Archive for December, 2010

Comes a Horseman

Wilmington, North Carolina, is a great seaport town, more than three centuries old. As befits a city of such age, it’s a haunted one. One of my favorite Wilmington ghost stories begins with a fine horse, an oddly beautiful ring, and a disappearance.

Llewelyn Markwick arrived in Wilmington in the early spring of 1760. A twenty-four-year-old Englishman of Welsh descent, he brought with him letters of introduction from a number of titled families back in the old country. He was a charming youngster, immediately popular among the upper classes of Wilmington society.

Markwick had two possessions that interested his new friends, as well. He was the owner of a fine Arabian stallion, so well-trained that all he had to do was turn it in the direction of its stable and tap it on the neck when he was done riding for the day, and it would return to the stable on its own.

The other possession was even more fascinating: a large ring, consisting of two snakes’ bodies twining around each other and, clasped in their reptilian jaws, an immense diamond. In answer to questions, he said that the ring was in the shape of his family crest, and literally the only one of its kind in existence.

One afternoon in the late autumn of 1760, Markwick saddled up his horse and told the attending stablehand that he was going for a short ride and would return by early evening.

The horse came back on its own. Llewelyn Markwick did not return at all.

At first, it was thought that Markwick had stopped to visit friends outside the city limits and decided to stay overnight, but had sent the horse on home. When he had not returned, and no one reported seeing him, for a couple of days, search parties were organized. These parties found no trace of Markwick.

And so matters stood for eight years.

In the summer of 1768, Wilmington was pounded by an immense rainstorm, receiving several inches of rain in a twenty-four-hour period. After the downpour stopped, a gentleman walking along a sandy stretch of what is now the intersection of Third and Dock Streets saw that a large area of road had been completely washed out. As he picked his way cautiously around the giant new pothole, he saw an incongruously shiny object sticking up out of the mud. Curious, he got down in the hole and tried to dig the shiny thing out, but it appeared to be stuck.

Other pedestrians happened along and joined him in the excavation. They soon found out the object was indeed stuck: to the fingerbones of a skeletal hand. And some of them, once the mud was cleaned away, recognized it as a ring–a ring with two entwined snakes clutching a huge diamond in their mouths.

Llewelyn Markwick had been found, but the mystery of how he came to be buried in that spot was never solved.

He appeared to have been shot in the back of the head, and then hit solidly with some heavy object that had split his skull from front to back. Robbery, apparently, had not been a motive; his ring and a purse full of money were untouched, and his horse had, after all, returned to its stall.

Wilmingtonians say, to this day, that Markwick may have died in a case of mistaken identity; his killer or killers, when they realized their mistake, had buried him in a hasty grave–probably in what was then a wooded area by today’s St. Thomas Preservation Hall–and run for their lives, and his horse had made its way home alone.

Markwick was reburied elsewhere. But the story goes that he has never left the area where he was killed and buried in an ignominious grave.

Pedestrians and police alike have reported seeing a man dressed in odd, very oldfashioned clothes, staggering along Dock Street; when approached, he vanishes into thin air.

A married couple once crashed their car into the Confederate war memorial that stands near the intersection of Dock and Third. The husband frantically tried to explain that he had been driving along minding his own business when a man in outdated clothing stepped off the sidewalk and into traffic. Unfortunately, with no witnesses to this event save his wife, and given that it was a Saturday night and the bars had just closed, he was cited for DUI.

Others have reported seeing a man on horseback in the alleyway beside St. Thomas Preservation Hall; the horse rears, then runs wildly about twenty feet down the alley, at which point it and its rider disappear.

It seems to me that this apparition of horse and rider must be repeating Llewelyn Markwick’s last moments; he and his horse are trying to evade their attacker(s), and probably vanish at the point at which Markwick was shot from the horse’s back.

Of all the phenomena associated with the death of Llewelyn Markwick, though, the eeriest is undoubtedly this: from the time his body was found until the day, many years later, that the area was paved with asphalt, his makeshift grave would, no matter how many times it was filled in, invariably fall out: not the entire area washed out by the terrible rainstorm in 1768, but only the space where Markwick had lain buried for years.

The story of Llewelyn Markwick’s strange death is told in John Harden’s 1949 book The Devil’s Tramping Ground and Other North Carolina Mystery Stories. The hauntings associated with his death are recounted in John Hirchak’s 2006 book Ghosts of Old Wilmington.

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Guides in the Snow

Merry Christmas to all! I may be posting a couple or three stories today–we’re snowed in here in Knobite Corner (our first white Christmas since 1969!) and there’s very little going on–

This one comes from turn-of-the-(twentieth)-century St. Louis, Missouri. The source text (in Beth Scott and Michael Norman’s Haunted Heartland (1985) doesn’t say it happened at Christmas, but I like to think it might have. It begins with an old-time country doctor named John J. O’Brien, an Irishman big of body and bigger of heart, about to sit down with his brand-new bride for a Christmas dinner, and the heaviest snow Missouri had seen in many a year.

Dr. O’Brien was methodically buttering a biscuit when he said to his wife, Elizabeth, “I’ve had Mrs. Kilpatrick on my mind all day.”

Elizabeth knew the Kilpatricks: an elderly farm couple who lived in the country several miles outside town. Mr. Kilpatrick was healthy as a horse, but worried a good deal about his wife, who suffered from a weak heart. “Perhaps the snow will stop later, and you can go out to her,” she said comfortingly.

They laughed and talked and had a joyous time over this, their first Christmas dinner together, but when they were finished, and the kitchen cleaned up, and wood for the stove brought in to do till morning, Dr. O’Brien said, “I’m going to Mrs. Kilpatrick, snow or no snow. I have a feeling she needs me.”

And Elizabeth, who had fallen in love with this big Irishman as much for his love of his patients as his love for her, said only, “Be careful, love. I’ll wait up.”

Dr. O’Brien dressed warmly, grabbed his medical bag, hitched his horse (fresh and warm after a good feed in his stall) to his buggy, and set out on the road to the Kilpatricks’ home.

The main road led to a crossroads, where he would turn off and go through a labyrinth of side roads and tracks to their house. But the snow suddenly came in again, almost in whiteout conditions. His buggy lamps couldn’t penetrate the sheets of snow blowing toward him.

And just when he though he was hopelessly lost, he heard dogs barking.

By the sound of them, there were two, and big ones, with big, loud, deep voices.

He tried to look through the curtain of snow, and suddenly saw them–one on either side and just in front of his horse, who oddly didn’t shy away from them. And they were indeed big–huge. They were mastiffs.

He tried to puzzle out where they had come from, but that train of thought was lost as it became apparent they were purposefully guiding him. Knowing that otherwise he would be lost, he followed them, and determined to ask Mr. Kilpatrick about them. He’d never seen any dogs when he visited the farm, but that wasn’t to say they owned none.

The dogs led him right to the Kilpatricks’ front door, where a worried Mr. Kilpatrick let him in. “The missus”, he explained, was in a bad way, hardly able to breathe.

Dr. O’Brien administered something for her heart, and a mild sedative to help her sleep, while Mr. Kilpatrick put the doctor’s coat by the kitchen fire to dry out and made coffee and a warm meal. Only when they were talking over the food did the doctor remember the dogs.

Mr. Kilpatrick had no idea whose they were. They certainly weren’t his, though.

By the time Dr. O’Brien left, after checking on “the missus” one last time and leaving some medicine for her, the storm had passed; the snow had stopped and the moon was out, and the doctor could see the way back without difficulty. He watched for his canine guides all the way, but didn’t see or hear them again.

When he got home, he told Elizabeth the story. Over the next weeks and months, he made inquiries, but learned that no one for many miles around owned a pair of mastiffs.

And no matter what weather he traveled in, from then until he retired from practice, did he see them again.

He finally decided, Irishman that he was, that they must have been ghosts or angels–that pair of giant dogs who guided him to a desperately sick woman’s bedside that Christmas.

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Up until I was about ten years old, I attended a small rural Baptist church. Back then, the altar call at the end of sermons was frequently a mournfully beautiful tune in a minor key of which I never knew the name or for that matter any of the words. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, at a Methodist church I attended at the time, that I learned it was called “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy”, from its opening line, in the Methodist hymnal, in which it was first included in the 1990s. In the old Broadman hymnals, used for many years in Baptist services, it is called “I Will Arise and Go to Jesus” from the opening line of the refrain.

The words to “Come Ye Sinners” were published in 1759 by their author, British minister Joseph Hart. In 1835, a Spartanburg, South Carolina singing school teacher named William Walker–better known among fans of oldtime music as “Singin’ Billy”–set the words to a tune called “Restoration” in his shape-note hymnal The Southern Harmony.

I left that church in 1998, and sometime later in that same year, I found Doc Watson’s 1990 CD On Praying Ground, on which he sang a set of Christmas lyrics to the tune of “Come, Ye Sinners”. The words Doc sings are taken in part from a poem by the great British hymn writer Isaac Watts, and are, as my friend Gnostix points out, much quieter and more intimate than most Watts lyrics. Doc’s lyrics, identified as traditional with arrangement by Doc Watson in the songwriter’s credits, are:

Hush my babe, lie still and slumber
Holy angels guard thy bed
Heavenly blessings without number
Gently stealing on thy head.

How much better art thou attended
Than the son of God could be
When from Heaven he descended
And became a child like thee

Soft and easy is thy cradle
Coarse and hard the Savior lay
When his birthplace was a stable
And his softest bed was hay

Hush my babe lie still and slumber
Holy angels guard thy bed
Heavenly blessings without number
Gently stealing on thy head.

Doc sings with only his own guitar accompaniment, and pronounces the word “gently” as “gentlie”–a very old mountain way, not uncommon at all in traditional mountain music.

I’ve never been able to ascertain where Doc learned this carol, although I wonder if it was, like many of the other oldtime songs he sings, passed down to him through his family, on both sides of which were fine musicians who remembered much old music that has been forgotten outside the mountains and is, in fact, less common even there now than it was before.

I can never hear this carol, this time of year, without visualizing a barefoot, exhausted mountain mother, pacing the bare wooden floor of her home, softly singing these lyrics to a fussy baby. Such is the power of Doc’s performance.

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A Dolls’ House

I was never the girly sort of girl who wanted dolls for Christmas. By the time I was ten I was asking for books, the more the better.

In my latter years, though, I have become fascinated with doll houses–a fascination that began, some years ago, when I was walking through a Hobby Lobby store and ran up on an enormous Victorian-style dollhouse, set atop a shelf, unpainted. Set down on the floor it would have been nearly waist-high. I could immediately visualize it done up in grand Painted Lady colors, and decorated for various seasons, especially Christmas.

Fast forward several years. During Mom’s hospitalization last month, one afternoon, to while away time between visits to the MCC unit, I took up the December issue of Smithsonian magazine, and was immediately engrossed in an article about just such a doll house, donated to the museum in 1950, whose former owner, a onetime employee of the Library of Congress, came from that year on, up nearly until her death at age ninety, to decorate the house at Christmas.

That article, and its decorations, reminded me of a delightful story by the great English writer of macabre tales M. R. James (1862-1936). James carried on the Dickensian tradition of writing ghost stories at Christmas, beginning in the 1890s. He first read his stories to his fellow dons at Cambridge University, then, after he became provost of Eton, to his pupils.

This story, “The Haunted Doll’s House”, was written sometime in the period 1921-1924 on commission from Mary of Teck, the queen consort of England’s King George V, as an addition to the Queen’s own dollhouse’s library. (A number of authors were invited to write stories to be included, in miniature, in that house; records show that only George Bernard Shaw declined the invitation.) The story was finally published for the public in James’s final volume of stories, A Warning to the Curious, in 1925.

James himself noted, at the end of the queen’s commission, that it would be recognized by his loyal readers as “a variation on a former story of mine called “The Mezzotint”, which had been published in his first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, in 1904. There are indeed similarities in theme, and certainly in the denouement, of the two stories; but, speaking purely from a critical standpoint, the earlier story is far superior in both style and creepiness.

Having said which, I can honestly say that James’s story is the only one about a haunted dollhouse I’ve ever run across. Does anybody out there have a true story of one? (^_^)

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I Wonder as I Wander

Indulging in yet another reprise this AM–am engaged in a fierce Nintendo bowling tournament with the Princess and I’m losing (^_^)!!

In an unpublished memoir, the great Appalachian singer and songwriter John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) tells a story of how he was inspired to write what has become, for many, the quintessential Appalachian Christmas carol.

A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins. . .But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.

The year was 1933. The girl’s name, according to Niles’s memoir, was Annie Morgan. She was part of an evangelical group that had been ordered out of town by Murphy, North Carolina police. She sang the same line—or fragment of a song, with three lines; accounts differ-—seven times, for a quarter a pop, during a fundraiser, which Niles happened to pass–and Niles left with “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material–and a magnificent idea” that became “I Wonder as I Wander”, which he first performed in public at Christmas of the same year. Its wistful minor-key melody and lyrical simplicity–extended to three stanzas of four lines each and a coda, repeating the first stanza– make it sound as if it were hundreds of years old, and Niles fought for years to establish and maintain his copyright.

There are many beautiful recordings of this carol. Unfortunately, Niles’s own is not available on YouTube. Here it is sung by the American contralto Gladys Swarthout (1900-1969).

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor orn’ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander. . .out under the sky. . .

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Circle of Steel

I’ve posted songs this month that make the rounds every Christmas: Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” is one such, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of others. The ones that come around most are either traditional carols, mostly religious in theme, or popular music that has spread until we cannot imagine Christmas without hearing them.

This haunting song, from Canadian folkie Gordon Lightfoot, is not one of those.

There is something almost Dickensian about this song, which Lightfoot recorded in November of 1973 and released the following April, on his album Sundown. We are warned in the first verse’s ironic concluding couplet

Sights and sounds of the people goin’ round
Everybody’s in step with the season. . .

that this will be no standard cheery carol. It’s a grim reminder, throughout, that not everybody is in step with the season.

In some anonymous city, poverty and addiction lurk just below the surface of the cheer; one alcoholic mother faces the prospect of losing her child if the doctor, “bound on his welfare round”, can be bothered to report the squalor in which mother and child live, while another is forced to tell her child that his father is serving time because his ‘pride was his means to provide”–and apparently his pride did not preclude theft.

In a verse between the two, there’s a hint of domestic violence in an apartment next door to the alcoholic:

“Deck the Halls” was the song they played
in the flat next door where they shout all day. . .

And yet, out in the street, people come and go, wish each other “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays”–

and never realize that, indeed, not everybody is in step with the season.

For me, that lilting little flute solo which opens and closes the song makes the irony all the more poignant.

No wonder this song is not one that pops up on every radio station every Christmas. It’s a profoundly discomfiting one–or should be.

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Ah, yes, yes, that parasitic member of the magnolia family, most commonly found in North America in a variety of trees, oaks in particular–partly evergreen, different from its European cousin in that the leaves are shorter, broader and more waxy, and the white berries grow in clusters of ten or more. The stuff of legend, and of a lot of fun during the Christmas season!

No one knows for sure where the name “mistletoe” comes from, although it may have roots in Old English. Oddly enough, though, the most familiar of all the Christmas customs involving mistletoe–standing under it and kissing, one kiss per berry, until the berries are all plucked off–is apparently of post eighteenth century origin.

Legend says that mistletoe was once gathered by Druids, the Celtic priesthood, using special curved knives made of gold. The mistletoe could not be allowed to touch the ground once it was cut. It was used as a decoration, like holly and other evergreens, and was the last of the Christmas greens to be taken down, on Candlemas Day (February 2, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple in the Roman Catholic tradition; Groundhog Day to us hillbillies and rednecks). Mistletoe might also be left hanging as a deterrent to lightning and fire until it was replaced the next Christmas Eve.

Mistletoe figures into Norse mythology as the weapon with which the god Baldur the Beautiful was killed, an act which ultimately brought about the end of the world, which they called Ragnarok. Mistletoe plays a part in two stories from Joan Aiken’s (ed.) marvelous 1991 collection Haunting Christmas Tales; in both stories, mistletoe sends–once as the answer for why a ghost haunts, in the other as a weapon–ghosts to their eternal rest or damnation.

Mistletoe turns up in a gruesome legend, Italian in origin, about a young bride who, during her Christmas wedding celebrations, shuts herself into an oak chest while playing hide and seek and dies of suffocation; her body was found fifty years later, when all her kin were long dead. She had mistletoe in her headdress. In England, this legend, introduced by poet Samuel Rogers in 1823, has taken on a life of its own. It is told as a ghost story of several stately homes, the most famous of which is Bramshill House in Hampshire, where she is said to appear as a Lady in White, carrying a sprig of mistletoe in one hand. The legend also inspired a song, a play and several short stories with supernatural happenings.

I can’t help wondering, though: in TV commercials there’s the admonition/promise what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? Just so happens I have a Tshirt, a gift from a friend several Christmases ago, that reads demurely What happens under the mistletoe STAYS under the mistletoe.

Which came first, the mistletoe admonition or Vegas?

I’m bettin’ on mistletoe. 😉

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