In Carrollton, Alabama, there’s the story of the face in the courthouse window. In West Virginia, there’s a story of a handprint. In the UK, there’s a story of a man whose grave has never grown grass; only weeds and ivy.
All these odd stories have one thing in common: they involve men wrongfully executed for crimes they didn’t commit.
Add to them the North Carolina story of Daniel Keith’s shadow.
It may have been Daniel Keith’s sheer size that made people a little leery of him. Dan was enormous: well over six feet tall and correspondingly wide, with fists like ham hocks, a broad, not especially friendly face, small eyes, and a red beard as big as the rest of him. Maybe it was the fact that he drank a little moonshine, and when he drank, he got a little rowdy. Maybe it was because he was something of a recluse.
In any case, he made a handy suspect when murder came to quiet little Rutherfordton, in the mountains of western North Carolina, in the late winter of 1880.
In February, the body of an eight-year-old girl was found near her home. She had been beaten to death with a rock. Nowadays, we would most likely begin with a searching look into her family life before we looked at neighbors. But someone–no one remembers who–happened to remember that they’d seen big Dan Keith near the child’s home that day, and that he had been a bit soused. The sheriff never looked at another suspect once he found a bloodstained shirt hanging over a rail on Dan’s back porch.
Dan protested that the blood was rabbit. Without benefit of modern forensics, he couldn’t prove his protest. He was jailed, and on November 9 of the same year, put on trial. His conviction was a foregone conclusion, especially after a certain sixteen-year-old boy testified that he had, on the fatal day, heard the little girl scream in terror and, shortly thereafter, saw Big Dan staggering away with blood on hands and clothes. Never mind that he said Dan had been wearing a shirt that in no wise matched the one the sheriff found on the porch rail at Dan’s house. Dan was sentenced to hang.
He was allowed to say a few words before sentence was passed. He said I never kilt nobody. Anybody who says I did is a liar. If you hang me, I’ll haint you all till you’re dead and the devil takes you!
He repeated that vow, with the rope around his neck, at his hanging on December 11.
Lord knows how long it took the big man to die, but die he did. But the haunting Big Dan had promised had already begun, before they took his lifeless body away for burial.
People noticed, that very day, as they passed by the jail, that there was a shadow on the south wall that had never been there before: a shadow of a giant of a man with a rope around his neck.
That shadow could only have belonged to Big Dan Keith.
They tried scrubbing the wall. They tried painting it. The shadow couldn’t be scrubbed, and showed through dozens of coats of paint. It was so dark and definite it could even be seen by moonlight.
The people all around came to witness the phenomenon, even after the jail was sold and converted to a private residence. The homeowner had an idea that stemmed the crowds; he planted ivy that eventually covered the entire wall and hid the shadow from view. Hid was the operative word; if one looked through the thick tangle of ivy, one could see the shadow still there, still haunting the people of Rutherfordton.
In 1949, the old jail was sold again, this time to a commercial developer who remodeled and repurposed it as an office building. During the remodeling process, the ivy on the south wall was cut down. The shadow was still there. Undaunted, contractors slapped several coats of paint over it.
This time, the shadow didn’t come back.
Maybe it was only coincidence that, right about then, a man in his eighties died in the local nursing home–a man who, some in town remembered, had, as a sixteen-year-old in 1880, given testimony that had sent Daniel Keith to the hangman. Judge, jury, lawyers, and other witnesses were all long in their graves. He was the last of those Dan had vowed to haunt till the end of his days.
Can’t help but wonder–with a shiver–if the devil took him, as Big Dan swore he would.
The story of Big Dan Keith’s shadow comes from Randy Russell and Janet Barnett’s 1988 book Mountain Ghost Stories and Curious Tales of Western North Carolina.