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Archive for June, 2011

Well my name is Mick Ryan, I’m lyin’ here still
In a lonely spot near where I was killed
By a red man defending his native land
At the place that they call Little Bighorn. . .

One hundred thirty five years ago today, a daredevil of a soldier, notable for both his bravery and his recklessness, took the biggest gamble of his military career and lost. George Armstrong Custer split his Seventh Cavalry into three columns and launched an attack against the biggest Native American tribal gathering ever seen: a giant village of some six to eight thousand Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, led by, among others, the legendary warriors Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Gall.

Within an hour, Custer and some two hundred twenty, or thereabout, men under his direct command were dead. Another forty or fifty would be killed in action at Reno Crossing, so called after the commander at that point on the field, Major Marcus Reno.

It was, without doubt, the greatest victory–and the costliest–any confederation of Native American tribes ever won.

And, naturally, it left a remarkable ghostly legacy behind it.

Legend has it that there were odd phenomena associated with the Battle of the Little Bighorn–to Native Americans, the Greasy Grass–even before the battle itself. Custer’s wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, recounted in her memoirs that, when the Seventh left Fort Abraham Lincoln in mid-May 1876, a mirage appeared to split the long column, so that nearly half the regiment seemed to ride off above the trail into the sky and disappear.

Ominous, indeed: nearly half the regiment would, within six weeks, die in battle.

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The Little Bighorn battlefield became a military cemetery and national monument within a very few years after the battle, and almost immediately gained a reputation as a haunted place. In 1894, a stone house was built for the park’s first superintendent, whom the local Crow tribesmen called “the Ghost Herder”; they believed that the superintendent allowed the dead of the Little Bighorn to walk the night hours, after the American flag was taken down, then sent them back to their graves with the raising of the flag at sunrise.

The Stone House is said to be haunted itself. People who have stayed in it say that their nights were disturbed by phantom footsteps, banging and knocking noises with no apparent origins, objects that seem to move from one place to another of their own volition, doorknobs that turn on their own to admit nobody, lights that turn themselves on and off, and at least once by a partial apparition that appeared at the foot of a ranger’s bed, then vanished through a solid wall.

The oddest incident involving the Stone House occurred in 1983. A Crow ranger, park interpreter and tribal historian named Mardell Plainfeather spotted lights burning on the second floor of the then-empty building. A bit spooked–she knew the building’s reputation for strange happenings–she called another ranger named Michael Massie to come check the building with her.

Massie sent Plainfeather home and went into the building alone, leaving his wife, Ruth, back at their apartment in a nearby complex. Massie found the building deserted, but the lights on the second floor on. He turned them off and was leaving the building when his wife came running up, screaming in panic. When she calmed down a bit, she told him that, back in their apartment, the television had gone haywire; the picture had gone to snow and a voice–definitely not one belonging to an actor on the show she was watching–had said distinctly . . .the second floor of the stone house. . . Knowing that her husband was at the Stone House, and afraid something might have happened to him, she had rushed out, and almost collapsed when she found him safe and well and on his way home.

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. . .And the band, they played that Garryowen
Brass was shinin’, flags a-flowin’
I swear if I had only known
I’d’ve wished that I’d died back in Vicksburg. . .

In that same year of 1983, a young student intern named Christine Hope encountered a full-body apparition of a soldier killed at Reno Crossing. Hope lived, that summer, in an apartment right at the edge of the battlefield cemetery. She woke, one hot night, to the sight of a young blond man with a handlebar mustache and dressed in an 1870s cavalry uniform, seated in the easy chair across the room.

She had never seen, she would report later, such a look of fear and sorrow on a man’s face. She watched, frozen in horror, as he sat there, unmoving, and then vanished.

Later that day, she and a friend made a trip to Reno Crossing, where troops under the command of Major Marcus Reno had narrowly avoided annihilation that long ago June day. At the crossing, she abruptly paused alongside a marker, on the riverbank, honoring 2nd Lieutenant Benjamin Hodgson. Hodgson had almost made it back across the river during Reno’s frantic retreat when he was shot through the leg by a bullet that killed his horse; Hodgson had grabbed another soldier’s stirrup and was pulled across the river. He was climbing up the riverbank to safety when a second shot killed him, and his body rolled to the spot now marked.

Hope later identified a photograph of Hodgson as that of the man she had seen in her apartment. She learned that she was not the first to see “Benny” Hodgson’s ghost, and that everyone who had ever reported a sighting of him had seen him the night before they made a pilgrimage to Reno Crossing.

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Mardell Plainfeather, at one time, had her own sweat lodge along the banks of the river. She had, in 1982, allowed an old man of her Crow tribe to use it. After he was finished with his ritual purification, he stopped by and asked Plainfeather to go by before dark and make sure that the fire was out in the lodge.

Plainfeather went out on that moonlit night and poured water over the stones in the lodge and made sure the fire was out, then stepped back outside to a breathtaking sight: on the bluff above her, silhouetted against the moon, sat two warriors on horseback. She could see their shields and feather decorations on their hair and weapons, and was fairly certain they were either Sioux or Cheyenne. She also knew they couldn’t be living men, for no one was allowed on the battlefield at night, and–significantly–horses weren’t allowed there at all.

She left quickly. The next day, she went up on the bluff and found no traces to show horses or warriors had ever been there; nor were there any plants she might have mistaken for men on horseback. She said prayers and left offerings of tobacco and sage for all the dead of the Little Bighorn.

She never saw the warriors again.

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. . .He spoke with Gen’ral Custer and said Listen, Yellowhair,
The Sioux air a great nation, so treat ’em fair and square
Sit in on their war councils, don’t laugh away their pride

But Custer didn’t listen. . .at Little Bighorn Custer died. . .

Well, you might figure a big personality like Custer–whose recklessness and thirst for glory cost him and his troopers their lives–would remain in this world.

Several times it’s been reported that Custer’s ghost, in the buckskins, red scarf and white hat he wore on the day of the battle, his famous hair cut unusually short, has been seen walking on Last Stand Hill. Those who have seen him say he seems rather confused, and apparently is looking for the men (who included, by the way, two of his brothers, a nephew and a brother-in-law) he lost in battle.

Custer’s spirit has also been seen at Fort Riley in Kansas, where he and his wife Libby spent several years in the late 1860s.

Libby Custer, incidentally, was with a group of women back at Fort Abraham Lincoln, sewing and singing hymns, on that long ago June 25th. All of the women, that long hot summer, were unusually worried about their menfolk, especially after that odd mirage they’d seen in mid-May. Sometime around four PM, Libby reported later, she fainted. She would later learn that 4 PM was roughly the time her husband was killed.

Perhaps the oddest sighting of Custer, however, occurred a full fourteen years after his death, at a most unexpected place: at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. It has been reported that, on December 29, 1890, both his ghost and that of Sitting Bull, who had been shot and killed two weeks earlier, were seen side by side, watching as one hundred fifty three Sioux were killed–by members of the reorganized Seventh Cavalry.

Those who saw Custer that day said he, like Sitting Bull, seemed to be grieving at the loss of life.

Hard to believe. . .

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The most striking accounts of ghosts of the Little Bighorn have come from people who have seemingly relived the battle. One such, a Vietnam veteran from New Orleans, was missing for several hours. His worried friends had just initiated a search for him when he reappeared, pale, shaking and covered in dust. He said that, as he walked along Last Stand Hill, he could see and hear and smell the battle taking place around him. . .and then, the whole ghastly tableau vanished.

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There are many haunted battlefields around the world (we have three in Tennessee alone, all dating to the Civil War era) but the Little Bighorn seems to be one of the most haunted. So much fear, so much dust, so much blood must leave an imprint, and so, it seems, they have.

And I’m haunted by that Garryowen,
Drums a-beating, bugles blowin’
I swear if I had only known. . .

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For more information about the ghosts of the Little Bighorn, check out these sources:

Haunted America (1994), by Michael Norman and Beth Scott.

Mysteries of the Unexplained (1982), Reader’s Digest Books

Ghosts of the Old West (1988), by Earl P. Murray

Haunted U.S. Battlefields (2008), by Mary Beth Crain

Painting, The Custer Fight by famed Western artist Charles M. Russell (1903)

Song lyrics: “Mick Ryan’s Lament”, written by Robert Emmet Dunlap. This story of a fictional Irish soldier who survives the Civil War only to die at the Little Bighorn is set to the tune “Garryowen”, the Irish quickstep that Custer himself chose as the Seventh Cav’s marching music–slowed down considerably of course. 😉 There are several decent renditions of the song on YouTube, but Her Majesty Queen DinoSnob suggests that you seek out the version recorded by her beloved Tim O’Brien on his CD Two Journeys (2001).

The anomalous quote about a conversation with “Yellowhair”–the name Native Americans bestowed on the blond balding Custer–comes from a Johnny Horton song called “Jim Bridger”, recorded sometime in the late 1950s.

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Earworm

Been crooning this song to myself for the past hour.

I don’t remember the Vogues’ recording of “Turn Around (Look at Me)”; in 1968 I was only seven and my dad didn’t let us listen to anything but classic country back then. I learned it, to the best of my recollection, somewhere around 1980, from a group at the Grand Ol’ Opry called the Four Guys.

Love the song, though, no matter who sings it. 🙂

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Silks and Jasmine

This image is of an area in San Marino, California’s Huntington Botanical Gardens. At the moment–even though wisteria has long since bloomed and faded–I’m using it as wallpaper on my computer. It seems to me breathtaking in its serenity. I sit and look at it and imagine a little seating area, shady and quiet, where I could curl up with a book and listen to the wind blow and enjoy the stillness–possibly over to the right, hidden behind those massive evergreens.

And–such is my whimsy–there’s a ghost story here somewhere, even though my researches indicate otherwise and I’m in the midst of plotting one myself.

I’m reminded, even as I plot, of another garden, in a far different place–Vicksburg, Mississippi–a far different time–1861, the first year of the Civil War–and a far different season of the year–autumn. In the south the warmth of summer can linger far into October and even November, but I can imagine great leafy oaks and maples turning red and gold, and fall flowers–chrysanthemums, perhaps, and asters, maybe even those tiny wild ones we call frostflowers, that bloom six weeks before the first frost of winter comes, or one last cascade of roses, spilling over a trellis or down a wall. There’s a story of a lady who once cared for this garden, who worked in it, walked in it, took comfort there in those days of war, and found solace, finally, from a grief that struck to the very roots of her soul. There are those there who say she still walks there on autumn evenings, although she last walked there living more than a century ago.

At the time of the Civil War, the property was owned by Judge William Lake and his wife of twenty-five years. They were a quietly devoted couple: he still a handsome man in his maturity and his wife, to his fond eyes, still as lovely as she had been the day she became his bride. She wore silk dresses in the summer, and he loved to hear their skirts rustle as she went about the myriad chores of keeping house–and now, war work, making flags, socks and shirts for Mississippi soldiers. He also loved the subtle floral perfume she wore; he had brought her first bottle to her from New Orleans, in the early days of their marriage, and she had worn it ever since: a combination of scents, with jasmine, perhaps, the most notable.

She loved her garden more than anything save her husband, and he encouraged her to spend as much time there as possible, especially as the war news grew more dire and it became apparent that this was no short war, over by Christmas.

One day in autumn, though, the judge had more on his mind than the war. For the first time in his married life, when he returned to his office after lunch, he was fairly certain he would not be coming home to his wife, save as a corpse.

He was about to fight a duel against a political opponent, a rival for a seat in the Confederate congress.

Nowadays, politicians sling hateful words at one another, and no one suffers anything much save a bruised ego or a truncated political career, depending on how insinuations stick. Back then, though, “them wuz fightin’ words”, and, although dueling was illegal in Mississippi by then, the judge felt he had no choice but to defend himself on the field of honor. Hence, he and his opponent, their seconds and doctors, were to row across the Mississippi to the Louisiana shore, where hotblooded Cajuns and Creoles still satisfied their honor with gunplay.

He may have hugged and kissed his wife with somewhat more fervor than usual, as he wished her a lovely afternoon, but he didn’t tell her that he was going to duel. He didn’t want her to worry.

So it was that, late in the afternoon, one of her house servants came running to her with the news, which had spread through the grapevine, among the slaves of Vicksburg, long before any word reached the white folks.

Mrs. Lake had been planning to spend some time in her garden, deadheading the late roses and moving some of the more delicate plants to a warm haven for the winter. Instead, she spent it in horrified silence, watching through opera glasses–with them, she could see clear across the river to the dueling grounds at De Soto Point.

Watching as her husband and his opponent made their play.

Watching as her husband fell to the ground.

Watching as the doctor rose from his side and shook his head.

Watching as her husband’s body was carried, limp and lifeless, to a boat for its penultimate journey, back to his home.

Only then did she walk downstairs and into her garden, to wander aimlessly in her shock and grief, until they brought him to her.

It’s been more than a century since Mrs. Lake followed her husband to the grave, but families who have lived in their house, and who have lovingly tended her garden since, say that on some afternoons, especially in the last warm days of autumn, they see her shadowy figure, strolling along the paths she laid out long ago.

Other times, they hear only the rustle of her silk skirts, and smell a floral perfume, very different from the scents of the late blooms that grow there.

Perhaps, as in her happier days, she still finds solace in her garden.

So they hope.

The story of Judge Lake’s wife and her beloved garden is best told by the late Kathryn Tucker Windham, in her 1974 book 13 Mississippi Ghosts and Jeffrey.

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I found my first book by Kathryn Tucker Windham, the legendary Alabama journalist and storyteller, in our public library here in Knobite Corner. I was around thirteen, I suppose, a wide-eyed young thang, fascinated already with stories of the returning dead, and with never a thought that, one day, I’d be a blogger and–ahem–ghost writer myself.

Mrs. Windham’s books about ghosts were a mere seven volumes among many she wrote during her career, but those seven–especially the first six (the seventh was comprised of favorite material from the others)–have been major influences on me and my writing.

That first one I found in the library was 1973’s 13 Georgia Ghosts and Jeffrey. (Jeffrey was the poltergeist who haunted Mrs. Windham’s home in Selma, Alabama.) What captured and held my attention, then as now, was her very matter-of-fact way with a story; the very matter-of-factness in the stories made them supremely eerie and dramatic, as did the illustrations done by various artists for each volume, and also her own photographs of some of the sites she wrote about.

My dear friend, professional storyteller and fellow crochet maven Shelly Tucker, had met Mrs. Windham a few years ago at a storytelling festival. Shelly and I made a pact that, someday–maybe when I could get over my paralyzing stage fright and actually stand in front of an audience and tell stories instead of just writing them–, she would let me tag along on one of her storytelling gigs and introduce me to Mrs. Windham, a great lady in the southern tradition–as Shelly described her, “the epitome of southern charm–you’d adore her.”

Sadly, time ran a little short for us. Yesterday, Kathryn Tucker Windham passed away at her home in Selma. She was ninety-three, and a storyteller to the end.

The article linked above (thanks to Shelly for the link) is a fascinating profile of a fascinating lady, and comes with a video that tells about Jeffrey, all in her distinctive slow Alabama drawl.

May she rest well. . .may Shelly and I and others who share our passion for a good story carry on the tradition well. . .

and, just maybe, may I get my wish to sit at her feet and listen to her stories, over on the other side.

This afternoon, though, with clouds hanging sullenly over Knobite Corner, rain threatening, and the day generally dull and perfect for a ghost story, I’m gonna settle in with her books, to celebrate a life well lived and stories well told. 🙂

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The Conjure Chest

There are many stories about objects that carry a curse with them: a great blue-white gem called the Hope Diamond, a tiger’s-eye ring worn by the late Rudolph Valentino, a bowie knife that brought about the death of a purchaser back in the Roaring Twenties. The spookiest story of a cursed object I’ve ever run across comes from antebellum Kentucky, where a beautiful chest of drawers (“chester drors” as we pronounce it in the knobs) had a curse laid on it in revenge for its murdered maker.

On plantations in the antebellum South, there were many occupations held by slaves, from house servants through skilled craftsmen down to field hands. Jacob Cooley, who owned a large plantation near Frankfort, Kentucky, owned a slave named Hosea who was one of the most skilled craftsmen in the state. Hosea made furniture.

It was a piece of his own making that brought about his death. Jacob Cooley was a harsh disciplinarian at best and an evil bastard at worst. When his wife was carrying their first child, Jacob–who with an arrogance typical of him assumed that firstborn would be a son–ordered Hosea to build a chest of drawers for the baby’s room.

Hosea made a beautiful chest of drawers, with which any man but Jacob Cooley would have been well pleased. Jacob Cooley, though, hated the finished piece and, in a rage, beat Hosea so badly that he died a few days later.

And so, despite the injustice and the anger of Hosea’s fellow slaves, the matter might have ended–save for this: one of Cooley’s other slaves was a “conjure man”, who remembered and practiced the ways of his people far across the sea.

One dark night, as Jacob Cooley slept, the slaves gathered in the conjure man’s cabin. It’s not certain, now, how they managed to get possession, that one night, of the chest; but a curse of death was placed on it for all future generations of Jacob Cooley’s lineage. One drawer was sprinkled full of dried owl’s blood, and a conjure chant was sung.

Despite his hatred of the piece–and possibly out of guilt–Jacob Cooley eventually put the chest of drawers in his as yet unborn child’s room.

It would be satisfying to say that Jacob Cooley was the first to fall victim to the curse. Unfortunately, that firstborn–a son–died within days of his birth.

That baby boy was only the first of Jacob’s descendents to die of the curse.

~~The second Cooley son was, as a young man, stabbed to death by his personal servant.

The chest of drawers fell by inheritance to Cooley’s third son, John, whose wife tactfully stored it in the attic, knowing the tragic associations it had for his family.

Eventually, though, she gave it to her sister-in-law, Jacob Cooley’s youngest daughter, Melinda, as a housewarming gift when she and the man with whom she had eloped, a charming but lazy Irishman named Sean, set up housekeeping on another holding of the Cooley family.

Melinda bore many children, and was left to raise them alone when her husband deserted her and moved to New Orleans.

~~Melinda became the third victim of the curse, dying of worry and overwork before she was forty.

~~The Cooleys received word shortly after her death that her loutish husband, Sean, had been killed when a steamboat’s descending gangplank hit him in the head.

John Cooley and his wife, Ellie, adopted one of Melinda’s orphans, a little girl named Evelyn. Evelyn married at seventeen; Ellie gave the happy couple the conjure chest, perhaps hoping that the previous deaths had only been coincidental. They weren’t.

Evelyn and her husband adopted a young orphan themselves, a girl named Arabella. Evelyn stored Arabella’s wedding dress in the chest.

~~Within months, Arabella’s husband and only child died within weeks of each other.

Another bride in the family, Evelyn’s daughter-in-law Esther, also stored her bridal finery in the chest. Esther died shortly thereafter.

An aunt knitted a scarf and gloves for her son’s Christmas present one year, and with Evelyn’s permission stored the gifts in the chest. The boy was killed shortly thereafter when he fell from a train trestle.

One of Evelyn’s biological daughters was deserted by her husband after storing some items in the chest.

One of Evelyn’s younger children was crippled in a freak accident when its clothing was put in the chest.

Evelyn, overwhelmed by the spate of deaths in the family, yet not seeming to realize the chest as the common denominator in all the tragedies, took her own life. She was the eleventh victim of the conjure man’s curse.

Eventually, sometime in the early twentieth century, Evelyn’s granddaughter inherited the conjure chest. She scoffed at the notion of a curse on the lovely piece of furniture–until her firstborn died after its layette was stored in the chest.

Eventually, after several other accidents and violent deaths raised the total of fatalities associated with the chest to sixteen, this owner, Virginia Cary Hudson, consulted an old friend of the family, a black woman called Annie.

Annie, as it happened, was a conjure woman.

She told Mrs. Hudson, after hearing the story, that three conditions would have to be met before the curse could be lifted:

. . .someone would have to give Mrs. Hudson, unprompted, a stuffed dead owl.

. . .a pot filled with leaves from a willow tree would have to be boiled from sunrise to sunset, with the owl sitting nearby.

. . .and then, the likker off the boiled willow would have to be poured into a jug and the jug buried under a flowering bush, with the jug’s handle facing east, toward the morning sun.

Within a short time, Mrs. Hudson had the owl; a family friend had given one to her son.

She and Annie got together and boiled the willow leaves while the owl stood guard nearby, then buried the jugful of likker under a lilac bush, then in full bloom, with the handle facing east.

And then, they waited to see if the curse had been lifted. Annie told her that, if one of them died shortly, they would be the last.

Annie died the September following that strange lifting of the curse. She was the seventeenth, and last, known victim.

Mrs. Hudson’s daughter, Virginia Mayne, was the last private owner of the chest. She never used it; after storing it in her attic for many years, she finally, it’s said, gave it to the Kentucky History Museum in Frankfort in 1976.

And there it remains. At last report, it had never been put on display, remaining in storage. And the museum staff, they say, have placed a powerful talisman against the curse in that old blooded drawer, where the owl’s blood was placed so long ago: a handful of feathers from an owl.

The story of the Conjure Chest and its dreadful curse comes from Michael Norman and Beth Scott’s 1994 book Haunted America.

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Bedtime Music: Hazard

When this song first came out, right around twenty years ago (yikes!), I either read, or heard Richard Marx say in an interview, that he woke up one morning with a couple of lines ringing in his ears:

I swear I left her by the river
I swear I left her safe and sound

and around those lines built this story of a missing girl and the young man who may–or may not–know exactly what happened to her.

I was intrigued by Marx’s explanation because that’s one of the two ways I write poetry:

One way, I refer to as the Nike School of Poetry: Just do it. 😉

The other is to begin with a single line or image and build around that.

I’ve always visualized this song in sepia tones, for some reason–sepia and mist.

Okay, yeah, I’m a strange knobite, even among strange ones. 😀

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How many years do you mean to live after I am gone?

After a season of fever
the grave was a cool shelter,
a haven for the soul accursed,
the heart betrayed,
the body scorched.

And still I sing the question around the Heights, love.
The north wind and I scream and laugh and weep
of nights.

I ride the driven snow.
It is no paler than my shade.

I have danced like a fairy woman in caves of ice,
on the banks of slow-rolling subterranean streams,
the worthless body
the shroud of stone that bound me to the earth
shed like a shadow in the shawled mirror

And still I sing the question on winter nights,
the north wind and I weird sisters,
screaming, laughing, weeping, mourning at last.

You do not come to me.
You fear your death at my cold hands, my frosty kisses.

Poem copyright 1993/2011 by Faire Lewis.

In notes accompanying individual works in The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, the late Ted Hughes characterizes several poems as “fragment[s] extracted from a tangle of corrected manuscript” and concludes “this poem must be regarded as unfinished.” That’s rather how I feel about this one, which I ran across in the course of going through a container of old journals before consigning them to the shredder–

but damned if I can figure out how to finish this one– (^_^)

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