Archive for February, 2012

In 1958, the Kingston Trio made a recording of a ballad fragment based on a sensational 1866 murder that occurred in the mountains of western North Carolina. They are said to have learned it from a man named Frank Proffitt. The details given in their version are frustratingly vague: only the name of the putative murderer–Tom Dooley–is given, and he, in first person, allows that he met some anonymous her on the mountain and stabbed her to death. A man named Grayson, whom Tom blames for his arrest, is mentioned in passing, and the ballad ends conventionally, with Tom bewailing his fate; he has been sentenced to hang.

In 1964, the legendary North Carolina guitarist/singer Doc Watson recorded an alternate version of the song. Doc, interestingly, grew up a bare five miles from Frank Proffitt, but the two songs on the same topic could not be more different.

In Doc’s version, we learn that the victim’s name was Laura “Laurie” Foster, that the killer “hid her clothes and shoes”, that they were apparently running away to be married, that he buried her in a shallow grave. No cause of death is given for “poor Laurie Foster”. Grayson is given the title of sheriff. And we learn that Tom Dooley was a fairly good oldtime fiddle player.

Embedded in the midst of this information, though, is this verse, which puts a whole new complexion on the story.

I know they’re gonna hang me,
Tomorrow I’ll be dead,
Though I never even harmed a hair
On poor little Laurie’s head. . .

Novelist Sharyn McCrumb, whose 2011 book The Ballad of Tom Dooley, is based on the murder of Laura Foster and the subsequent hanging of Tom Dooley, makes a very strong case for the truth of this verse. She researched the surviving trial records and local lore for several years before writing the book. On a trip to North Carolina, which she detailed for Blue Ridge magazine, she was told again and again by locals that Tom was not the murderer. The constant verdict was Ann did it.


His surname was not Dooley; it was actually spelled Dula, although it was pronounced Dooley. In 1866, when he was accused of killing a local woman named Laura Foster, he was barely twenty years old and only a year home from the Civil War. And–shall we say–he had quite a reputation as a ladies’ man.

His one true love, it seems, was a childhood sweetheart named Ann Foster. And there is one fact in this tangled tale that is beyond dispute: Ann Foster was a staggeringly beautiful–and staggeringly selfish–woman. She came from a family that had a reputation for promiscuity, but she had married a respectable local farmer and shoemaker named James Melton in 1859, and was, by 1866, the mother of two. Her marriage, however, was no insurmountable bar to a continuing sexual relationship with Tom Dula. She and Tom often made love and slept together in a bed with James Melton sleeping alone in a separate bed in the same room.

Among other women with whom Dula was involved were cousins of Ann Melton: Pauline Foster and Laura Foster. Pauline Foster had come over the mountains from Tennessee early in 1866, and she became a catalyst for murder.

Pauline Foster was being treated for pox; not smallpox, but syphilis, by a Wilkes County doctor. It is believed that she infected Tom Dula, who in turn infected both Ann Melton and Laura Foster.

Laura Foster was described in newspapers of the time as beautiful but frailfrail being a euphemism for promiscuous. Although of marriageable age, she was keeping house for her widowed father and raising several younger brothers. Rumor had it that she was engaged to Tom Dula (although he had been heard several times to declare he cared absolutely nothing for the girl) and that they were planning to run away to be wed.

(It is a measure of the brutality of Laura’s short life that her father declared, after her disappearance, that he didn’t care if she never came back, but he did want his mare back.)

Sometime on or around May 26, 1866, Laura Foster took a bundle of her clothing and a pair of leather shoes (made for her by James Melton), stole her father’s mare, and left home. The mare came home a couple of days later, unharmed. Laura was never seen alive again.

Tom Dula was suspected from the beginning of having done away with Laura; both he and Ann Melton apparently suspected she was the source of the pox, although Tom had also been intimate with Pauline Foster, who undoubtedly had the pox at the time of their relations, while Laura did not.

Laura’s body, buried in a shallow, four-foot-long grave, was finally located in August of 1866. Dr. Carter–the local physician who was also treating Pauline Foster for syphilis–found that she had died of a single stab wound through the ribs, and put paid to another rumor: she had not been pregnant at the time of her death.

Tom Dula ran away first to Watauga County, where he worked for a farmer named Grayson for a few weeks before crossing over into Tennessee. He was captured by North Carolina sheriff’s officers in Trade, Tennessee, and returned to North Carolina.

He and Ann Foster Melton, based on the testimony of Pauline Foster, were both charged with murder. Tom, twice convicted, was hanged in May 1868, two years after Laura’s murder. Before he was hanged, he laboriously wrote out a statement in which he completely exonerated Ann. She was acquitted and sent home. Several years later, she died, still in her thirties, possibly of tertiary syphilis. Doc Watson, whose great-grandmother was at Ann’s deathbed, said the dying woman complained continually of black cats stalking the room and–perversely significant–of a sound like frying bacon.

The mountain people, though, believe Ann was the actual killer of Laura Foster–and not only because she suspected Laura of passing the pox to Tom and thus to her, but for the oldest motive in the world: jealousy.

McCrumb, after studying trial transcripts and newspapers of the period, concurs. Her novel about the case, therefore, is not a whodunnit, but a whydunnit–and her contention is that Ann Melton was provoked to a killing rage through the machinations of Pauline Foster. Tom Dula, in this view, literally did not even harm a hair on poor little Laurie’s head; he merely helped small-framed and lazy Ann bury the body.

Some of her points–such as the identity of the man Laura Foster was meeting the morning she disappeared (it wasn’t Tom)–are purely speculative, but in the absence of other facts as plausible as any. The most compelling aspect of her story, however, is the presentation of the character of Pauline Melton–a homely, loveless female Iago who sets out to destroy her cousin Ann out of sheer hatred and tangles two relative innocents in the web.

If you’re interested in historical fiction, this novel is definitely worth a read.

In passing let me note that I have never run across any references to ghosts of Tom, Laura, or Ann. McCrumb herself points out that she regards the story as an Appalachian version of Wuthering Heights–which I regard as somewhat of a stretch, but what the hey, it’s her story–and has one character blatantly crib from Bronte and declare that he could not imagine “unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”

So, it seems, that whatever their trials in life, they rest in peace.

Laura and Ann are buried in marked graves, as is Tom. As for Pauline Foster, she is said to have given birth to a mixed-race child after having married a much older man; beyond that, she simply disappears from the historical record.

For the record: I was convinced of Ann Melton’s guilt from the first time I heard Doc’s version of the ballad, thirty years or more ago. Call it woman’s intuition. 😉

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The Valentine Bride

Of all the stories of ghostly lovers I’ve ever run across, this is my favorite. My friend Sharon (aka Aunt Ornery) told it to me from her family’s recollections some years ago. I’ve posted it before, but I beg your indulgence in repeating it.

Along Conasauga Creek, in the shadow of the Unicoi Mountains, stand the remains of an old military fort, built by the US Army in the 1830s, just before they began rounding up the Cherokee who lived in the area and forcing them off to Oklahoma on the infamous Trail of Tears. In later years, after the fort was deserted, the area in which it stood was a favorite walk for a young courting couple. They didn’t get to spend much time together; he worked on the railroad, and she was still living at home, helping her mother raise a large and boisterous family, and, when she was needed, helping out neighbors as well.

Though he was a shy young man, he eventually took his courage in his hands and told her he loved her, and asked her to be his wife. She joyfully agreed, and they made plans to meet at their minister’s house on Valentine’s Day, two weeks away; there they would be married, and like all young couples, they believed they would live happily ever after. They parted at her front door, exchanging sweet chaste kisses and promising to meet at the preacher’s house at the end of the long two weeks.

He went back to work on the railroad, daydreaming as he worked of his lovely bride-to-be; she returned home. The first week she spent making her dress for the wedding. The second week she fell ill. For several days her life was despaired of, but at last, on the very day before her wedding, she seemed to take a turn for the better.

The next morning, the young groom arrived at the preacher’s house bright and early, eager to meet his bride, go through the brief ceremony in the minister’s study, and begin married life. To his surprise, though, his bride was late. He was becoming really worried when, to his relief, he heard soft footsteps coming down the stairs. “Ah,” he thought. “She must have been getting ready up there.”

A moment later, his bride stood at his elbow, smiling at him. She looked lovely, but was much paler than usual. Even worse, she seemed to have lost her voice: when the minister asked her the beautiful simple questions of the ceremony, she only nodded.

And then, the minister told him to take her left hand and place the broad gold wedding band he had bought on her finger.

The instant he touched her, she vanished.

The frightened groom and the minister rushed out of the house in a frenzy and ran all the way to her family home. In the yard, they stopped; they could hear sounds of sawing and hammering in the barn, and, in the house, the ominous sound of weeping women.

The young lover went into the house, his heart growing colder by the moment. Inside, lying on a bed, was his bride. She was dead, and the women of the family were laying her out for burial, while the men in the barn built her coffin. On a chair by the bed lay her wedding dress; it would now be her graveclothes.

She had been helping with nursing duties for a family up the holler that had been stricken with typhoid fever, a common ailment in the old days of poor sanitation. She had seemed to rally on the day before her wedding, but by morning she was dead.

After her funeral, her groom left the county, but everyone remembered the strange events at his wedding.

Many years later, as an elderly man, he returned and lived out his days in the shadow of the Unicois.

He never married.

He remained faithful to his Valentine bride.

The photograph of a ghostly bride coming down a staircase is, of course, the famous photo of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, UK, taken in 1936 by photographer Indra Shira and his assistant, Captain Provand. This photo is a rarity: it has never been convincingly debunked.

And with that said, may all lovers, living or otherwise, have a happy St. Valentine’s Day!

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Love, said the Singer who wrote that lovely anomalous book the Song of Songs, is as strong as death.

The Lovers of Porthgwarra were another Romeo and Juliet couple, but they proved that love is indeed as strong as death–

perhaps even stronger.

In the early nineteenth century, there lived, in the wee Cornish coastal town of Porthgwarra, a young couple in love. The boy’s name was William Pullen, and he was the seafaring son of a widow. His true love was a breathtakingly lovely girl called Nancy Hocking, the only daughter of a pair of prudish and class-conscious parents who were unutterably opposed to her marrying a seafarer. They thought all seamen were rough drunken rounders with a girl in every port.

Never mind that William was the polar opposite of that stereotype, a loving, gentle teetotaler who was saving his money to buy his own ship, so that his Nancy could travel with him. Their daughter was going to marry a land-based craftsman or–preferably–a well-to-do merchant, settle in Porthgwarra, give them a passel of grandchildren, and die in her bed, and devil take the hindmost.

Naturally, Nancy hated the very idea.

William was outward bound on a voyage that would last, possibly, three months to a year. Upon his return, he and Nancy decided, they would marry in defiance of her parents. If he hadn’t manage to save enough from his pay by voyage’s end to buy his own vessel, he would surely be close enough to that goal that a few months spent working ashore would enable the purchase. Then he and Nancy, man and wife, would sail away from Porthgwarra. When the time came for him to leave the sea forever, they would buy a cottage and settle down together.

They made a pledge to each other, the night before he was to sail, cradled in each other’s arms, in a cove not far from town. He would be home soon, and all would be well.

William shipped out with the next morning’s tide. Nancy, naturally, was depressed and tearful: less at his departure than at the knowledge that her parents were already planning a parade of eligible young men, determined to break her of her attachment to William. She confided to a friend, an elderly woman who kept a general store and who was called Mother Treglown by the whole village, that she was deathly afraid her life with William would never be.

The old lady reassured her the best she could.

Nancy felt more hopeful for some time after talking with her friend, but an unforeseen complication arose: William had promised to write to her daily and post letters when he could. No letters came, and Nancy’s parents took this as an opportunity to assure their daughter that he had forgotten all about her, and to press her to marry another.

Nancy grew pale and thin with worry.

There was a coach that came to Porthgwarra once a week. One early morning when it was in town, about five months after William’s departure, Nancy slipped out of the house and boarded the coach. Its destination was London.

She was missed within a few hours.

Her parents were if anything more embarrassed than worried that she had taken off for the sinful big city, and found a hitherto unfound comfort in religion.

Nancy had been gone for several months when, for a marvel, two letters from William arrived: one for his widowed mother, one for Nancy. His mother spread the word that his voyage had not gone smoothly at all; they had missed several ports of call, and he had mailed a great batch of letters from South Africa, only to learn later that the ship that was returning them to England had sunk with all hands off Lagos. This letter was written from Australia. He added that he would be sailing for home shortly.

Nancy’s parents didn’t open her letter; they placed it on the mantelpiece at home, thinking that perhaps she would come home too, although they hadn’t heard a word from her since she had slipped away on the coach.

Mother Treglown,the elderly shopkeeper, friend to Nancy and William alike, was out on the High Street one morning when, unexpectedly, she met Nancy Hocking, back from London–an oddly different Nancy, still pale and ill-looking, uncommunicative except to say that she had been a long, long way away. Not even when the old lady told her about William’s letter, carefully saved for her on the mantelpiece at her parents’ home, did she show any emotion.

Word spread through town that Nancy Hocking was home. A few hours later, her mother came into Mother Treglown’s shop in considerable distress to report that, while she and her husband had been out, someone had gotten into their house. Nothing had been taken save the letter to Nancy, from the mantelpiece. Neither she nor her husband had seen their daughter, although several villagers had told them about seeing Nancy talking with Mother Treglown earlier.

Not only that: Nancy hadn’t been seen by anyone since that conversation in the High Street.

It was a mystery, and no mistake.

A week later, during an unexpected warm spell, on a Sunday, just as November slipped into December, Mother Treglown took a walk down toward the cove. When she arrived, she was startled and delighted to see Nancy walking ahead of her.

Nancy seemed to pay no attention to anything around her, not even to Mother Treglown calling her name. That good lady decided that, for whatever reason, Nancy didn’t want to be disturbed, and continued her walk down the beach.

She got an almighty surprise on her return. There at the cove, on a great boulder, sat Nancy.

Beside her, his arms as tightly around her as hers around him, sat William Pullen.

Mother Treglown could see what the two, entwined and oblivious, could not see: the tide was sweeping in and would overwhelm the rock on which they sat.

As fast as she could go the old woman went down the beach, calling to the two, pleading with them to come back out of danger.

She fell, still calling, just out of reach of the foaming tide. When she managed to get back up, Nancy and William were gone.

Sobbing with fear and pain, Mother Treglown made her way back to the village and reported that two people had been swept away by the tide.

The valiant Cornishmen put out to sea in boats, seeking the bodies, but never found any.

Well, that was indeed another mystery, one that was only solved when William’s mother received word that her son had drowned when his ship went down with all hands two months earlier, somewhere in the Pacific.

He and Nancy had both come a long long way to keep their promised rendezvous.

Neither was ever seen again. That cove, however, has been called Sweethearts Cove ever since.

After all, as the Singer continued, many waters cannot quench love.

Neither can death.

The story of the Lovers of Porthgwarra comes from an account by Douglas Collier in John Canning’s 50 Strange Stories of the Supernatural (1974).

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Willie and Nellie

Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, was unhappily married and awaiting a divorce decree when her estranged husband died in 1905. It must have galled her somewhat to compare her marriage with that of her parents, William Washington Gordon II and Eleanor Kinzie Gordon–a half-century love affair that began with a crushed hat and ended with a classic ghost story.

William Gordon II–called Willie by his beloved wife–first met Nellie, a classmate of his sister Eliza, in 1853, when she slid down a staircase banister, landed on him, and crushed his new hat. Apparently, it was love at first crush.

Nellie was of Connecticut Yankee stock and an abolitionist by inclination; Willie was the son of slave-owning Savannah, Georgia planters. Still, they were wed in 1858. They settled in Willie’s family home, now known as the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, in Savannah.

By the time the Civil War began, they had three children. The only time they were ever separated was during the war, while Willie was away fighting for the Confederacy.

Willie and Nellie had three more children after the war, and Willie worked as president of the Savannah Cotton Exchange. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, he returned to service, rising to the rank of brigadier general. He was stationed in Miami, and Nellie, with their children now grown, joined him there, becoming famous for her work in veterans’ relief agencies. Legend has it that once, learning that a group of Indiana volunteers were being sent home by train, ill and without medical supervision, Nellie calmly boarded the train and went with them, dosing each sick man with milk punch and brandy, all the way to Indiana, then returned to Florida.

Willie Gordon died in 1912, and Nellie was inconsolable. According to Juliette, Nellie had never made any secret of the fact that she considered herself a wife first and a mother second:

. . .she never pretended for a moment that he was not her first and last love, and we as nothing by comparison. . .Maternal love is the inheritance of the ages, but love such as Mamma gave him was a personal tribute. (from a letter to her brother Arthur, c. 1912)

Nellie herself was restlessly eager to join her beloved Willie in the afterlife, as she wrote to a cousin:

. . .here I remain, very much against my will. . .

Nellie was eighty-one when she wrote that impatient note. In February of the following year, her health began to fail rapidly following a series of heart attacks. For awhile she lay comatose, rallying enough before the end to confide to a daughter-in-law, . . .I don’t want any tears. . .I shall be so happy to be with my Willie again, everybody should celebrate.

On February 22, 1917, Nellie’s attending physician told the five surviving Gordon children that the end was near; their mother would not last out the day.

Margaret, the wife of Nellie’s son Arthur, said her goodbyes to Nellie and retired to an adjoining room, which had been General Gordon’s bedroom in his last years. She was sitting there waiting for Arthur to come and tell her that Nellie was gone when, to her surprise, she saw the late William Gordon II walk out of his wife’s bedroom. He was, Margaret reported, wearing his favorite gray suit, and on his face was an expression of “grave gladness”.

He passed through his old room, passing the startled Margaret, out into the hall. She last saw him descending the front stairs.

Shortly thereafter Arthur came to tell her that his mother had just passed. Margaret excitedly told him that she had seen General Gordon just about that time; Arthur chaffed her gently about having dropped off to sleep and dreamed an especially vivid dream.

His skeptical attitude was sorely tested when they walked downstairs to meet the Gordons’ butler, a former slave who had been with the family for as long as anyone could remember. The old man asked, Is Ole Miss gone?

Assured that she was, he told Arthur through tears that he had seen General Gordon walking down the front stairs and out the front door, as he had in the old days when his carriage was waiting to take him to the Exchange. He had looked, the butler said, very well and happy.

I thought you’d lak to know the General come fetch her hisself, suh, he said in conclusion.

Curiously, Juliette’s niece would write, years later, that Nellie’s children reported, when she died, the years fell away from her. She sat up and held out her arms, looking, in that moment, as radiant as a bride going to meet her groom.

Willie Gordon’s spirit has never appeared again in the family home, but docents report that Nellie’s is very much in evidence. She has been seen in the halls, out in the garden, and sitting at the kitchen table in a dressing gown. She’s even been known to play her piano–although the instrument is missing most of its keys.


Margaret Wayt DeBolt, Savannah Spectres and Other Strange Tales (1984) All direct quotations come from DeBolt’s account.

Alan Brown, Haunted Places in the American South (2002)

Daniel Diehl and Mark P. Donnelly, Haunted Houses: Guide to Spooky Creepy and Strange Places across the USA (2010).

The love story of Willie and Nellie Gordon was also featured on the Savannah episode of Haunted History, which originally aired in May 2000. I was reminded of this story when the episode reaired on Biography Channel the other day. 🙂

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From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life
. . .William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Prologue

There’s an artesian spring, in the midst of Florida’s attraction at Silver Springs in Ocala, that’s known as the Bridal Chamber. As I recreate the story (basing my account on the one Kathryn Tucker Windham told in Jeffrey Introduces 13 More Southern Ghosts (1971), I can hear Andy Griffith’s classic monologue on R&J in my head:

ever’thang woulda been all right for ’em except that their daddies didn’ git along. . .

One father was a rich man, you see; the other a sharecropper indebted to him.

Claire Douglas was the rich man’s son, while the girl he loved more than life was Bernice Mayo, the surpassingly beautiful daughter of one of his father’s sharecroppers. Oddly enough, Claire and Bernice didn’t meet until they were in their teens, but all it took was one sight of each other, and their hearts were forsworn for eternity.

Their favorite meeting place was beside an artesian spring in the midst of a great number of such springs. That one was known, then, as Boiling Spring, not for its heat–it’s icy cold at the best of times–but for the way it foamed and bubbled.

Claire and Bernice eventually became engaged. Claire plighted his troth to her by giving her a jeweled bracelet that had belonged to his long-dead mother.

Unfortunately for the pair, Claire had one of those fathers: one who thought himself above everyone else because he had a lot of money. His money couldn’t buy him class, though, as he illustrated the day that he found out about Claire’s love for Bernice.

No son of mine, he blustered, is going to marry poor white trash!

He shipped an angry but helpless Claire off to Europe under the supervision of a maiden aunt, with orders to keep him away for a good long while. Claire wrote desperate loving letters to Bernice the whole time he was gone, but his father connived with the local postmaster to stop their delivery.

Needless to say, Bernice thought that Claire had forsaken her. Her family took Old Man Douglas’s side, oddly; they were almightily offended at the brass of a man who would call honest working people poor white trash, and told Bernice to forget Claire and find another.

In her babyhood, during a severe illness, she had been cared for by an ageless black woman whom everyone called Aunt Silla, who had saved her life with infusions from healing roots. She and Aunt Silla had remained close. Aunt Silla had also taken Claire into her heart, and knew the two were meant for each other.

Now, in her despair, Bernice went to her old friend for comfort.

This time Aunt Silla’s roots and gentle care couldn’t save an increasingly listless and depressed Bernice. She didn’t return to her family in her last days; she stayed with Aunt Silla.

When she lay dying, she asked Aunt Silla to take her body out to Boiling Spring and sink it in the water there, where she and Claire Douglas had spent their happiest times.

Bernice slipped away in her sleep. Aunt Silla washed her body, brushed out her long golden hair, clothed her in a pretty dress, and, after dark, as promised, took her body out to Boiling Spring and eased it into the cold foaming waters.

Then, she sat down to mourn.

Claire Douglas, as chance would have it, returned home the next day.

He had concluded, sadly, that Bernice must have forgotten him, for she had never answered his letters. He did plan to spend one last day at Boiling Spring, to remember the love that might have been; then he was going to bow to his bullying father’s wishes and marry some rich girl or other his father had handpicked for him.

He stopped by Aunt Silla’s cabin first, but the old woman wasn’t there.

He found her sitting beside Boiling Spring, sunk so deep in her grief for Bernice that she didn’t respond when he called her name.

In any case, he was soon lost in his memories of Bernice and the sweet times they had spent by the spring.

As he looked into the waters, something far below caught his attention.

What in the world?

Eighty feet below the surface of the spring, the water had forced Bernice’s body into a crevice in the rocks. All that showed was a slender white hand.

On the wrist of that hand he could see his mother’s jeweled bracelet, the one he had given Bernice along with his promise that they would be wed.

Horrified, he dove into the water and tried to pull his beloved from the rocks and back to the surface.

He failed to pull her free.

He wouldn’t leave her again. He wrapped his arms around her lifeless body and let the water take him.

Aunt Silla would say later that the rocks below opened with a rumbling sound. The water, rushing into that opening, bore the two bodies in.

And then the chasm closed.

In later years, Boiling Spring and the springs around it became a major tourist attraction. Boiling Spring itself, after Aunt Silla’s story got out, was renamed Bridal Chamber.

Some say they see fleeting images of a young man and woman, clasped in each other’s arms, in the deep spring.

Others see no figures. They see, instead, the sparkle of precious stones: a bracelet, seemingly cast into the waters and left forever.

Andy Griffith concluded that in such a case “if you don’t want th’ expense of a double funeral on ye, the best thing that you can do is to let ’em have a cheap weddin’.”

No wedding, no funeral for the lovers entombed in the Bridal Chamber; just a sad, sad story of love thwarted.

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. . .licht, licht’s the luve that can be coft
wi’ gowd an’ buskins gay
. . .”The Green Ladye o’ Newton” old Scots ballad

As the wisdom of our grandmothers through a long descent has it, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

Or, perhaps, in other ways modesty prevents me from mentioning. (^_^)

Or you could try the way that the Green Lady of Newton Castle, the hapless Jean Drummond, tried: enlisting the help of the faery folk of Scots legend.

On the whole, I can’t say I’d recommend it.

Newton Castle, near Blairgowrie in Scotland, dates in part to the fourteenth century. Newton has long been the favored haunt of a Green Lady. In life she was the daughter of the castle’s contemporary owner; her name was Jean Drummond.

Lady Jean had, in those long-ago days, fallen desperately in love with the laird of a nearby castle. Lord Ronald, as he was called, had seemed in the beginning to return her passion. His was transitory as hers was constant, and he eventually moved on to another woman.

Like many another woman before and since, Jean refused to give up on her faithless lover. She wanted him back, and to entice him took to dressing in fine clothing: dresses of silk, silver-buckled shoes of the finest leather. She had a mane of long black hair, and she braided it with pearls and precious stones.

Lord Ronald looked her up and down, complimented her on her fine appearance, and made some excuse to go back to his dowdier but dear new lover.

Lady Jean fell into a deep gloom, and drove the other inhabitants of Newton half-frantic by retreating to a window in the north tower, where she sat day after day, singing maudlin and sometimes morbid songs of lost love.

Nearby there lived an old lady described by some as a fortune-teller, by others as an outright witch. After some time, Jean aroused from her funk long enough to go to consult this old lady. Perhaps she hoped the woman would foretell Lord Ronald’s return to her arms; perhaps she hoped for a love charm.

Well, the old lady advised that last. Her fine clothes were no use at all, she said; if she wanted her man back, she would have to try the magical garb of the faery folk: the witchin’ claith o’ green, she called it.

First, she said, Lady Jean must gather some of the long green grass that grew in the local kirkyard. Then she was to go to the hill where the town’s gallows stood; atop that hill stood a rowan tree, and she must cut a branch from it. Then she was to tie grass and branch together with a braided reed.

So far, so good. When Lady Jean had gathered this magical accoutrements, she was to take them, as darkness fell, to the nearby Cobble Pool, a still place in the River Ericht. In the Cobble Pool there was a great ancient boulder known as the Corbie Stane (Scots for stone). She was to sit all night on the Corbie Stane, close her eyes, and wait for what would happen in the wee hours. Whatever she might hear, the old lady emphasized solemnly, she must not open her eyes.

So Lady Jean, just at twilight, waded out to the Corbie Stane, climbed up onto it, and closed her eyes.

In the wee hours she was startled and frightened by sounds of laughter all around her. A sudden cold wind arose, and she felt hands pulling at her clothes. So frightened did she become that she no longer needed to close her eyes; she fainted, and did not rouse until she heard roosters greeting the dawn.

The clothes she had worn the night before were gone, never to be seen again. In their stead, she wore a dress of green: the green favored by the faery folk.

She presented herself to Lord Ronald. The faery magic worked; he returned to her, and they were to be married at once. The bride wore that strange and beautiful green dress for their wedding.

At the altar, though, she seemed oddly distracted, her eyes suddenly dark and lifeless. Lord Ronald noticed that her hand in his was deathly cold.

Without warning, Jean screamed a terrible scream, and collapsed at Ronald’s feet. Taken to the bed where she would have lain with her husband on their wedding night, she lingered for a few days before dying.

Only then did the story of the green dress come out. The old lady had kept from her the most terrible aspect of her magical deception: that none save true faery folk could wear the witchin’ claith o’ green with impunity.

As she died under enchantment, Jean could not be buried in kirk. She was laid to rest in unhallowed ground on Knockie Hill, and a simple stone put up to mark the spot.

They say that on Halloween nights, all these many centuries later, that gravestone turns around three times. Then the Lady Jean, still clad in that lovely uncanny dress of faery green, makes her way down the hill and into the north tower of Newton Castle, where she spends that night when the veil between living and dead thins singing sad love songs, as she did in life.


Dane Love, Scottish Ghosts (1995)

Lily Seafield, Ghostly Scotland (2006).

The full text of “The Green Ladye o’ Newton” can be found here.

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. . .the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand. . .(William Butler Yeats, “The Stolen Child”, 1886)

From what I’ve read and observed, it’s far more common for a mourner, rather than a person actually buried there, to haunt a graveyard. One of my favorite stories about a ghostly mourner comes from Mississippi, where a bride-to-be named Helen Johnstone still weeps for the love she lost in a moment when hot blood prevailed over cold reason. The late Kathryn Tucker Windham told Helen’s story in Jeffrey Introduces 13 More Southern Ghosts (1971).

The Chapel of the Cross, in Mannsdale, Mississippi, was built by a Mrs. Johnstone after her husband died. Consecrated in 1852, the chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s. Legend has it that its cemetery is haunted by the shade of Johnstone’s youngest daughter, Helen.

Helen Johnstone was only sixteen when she met the man of her dreams: a handsome fellow a few years older than her named Henry Grey Vick. Vick was of a well-to-do family, descended from the founders of the river port city of Vicksburg. They met at Helen’s sister’s house at Christmas of 1855, when Vick was forced to stay over a few days following a carriage mishap, and fell in love almost immediately.

Helen’s widowed mother, who had only just begun building Annandale, the great house her late husband had planned for his family, approved of Vick’s courtship, but was concerned that Helen was simply too young to marry. Helen and Vick had a long engagement; Mrs. Johnstone finally allowed them to set a wedding date: May 21, 1859. They would be wed in the Chapel of the Cross.

Vick left his home in Vicksburg about a week before the wedding to make a quick trip by boat to New Orleans, to chose his suit for the wedding and to pick up a few items for the house he and Helen would live in after the wedding. While he was there, he went into a tavern for a drink and ran into an unpleasant memory: a onetime friend named James Stith, with whom he had quarreled with absolute finality a year or more before.

Vick had, for all intents and purposes, let the friendship lie in the dust and gone on with his life. Stith, alas, had not. There in the barroom, he slammed a glass down and declared he would not drink in the same room as Vick, who was, Stith blustered, no gentleman.

Among the upper classes of Southern society, back in the day, that was about as deadly an insult as one man could offer another short of questioning his mother’s morals. Vick lost his temper and went for Stith’s throat; Stith aimed a blow at Vick’s handsome face. What might have ended as a mere barroom brawl became something more sinister when a panting Vick, pulled away from Stith by friends, issued a challenge to duel. A redfaced Stith promptly accepted.

Vick thought better of his challenge within a very short time–he had, early in their courtship, promised Helen Johnstone he would never participate in an affair of honor–and tried to apologize. Stith was having none of it.

Although duelling was by no means illegal in New Orleans in 1859, the pair, through seconds, agreed to move the duel to grounds outside Mobile, Alabama. The police there, apprised of the affair, were moving in to prevent it just as Vick fired and deliberately missed.

Stith didn’t miss. He placed a single shot right in the center of Vick’s forehead. Vick was dead before he hit the ground. The date was May 17th, 1859, four days before his wedding.

In the confusion following the duel, Stith and his companions managed to escape and were never heard from in the area again. Vick’s friends managed to get his body first back to New Orleans, then back to Vicksburg. Then they took their courage in their hands and returned to Annandale to tell Helen the dreadful news.

Helen took the news very badly indeed. She had been blissfully decorating the Chapel of the Cross and Annandale, where the reception was to be held, and counting the minutes until she would be Vick’s wife. Instead, she managed to insist, between bouts of hysterical sobbing, that Vick’s body be brought to her and buried in the Johnstone family plot at the Chapel.

He lies there under a tall stone with a simple inscription at the bottom: Henry Grey Vick Entered into Rest May 17 1859.

Helen Johnstone, deeply sunk in grief and depression, spent most of every day for the next several months, no matter what the weather, sitting on a wrought-iron bench beside Vick’s grave, weeping and talking to him through her tears. At one point, she made her concerned family promise that the space beside Vick would be reserved for her; that no one else would ever be buried there, only she.

Mrs. Johnstone, unnerved by her daughter’s endless sorrow, finally took her to Scotland to visit the late Mr. Johnstone’s family. They remained away for a year or more; when they returned, Helen had recovered from the first desperation of loss. When she was approaching thirty, she married a minister called George Harris–whom she told forthrightly that she would make him a good wife, but would never love him as she had loved Henry Vick–and moved away to northern Mississippi.

In the event, Helen Johnstone Harris was not buried by her beloved Henry; when she died in 1916, she was buried beside George Harris.

But there have been many many reports, over the years, of a beautiful young woman in mourning garb of another century who drifts through the cemetery at the Chapel of the Cross. At Henry Vick’s grave she stops to brush away autumn leaves, to touch the moss-softened letters of his name–and to weep. Often people, concerned by her obvious despair, have approached her only to see her vanish before their startled eyes.

For Helen Johnstone, the afterlife is as full of weeping as earthly life was.

In case y’all wondered, I decided–as a way of keeping in training for 31 Days of Halloween–to do a mini-marathon: Seven Days of Valentines 2012. This is Day Two. 😉

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