Decapitation was never a favored form of execution in what is now the United States. In “the old country”—i.e., England—it was, which explains their plethora of stories of headless ghosts. Headless ghosts are relatively rare in American ghostlore, and usually involve personal, not judicial, homicide.
One such story, from Maryland’s Hartford County, begins with a homicide, way back in colonial times, the victim being one of those frequently nameless but ubiquitous figures: the old-timey peddler, those spring/summer/fall Santa figures, packs full of necessities and fripperies on their backs, stick in hand, carrying news and gossip from town to town as they made their rounds. In the year 1763, one such passed through an area along a tributary of the Susquehanna River, called Rocky Run for its rockstrewn bed.
No one knows this peddler’s name, nor yet in what circumstances he met his gruesome death. They do know that his body—minus the head—was found near a grist mill owned by one John Bryarley. His money pouch was gone and his pack had been rifled, but his walking stick lay nearby. His head was nowhere to be found. With no way of finding out his identity or notifying relatives who might claim the body, he was laid in a pauper’s grave, his stick placed in the coffin beside him.
Shortly after he was laid in that grave with no name, the peddler’s ghost was seen for the first time, headless and stick in hand. He followed the same pattern with each sighting; he would turn away from observers and run into a swampy area alongside the creek, and would poke at the ground in one particular spot with his stick. His appearances became such a regular event that people stopped calling the creek Rocky Run; they called it Peddler’s Run instead.
Unfortunately for the poor soul, it took eighty years for people to realize what his forays into the swamp meant. For eighty years, at frequent—very frequent—intervals, he kept up that curious behavior. And the locals kept his memory alive by telling the story of the headless haunt—but no one followed him into the swamp. Ever.
In 1843, a farmer bought property in the area and began digging a ditch, preparing to drain the swamp, beside John Bryarley’s now-deserted grist mill. Four feet below the ground, he found a human skull buried in the mire.
People recalled, once more, the story of the peddler who had lain headless in his grave for such a long, long time. And they suddenly realized that the farmer had dug the head up in the very spot at which the pathetic headless ghost had spent so many fruitless years poking at the ground with his stick.
So they opened the peddler’s grave and placed the head in the coffin with what little was left of him. From that time on, he rested in peace. His ghost never again ran into the swamp to poke ineffectually at the ground with his walking stick.
I have a suspicious mind. I daresay any number of people at the time, observing where the head was found, in such close proximity to John Bryarley’s old mill, must have reached the same conclusion as me: that Bryarley killed the peddler and, for reasons he took to his own grave, buried the head and body separately.
If they did, they never said so.
(I first read this story in Dennis William Hauck’s HAUNTED PLACES: Ghostly abodes, sacred sites, UFO landings, and other supernatural locations, 1994 edition; Hauck cites Deborah Downer’s 1991 book CLASSIC AMERICAN GHOST STORIES as his source.)