In the southern Appalachians, we have a lot of stories about ghostly lovers, of which my favorite comes from the North Carolina side of the state line: specifically, from Mount Pisgah, 5721 feet in elevation, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, some fifteen miles southwest of Asheville.
It’s not such an old story, unless you count the Romeo and Juliet aspects; it only dates from about the turn of the twentieth century, when a young couple called Jim Stratton and Mary Robinson—he was seventeen, and she only fifteen—fell in love.
And—unfortunately—Mary had one of THOSE fathers—a jealous, possessive, stubborn man who believed nobody in the world was good enough for his little girl and, for that reason, would gladly have let her die an old maid.
Still, the young lovers persevered in their courtship. Jim would slip through the woods late in the evenings and whistle like a bobwhite, and Mary would sneak out of the house to meet him. They would spend a few precious minutes together, then Mary would fly like the wind back to the house, while Jim vanished into the shadowy woods.
Now in truth, the only thing one might have held against Jim, were one so inclined, was that, like many a mountain man, he had a still, and sold corn likker on the side. Mary Robinson’s father, old hypocrite that he was, had one too; but he used Jim’s still as an excuse to forbid his daughter to see her lover. Then, when all else failed, he pulled the dirtiest trick in a mountain man’s arsenal; old man Robinson set the hated “revenooers”, the government agents who enforced the laws against selling untaxed whiskey (mind, this was before Prohibition, when they enforced the law against drinking whiskey or other spirits), on Jim.
This was in a snowy December in the high mountains. The revenuers found Jim working at his still. As one might suspect, there was a fight, and Jim shot a government man dead. And he knew he would have to leave home and flee for his life—but Jim was determined not to leave alone.
First, he went to an old widow woman named Peggy Higgins, a longtime friend of his family’s and, more importantly, sympathetic to him and Mary, and asked her to put up some food for him and Mary and to summon a preacher who would marry them before they left for parts unknown. Then he went to fetch Mary.
Mary wasn’t going to come with him at first; she knew her father had gone out with the revenuers to hunt the wanted man, and warned him to get away as fast as he could. But he refused to leave without her, and finally, she agreed to come with him. Snow was beginning to fall as they left, with her mother screaming for Mary to come back and her little brother trailing them until the snow got too deep for the little feller to go on.
By the time they reached Peggy Higgins’s cabin, the snow was above Mary’s boot tops, and Peggy wasn’t back with the preacher. She arrived within minutes, however. The preacher, bless his heart, wasn’t inclined to ask questions, save for one: he wanted to know if Jim had a ring. That lack was supplied by Peggy Higgins, who hauled out her wedding dress and veil for Mary, and gave her ring and her late husband’s to the young couple.
And so they were married. No sooner had the preacher pronounced them man and wife than they heard hallooing outside; the revenuers and Mary’s father had tracked them to Peggy’s. Jim and his bride rushed out the back, into the snow, and Peggy Higgins talked in circles, the preacher refused to say a word, and revenuers, tracking dogs and Mr. Robinson traipsed around in the deepening snow, finding only a faint trail that seemed to lead toward Mount Pisgah, some distance away. Snow covered the tracks almost as soon as they were found.
It was then the sheriff took Peggy Higgins aside, and told her, “I know they ‘uz hyer, but I ain’t a-tellin’ that lot,” gesturing toward the revenuers and the irate Mr. Robinson. “I reckon them two young’uns ain’t got a chaince in ‘is snow, though. We’ll pro’bly find ‘em a-layin’ dead, froze somers. I’ll look when this squall lets up, but I reckon we done seen the last of ‘em alive.”
In that he was correct. No one found a trace of the two young lovers, although there was a report, many years later, of human skeletal remains being found on the north side of Mount Pisgah; they couldn’t be identified.
Old man Robinson, realizing what his jealousy and possessiveness had wrought, sat down and quit, dying within a few years of his daughter’s disappearance.
The mountain folk around Pisgah, though, say that in December, when snow covers the north slope of Mount Pisgah, you can see Jim and Mary, plain as day, up on the mountainside. She’s wearing Peggy Higgins’s dress and veil, and Jim is kneeling in the snow at her feet, holding her hand. Some say he’s pledging his eternal love to her; others, that he’s begging her pardon for dragging her out into that snowy hell to her death, so long ago.
For a fuller telling of the story of the Newlyweds of Mount Pisgah, see John Harden’s 1954 book TAR HEEL GHOSTS.