Category Archives: Southern Ghost Stories

The Funeral On Cemetery Road

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.

A Ghostly Visit In The Night

“My people came see me last night,” my great-grandmother said as she sat in her chair working her needlepoint. Nick, my pet cockatiel, was sitting on the back of her chair watching her hands as she moved the needle and string through the cloth.

I was twelve years old and lying on the floor watching Star Trek on the television. I was so engrossed in the show that it took a moment for me to realize what she was talking about. Then it dawned on me what she was saying. I knew that all of her “people” were dead people, and that she often liked to talk about them visiting her at night.

“They said they needed me to come with them.”

When she said this, Nick sidestepped along the back of her chair until he was in pecking distance of the earring dangling from her ear. He gave it a few pecks and then turned his head sideways so he could watch it swing back and forth. “Grannanny,” as I called her, quickly turned her head and fussed at Nick, who retreated to his original position on the back of the chair. Then he settled in for the story. He liked to hear Grannanny talk about the ghosts of her dead relatives as much as I did.

“Who was it this time?” I said as I turned my head and looked up at her.

“It was Florine, John, my little boy Rudd and Nance. I woke up last night and they were standing in the corner of my bedroom. They wanted me to come with them.”

“What did you tell them, Grannanny?”

When I asked this, Nick turned his head and looked at Grannanny while the little tuft of plumage fanned out on top of his head. Nick got a little scared when Grannanny talked about ghosts visiting her in the night.

Grannanny said, “I told them I wasn’t ready. I told them I couldn’t go with them because you and Geneva need me.”

Geneva was my grandmother. We all three lived in the house together. Us and Nick, I should say. But Nick had grown accustomed to the idea of our house being haunted with the ghosts of Grannanny’s dead relatives.

When you’re born and raised in the mountains of North Carolina like my great-grandmother was, dead relatives visiting you in the night is often taken as a sign that your time has come. It’s as if the Grim Reaper contracts out the soul gathering duties to the dead relatives in a family. He doesn’t come for you in the night but instead sends close family members that have already gone on to the great beyond. They come for you instead.

On that night, Grannanny told her “people” that she wasn’t ready to go. For whatever reason they agreed and Grannanny was allowed to stay. But on one dark and lonely night years later, they would visit Grannanny again.

And on that night she went with them.

The Wandering Ghost of Stokes County, NC

Photo by Bob Nichols, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Stokes County, NC lies in the heart of tobacco country. Back in the heyday of the Golden Leaf, as tobacco was once called, almost every man in Stokes county farmed tobacco or had some kind of connection to it. And the most infamous tobacco farmer of them all was a man by the name of Charlie Lawson.

It is said that Charlie Lawson’s crimes are so horrible that his soul is not even welcome in Hell. As a result, some local residents say his ghost still wanders the road in Stokes County near the place where his farm was once located. A man has to be pretty evil when even the Devil won’t take his soul.

On Christmas Day, 1929, Charlie Lawson took a shotgun and murdered his wife and six of his seven children. His children ranged in age from four months old to 17 years of age. One of his children, a boy 16 years of age, was off on an errand and as a result his life was spared. He came home later that day to find his entire family dead.

Charlie murdered his two young daughters after lying in wait for them to return from a neighbor’s house. He put their bodies in his tobacco barn and put a stone under each one’s head to act as a pillow. He then entered the house, shot his wife, older daughter, two young sons and his baby. Then he went out into the woods and shot himself.

Photo by Berean Hunter

Over the years rumors have circulated about what drove Charlie to commit the most heinous mass murder in North Carolina’s history. The most popular theory is that he was having an incestuous relationship with his 17 year old daughter, who some say was pregnant with his child at the time of her death. Others say that he was just a patsy who was framed for the murders. It all depends on who you ask.

But twenty years ago I was the stepchild in a family that claimed to share distant roots with Charlie Lawson. To prove this to me we took a family outing one Sunday afternoon to visit the gravesite of Charlie and his murdered family. The grave is in a small cemetery just outside of the tiny hamlet of Walnut Cove, NC. I was living in Kernersville at the time and had just gotten married, so you can imagine how I felt when I told my new bride that we had been invited to go on a road trip with my parents so that we could see the grave of a distant relative that, decades before, had killed his entire family on Christmas Day. I’m lucky she didn’t file for divorce the next day when the courthouse opened for business.

It was a short drive up to the intersection of NC Highway 8 and Brook Cove road. The gravesite of Charlie and his family is a mass grave that was dug as one big rectangular hole, or so we were all told by my paternal step-grandmother who had come along for the ride. She remembered all the details of the Lawson killings, and claimed that Charlie was her distant cousin. This was in the days before the Internet and I remember her talking about the raisons on the cake that Charlie’s oldest daughter was icing when he shot her, how he killed his baby and then shoved the body underneath the wood stove, and how the son that survived died years later in a truck accident. And she knew that the baby had been buried in its mother’s arms. She had heard these stories first-hand from people that had been alive at the time and had visited the murder scene on that cold, snowy Christmas Day in 1929.

But my step-grandmother had a different take on why Charlie did it. She claimed that Charlie went crazy because he worked in a slaughterhouse killing hogs all day long, and one day just lost the ability to know the difference between killing a hog and killing his kin. This runs counter to the story that Charlie was a tobacco farmer who got his daughter pregnant and felt that murdering his family and himself was the only proper way to deal with the shame.

The grave was all we could see that day. Charlie’s house has long since been torn down and nothing remains of his farm. After we finished looking at the grave we drove into Walnut Cove to visit relatives, some of which I had never met before. I sat and listened to their stories about the Lawson killings and how Charlie’s ghost was routinely spotted walking up Brook Cove road. This was from people who had lived in the area their entire lives – good, honest country folk who knew, like all Southerners do, that sometimes the souls of the dead are a little slow when it comes to moving on from the physical world.

In the end, the only person that knows why Charlie Lawson murdered his family is Charlie himself. But if you really want to know why he did it, take a drive up Brook Cove road and you just might be able to ask him for yourself.

The Mysterious Color of Haint Blue

In my last post I told you about the legend of the Southern Bottle Tree and why there are so many of them in the yards of Southern homes.

Photo by Jocelyne Deneau

With the South as haunted as it is, a bottle tree is one of the best ways to catch and destroy the evil spirits that wander the Southern countryside. But often a bottle tree is not enough and as a result many Southerners have learned to employ additional methods to keep these wandering “haints” from taking up residence in their homes.

One of those methods is the use of the color known as “haint blue”.

haint blue2Travel to any of the old Southern cities in the Deep South and you will see a curious shade of light blue painted on the porches of many of the older homes. Charleston and Savannah, both of which are brimming with haints, are two cities that come to mind. In order to ward off evil spirits, residents of these two cities often paint the floors and ceilings of their front porches with a light shade of blue that has become known over the years as haint blue.

Photo By Shelly Rowell

The idea behind haint blue is that it mimics the color of water. According to Gullah tradition, haints cannot move across water and therein lies the protective power of the color. If the front porch of a home is painted with haint blue it is believed that no spirit will cross over and enter the house.

Southerners are not the first to use color to ward off evil spirits. There are many traditions throughout the world that deal with color and its effects on the souls of the dearly departed. haint blue1But down south we have to deal with an inordinate amount of wandering haints due to the history of our land. Bottle trees and porches and doors painted with haint blue can often offer protection, but as any Southerner knows there are times when an overly persistent haint will still get through and make its way into the home.

And once inside it will often decide to stay awhile.

The Legend of the Southern Bottle Tree

The countryside of the American South is haunted. Given the history of the region, it is not hard to understand why.

A bottle tree made from a simple wooden post

If you travel across the South from the Lowcountry of Charleston to the Mississippi Delta you will find many superstitions about the dead, and you will see firsthand some of the ways that Southerners protect their homes from the souls that have not moved on from the physical world and have chosen instead to wander in the night.

One of the tools used by Southerners to deal with evil spirits and wandering “haints”, as they are often called, is the bottle tree.

The bottle tree can be traced to African slaves brought to the Charleston area in the 1700’s. The descendants of these slaves, known as the Gullah, still reside along the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia and they still practice many of the traditions taught to them through the generations. Their ancestors were some of the first people in the South to use bottle trees to protect their homes from evil spirits. The tradition has spread and now bottle trees can be seen adorning yards from Virginia to Mississippi.

The idea behind the bottle tree is relatively simple. Originally, the branches of a Crepe Myrtle tree were cut short and empty bottles were placed upside down on the stubby limbs. The Crepe Myrtle was chosen because it symbolized freedom from bondage and life in the Promised Land. But nowadays you will see bottle trees that come in many forms, some made from real trees and other made from wrought iron or just simple wooden posts. But it doesn’t really matter what is used for the tree. What is important are the bottles.

The legend goes that evil spirits are drawn to the bottles when the light of the moon reflects off the glass. The spirits enter the bottles and become trapped inside where they are forced to stay for the rest of the night. To signal their displeasure at being confined they can often be heard moaning when the wind blows through the bottle tree. When the sun rises the next morning, the sunlight burns and destroys the evil spirits trapped inside the bottles. The empty bottles are then free to lie in wait for the next wandering soul that may happen by when nightfall arrives.

You will see bottle trees made from bottles of many colors, but the deep cobalt blue bottle is often the most preferred color since that color is thought to symbolize the crossroads between the realm of the living and that of the dead. It is believed that it is in this realm where wayward souls reside.

To someone not born and raised in the South, the legend of the bottle tree may seem a bit ridiculous. But Southern land carries many scars. Given slavery, the bloodshed of the Civil War and the poverty and hard times that followed, it is not hard to believe that there may be more than a few restless souls wandering through the night in the Southern countryside.

And many of them may not have the best of intentions.