limp. A greater fate awaited him.
Because of his keepsake coin, Lt. Dixon was allowed to live on and find his true place in history. It would not be at Shiloh. Lt. Dixon would find his real place in history, the one that fate had planned for him, on the night of February 17, 1864 in the dark waters just outside of the harbor of Charleston, SC.
On that night Lt. Dixon commanded the CSS Hunley, the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship in battle. Dixon and the other seven men of his crew slipped beneath the surface of the water in the hand-cranked, cigar-shaped Hunley and proceeded to navigate towards the looming hulk of the USS Housatonic, a Union warship engaged in blockade duty just offshore of the port of Charleston.
When the long spar on the front of the Hunley struck the Housatonic, Dixon ordered his men to reverse their cranking in order to deposit the TNT charge in the hull of the Union warship. The idea was to deposit the charge and then back away from the Housatonic so that the charge could then be detonated by a pullcord. But Murphy’s Law took over and the resulting explosion not only sank the Housatonic in less than five minutes, it also sent Dixon and his entire crew to the bottom of the harbor shortly thereafter. On that dark night, the Hunley became their tomb. The submarine would not surface again until it was located and raised in August of 2000.
Speculation about the identities of the crew, and most notably the commander of the Hunley ended when one of the researchers found a $20 gold piece inside the hull of the Hunley near the remains of one of the crewmembers. Not only was the coin bent like it had been struck hard with something, it bore the initials G.E.D and the inscription My Life Preserver. Sadly, the coin that saved George Dixon’s life at Shiloh and allowed him to find his true place in history was not able to save him from his watery grave.
Ghost stories about the Hunley and its crew abound in the Charleston area. When the remains of the crew were finally buried in the Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, next to the two previous Hunley crews that had lost their lives during the Hunley’s sea trials, thousands of people turned out for the event. The people engaged in the burial ceremony wore period-correct Confederate uniforms and civilian attire in order to pay respect to the fallen crew of the Hunley.
Spectators reported seeing Civil War soldiers walking among the crowd but when they later examined the photographs they took of the ceremony these soldiers could not be seen in the photos. One woman reported snapping a picture of a Confederate soldier adjusting the canteen strap of one of the reenactors standing in formation near the gravesite but when she later examined the photo the soldier was not there, leading her to believe that the soldier she saw adjusting the canteen strap had been a ghost.
The crew of the Hunley had been instructed to surface and light a signal lamp upon successfully sinking the Housatonic. Witnesses on shore reported seeing a light shortly after the Housatonic sank, but the Hunley never returned.
But ask any Charlestonian and they will tell you that if you go to the water’s edge on the night of February 17, you might just see a light in the distance, hovering just above the surface of the water. Some say the ghost ship and its crew, the first submarine crew in history to sink an enemy ship, remain on patrol signaling in vain to a shore party that has long since vanished.
The Deep South has a rich and colorful history, as well as a dark and tortured one. People born and raised in Dixie, as the South is often called, know better than anyone that southern land is haunted by restless souls that wander through the night. Some of these souls are benevolent and do no harm other than to scare people out of their wits. As for the rest of the wandering souls in the South, be warned, they are not to be messed with. One such ghost that comes to mind is the ghost of the South’s most infamous prostitute, a woman who went by the name of Molly Hatchet. Men that crossed paths with her were known to lose their heads in the process.
The legend of Molly Hatchet dates back to the Civil War. In 1864 a Confederate soldier went missing from his unit just outside of Cold Harbor, Va. He was later found in a local boardinghouse, his body on the bed and his head on the floor. Witnesses said they had seen him in the company of a beautiful young woman just hours before his headless body was found.
In 1879 in the small harbor town of Beaufort, SC, sailors from the ships that visited the port were told stories about a mysterious woman outside of town whose business was to deal in the pleasures of the flesh. They were all warned by their captains to stay away from her. Many of them did, but on one fateful night a sailor from a visiting steamship, lonely from months at sea and in dire need of a woman, decided to pay Molly a visit. The next morning his headless body was found lying in an alley behind the local saloon. His head was never found.
Three years after the 1879 beheading, Molly was seen again setting up shop near Boone, a small town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Mountain men at the time were known to be lonely and Molly cashed in on this loneliness by collecting their heads. Five headless bodies were found before Molly disappeared from town in 1881.
Many Southerners that lived during the time of Molly Hatchet believed that she was a ghost, a demon of sorts, sent to punish the men of the South for their participation in the Civil War. Others felt that she was sent to punish men in general for the wickedness that existed in society during the Reconstruction years. No one knows for sure. But no woman ever lost her head at the hands of Molly Hatchet. Only men bore the brunt of her rage.
It was said that Molly Hatchet possessed such striking beauty, as well as a body no man could resist, that she had no trouble luring men into her parlor despite the rumors that circulated about her. And no one knows if Molly Hatchet actually let her clients enjoy her body before beheading them. The only people that know the answer to that question are her victims, and like the pirates used to say, dead men tell no tales.
Legend has it that the ghost of Molly Hatchet can be summoned even today. Her ghost is said to fancy dark and lonely stretches of railroad tracks throughout the South. If a man is so inclined, he need only walk the tracks in the dead of night and call out her name.
He won’t be the first man to lose his head over a woman.
The house was located on Cemetery Road. It’s gone now, but I will never forget the night we visited the house for the funeral of a close relative. Forty years later I can still remember that night.
I was born and raised in the city, but I have the good fortune to come from a long line of people that were born and raised in the mountains of North Carolina. They were good, hard-working country folk that knew how to fend for themselves. And they knew how to raise their own food. When they had chicken for dinner, chances are that chicken had been walking around in their barnyard the day before.
When I was growing up we traveled back to those mountains often, and I remember them as being cold, dark and spooky. And I remember going to the funerals… They were never at the funeral home.
In the mountains of North Carolina when a loved one dies they are brought home to their house. And the family then sits up with the corpse all night long chewing the fat about how the person lived and how they died. Mountain people know how to take care of their dead.
My great-grandmother often told horror stories about sitting up all night with a dead body in the “front room” of a house. Sometimes she would talk about seeing the body twitch and move in the open coffin due to the decomposition gases building up inside the corpse, which may or may not have been embalmed. If something like that happened nowadays people would clear the room like the house was on fire. But back when my great-grandmother was a little girl it was a normal thing to see.
When I was about eight years old a cousin of mine drove his car off the road and into a tree. He was only sixteen years old at the time. The crash was pretty bad but they managed to get him out of the twisted wreckage and into a coffin all in one piece. I remember my grandmother announcing that we were driving up to Ronda, which is a tiny hamlet outside of North Wilkesboro, to attend his funeral. She didn’t need to say that we weren’t going to a funeral home. We all knew we were going to Aunt Mary’s house to see the body. When she told us how my cousin had died I can remember hoping that the coffin would be closed when we got there.
Aunt Mary’s house was old and had a large barn and barnyard next to it. And to make matters worse, it really was located on Cemetery Road. As if things couldn’t get any creepier.
We arrived late that evening. It was already dark, which didn’t help the mood in the house. Aunt Mary had made a large pot of homemade vegetable soup, my favorite, and the smell of that soup had filled the house. All I wanted to do was have a big bowl of that soup and then go home. But I knew there was business to take care of before we could all sit down and eat. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the open coffin in the front room. A small lamp had been placed nearby to provide illumination. It was the only light in the room.
My grandmother led me into the front room where the family had gathered. She was a tough old bird that had beheaded her fair share of chickens for Sunday dinner. She didn’t seem to care that I was only eight years old and probably not ready to see a corpse with a face sewn together with mortuary thread. I remember her saying, “Josh, dyin’ is just part of livin’,” as we walked towards the coffin. She loved to call me Josh for some reason.
Like I said, I was only about eight years old at the time so I was just tall enough to see over the edge of the open coffin. I took a deep breath and then peeked over the edge and looked at my cousin.
The small lamp gave his corpse a ghoulish appearance. The stiff material of my Sears Toughskin jeans was probably the only thing that kept my knees from buckling when I peeked over the edge of the coffin. I took one look at my cousin and then quickly closed my eyes. But it was too late. The image of his sewn-together face had been burned into my permanent memory forever.
By the time we sat down to have some of Aunt Mary’s soup, I had all but lost my appetite. After that night I didn’t sleep for a week. The image of my cousin’s face danced in my nightmares. In one of my nightmares his eyes opened when I was looking at him in the coffin. In another his hand suddenly reached up and grabbed me by my wrist. And one night he even walked down the hallway and knocked on the door of my bedroom. I can still hear the sound of his knuckles on the door.
There were more funerals after that night. Someone was always dying it seemed. But none of them ever came close to that dark, frightful night on Cemetery Road.