Most ghosts aren’t big–theater buffs, shall we say. They float past, startling the crap out of us, and, should they be one of those rarities who are aware of us, are likewise startled.
Every once in awhile, though, you run across one who has a decided flair for the dramatic. Such a one was a Swedish immigrant named Oscar Carlson, murdered for his property in 1919 Signal Mountain, Tennessee. His story is told in Georgiana C. Kotarski’s Ghosts of the Southern Tennessee Valley (2006).
Oscar Carlson began telling his neighbors sometime in the spring of 1919 that somebody–unfortunately, he didn’t name names–was trying to kill him. They thought he was losing his mind. He was a quiet farmer working a nice little spread on Walden’s Ridge (the land on which the Chattanooga suburb of Signal Mountain stands), well-liked by his neighbors–and they couldn’t understand why he thought someone wanted him to die.
Until he turned up dead.
He had complained that people had tried to kill him by pumping gas into his house, and by dumping arsenic in his well. He’d gotten so worried that he no longer slept in the house at all; he bedded down now in his locked garage, on a pallet next to his Model T Ford.
It was in that garage, sometime in late July of 1919, that he was murdered. His body was found three days later, already rotting in the humid high July temperatures, on a shelf partway down a bluff off the W Road. His killers had screwed up; he should have fallen five hundred feet into a ravine below, but they didn’t toss his body off clear of the bluff. He was identified by two missing fingers and a single shoe–the twin of one that lay in his garage, a ways away. At autopsy it was determined that he had been shot three times–none fatal–and finally died of a fractured skull, apparently hit between the eyes with a two-by-four.
His beloved Model T and his watch were nowhere to be found.
Oscar’s farm had already been taken over, to the surprise of his neighbors, by an unsavory lout name of Simons. His family had moved in without him; he had been arrested almost immediately when he came forward insisting that Oscar Carlson had, the year before his murder, deeded Simons the farm “for love and affection”. Everyone in the community doubted that; Simons was universally despised as a shifty character, not least by the late Oscar Carlson.
Simons presented what looked to be the proper paperwork, and in the absence of other evidence of his guilt, was set free.
The police concluded that Carlson had been the victim of a robbery gone wrong.
On the ethereal plane, Oscar Carlson was having none of it.
While Simons was briefly held in jail and his large and feckless family was moving into Oscar’s two-story house, Oscar launched a production Broadway would envy.
At first, it was just noises. The Simons family was awakened, their first night in the house, by footsteps in the upstairs. They searched the house, but found no intruders.
This went on for a night or two. Then the footsteps were succeeded by the sounds of the windows in the upstairs opening. Still, the Simonses found nobody upstairs, so they closed the windows and huddled together downstairs.
One evening, when the family was all in or around the garage, Oscar Carlson materialized, looking as he had in life. He walked in through a closed door, which was bad enough–but then, through sounds, he put on a reenactment of his murder.
There were sounds of a struggle, followed by three gunshots. The gunshots gave way to a horrible noise between a crack and a squelch. Then there were sounds as if three men–three separate sets of footsteps–were carrying something out to the driveway, as an unseen Model T Ford’s engine was cranked to sputtering life and driven outside. It stopped for a minute, and voices–male, but otherwise indistinguishable–were heard panting as if the unseen killers were loading something heavy into the car. Then the unseen car drove off, with headlamps lighting up as it hooked a right at the end of the road where Oscar’s house stood and headed for the bluff.
For a grand finale, Oscar turned milky white, rose four feet in the air, hung there for a few seconds like a phantom Nijinsky, and then vanished as the car sounds faded away.
Oscar did not stop with that single performance. The Simonses were tough nuts to crack under normal circumstances, but by the third night their nerves gave way. They spent that night at a neighbor’s house.
On the fourth night, they went back, hoping that they’d seen Oscar’s last performance. But no; he repeated the whole thing a fourth time. He was settling in for a long run.
The Simonses decided he wasn’t going to have them for an audience; they packed up and fled before morning, and moved some distance away.
Nobody else tried to live in the house after that, and all leads to Oscar Carlson’s killers petered out, until, some seven years after his death, two pages that had been missing from the county property registrar’s ledger of land transfers surfaced. These pages proved conclusively that Simons had forged the paperwork showing that Carlson had deeded the land to him.
Unfortunately, that was not enough to convince a Hamilton County jury that Simons and three other men were guilty. Simons and two white men were acquitted of all charges. The fourth man, who happened to be black, was convicted and sentenced to death because he was found to have Oscar Carlson’s Model T and watch in his possession. The contemporary governor mercifully commuted the sentence, believing he had been nothing more than the wheelman and had received the car and watch for services rendered, while Simons, the ringleader, and two others got off scotfree for murder.
Simons did not get the farm in the end, though, which seemed to have been all Oscar Carlson wanted. The farm went to his rightful heir, a sister back in Sweden, who promptly sold it.
Still, strange things happened to the family who actually bought the Carlson farm. They lost three sons to violent and mysterious deaths, and finally, the two-story house, long abandoned, burnt to the ground.
Now, it’s said, the site where the house and garage stood is a pasture for horses.
I can’t help but wonder, though–
Did Oscar take his final revenge on three men he didn’t even know, because the law failed to punish Simons and the two white men who actually killed him for the sake of his land?
Not a very comforting thought.
In any case, Oscar Carlson hasn’t been around anymore. And I doubt, somehow, he’d answer that question.
Hey, y’all–I’ve finally had a bit of time to make rounds of friends who also love a good ghost story! Check out their sites:
Scratch (he writes original, and very spooky, stories.
Sherry, like me a cat person, who has some great cat stories to tell.
and Bella. Miss B has one on Oct. 16 that’s both sad and terrifying–and beautifully told.
Check ’em out!