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Archive for February, 2011

Jack Courage

jealousy is cruel as the grave. . .Song of Solomon 8:6

Jealousy? Temper? Envy? I seem to detect hints of all three in this story from Edinburgh of young love, a forced marriage, and an O. Henry twist of fate.

Way back in 1712, a retired colonial administrator named Thomas Elphinstone bought a home in Edinburgh’s Morningside district. He was a widower, whose wife had died giving birth to a now-grown son. This son was long since on his own in life, and it seems there must have been some friction between him and his father, for reasons that will become clear as our story progresses.

Sir Thomas–he had been knighted for his services to the Crown–was, by this time, a man in his fifties, but he was in love: with a much younger woman called Elizabeth Pittendale. As was often the case in the old days, her family was all in favor of Sir Thomas’s suit, never mind the difference in age.

And never mind that Elizabeth’s heart was given irrevocably to another. At some jollification or other, she had met a dashing young army officer called–surely an unusual name–Jack Courage.

Jack, however, was about to be posted overseas, and her family would, she felt sure, never agree to her marrying him and leaving them, perhaps forever. Their pushing and prodding finally persuaded her that she should do her duty instead of following her heart. She broke off with Jack, and, once he was gone, married Sir Thomas.

She tried hard to be a good wife. Oh, she tried! But the careful pretense she built up of being blissfully happy tumbled down not long after her marriage, for Sir Thomas told her they would soon be getting a visit from his grown son, John. He had been serving abroad in the military and was coming home on furlough.

And–wouldn’t you know, and as you may already have guessed, Dear Reader–she recognized John Elphinstone no sooner than she saw him.

John Elphinstone was none other than the young man to whom she had given her heart: the man she had known as Jack Courage.

I could go off on a long thread of speculation here: perhaps father and son hated each other, with the father blaming the son for the loss of his first wife and the boy’s mother, the boy resenting the father’s undeserved blame; perhaps the boy ran away to join the service, and gave himself a new name in the process. . .or most sinister of all, that Jack Courage knew of his father’s affection for Elizabeth Pittendale and had deliberately courted her under an assumed name. . .

Nothing more than conspiracy theories tricked up in romantic dress, those speculations. Young Jack Courage, it would seem, loved Elizabeth, stepmother or no, as passionately as she loved him.

It followed, perhaps inevitably, that the much older Sir Thomas found his young wife, one day, in a feverish embrace with his son.

Sir Thomas went after his son like a tiger after prey, and Jack fought back with equal fury.

Unfortunately, neither of them reckoned on Elizabeth.

In the course of the fight, Sir Thomas had pulled a knife, and to prevent him from stabbing Jack, Elizabeth stepped in and took the blade through her own heart.

Horrified and heartbroken, Sir Thomas took his own life that same day. Three days later, his shaken son had the bodies of husband and wife placed side by side in the family vault.

John Elphinstone, aka Jack Courage, inherited the house and his father’s fortune, but did not stay in Morningside; he rented the house out to a friend and returned to his military service.

This friend and tenant settled into the house and lived quietly for some time, until, one night, he was surprised to hear footsteps in an upstairs corridor where, he knew, no one was present at the time; all others in the house were downstairs at the time.

The tenant went upstairs and was startled to see a pallid figure walking down the corridor toward one of the bedrooms: a woman, weeping as she went.

Although he wasn’t frightened–or claimed not to be–by this obviously spectral being, the tenant could not help but be moved by her tears and general air of sorrow.

It would be another hundred years and more before spiritualism became widely practiced, but there were those around who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead, and the tenant consulted one such, who told him what he probably should have known before: that the weeping lady was none other than the late Elizabeth Elphinstone. The medium, though, added something interesting: Elizabeth was not able to rest in the family vault, and would not rest, as long as she lay beside the man who had killed her.

The tenant communicated with Jack Elphinstone, who came home and promptly had Elizabeth’s body moved out of the vault, and buried in the nearby churchyard, after which her spirit no longer walked.

When Jack Courage died, a very few years later, he was buried beside his beloved Elizabeth.

Chalk it up to an unnecessarily vivid and romantic imagination, but this story–which comes from Lily Seafield’s 2006 book Ghostly Scotland–reminds me of Doc Watson’s variant of Child Ballad number 81, “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard”. Doc’s version is called “Little Matty Groves”; in it, the young wife of Lord Daniel falls in love with Matty Groves, much closer to her in age. Lord Daniel catches the pair together and kills Matty in a duel, after which he asks his wife which of them she loves more, himself or Matty Groves.

. . .better I love little Matty Groves than you and all of your kin
Than you and all of your kin

You can dig my grave on a pretty green hill
Dig it wide and deep
And put little Matty Groves in my arms
Lord Daniel at my feet
Lord Daniel at my feet. . .

Yes–jealousy is, indeed, as cruel as the grave, often deadly in its consequences. Sometimes the ghosts of such tragedy continue to walk long after their deaths; others, like Elizabeth, are easily pacified.

And in any case, she rests beside the man with whom she should have shared her life.

Better late, I guess, than never.

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Mirror, Mirror

Nowadays–thanks to Dr. Freud–narcissism is defined as a sort of personality disorder: self-centeredness taken to a pathological point. Freud took the name of the condition from the Greek myth of Narcissus, the beautiful and selfish young man who pined away yearning for the love of his own reflection in a pool of still water.

There’s a ghost story from Ireland about a young woman afflicted with the same illness. She didn’t get her jollies from staring into a pool of still water, though; she had a castleful of mirrors wherein to admire herself. Her absorption in her reflected beauty made her pathologically selfish, and that selfishness cost her–first true love, then her sanity.

As always with James Reynolds’s book Ghosts in Irish Houses (1947), I advise caution; I’ve never found this story in any other source, and have noted before that it’s not always possible to locate the actual physical locations where the ghostly events he writes of took place. Let us specify that he says this story comes from Belvelly Castle in County Cork, where, in the late seventeenth century, there lived a maiden of rare beauty named Margaret Hodnett.

Margaret Hodnett was, without a doubt, the belle of County Cork: wealthy, charming, and a great beauty to boot. She was courted by many men, and by none more assiduously than a neighbor called Clon Rockenby.

Alas, Rockenby truly worshiped the ground under Margaret Hodnett’s dainty feet. . .

while she worshiped naught save her reflection in her myriad mirrors.

These, it’s said, were gifts from the many men she took up with and then cast aside when they began to bore her or–God help them–were not properly reverent of her loveliness. During these little contretemps, she would cast Clon Rockenby aside until her fancy for a new man passed, then call him back. And he always came running. . .

Now Margaret’s favorite mirror was a huge, full-length one from Venice, which gave her back an almost photographically clear reflection whenever she looked into it. She had it hung on a wall just inside Belvelly’s entrance, so that the last thing she saw when she left the castle, and the first when she returned, was her radiant reflection.

Time went on. The faithful Clon Rockenby kept running when she called, hoping that someday her selfish butterfly heart would settle and appreciate his love and devotion and she would at last declare herself his.

Margaret, however, at long last rejected him altogether. She told him she never wanted to see him again, tore up letters he sent her in front of those who delivered them, and, when in disbelief and desperation he called on her himself, slammed the door in his face and shot the bolts home before he could say a word.

please be gone, I’m tired of you. . .

(Okay, no, Stephen Stills really has no place in this story, but it fits 😉 .)

No doubt she thought that, as he had a thousand–or more–times before, he would come running when, in her flightiness, she wanted him again. In this she was sorely mistaken. Clon Rockenby, humiliated and angry, decided he was going to teach this selfish brat a lesson.

So he raised a small army and laid siege to Belvelly Castle, determined to starve them out. He thought, perhaps, that Margaret would give in at the first hint of privation, or that her father–who should have told his flighty daughter a few home truths long before things reached this pass–would come out under a flag of truce and offer his lovely daughter in return for the lifting of the siege.

Lord Hodnett, unfortunately, was as stubborn as his daughter was selfish. Belvelly’s inhabitants held out for three years, eating all the livestock within the castle precincts–and God knows what else–before giving in at last in the third winter of the siege.

Clon Rockenby was the first to enter Belvelly after the surrender, and the first living being he encountered was a mere animated skeleton: Margaret Hodnett herself, so thin the bones showed in every inch of her once lovely face and body. Horrified, he couldn’t speak at first. She, red-eyed and weak almost to the point of death, merely wept and said, See what you have done to me.

And she turned and looked into that great Venetian mirror that still hung in the entrance hall of Belvelly.

The horrified Clon couldn’t stand to look with her at the tottering wreck of her former self. He took his sword by the blade and swung it; the heavy hilt shattered the mirror into a million fragments, whereupon Margaret screamed and fainted.

He carried her outside, and ordered his army to carry food and other necessities into the castle. He was tending Margaret himself, tenderly feeding her a little broth and crooning incoherent love words and self-reproaches and reproaches to her when he died.

Margaret’s younger brother, with some last reserve of strength, had pulled himself up to the roof of Belvelly, carrying a bow and arrow. Despite his starved state, he had enough strength to fit an arrow into the bow and fire it at Clon Rockenby, hitting him in the cheek and slicing through an artery in his face.

Clon’s last words were for Margaret Hodnett.

Margaret, with my last breath I curse you. May you seek for mirrors forever, and never find them.

Margaret Hodnett, it’s said, never regained her beauty, nor did she ever marry. For many years, she would not have a mirror anywhere near her. In her later years, she suffered from dementia, and only then, with her mind wandering, would she allow mirrors in Belvelly again: small ones, in which she vainly sought to see if, miraculously, her beauty had returned.

Toward the end of her life, she lived in a barred room in the castle. The servants feared that she might do herself harm otherwise.

She has haunted Belvelly ever since her death. She appears in the entrance hall where, so long ago, Clon Rockenby had smashed her favorite mirror to pieces–a lady in white, who sometimes wears a thick veil over her face, or sometimes is said to have no face at all; it is obscured by a luminous mist.

One thing she does, all who have seen her agree on: she rubs a place on the wall, in the exact spot where the Venetian mirror once hung, and then peers at that spot as if looking at herself. Rumor has it that she has rubbed a shiny spot on the stone wall over the years. . .

a shiny spot that looks like a mirror–and has been known to throw back the reflections of passersby.

FWIW, I was reminded of this story while watching an old episode of a 1990s TV series called Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction?. One of the featured stories (told for true, and alleged to have happened somewhere in Florida c. 1970) was about a self-absorbed beauty on whom a curse was placed–I curse you with the mirror of your soul– and who ever after saw a hideously ugly, almost monstrous face every time she looked in the mirror, though to others she looked the same as she always had.

Huh–a bit like the picture of Dorian Gray–

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This is not the story I intended to write today; but this one has a sort of naive charm all its own. Someday, I’ll get to Savannah, and when I do, I’ll pay my respects to Florence Martus, the Sweetheart of Mankind.

Down in the haunted city of Savannah, they refer to the late Florence Martus either as “Savannah’s Waving Girl” or, more evocatively, as “the Sweetheart of Mankind”. Her story so touches those in the city near where she spent forty-four years waving to passing ships that, thirty years after her death, they placed a statue of her on River Street.

Florence was a lovely young girl of eighteen when she moved with her older brother to his new job as the lightkeeper on Elba Island, seven miles out from town in Savannah harbor. It was sometime after that move that she met a young merchant seaman; they fell in love. They were engaged when her lover sailed away on another voyage. She made him a promise before he left that, come sunshine or storm, she would go out and wave her apron, greeting every passing ship until he returned.

That was the last she ever saw of him. Perhaps his ship was lost at sea; perhaps he fell ill and died far from home; perhaps he found a sweetheart in some foreign port and forgot Florence entirely. In any case, he never returned.

Florence, however, was faithful until death and beyond to her promise.

She would go out every time a ship passed the lighthouse and wave her apron in greeting, hoping against hope that one of the ships coming into the harbor would be the one that brought her true love home. More than once, over the years, she and her brother weathered storms that might have killed them had they not been sheltered in the bulk of the lighthouse, but when the wind and surge settled down and the sun came out, she was back out greeting incoming ships.

The men aboard the ships always returned her greetings. None of those men, sadly, was her fiance.

She kept up that promise for forty-four years, from 1887 to 1931, when her brother reached the mandatory retirement age of seventy and moved away.

Florence died in 1943. She has never been forgotten in Savannah, though. Nearly thirty years after her death, she was honored with a statue of her, waving her apron over her head as if greeting a ship, that stands in a plaza on River Street.

Sometimes, though, a report comes in from the harbor itself that a ship passing by Elba Island has spotted Florence, in front of her old home hard by the lighthouse, waving her apron as she did for so many years.

They still wave back. 🙂

I first read Florence Martus’s sweet sad story in Nancy Rhyne’s 1985 book Coastal Ghosts. Her story is also told by Nancy Roberts in Georgia Ghosts (1997).

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Scent of Roses

All God’s children get weary when they roam
Don’t it make you want to go home. . .
(Joe South)

Love–despite the myth that St. Valentine’s Day perpetuates–isn’t always a passion for another person. Sometimes, our strongest loves are for places, especially places where we were happy.

Memory, they say, is most strongly evoked, surprisingly, through our sense of smell. It doesn’t always have to be an actual physical odor that takes us back to a happier time and place; sometimes, the scent is a phantom one, perhaps called forth from memory by our longing. So it may have been for a beautiful Alabama girl, who followed a scent of roses to her death.

Out in West Texas, at a military installation called Fort Davis, trouble was brewing in the late winter and early spring of 1861. Back across the Mississippi River, in the older settled areas of the United States, war was coming: war over states’ rights and slavery and economics.

Among the officers stationed at the fort, some said bluntly that, when war broke out, they would return to fight for the Union their forefathers had created a bare eighty years before; others determined that they would fight for the new conglomeration of states that had seceded. Some of the wives at the fort were as strong in their convictions as their husbands.

One, a very young, very new bride, was simply homesick.

Alice Walpole was the Alabama-born wife of a lieutenant not long out of West Point. She was proud of her handsome husband, but she was frightened by all the talk of war; and, as the wife of the youngest officer on base, she was often lonely; she was as yet childless and had little in common with the older wives.

And she hated West Texas. Oh, it was a beautiful place in its way, with its vistas of cliffs and mountains, but it seemed very dry and barren to a girl used to the lush subtropical climate of Alabama: little grass, and the flowers weren’t what she was used to. More than anything that turbulent spring, she missed the early roses that bloomed in her mother’s garden.

It may have been her longing, one morning in early April, that carried a scent of roses to her on a slightly chilly wind.

Oh, if she could only locate the roses! She would dig them up, bring them back to the austere little house she and her husband shared, and transplant them. Come the next spring, they would bloom for her, and make this desolate place seem a little more like home.

Alice put on her heavy, bright-blue woolen cloak and slipped out of the house, guided by that scent toward the mountains. Her husband was out on patrol; there had been recent reports of Apaches nearby, but she figured her brave husband and his troopers had them occupied elsewhere.

Her husband returned to the fort later that evening.

Alice didn’t. Searches found only one trace of her, ever: her blue cloak, somewhere along the way to or from the mountains. They never knew exactly which.

Not long afterwards, though, a guard reported that he had, while on duty, been surprised by the sight of a woman in a blue cloak, hurrying by. He reported that she was carrying an incongruous armful of white roses.

He recognized her after a moment: Lieutenant Walpole’s missing wife!

But when he hailed her, she vanished in her tracks.

Alice Walpole, it appeared, had found her white roses.

When word came that war was declared, with the firing on Fort Sumter, the officers of Fort Davis began packing to return east and join battle. Seven of them resigned their commissions on the spot, intending to offer their services to the Confederacy once they were home. Among the seven was Lieutenant Walpole.

The post commander found, amid the turmoil, that someone had–unseen by anyone–slipped into his office that afternoon and left a vase containing seven white roses on his desk.

Seven roses; seven resignations.

They figured that Alice had left them.

Fort Davis was closed, following the declaration of war, until 1867, and after being restaffed remained open until 1891. It is now one of the best preserved historic military installations in the southwestern US.

Stories say, though, that Alice Walpole has never left the fort. Sometimes she’s seen, hurrying by in her blue cloak. More often, she visits unseen, manifesting as a scent of roses where there are none.

Oops–Forgot something, didn’t I? My sources for this story are Elaine Coleman’s Texas Haunted Forts (2001) and Nancy Roberts’ Civil War Ghost Stories and Legends (1992).

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A few years ago, at my old blog, I made a totally subjective list of a dozen songs I consider the sexiest in country music. This was, if I remember right, something like number nine on that list. Bocephus did this cover of an old Hollies tune on his 1983 album Man of Steel. It is, as is fairly typical of Bocephus, kinda over-testosteroned, but it’s also so danged sensuous it gives me hot flashes.

Pardon me–can’t fan and type at the same time– 😉

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hear the wind blow
hang your head over
hear the wind blow. . .

It’s sunny this morning in Knobite Corner, but the wind blows bitterly cold from the east; it bites through my clothes when I open the door to let Blackadder in for breakfast. That fierce bitter cold wind reminds me of a story from North Carolina.

I first read the story of the ghost girl on the palomino horse in Nancy Roberts’ This Haunted Southland: Where Ghosts Still Roam (1970); Roberts’ account is based on a 1926 magazine article by Reverend Charles Stewart McClellan Jr.

They say she was a beautiful young girl, the daughter of a farming family named Jenkins, whose acreage lay somewhere in the area of Fletcher, North Carolina. She was just of marriageable age when the Civil War came, and in love.

Her family did not approve. They were staunch Unionists, and the young man she loved was a Confederate soldier, a dashing young man who rode a palomino stallion.

Her family forbade her to marry him. Still, the young lovers met in secret near the Calvary Episcopal church, as often as they could, until her Rebel, risen to the rank of lieutenant, was ordered away to join in the battles for the railheads around Chattanooga.

She prayed daily for his return. Sometimes, she would go to the churchyard, where hard by the graveyard there was a well that had become known as a “wishing well”, and drop in some small offering, and make a wish that her lover would come home safe and that her family’s hearts would soften, and she could be with her true love forever.

Word that her lover had been killed was slow in coming, but it came. With its coming, she lost all will to live, and by autumn she lay in her grave, in the churchyard where she and her lover used to meet.

The day after her funeral was a brilliant fall day. The trees wore their best colors: the dogwoods in particular showed to advantage, in their lovely bloody red. But it was not the dogwoods, nor the maples, none of the red trees that heralded the cold wind that suddenly roared out of nowhere; it was the pines, swaying and singing their eerie mournful song.

Farmer Jenkins was sitting on his front porch when the wind rose. He could hear, above the moans of the pine thicket, the sound of hoofbeats. His heart almost stopped when, up the road from the churchyard, there dashed up to the porch a palomino stallion, very like the one his daughter’s lover had ridden. On its back sat his newly-buried daughter. She wore the gossamer-thin white dress in which she had been buried, but over it was something she hadn’t worn to her grave: a heavy gray cavalry cape, such as a Confederate cavalry officer would have worn to keep off the cold.

Horse and rider stopped in front of him, and his daughter–his newly buried daughter–stared into his face, her eyes blazing with anger.

She spoke to him, and the first words out of her mouth were feel how cold the wind blows, Father? Colder for me than for you.

And then she laid a curse on him. In the spring to come, she said, the Union would be winning the war. And in the spring, she would come again to the old farm. She would be followed by Union troops, who would see her, in her Confederate gray, dash into his barn; taking him, by this evidence, for a Confederate sympathizer, they would burn the whole farm to the ground.

Come spring, General Stoneman’s troops came to Fletcher. They had no sooner arrived than twenty-three of them were led into a Confederate ambush while chasing after a girl on a palomino, her gray cavalry cape flying on an unseasonably cold wind. The twenty-three hapless troopers were killed, and Stoneman, in exasperation, gave an order to chase down the girl.

Those who followed her said she rode like the wind. They fired on her, but none of the bullets seemed to faze her in the least. It seemed, in the broad light of day, that the cape she wore was full of bullet holes, from shots fired before.

She rode into a barn on a fairly prosperous-looking farm. When they charged into the barn after her, she was nowhere to be seen, nor had she ridden through and vanished out the other end of the barn when they chased out that way. She was simply gone.

In frustration, the troopers burnt the farm to the ground. The Jenkinses were left homeless and destitute.

Stoneman’s troops moved on, and, in any case, the war was soon over.

But they say the girl on the palomino doesn’t seem to know that her curse on her father is long fulfilled and the war that killed her lover and led indirectly to her own death is over. She has been seen many times over the years since, riding alongside the road from Fletcher to Arden, North Carolina, always in a great rush of cold wind, no matter what the season. Sometimes she vanishes into the graveyard of the old Calvary Episcopal Church. Once she’s out of sight, the wind dies down to a desolate stillness.

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Death Angels

. . .no, you don’t know the one
who dreams of you at night
and longs to kiss your lips
and longs to hold you tight. . .
(C. Walker, E. Arnold, “You Don’t Know Me”, 1955)

And so it was, a century before Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold wrote that melancholy lyric about a would-be lover, with Lucy Cobb.

Lucy was a bit past marriageable age for her day–the mid-nineteenth century–, a tall, robust woman, but plain of face, inarticulate and somewhat sullen of disposition; capable of running her own business–a boarding house for workers on the canals of Columbiana County, Ohio–but incapable of being pretty and a bit silly, as some men prefer their women to be.

Tommy, the young man to whom she gave her thirty-something heart, was one of those men.

Lucy couldn’t tell Tommy of her love; she hadn’t the words. Nor did she have the looks nor the stream of aimless, cheerful prattle that attracted him to a younger, prettier woman in town named Sarah. Lucy expressed her love in practical ways; she brought him special treats, placing them on the windowsill of his room, slices of her beautifully made and tasty pies and cakes. Tommy ate the offerings, and thanked her graciously for them, and somehow, that gave Lucy hope that one day he would take note of her silent devotion and return her love.

That hope died the day when, while she was placing a cherry tart on his windowsill, she spotted him out in the warm late spring weather, kissing the pretty, prattling Sarah as only a lover kisses.

That same day, the pair announced their engagement.

Lucy was fit to be tied. How dare that brazen hussy win Tommy’s heart? She probably couldn’t even cook! And as for Tommy–how dare he take those practical offerings from a loving, if shy, heart, then affiance himself to another woman?

Lucy suffered a mental breakdown of sorts that day, one supposes. She wanted revenge, not only on Sarah, but on Tommy, for his betrayal.

So she went out to a secluded corner of her yard. There, in the shadow of a retaining wall, she dug two graves. Then she picked some mushrooms that grew in that same shadow: the deadly poison Amanita ocreata–also known as death angel mushrooms.

She cooked these mushrooms in one of her wonderful stews, and invited the unsuspecting Tommy and Sarah to dinner.

The pair were never seen alive again.

Lucy gave out that they had come to dinner to tell her they planned to elope, and that she had seen them on their way, bidding them Godspeed.

She somewhat abruptly threw all her boarders out–the better to guard her secret, perhaps–, and for the rest of her life lived as a recluse. No one suspected, until many years after she was gone, that she had laid Tommy and Sarah in those pitiful graves by the stone wall, in the dead of night, following their agonizing deaths, covering them with such diabolical cleverness that all trace of them was lost.

Once a man out walking his dog was startled to find the animal digging frantically by that wall, long after the boarding house had collapsed into ruins. The dog unearthed a bone that proved to belong to a man–a very young one, no older than his early twenties.

People who remembered Tommy and Sarah, and Lucy Cobb’s long decline, wondered uneasily if that bone belonged to Tommy–who was in his early twenties when he disappeared–and if, just perhaps, they might find Sarah’s remains nearby.

The next day, the man whose dog had found the bone returned, with neighbors and shovels, to search.

They found that his footprints, and those of his dog, and the hole the dog had dug, were nowhere to be found, in the area by the wall. It was smooth and sodded over as if nothing had ever disturbed the earth there.

Not even the death angels that covered the area showed any sign of disturbance.

For reasons of their own, the neighbors gave up the search.

Somewhere, in the shadow of a wall in Columbiana County, two graves lie. They have never been located again.

Lucy Cobb, it would seem, is still guarding the secret of her love and the dreadful ending to which it came.

The story of Lucy Cobb and the Death Angel stew comes from Chris Woodyard’s 1997 book Haunted Ohio IV: Restless Spirits.

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