Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

Dead Man’s Run

Many American place names commemorate some event that occurred on that particular spot of ground. In Oklahoma, for example, there’s a place called Dead Woman’s Crossing. The scene of a murder in the early twentieth century, it was for many years haunted by a ghost light. And I could not count the number of little towns that have a curve—some on highways, some on back roads—anointed with the name Dead Man’s Curve, in memory of lives lost there.

There are stories behind the names, if we search them out. One such name is given to a little stream up on the state line of North Carolina and East Tennessee. Called Dead Man’s Run, it’s not identified by name on most maps; it’s too small, really, to warrant the naming.

Hikers know the place well, though. There’s a grave marker nearby that anchors the name in place and time.

About ten miles south of Knobite Corner, in the mountains, lies the little town of Tellico Plains. Tellico was once a boom town, based on the logging industry. The two biggest companies that came in to log out the mountains in the area were Babcock’s Lumber Company and Heiser.

Some of the loggers lived in town; others lived in logging camps, like the mining camps out west. It was from a camp on the Tellico River, at the mouth of Sycamore Creek, that two Heiser employees named Andy Sherman and Paul O’Neill set out on December 11, 1899, bound for Robbinsville, North Carolina, where they apparently were planning to spend Christmas before returning to their jobs. Sherman and O’Neill were young men, native Pennsylvanians. Before they left, though, they had already been drinking a bit, and took jugs of whiskey with them. (There has long been a tradition of good moonshine-making in the area.)

They apparently made it safely across the state line into North Carolina. But in the high mountains at the southern end of the Appalachian chain, snow can and does sweep in unexpectedly. And snow came. Already more than slightly drunk, Sherman and O’Neill missed the trail, along Hooper Ridge between Hooper Bald and Horse Pen Gap, that would have led them into Robbinsville. Lost, and with the snow coming down fast, the wind blowing it about in white disarray, they finally lost the battle, near a little nameless stream.

In the logging camp, where there were always more workers in need of employment, their jobs were quickly filled. Sherman and O’Neill were, however, reported missing.

It was not until the following September that their bodies were found, some three quarters of a mile from the place where Andy Sherman now lies buried. The sheriff and coroner of Graham County were notified, and they took a coroner’s jury with them to investigate. The two sets of remains were close together, and jugs of whiskey found nearby led to a verdict; lost in the snow while intoxicated, the two had died of exposure in the remote area. Andy Sherman, whose remains had been badly mangled by wild animals, was buried in an initially unmarked grave on Big Huckleberry Knob; Paul O’Neill’s skeleton, in better condition, was given by judicial order to a local doctor as a medical exhibit.

Andy Sherman lies there to this day, at 5560 feet elevation, his grave now marked by a memorial stone that tells the story of the two lost loggers.

Andy Sherman stone NC TN state line

The stone, dated 1999–a century after their sad deaths–replaces a previous brass marker. Hikers who come yearly to the area also donated, some years ago, a cross that marks the grave.

memorial cross Andy Sherman

The little stream where Sherman and O’Neill lost their battle with the snow and wind has been known ever since as Dead Man’s Run, the singular probably paying tribute to the fact that only Andy Sherman lies buried nearby. No one knows what became of Paul O’Neill’s skeleton. It may still be in use as a medical exhibit, or some merciful later owner may have given it Christian burial.

I once asked my brother, who has hiked in the area often, if he’s ever heard any stories of ghosts along Dead Man’s Run. He says, as far as he knows, there are none. But I can’t help but wonder if, in mid-December, so high up and far from civilization, Andy Sherman, or more likely Paul O’Neill, may not walk again. . .still trying to find the trail to Robbinsville and safety.
I first heard the story of Dead Man’s Run from Bill Landry of WBIR-TV, Channel 10, Knoxville’s THE HEARTLAND SERIES: A CELEBRATION OF A PEOPLE AND THEIR LAND, which filmed a segment on Dead Man’s Run in 1988.

Additional information came from contributing writer Marshall McClung of the GRAHAM STAR.

Photographs copyright 2012 by Paul Gamble. Used by permission (thank you, brother! 🙂 )

Confession time: this is a somewhat rewritten/condensed version of a previous post. I’ve revived it because it’s again the season when Sherman and O’Neill were lost, and because I now have access to illustrations of the high country. No snow this year, but it’s easy to imagine. . .


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The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I am longing to be up North. . .

So opens that perennial Christmas classic “White Christmas”, written by Irving Berlin in 1942 and popularized by Bing Crosby in a film called Holiday Inn; years later, the song was revived in a film called White Christmas, in which it was performed as a memorable duet by Crosby and Rosemary Clooney.

For what it’s worth, though, white Christmases aren’t exactly the norm, even, apparently, “up North”. According to Peter Haining, the renowned British paranormal researcher and author, we owe dreams of a white Christmas to none other than our old friend Charles Dickens and his “Ghost of an Idea” A Christmas Carol, that imaginative tale of a miser’s reclamation in a snowy, foggy Victorian London.

In his preface to The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens (1982), Haining comments: . . .according to Professor Hubert Lamb of the climactic research unit at East Anglia University, snowy Christmases are actually very infrequent. . .Professor Lamb found the explanation for the belief during research into past weather records, which showed that for the first eight years of Dickens’s life there was a white Christmas every year with either snow or white hoarfrost (page 9).

It so happens that Dickens, born in 1812, came along at the tag end of the most recent period some call a Little Ice Age, a period of centuries during which weather patterns mimicked the great freezes that, in past ages, lasted for millenia. The last such began circa the year 1400. It was particularly severe in the late sixteenth century, when, it’s recorded, England’s Queen Elizabeth I took daily walks, during several memorable winters, on a River Thames frozen nearly rock solid.

Another geological phenomenon was also in effect in Dickens’s early years; in 1815, a gigantic volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies spread so much dust and ash in the atmosphere that much of the Northern Hemisphere experienced massive crop failures and unusual winter conditions (with much of New England and Canada in particular reporting snow as late as June in the following year) that 1816 is still remembered as “the year without a summer”.

Even so, Haining’s Professor Lamb points out that Christmas weather tends more toward sunny days breaking up more severe weather patterns, not the romantic snowy ones best observed from indoors, by a roaring fire, with hot chocolate and cookies and a good book and. . .

Ahem. Pardon me. I come from an area where white Christmases are rare–our more recent, in 2010, came forty-two years after its predecessor–

but I’ll dream of one nonetheless.

Specially when my man Hampson sings about one. 😉

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The Christmas Guest

There’s been many another performer who’s done this sweetly sentimental little recitation about a shoemaker who’s promised a visit from Jesus himself on Christmas, only to learn that Jesus doesn’t always appear in his own guise, but I like Grandpa’s best.

It reminds me of a story, though, of another kind of Christmas visitor altogether–

Bartholomew Rudd was a lifelong bachelor, but for all that he wasn’t a solitary man. He enjoyed the company of his fellow citizens, and was trudging home through a gentle dancing snow after a midnight carols service on Christmas Eve when his Christmas adventure began.

He would remember later that there was something strange about that snow. No matter how hard the flakes fell that night, they didn’t touch him: no dusting on his coat or hat, none melting on his gloved open palm.

Moreover, he could hear footsteps behind him–

but no one had left the church going in the same direction as him, and he had seen no one in the streets as he passed through them.

Disquieted, to say the least, he reached his little house. Before he went in, he turned around and took a look. The street was empty.

He went in and hung up his coat and hat and said “Merry Christmas!” to his old tabby cat Agatha, who yawned and then rubbed her head affectionately against his leg. “Come on, old girl. Let’s go into the study, by the fire.”

She accompanied him up the little flight of stairs, as far as the study door. When he opened it and stepped in, though, she turned and fled, for a voice came out of the shadows around the fireplace.


A man was sitting in the rocking chair to one side of the fire. He rose and held out his hand. It’s been a long time, Barty.

The light fell full upon his face then.

Bartholomew said in delight: Andrew! Andrew Putnam! What brings you here on a snowy Christmas morning?

In the days of their boyhood, Bartholomew Rudd and the man standing before him had been the proverbial twin sons of different mothers, an inseparable pair full of hijinks and good spirits. Manhood had split them up though; Barty had remained in their hometown, while Andy had gone into business, then into politics. He had married and had a family, and had, at last accounting, gained a position in the Andrew Johnson administration in Washington, DC.

Andy never did give Barty a straight answer as to what brought him to their hometown this night, and Barty, in their exchange of news and reminiscences, forgot that vexed question altogether. He was hungry after his walk home in the snow, so he prepared a light meal for himself and his guest. Before they ate they toasted each other with a glass of good ale.

Andrew, when invited to go down to the dining room, flatly refused to leave the warmth of the fire. He added, rather apologetically, that he had walked from the train station and gotten a ferocious chill.

So they ate and talked into the wee hours.

Barty at last promised his old friend we’ll talk more in the morning, Andy and directed Putnam to the guest bedroom just off the study.

Other than to say Good night, Barty. Sleep well Putnam made no reply to that, simply going into the guest room and closing it behind him.

Barty Rudd woke at nine AM on Christmas morning to the sound of his housekeeper, the redoubtable Mrs. Fitzsimmons, knocking on his door and calling breakfast!

Barty dressed and went to wake Andrew Putnam.

His first hint that something had been strange about that visit in the night came in the study.

The little table at which he and Putnam had eaten and drunk ale in the chime hours still sat before the fireplace. He hadn’t cleared away when they parted to sleep.

Then, both plates, and both glasses, had been empty.

This morning, both plate and glass from which Putnam had eaten and drunk were full.

A minute or two later, he found that the room he’d given Putnam to sleep in was not only empty–it looked as if it hadn’t been disturbed in months.

Distraught, he ran down to ask Mrs. Fitzsimmons if she had seen his guest that morning.

She said, What guest?

It wasn’t until the morning after Christmas that the telegram came.

Mr Rudd (stop) Regret to inform you that Andrew Putnam Esq. passed away on the first of December 1866 (stop) We know you join us in mourning his passing (stop)

The cable was signed The family of A. H. Putnam.

This story comes from Beth Scott and Michael Norman’s 1985 book Haunted Heartland; it is apparently based on an item that appeared in an 1867 newspaper, detailing an odd occurrence in the little town of Fountain City, Wisconsin.

Gives a whole new meaning to I’ll be home for Christmas–just sayin’–

Merry Christmas!

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Imagine, if you will, a room like this:

Decorated for Christmas, it’s warm and cozy. Now then, imagine that over to the righthand side of the fireplace, there sits a man in a large armchair. He’s not a handsome man by any means, but his face is strongly marked by intelligence and humor—and he is about to work magic.

All stories are magic, but there are some that gain in the telling by being read aloud. So imagine, also, a group of students—all male, for this man is provost of a famous British preparatory school—seated in chairs or on the floor, coltish legs and sharp elbows pulled in, anticipating wonders.

We owe the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas mainly to Charles Dickens. Dickens’s most famous work in the genre, A Christmas Carol, is subtitled Being, a Ghost Story of Christmas. Dickens, as editor of various magazines in the course of his career, always put out a Christmas annual which consisted in the main of ghost stories, by some of the most famous writers of his day: Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Amelia B. Edwards, and of course Dickens himself.

The man who is about to read to his students was born too late to submit his stories to Dickens. Montague Rhodes James is, however, arguably the finest of all writers of fictional ghost stories.

Born the youngest son of a Sussex clergyman in 1862, he was also one of the unlikeliest. By profession a historian (mainly of medieval England), he lived out his life a bachelor, first as a Cambridge University chancellor and, for the last eighteen years of his life as provost of Eton. There would seem to be nothing in his background to account for his taste for the macabre.

In his spare time, however, he wrote ghost stories. At first he read them to his fellow Cambridge dons during the Christmas season; later, for his pupils at Eton.

In our own day, we are used to writers in the horror genre who use bloody menaces—serial killers, killer clowns, demons, rabid dogs, kinetically gifted teens (yes, Stephen King, I’m primarily, but not solely, talking about you)—to scare us witless. Not once does M. R. James resort to this type of over-the-top plotline, or, in King’s evocative phrase, go for the gross-out, yet James’s stories can scare one into turning on extra lights, and checking dark corners, strictly by the power of suggestion. In the preface to a collection of his stories called A Warning to the Curious, the author Ruth Rendell—herself no mean hand at creating uncanny atmospheres—gives a near perfect description of how James achieves these scares:

His stories begin quietly, often with a description of a place, a town or a country house or library, and his traveller to whom in a little while dreadful things will happen. There are—at first—no ghosts and demons, only a gradually increasing, indefinable, slow menace. And James’s characters bring trouble on themselves by such simple innocent actions, by being a little too curious, by merely examining an old manuscript or borrowing a certain book, by picking up an apparently harmless object on the beach. (A Warning to the Curious, pages vii-viii.)

The stories to which Rendell refers, in that final sentence, are, respectively, “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook“, “The Tractate Middoth,” (which is, unfortunately, not available online) and “O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad“, but the general idea holds true for all of James’s stories. Not to mention that these stories have influenced a good many writers—even Stephen King—who came after James; there is a scene in King’s 1977 novel The Shining that must have been inspired by one in James’s early story “Lost Hearts“, in which a young boy is frightened by a ghastly figure he sees in a bathtub.

It is astonishing, as well, that James’s influence should have spread so far when his output in the genre consists of no more than thirty-one short stories.

I suspect, though, that one thing that makes them so memorable is, simply, that James himself first read them aloud—and he must have been a wonderful reader, for none of the fellow professors or students who heard him read them at Christmastime ever forgot them. At least one of his pupils, the English actor Christopher Lee, has read James’s work on BBC radio, and shared his memories of hearing “Monty” in his youth. (James died in 1936.)

I frankly cannot do any sort of justice to James’s work; my powers of description aren’t equal to the task. However, his best stories are available online: to those linked above I would add “Count Magnus“, a terrifying tale of a medieval Faust figure and his familiar; “Casting the Runes“, in which a practitioner of black magic falls victim to his own wicked spell; “The Mezzotint“, a story of a strange engraving; and “A Warning to the Curious“, loosely based on the actual discovery, in 1687, of a Saxon crown buried on the eastern coast of England.

When I’m reading James’s stories, I make sure that my back is to the wall and the room is well-lit. Such is their dark magic.

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A Little Something for Mom

photo by Amanda Gamble copyright 2011

We haven’t hung anything on our front door at Christmas in donkey’s years.

This year, though, I got ambitious after finding a Christmas stocking consisting of crocheted granny squares in the November 29, 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.

This is the end result. I used a different granny pattern than what’s in the magazine, substituting a Neverending Granny for their square. The colors are Red Heart Ranch Red, Soft White and Medium Thyme, with a bit of a Victorian Christmas Gold metallic thrown in for bling.

Mom’s reaction, when she saw the finished product, is one I’ll treasure: without hesitation, she said, “That’s my Christmas present.”


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I really couldn’t tell you, one way or another, whether Evelyn Danzig and Jack Segal intended this gentle little tale of a little girl who prays

send, dear God, some scarlet ribbons
Scarlet ribbons for my hair

and a parent who is left bemused when out of nowhere scarlet ribbons turn up on the little girl’s bed to be a Christmas song, per se, when they wrote it in 1949.

Early recordings by Dinah Shore and Harry Belafonte, among others, didn’t make much impression. Then, in December of 1960, a trio of brother and two sisters–country music’s The Browns–released it. Their version went higher in the charts of the day than any other–

Okay, granted I get teary-eyed over little kids and puppies and kittens and etc. Still, there’s something especially touching about this tiny miracle.

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Born a decade too late to remember John Lennon in his Beatles days–

in keeping with that circumstance, I was a day late in hearing of his appalling death.

On December 9, 1980, I was in college: a freshman alto in the choir and working in the music department to earn tuition money.

That morning I was waiting in the foyer to the music department for the history class meeting down the hall in the choir room to turn out so I could go set up for a rehearsal when our accompanist/piano instructor came in and demanded abruptly, What do you think about what happened to John Lennon?

We had no television at home then, and no radio in the car, so I got all my news, in those days, secondhand.

Also, I wasn’t quite awake.

What happened to John Lennon? I asked.

You mean you haven’t heard? He was murdered last night!

That blunt. That cold. That unbelievably, sadly true.

Murdered when he was almost home, by a mentally disturbed man who sat down and read a copy of The Catcher in the Rye until the police came–who would later use Salinger’s novel as a “explanation” for Lennon’s death.

Mark David Chapman, the gunman, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to twenty years to life for Lennon’s murder. Denied parole, at last count, six times, he will likely die in prison.

We have Lennon’s music. That, Chapman could never take from us.

I remember this song every Christmas season.

Rest well, John Lennon. Rest well.

PS There are reports, by the way, of people who claim to have seen Lennon’s ghost in front of the Dakota, that immense gothic apartment building where he and Yoko Ono made their home in the last years of Lennon’s life.

Lennon’s spirit also figures in British author Phil Rickman’s brilliant horror novel December (1994).

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