Archive for October, 2011

We refer to “lynch mobs”–

but what if one man carries out vigilante justice on his own?

And what if he truly believes he’ll be rewarded in Heaven, even though he only had reason for vengeance–to his twisted way of thinking–on one of the men he killed?

This story comes from Joseph A. Citro’s Green Mountain Ghosts, Ghouls and Unsolved Mysteries (1994); his source was James Reynolds’ Ghosts in American Houses (1955).

And to tell you the truth, this story makes me profoundly uneasy. I understand that one man, for certain, had earned his dreadful fate, and that it was just a matter of time until the others were killed by one of their marks or taken into custody, but I’m not too happy with the idea that one man appoints himself judge, jury and executioner, and says God will reward him.

Was it God or the Devil himself who would reward him?

The threads of Fate sometimes are a long time weaving and drawing us to people and places. In the cases of four criminals named Terrance Blunt, Andrew Marr, “Fat Frank” Ballard, and Calvin Longstreet, it took fifteen years.

Terrance Blunt left Baton Rouge under a cloud in 1820, having stolen ten thousand dollars from his rich father. He never returned to Baton Rouge, and soon blew the money, but he learned to take more where he could find it–sometimes by con games, sometimes with a marked deck, sometimes with a gun.

Andrew Marr called himself a gambler, but he was actually more of an embezzler and grifter. Around the time Blunt was leaving Louisiana, Marr felt the victims of his cons breathing down the back of his neck and, finding his ill-gotten gains too heavy to carry with him, buried them in a pit not far from Rochester, New York, and set out to make more such–hopefully, more portable ones.

“Fat Frank” Ballard was a bully and thief who made Des Moines too hot to hold him after he beat an innkeeper nearly to death during the course of a robbery. Not liking the way the wind blew, carrying mutters about neck-stretching, in Des Moines, he hit the open road.

The worst of a bad lot, though, was Calvin Longstreet. Calvin resented his upbringing, it would seem, for when he began violating and murdering women in early California, his first victim was his own mother, an actress. Nowadays, we’d call him a serial killer, and the FBI and the media would be tracking his every suspected movement. In his time, he was just a shadow who flitted out of towns across the country with the blood of his latest victim on his hands.

And so, for fifteen years, these four men, criminals all, worked their way cross-country.

And lo and behold, they all fetched up in a single place–the annual St. Johnsbury fair, held each year near Waterford, Vermont.

Andrew Marr and Fat Frank Ballard actually met at the fair a year before Blunt and Longstreet drifted into the area. Liking the pickings, the two, pretending they were government surveyors, settled in and, along with the locals, decried the rising local crime rate–a rate to which they were assiduously contributing.

Somewhere, in the weeks leading up to the 1835 fair, Blunt and Longstreet met up. Blunt was looking for greener pastures; the wariness of his would-be marks in the towns he had passed through lately had been genuinely hurtful.

Longstreet, meanwhile, was, as serial killers near the ends of their careers are prone to do–so the psychologists assure us–beginning to get careless. He had been seen with his last three victims, each of whom was found, violated, bloodied and throttled, with a scarf around her neck. Primitive wanted–dead or alive posters, with amazingly accurate descriptions of the suspected killer and truly eye-popping rewards for his arrest and capture were to be seen in nearly every town in Vermont–

which begs the question: why didn’t the down-and-out Blunt turn him in?

Either there truly is some sort of honor among criminals, or Blunt was in his misery totally oblivious. In any case, they appeared at the fair, and the strings of Fate brought them together with Marr and Ballard.

Longstreet slipped away from his companions long enough to kill a lovely, kindhearted local girl called Tessie Bowden.

He was seen–by a self-appointed avenger.

The evil quartet found the pickings quite good at that year’s fair, but they supplemented their incomes with a few judicious robberies in the surrounding countryside.

They hit one such place on a night of thunder, lightning and rain: a homestead consisting of a ramshackle house, a collapsing barn, and a few hardscrabble fields, the home of a widowed religious fanatic called Uriah Washburn and his clubfooted son, Dabby, who had gained some renown in the area as an herbalist.

At first, the four played the parts of travelers needing shelter for the night. Uriah, a member of a contemporary apocalyptic sect called the Millerites, thought of himself in terms of a vengeful emissary of God, but he evidently didn’t recognize the travelers for the evildoers they were; he merely sent them to the house to dry out and went to the barn to see to their horses.

Dabby, his herbalist son, was another matter entirely.

Dabby had seen Calvin Longstreet murder Tessie Bowden.

Well, gentlemen, he said genially, we have no strong drink on the premises, for, as the Bible says, strong drink is raging. But may I offer you a glass of my homemade root beer? It’s quite fine.

They accepted. At various times in their careers, they’d all been reduced to drinking root beer; they’d have preferred something stronger, but needs must.

Terrance Blunt, perhaps, drank faster or deeper than the others. He was the first to notice that this didn’t taste like any root beer he’d had before.

What kind of. . .

He never got the words out. He fell to his knees, vomiting and dying in a convulsion.

Fat Frank’s heart gave out from the stress. He fell dead beside Blunt.

Andrew Marr died trying to catch a breath to scream.

Only Calvin Longstreet managed, between bouts of vomiting, to ask Dabby Washburn why? Why?

Dabby just laughed. I saw you kill Tessie, he said simply. Tessie was always good to me–never made fun of me for being crippled and all–

He got right down in Longstreet’s dying face. None of you lot any good. Anyway, God will reward me for the work I’ve done this night.

Uriah Washburn had, after he saw to the horses, wandered off into the tempest, perhaps praying that this was the storm that signaled the end of the world. When he came back home at daylight, he found that a beaming Dabby had managed, cripple or no, to drag the four bodies out to the barn and hang them from the rafters.

They left them hanging there, and went off to town to collect the bounty on Calvin Longstreet’s head.

The Washburn house and barn are long gone, but the air and the land and the darkness have never forgotten Dabby’s revenge. They say that, for long years after the barn collapsed, that on some nights you could still see four bodies, dangling on the ends of four ropes, swaying in the night wind.

I must say–if heaven and hell there are–there’s more the stench of hell than the sweet breezes of heaven in this story–Just sayin’

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The Mob

Sometimes the rough justice of a mob takes care of business, in a few minutes, that would take the law years to accomplish.

And sometimes, as in this story from the Michigan woods, rough justice comes to the mob.

They were cousins: Big Mac–born a MacDougall–and Little Mac–born a MacDonald–, known collectively as the MacDonald boys, for reasons lost to history. In Menominee, they were known as a couple of bullies and rednecks, destined to come to bad ends.

They set those ends in motion when, in the spring of 1881, they stabbed Sheriff Ruprecht and nearly killed him.

From his bed the sheriff deputized a giant of a man named George Kittson to go after the MacDonalds. George, one of three sons of an English father and a Native American mother, did so with dispatch, and the MacDonalds went to jail for a few months.

They came out of stir in September, breathing fire and vengeance, against the sheriff, against George Kittson, against the world.

George Kittson’s younger brother Norman tended bar at a sleazy joint known as the Montreal House in Menominee’s red-light district, which the locals called Frenchtown. The MacDonalds showed up there as soon as they were released from jail, downing shots at an alarming rate and warning Norman Kittson that George was a dead man.

Eventually, they decided they’d go over and enjoy themselves awhile with the sporting ladies at a nearby brothel. There they ran into the third Kittson brother, young Billy.

Billy was as drunk as the MacDonalds, and a fight broke out. Billy smashed a bottle over one of the MacDonalds’ heads, decided the better part of valor was discretion, and went out, intending to go over to the relative safety of the Montreal House. He met Norman halfway. Norman just had time to shout a warning before the MacDonalds jumped Billy from behind.

As Billy roared defiantly Ain’t scared o’ them SOBs, Big Mac hit him over the head with a club, then stabbed him as he lay on the ground. Norman ran to Billy’s aid, only to be socked in the jaw and nearly knocked out by Little Mac.

Billy staggered to his feet, only to be stabbed in the side of the head by Little Mac.

Norman, almost unconscious, pulled a pistol out of his pocket and fired twice, hitting Little Mac in the leg. The cousins took off, while Billy, bloody and dying, managed to walk into the Montreal House and up to the bar. In the best tradition of the Old West, he ordered a round of drinks for everybody in the house, then fell over dead.

Somebody–history doesn’t say whether it was George Kittson or not–arrested the MacDonalds at the train depot a few hours later, just before they boarded a train. They were taken back to the jail and jugged pending prosecution.

In small towns the world over, no matter what their crimes, it’s often hard to find anyone willing to testify against local bullies, and the MacDonalds were no exception. Word got out the day after Billy Kittson’s murder that the prosecution was having trouble putting together a case against them and they might end up going free.

The lumbermen of the Menominee woods were having none of it. They talked on street corners and in bars and then formed one of those itinerant traveling courts, Honorable Judge Lynch presiding from a non-existent bench.

The loudest (and possibly drunkest) members of the mob were six prominent local businessmen. Bob Stephenson was the superintendent of a lumber company; he brought along rope. A drayman named Frank Saucier offered the use of a large timber to ram through the jailhouse door. Tom Parent and Louis Porter, both timber bosses, and Robert Barclay, ex-sheriff turned livery stable owner, went along as muscle. Max Forvilly, who owned the uptown Forvilly House on Ludington Street, supplied whiskey, the lubricant of most lynch mobs.

At the jail, these six, with a small assortment of hangers-on following them, disarmed the two deputies on duty and bashed on through the jail, finding the two MacDonalds trying to hide in a dark corner of a cell.

Big Mac broke down and cried like a baby. Little Mac went down fighting; he stabbed Louis Porter with a knife he’d hidden in his boot. Porter grabbed an ax and beat Little Mac’s brains out, killing him instantly.

The mob dragged Little Mac’s corpse and a whimpering Big Mac, rope securely around his neck, down Main Street. At one point, they hauled Big Mac over an iron-rail fence, visibly stretching his neck several inches. They even jumped on the bodies and stomped off hunks of flesh with their boots.

They hung one corpse and one barely living man at the railroad crossing; Big Mac moaned and twitched for a mere moment, then died.

Well, even that sobering sight, of two dreadfully mangled bodies swinging in the breeze, didn’t satisfy the drunken mob. They took the bodies to the Frenchtown whorehouse where all the trouble had started, forced the sporting ladies to take turns joining the corpses in bed, then, for a grand finale, threw the girls out of the house and burnt it to the ground with the MacDonalds’ bodies still inside.

The only person who even tried to stop them in their bloody play was Father Menard, the French-Canadian priest at a church on Bellevue Street. He was pushed aside as they dragged the bodies to the Frenchtown whorehouse.

As they brushed him aside, the good father pointed to them and said prophetically Every man of you will die with your boots on!

And, within a very few years, every man in the mob died a violent or unexplained death.

Bob Stephenson, the lumber company superintendent, was burned in a fire at his lumber yard, dying in agony three days later.

Frank Saucier was found dead of no apparent cause on a train trip.

Louis Porter sat down under a tree during a log drive and never got up; apparently, he died of snakebite.

One sliced in two by a saw. . .one committed suicide when he lost all his money in a poker game. . .one drowned. . .

The former sheriff, Robert Barclay, dropped dead while attending a family reunion.

Max Forvilly, the saloonkeeper, was one of the last to die. He lost his business, his family, and finally his sanity. He died last, crazy and alone, at a farm near Peshtigo, many years afterward.

Well–Father Menard was a priest–serving a God who once said, Vengeance is mine.

God or fate, something took vengeance on those who lynched the MacDonald boys, that autumn day in 1881.

Unsettling thought–

The story of the Menominee lynch mob comes from Beth Scott and Michael Norman’s 1985 book Haunted Heartland.

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Another repeat–another sick day. This is one I posted in March of 2010; it didn’t get much attention at the time, but I think it’s one of my better ones. 😉

This story was, in part, handed down from generation to generation in my friend Sharon’s (aka Aunt Ornery) family. She’s never been able to establish whether it’s a true one, or if it originated in a written source and passed into folklore (which does, oddly, happen sometimes), but they told it for true. Some of the elements of the story reminded me of other stories that I worked in in bits and pieces, as noted at the end.

And it goes a little something like this:

It seems strange to us nowadays, but it hasn’t been that long ago when an undertaker was a rarity. Up until after the turn of the last century, the common procedure was for the men of a family to build the deceased’s coffin, while the women made burial clothes.

Around 1910, in one small southern town, an older man set himself up as an undertaker. He had learned to build coffins from his father. From his mother, he had learned to sew. His working life, until his father passed and left him his carpentry business, had been spent as a tailor.

He was rather a strange old man. He made beautiful clothes for the dead, but his own consisted of a succession of black broadcloth suits of coat and pants, invariably worn with white shirts. He walked with slumped shoulders, his neck bent forward a bit, and he was bald. He looked, the unkind said, like a buzzard. And he made people uncomfortable; many who met him complained that, while he was cordial enough, he had a way of looking at you that made you feel like he was measuring you for burial clothes and a coffin just your size. The look was enough, in some cases, to send people scurrying to schedule visits to their doctors, to try to stave off any need for those kind services.

One other thing about the old man: he was well to do, and he was rumored to hate banks. He kept his money in his house somewhere, so the grapevine said.

One summer night, in the midst of apocalyptic storm and rain, he disappeared.

The boy was young, and while bright, he wasn’t very good at seizing opportunity. And that made him mad, and desperate.

On the night of the great storm, his desperation led him to the old undertaker’s door. He didn’t mean to kill the old man, whom he interrupted in his attic workroom, in the middle of building a coffin; he only meant to rob him of the money that was supposedly hidden in the house. But the old man tried to defend himself; the boy, who could move much faster, grabbed the hammer from his hand and beat him to death in a blind panic.

As the old man was dying, he raised his hand, closed almost in a fist. His fingers opened and his wrist turned back, almost like the talons of a buzzard—that carrion-eater whom, sadly, with his black clothes and stooped shoulders and bald head, he so much resembled. That hand reached toward the boy as the old man gasped his last unintelligible words and died.

And that hand never relaxed, even as the terrified and sickened boy forced the body into heavy blankets and took it away and dumped it into a grave he managed to scratch out of the mud, in the woods outside of town.

And the worst thing about the whole business? The rumor was wrong; though he searched high and low through the whole house, he found no money. No money at all.

He ran after that. And he kept running for years.

The undertaker’s disappearance, meanwhile, entered local legend. The neighbors who found the shop empty saw that slaughterhouse of a workroom and knew something awful had happened, but in the absence of other clues, they couldn’t solve the crime. Nor could they forget it, for during every huge storm, they could see lights in the attic of his house, and hear his hammering. They said he came back every storm to try to finish the coffin that had been his last work.

The young man lived with his guilty conscience for many years. He roamed from country to city, cow town to mining camp, hobo jungle to mountain pass, changing his name as frequently as his location.

Then, one day, as he walked down a busy city street, he saw a figure up ahead of him: an old, stooped man, dressed in an oldfashioned black suit, with an excruciatingly pink, bald head, like a buzzard. Over the years, he had seen many such old men, and his heart had always jumped into his throat until he saw their faces and was relieved to see that none of them matched the man he had buried in the woods.

This old man, however, was horrifyingly different. For one thing, people were walking through him, as he stood there on the pavement, as if they neither saw nor felt him. Then he raised his head, and his face—oh, God, his face—was caved in like a skull, with a few remnants of flesh hanging here and there.

He raised his hand, just as the old man had done as he was dying, and the clawed fingers slowly began to open—

but not all the way, for he wasn’t there anymore.

His killer never knew exactly how he made it back to the flophouse where he was living. The next morning, he fled town.

He couldn’t outrun what he realized, in his lucid moments, was the ghost of the old man, a ghost meant only for him, a ghost who was, many, many times, just there—silent, and reaching, with that hand that never quite opened.

Finally, he found himself in a field outside the town he’d run from so many years before, where a revival meeting was being held, and he decided, on the spur of the moment, that he would go up when the altar call was issued, and confess his great sin, and cleanse his soul, and then turn himself in to the authorities.

The sermon seemed interminably long, but at last a makeshift choir began to sing an invitational hymn. He rose, and with a steady step and an odd gladness in his heart, began the walk to the front of the meeting.

They say he stopped dead about halfway to the altar, his eyes starting out of his head, and began to scream. The only words that were intelligible were, incredibly, the old undertaker’s name and a repetitive agonized wail, I killed him I killed him I killed him I killed—

He died there on the ground. Those who surrounded him in his last moments recognized him, although he was aged by years and terror.

But they didn’t see the last sight he saw: the old man, one last time, with that hand, that horrible hand, coming up and slowly, slowly opening all the way—

like a buzzard’s talons.
The dead man with the clawed hand who reaches out to his murderer as the man lies dying comes from Sharon’s family; originally, the story was set in a church building, somewhere here in East Tennessee; since revivals in fields, though less common, still are a feature of late summer in the knobs, I changed that detail. The old man’s return during thunderstorms is an addition of mine, and comes from a complex of stories from Arkansas about a historical character named Ashberry “Rip” Sago, who actually vanished from his workroom during a storm, sometime in the period 1910-1930, collected in W. K. McNeil’s 1985 book Ghost Stories from the American South; the stories McNeil collected about him do not suggest foul play, but his disappearance was never solved. In Sharon’s family story, it is an important part of the action that no one sees the old man save his killer—a folklore motif in itself, but also one of the eeriest elements of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which would make the motif very old indeed.

I don’t know—maybe that’s no way to put a story together—but it works for me. What do you think? 😀

Copyright 2010/2011 by Faire Lewis.

I gave my storytelling pal Shelly permission to use this story if she so chooses. The rest of y’all, better ask first– 😉

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My first Halloween as a blogger (that was 2007) I wrote a couple of posts listing my favorite songs with supernatural themes. This one, by my man Tim O’Brien, was number ten on that list.

“Restless Spirit, Wandering”: from Tim O’Brien’s 2003 CD Traveler, begins as a story about Oglethorpe, a teenage Civil War fatality who’s said to haunt O’Brien’s home (and whom O’Brien, alas, has never encountered) and goes on as a meditation on O’Brien’s wish to tell in music the stories Oglethorpe and other spirits could tell. He captures the plight of ghosts in one crystalline line: “You won’t admit your life is taken, to your death not yet awakened.” The melody haunts the ear too; a sweetly wistful folk-bluegrass fusion you can’t quite forget.

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. . .Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. . .Hamlet, Act III, scene 1

. . .especially if, as in this case from North Carolina, conscience gets a little push from folklore.

We joke, in the hill country, about people so mean that they have to hire pallbearers when they die, but it’s a fact of life. (I can think of two such, right off the top of my head, both of whom died within a mile–opposite directions–of where I sit typing.) Asa Meters was such a man: greedy, grasping, a thorough rascal.

Communities can overlook, to some degree, greed and even a reasonable amount of rascality. At murder, though, they draw the line.

Asa Meters had a brother, younger and altogether a more pleasant character than Asa. He held, in the natural course of things, half the property the Meters family had owned from time immemorial. He was unmarried, and had no heirs save his older brother.

Knowing Asa’s meanness, then, the hillfolk knew that the brother’s death could not have been the accident Asa claimed it was. They had been out shearing sheep, so said Asa, and the brother had fallen off a mountain sled and–oh, it was such a sad thing!–landed on a pair of upturned shears; went right through him and pierced his heart.

Well, we all know that old story, arguably the oldest tale of murder in the world: Cain and Abel and how the murdered Abel’s blood cried out from the ground.

There were some who said they could hear Asa’s brother’s blood crying from Asa’s very hands.

Trouble was, they had no proof that would stand up in court.

Now Asa had, with his usual–ahem–thriftiness made the cheapest burial for his dead brother that he could make–a pine box thrust into a hasty, shallow pit on a slight slope behind the house, with not even so much as a cedar sapling planted to mark its place.

Maybe Asa knew that other superstition, that you never plant a cedar tree, because once it’s tall enough to shade your grave, you’ll die. Or maybe he just wanted people to forget altogether that that grave was there.

Time went on and Asa’s greed reached a new pitch of meanness. He decided to have that hillside cleared off to plant rye–not even sparing his brother’s grave.

And that was where he messed up, once and for all.

He hired a man named Henry Holt to come plow up the hillside for him. Now Henry Holt was as appalled as everyone else about Asa Meters’ planned destruction of his brother’s resting place, but Henry had a plan; he was going to make Asa Meters confess to his brother’s murder. Holt knew the old folk ways, and knew that he could take the brother’s skull, set it above Asa’s head, out of reach of water–

and that skull would bind Asa to tell the truth, at long last.

It took Henry Holt only a day to plow up the hillside. He set the sad bones of Asa’s brother aside to be reburied elsewhere, and, just about dark, sneaked the skull into the house and set it in the loft, above the fireplace.

Asa Meters had been away from home that day. When he came in, Henry Holt was waiting for him.

Asa went over and stirred up the fire–which movement placed him immediately below the loft, where his brother’s grinning skull waited.

Henry Holt said, That was all a lie, warn’t it, Asa Meters? You kilt yore own brother out there.

Asa never said a word, but he began to tremble from head to foot.

The skull’s dark magic was working.

Asa completely lost his appetite, couldn’t take a mouthful to eat. The neighbors said it was because, when he tried, the dead brother’s ghost swooped down from the loft and yanked the food away and threw it in the fire before Asa could take a bite.

Asa complained, to the few who came to check on him, that he couldn’t sleep at night, either–an insomnia the hill people attributed to the dead brother’s shade sitting on his chest, trying to smother him.

Asa took to sitting up all night by the fireplace. Sometimes, according to the neighbors, he would grab a hickory stick and slap at the air around him. Beatin’ off that ghost, they said knowingly.

They still had no proof of murder that they could take to the law, but they could see, before their eyes, that Asa Meters was dying–

of guilt–

and of the dark power of that skull in the loft.

Finally Asa passed on.

And most probably, they did have to hire pallbearers.

The story of Asa Meters and his brother’s skull comes from John Harden’s great 1954 collection of North Carolina ghost tales, Tar Heel Ghosts.

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From the time I was small, stories have been my obsession–one reason, perhaps, that I love ghost stories.

A good storyteller–like my friend Shelly Tucker–can make a story so real you feel as if you’re actually there, a participant rather than a mere listener.

But what if–just what if–a storyteller turns out to be-well–more than just a storyteller?

This tale, which addresses that very issue, comes from the area around Murphy, North Carolina, and is told in James V. Burchill, Linda J. Crider and Peggy Kendrick’s 1997 book The Cold, Cold Hand: Stories of Ghosts and Haunts from the Appalachian Foothills. Frankly, it gives me the willies.

It begins with that most prosaic of events: a Boy Scout campout.

The scoutmasters of this particular troop were quite prosaic men, too; one was a math and science teacher at a technical school and the other a police officer of many years’ standing–and neither of them could tell a story to save his life.

They knew that it’s practically a rule on Boy Scout campouts that there be a campfire and ghost stories told late into the evening, but their troop was just plum out of luck with them.

They’d been out there three days with no stories, and the boys were getting restless. Then one of the boys had a bright idea. They hiked each day, half a mile there and a half mile back, to a little country store for an ice cream and a drink and such supplies as they might need. The store was unpretentiously called Pa’s Country Store; the owner, of course, was Pa. So the boy said to Mr. Philhower, the teacher, Why not ask Pa if he knows anybody who could tell us some ghost stories?

Mr. Philhower, about at his wits’ end, allowed as how that sounded like an excellent idea. That very day, while the boys milled around the store, he put the question to Pa.

Off the top of his head, Pa couldn’t think of anybody, but he promised he’d ask around amongst his afternoon customers and see what they had to say.

Well, along about dark, the scouts had finished supper and were toasting marshmallows over a campfire when a tall, handsome young man came walking up to them.

He asked without preamble, “Are you the ones hunting for somebody to tell ghost stories?”

“Indeed,” Mr. Philhower said. “Mighty kind of you to come out here on short notice. I’m Mr. Philhower, and that’s Joe Dugan, and these are our scouts. And your name?”

“Blue,” the young man said. “John Blue. And I can tell a story or two.”

So the boys made room for him there by the fire, and John Blue set in to telling tales. He was a good storyteller, one of those who could make you see the ghosts with his mere words. The boys were both entertained and scared, just a bit; they crept a bit closer to one another as Blue’s tales went on.

Finally, along about midnight, Blue said, “All right, this is my last story of the night, gentlemen–my very favorite ghost story.

“Now yonder by the lake there stand the ruins of a great house. It was owned, fifty years ago, by a family named Howard. They only came there for the summer–they were a rich family who came from away in the city somewhere–and brought their rich friends with them.

“There was Mr. Howard, and his wife, and a beautiful daughter. The daughter’s name was Laurel, and that summer, fifty years ago, she had just broken off her engagement to a young man back in the city, and took up with another man.

“Her ex-fiance didn’t take it very well. He took to calling the girl many times a day and into the night, making threats against her and the family. They actually came to their summer house early that year, just to get away from him and his scary behavior.”

“A stalker,” murmured one of the boys.

Blue said, as if he hadn’t heard the boy, “It was no use, though. That young man, driven insane by anger and humiliation, followed them here to their mansion. Mr. Howard learned that he was in Murphy, over there–” He pointed in the general direction of the little mountain town. “So Mr. Howard called the sheriff, who sent two deputies out to investigate.

“When they got to the house, though, they found it burning–burning–They could hear the Howards screaming and begging for help, but no man living could walk into those flames, and so they could only stand and watch and listen as the great house fell in on itself and the screams died with the Howards.

“Just about the time the roof caved in, one of the deputies saw a man running toward the lake. Thinking that he might know something about the fire, they chased him right up to the water’s edge. “Stop or we’ll shoot!’ they shouted at him.

“He just stood there laughing, a high, ugly, evil laugh that echoed around the lake, and then he turned and walked into the water. Both deputies fired at him, and he sank into the lake.

“They dragged the lake, but never found a trace of his body. But the people who live around here say that sometimes that man–who was, it turned out, Laurel Howard’s jilted lover–still walks along the lakeshore of a night.

“And that’s my last story. Good night, and thank you for listening to my little tales.”

“Thank you, Mr. Blue,” boys and scoutmasters chorused, and John Blue got up from the campfire and walked away.

The boys, pleasantly spooked, went to bed.

The next day, Mr. Philhower told Pa, when the troop made their daily hike to the store, “Thanks for sending that man out. He really told some wonderful stories.”

Pa looked at him over the top of his glasses. “Oh, did he? Did he happen to mention what his name was?”

“John Blue. Why do you ask?”

“Well,” Pa said deliberately, “y’all know them ruins there across the lake? That was the Howard house. Fifty years ago, it was burnt to the ground, with the Howards inside. They say the fire was set by the Howard daughter’s ex-boyfriend. His name was John Blue. And now they say–”

Mr. Philhower left before Pa could finish his story.

And never again, as long as he was a scoutmaster, did he ever ask around for a teller of ghost tales.

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Songwriter and actor Stan Jones wrote the iconic western song “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” in 1948. There are two versions of how he came to compose this hauntingly beautiful piece about ghostly cowboys chasing a ghostly herd “across these endless skies”. In the first version, he was out riding on his birthday–June 5–when a storm came up, and was impressed by clouds scudding by that resembled men on horseback. In the second version, he’s said to have told a friend that he was inspired by memories of a ghost story he was told by an old cowboy, when Jones was only twelve years old.

First recorded by Burl Ives in February 1949, with Vaughn Monroe’s incomparable hit version following a month later, the song has become the most-recorded composed western song of all time, with versions by countless acts.

Most sources agree that the story the old cowhand told Jones must have been this one, about a spooky tableland in Crosby County, Texas known as Stampede Mesa.

In the fall of 1889 a trail boss called Sawyer was taking a herd of about a thousand head north to the railheads in Kansas. One night, he and his cowboys were looking for a place to camp when they spotted a “nester”, a homesteader–affirmatively not one of Sawyer’s crew–cutting out a few head at the back of the herd. When confronted, the man insisted that, as Sawyer’s herd passed by his little spread, some unbranded cattle from his herd had wandered over and mingled with Sawyer’s, and he was simply reclaiming his mavericks.

Sawyer was tired, dusty, and cranky, as were his crew and, more importantly, his herd. Sawyer told the importunate cowboy that he’d have to wait until morning to cut his few head out of the herd; he was ready to camp for the night, and there was a storm coming up, one of those awesome displays of lightning, thunder, wind and rain that bedevil the Texas plains sometimes.

The cowhand blustered that all Sawyer was doing was trying to steal his pitiful little steers, but gave up when Sawyer flashed a gun at him.

Sawyer and his crew bedded down the cattle atop a little mesa: sweet grass on the flat and sweet water below. The cattle settled down; Sawyer put a few hands on guard duty, and the others got some sleep; they would rise to take a turn later.

The storm did come, and in the midst of it, the herd stampeded: not toward the sweet drinking water below, but right toward the cliffs on the other side. In the melee, two of Sawyer’s men, and seven hundred head of cattle, were killed, dashed to death on the rocks below.

When they finally got the herd turned, Sawyer asked what in the hell stampeded them damn steers?

And one of the cowboys, tired and dazed and broken up over the deaths of his fellow herdsmen, said that he wouldn’t swear to it, but he thought he’d seen that rustler–that was the word he used, rustler–waving a blanket and shouting at the back of the herd, still trying, deep in the night, to cut out those few scraggly mavericks he’d claimed were from his herd.

Morning wasn’t long coming, and Sawyer and his men went after the nester/rustler.

They blindfolded him and his horse, tied the nester in the saddle, gave the terrified horse a hard slap on the rump, and drove nester and horse over the cliffs on the mesa, leaving them to die alongside Sawyer’s dead steers and cowhands.

Sawyer rounded up his remaining three hundred head and hit the trail again.

The next season, a trail boss bedded down a herd atop that mesa one night. It was the biggest mistake of his life. That night, there was no storm rolling across the skies, yet, in the wee hours, the herd stampeded. Nearly the entire herd–and a few more cowboys–were lost.

There was no explanation for this sudden deadly panic.

Word gets around. In general, thereafter, the little table with the sweet grass on top and sweet water below, now given the ominous nickname Stampede Mesa, was avoided by drovers, but there are always a few who couldn’t resist the grass and water. Each herd that bedded down there overnight stampeded and left its bones–and those of a few more cowboys–on the rocks below.

Some few cowboys who weren’t swept to their deaths reported that, just when the herd broke loose, they saw a stranger on horseback, waving a blanket over his head and shouting, riding up on the back of the herd, spooking them and causing them to rush the others.

Sometimes, too, they reported seeing other strangers on horseback, racing desperately around the panicked herd, trying to turn them back before they ran over the cliff.

They never succeeded.

Eventually, even the most skeptical trail bosses learned not to mess with the vengeful nester–and his ghostly counterparts–atop Stampede Mesa.

The days of the cattle drives were coming to an end, anyway, as railroads were built across Texas, so there was no need, anymore, to bed a herd down for the night atop the haunted mesa.

But the story of the Sawyer herd and the nester he and his cowboys lynched has never been forgotten.


Ed Syers, Ghost Stories of Texas (1981)

Richard and Judy Dockrey Young, Ghost Stories from the American Southwest (1991)

S.E. Schlosser, Spooky Southwest (2004)

In the 1994 edition of The National Directory of Haunted Places, Dennis William Hauck attributes the inspiration for “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” to an entirely different legend. Dating to the 1870s, this one says that a trail boss driving a herd along the Neches River in Real County came across a nester who had built a farmstead that blocked his usual route. There was always tension between drovers and settled farmers, and the trail boss, annoyed beyond reason, drove the herd at a dead run straight through the farmhouse, killing the farmer and his entire family.

It seems to me that the Stampede Mesa story is by far the more likely inspiration.

By the way, the tune to which Jones set his words is a familiar one to those of us of Irish descent: slow it down just a tad and it’s recognizably “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye”.

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