Archive for the ‘History’ Category

In addition to being the saint’s day of Valentine, martyr and patron of lovers, February 14 is the anniversary of a number of bloody deeds that have nothing to do with love or romance.

Certainly this holds true for the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre, the bloodiest episode in Chicago mob history. A culmination of a turf war between “Scarface” Al Capone and an Irish mobster named George “Bugs” Moran, its intent was to get Moran out of the way. Two things intervened that day to save Moran; he saw a couple of men in police uniform entering 2122 North Clark Street, where the massacre took place, turned around and left, while a Capone gunman mistook Moran gang member Albert Weinschenk for Moran himself, thus setting the massacre in motion before Moran’s arrival.

There are stories that the empty lot that once was 2122 North Clark Street is haunted to this day by phantom gunshots and the traumatized spirit of a German shepherd, the pet of one victim. Less well-known, perhaps, is the haunting that followed none other than Scarface himself, beginning in 1929 and, it’s said, continuing until his own death in 1947.

Capone thought it expedient, once the smoke of the massacre had cleared somewhat, to get out of Chicago for awhile. He and an associate took a road trip to Pennsylvania, where they fell afoul of local weapons laws and were sentenced to eight months in Philadelphia’s infamous Eastern State Penitentiary. Capone’s money insured that, in theory, he did not do hard time.

Capone cell Eastern State Penitentiary<

Or did he?

It was during his stay in Eastern State that early reports surfaced of a weeping, terrified Capone begging someone he called "Jimmy" to leave him alone.

Jimmy, it transpired, was the specter of James Clark, one of the seven men who died on that bloody February 14th. Born Albert Kachellek, Clark was Bugs Moran's second in command and brother-in-law. Why he, of the seven–not to mention all the other men who, down the years, had died on Capone's orders–should show up to haunt Scarface Al is a mystery. Some have suggested that Capone was already suffering from softening of the brain and possible hallucinations due to neurosyphilis; others, that Clark was a fragment of Capone's guilty conscience, if such Capone had; or even, perhaps, was a ghostly union rep of sorts, leader of all those whose secondhand blood stained Capone's hands.

There were those among Capone's guards and close friends, however, who would claim to have seen Clark's ghost, staring fish-eyed at Capone as Capone begged for mercy.

Capone is said to have called in a medium named Alice Britt in 1931 to try to find out what Clark wanted. Apparently, Britt was unsuccessful, and Clark continued to follow Capone: through his trial for income tax evasion, through the first years of his eleven-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, and then, in 1934, to the Rock–Alcatraz, where Capone did three turns in "the hole" for rules infractions, played a fifteen-hundred-dollar banjo in a prison band and in the shower, was confined in solitary after attempts were made on his life, and slowly lost his mind.

Paroled in 1939, Capone left Alcatraz a broken man. Back in Chicago the mob had moved on; new leaders had taken his place, and even those loyal to him realized, once they saw him, that Capone would never control the mob again; as one observed, "Al's nuttier than a fruitcake."

Capone died, ironically, in his bed, of cardiac arrest following a stroke and a bout of pneumonia, in 1947. The ghost of James Clark, it's said, was with him till the end.

After Capone's death, no one reported an encounter with James Clark's spirit again.


The Haunting of Al Capone at prairieghosts.com

Dennis William Hauck, The National Directory of Haunted Places (1996 edition)

Ursula Bielski, More Chicago Haunts: Scenes from Myth and Memory (2000)

Jeff Belanger, Encyclopedia of Haunted Places: Ghostly Locales from Around the World (2005)

For stories specific to the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre:

Dale Kaczmarek, Windy City Ghosts: The Haunted History of Chicago (2000)

Richard T. Crowe and Carol Mercado, Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural (2000)

And may your Valentine’s Day be a happy one–just sayin’– 😉

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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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. . .a date that will live in infamy.

Now, its name is as famous as any in American history: Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, home base for the US Pacific Fleet. It’s hard to believe that on December 7, 1941, the majority of Americans had never heard of it.

They would before the end of that day.

Pearl is, naturally, a haunted place: there are stories of a horribly burned sailor who walks the Arizona memorial above the resting place of the doomed battleship; of a mischievous airman who haunts nearby Hickam AFB, also a casualty of that early morning attack; of phantom screams and groans and explosions that the psychically sensitive hear to this day.

Less known, perhaps, are stories of premonitions of Pearl Harbor’s place in that day of infamy: of its name appearing, out of context and unheard of before to bewildered bystanders, etched in snow on a midwestern sidewalk or painted on a car door by an incorrigible youngster at a school.

Perhaps the oddest of all Pearl Harbor premonitions, though, came from thousands of miles away in the hill country of Texas, where a ghostly horseman, herald of four previous wars, made his last and most spectacular appearance on Sunday, December 7, 1941.

Natives of the Tonkawa tribe were the first to tell the early white settlers about a ghost who earned the name Devil Rider; a giant of a man on a giant black horse. He wore antique Spanish armor and carried antique Spanish weaponry. The Tonkawa said he and his horse would sometimes ride out of a little hollow that had no name. They avoided that hollow like plague.

Many of the early whites in the area were of Celtic descent, and Celts are notoriously fey. They too avoided the hollow until, one morning in 1846, a rancher named McConnell, tracking wolves that preyed on his livestock, followed their trail into the hollow and almost at once rode up on the Spanish rider and black horse, in their ancient armor and harness.

McConnell, knowing he was seeing something that shouldn’t have been there, hightailed it for home. Shortly after his sighting, word came that Zachary Taylor and American troops had crossed the Rio Grande: the outbreak of the Mexican War.

Some thought the rider a ghost; others called him Lucifer himself, and thus, a nameless and long-dead Spaniard acquired the nickname of Devil Rider, and his little hollow became known as Devil’s Hollow.

Horse and rider were not seen again until April of 1861, when a man called Emmett Ringstaff spotted him. Ringstaff noted that the warrior carried two brass horse pistols and his armor bore an insignia: a crown suspended over a crouching lion.

A few days later, word came that Confederate troops in Charleston, South Carolina, had fired on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter. The Civil War had begun.

Devil’s Hollow, as it happened, lay along a spur of the famed Chisholm Trail, along which cattlemen drove their herds to markets in Kansas, and eventually was renamed Chisholm Hollow, but its ghostly occupant retained his nickname of Devil Rider. Its appropriateness was proven in 1898, when he appeared to three different men, on three separate occasions, shortly before the outbreak of the tomfoolery we call the Spanish-American War.

The rider had paid no attention whatever, in 1846 and 1861, to McConnell or Ringstaff. In 1898, all three of the men who witnessed his passing claimed to have felt he was staring at them, with fiery hate in his eyes.

As we know, most of the men who signed up to fight in the Spanish-American War died in camp of disease before they ever saw battle. In the Devil Rider’s domain, though, legend has it that the hillmen experienced inexplicable drought and crop failures and cattle and horse deaths from no known disease during that four-month period.

Afterward, the Devil Rider went unseen for so long that one intrepid rancher, thinking him gone to the afterlife, tried to homestead Chisholm Hollow, investing every penny of his savings, only to lose everything when his farmstead burnt to the ground. No cause for the fire was ever found, and no one tried to settle in the canyon again.

The Devil Rider was next seen in January of 1917, by six youngsters who bravely rode into his hollow hunting deer. They were jeering at the rider’s reputation as a prognosticator of war–there were rumblings that the US would soon be entering that first dreadful conflict to earn the name of World War–when the rider and his horse rode noisily past.

The US officially entered World War I in April 1917, two months after formally severing diplomatic relations with the German empire. Of the six young men who had seen the Devil Rider, five would die on battlefields in France and Belgium.

On the afternoon of December 7, 1941, a hill family was returning from a church service by a road that took them past Chisholm Hollow. The driver was forced to slam on the brakes when he heard sounds like a horse galloping through the woods at the head of the hollow, coming toward the road as if to cross it. As he and his family watched in amazement, a man in old, old armor, on a huge black horse, rode out of the hollow and simply stopped in the middle of the road–before vanishing without a trace.

It was the first–and only–time the Devil Rider of Chisholm Hollow was ever seen outside the hollow proper.

Shaken–they knew the legend of the Devil Rider’s appearance before the outbreak of war–the family went home and turned on the radio–

to hear news of the attack on Pearl Harbor–marking the United States’ entry into the most horrific war the world has ever witnessed.

The story of the Devil Rider of Chisholm Hollow was told by Harold Preece in Visions of Ghost Armies: From the Files of Fate Magazine (2003). Preece’s account dates, from internal evidence, to about the years 1951-1952.

From what little else I have been able to find about the Devil Rider, that eerie appearance on December 7, 1941 was his last. There are no records of reports–that I can find–of his appearance before Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

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Peace came, after four years of the most merciless war the world had yet seen, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, ending World War I.

Originally, this day was designated as Armistice Day, in remembrance of that peace. Now, in the United States, we call it Veterans’ Day, in remembrance and celebration of our veterans of all wars.

My paternal grandfather was a veteran of that “war to end all wars”, as was the senior occupant of Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknowns, and while I honor all veterans of all wars today in my heart, I dedicate this post to the men of all nations who died in World War I–and their spirits.


The British author James Wentworth Day was a twenty-year-old lieutenant serving in His Majesty’s British Expeditionary Force when peace came in 1918. Some forty years after the war, Day wrote of a strange experience he and a noncom, a Scots corporal named Barr, had while guarding German prisoners of war at Bailleul.

Word had come to the POW camp that nearby, in the ruins of an old coaching inn, were stashed a huge number of Queen stoves (from their description, these must have been similar to what old people in the knobs call a “warm morning heater”, and could also be used as a cookstove). Day and Corporal Barr hiked over to the inn to reconnoiter. Word, for once, was proven right; there were enough Queen stoves to heat guard shacks and prisoners’ tents and some left over! They would bring over a POW detail to fetch them in the morning; meanwhile, they set off to hike back to camp.

They were passing a patch of forest, blasted by great guns but tenacious of life, when out of the wood burst horsemen: German cavalry, dressed as they would have been in the heady early days of the war in 1914. As Day and Barr watched in amazement, French cavalry, also dressed in uniforms of 1914, charged from the opposite side of the wood. There should have been sounds: of harness and weaponry and hooves and hoarse, shouted orders in two languages. There were no sounds, and before the two forces met, they vanished.

Day and Barr returned to camp badly shaken. The next day, Day talked to the one person he knew could tell him the meaning of what he saw, an innkeeper called Marie, a native of the area.

Marie told him that the wood he passed was on the frontier, and had long been rumored to be haunted by ghosts from as far back as the Napoleonic Wars. There was, she said, about half a mile past the ruined coaching inn, a little churchyard, and in that churchyard were buried cavalrymen from Napoleon’s time, from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and now this great war.

Day found that little churchyard, found, as Marie had said, the graves of German and French cavalrymen. And since, as he wrote, he “love[d] a horse and revered a good rider. . .[he] stood in homage for a frightened moment.”


Among the fallen of World War I were a number of men already renowned or gaining renown in the arts: the American poet Alan Seeger, who died fighting with the French Foreign Legion in 1916, before the US joined hostilities; British author H.H. Munro (better known by his pen name, Saki) and poets Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen–four names among many. Wilfred Owen came back, to let his beloved younger brother know of his death–or was it a fever dream? You be the judge.

On November 11, 1918, Harold Owen was serving in His Majesty’s navy, aboard a ship anchored off the Cape of Good Hope. He was in a low fever at the time, after an attack of malaria. Ill and depressed, he found himself worrying about his brother, Wilfred, who had been fighting in Europe. Had Wilfred survived to see this day?

Harold found himself unable to join in the festivities of peace, and went down to his cabin to write letters. He walked in to find Wilfred seated in his chair. Delighted and shocked all at once, Harold tried to question him as to how he had gotten here, aboard this ship. . .

All the while he noted that Wilfred sat curiously immobile. When Harold spoke, he smiled in understanding, but never spoke a word.

And then, Wilfred was no longer there.

Harold, exhausted and ill, could not puzzle out what he had just seen: his brother in a place where he could not be. He fell asleep, and when he woke, he later wrote, he knew for a certainty that Wilfred was dead.

Wilfred Owen had been killed on November 4, 1918. His parents in England received word at noon on November 11, an hour after the cessation of hostilities, of his death.

Wilfred himself had let Harold know.

Here in honored glory lies an American soldier known but to God. . .

He was one of four unidentified American soldiers whose bodies were exhumed and brought back from the battlefields of Europe in 1921, three years after the end of the Great War. They were placed in identical coffins and each coffin covered with an American flag. He was chosen to be our first Unknown, buried under a marble tomb at Arlington, by a veteran who laid a wreath of white roses atop his coffin–third from the left.

The others were buried in honored glory elsewhere. He was buried on November 11, 1921, at that great bivouac of the dead with President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding designated as his next of kin. Before his entombment, he was awarded a Medal of Honor and a British Victoria Cross.

Near him lie Unknowns from World War II and Korea, while the grave of the Unknown from Vietnam now lies empty, its occupant having been identified by DNA and removed to a family plot elsewhere. He and his fellows are guarded round the clock in what is possibly our nation’s most impressive ceremony.

The Doughboy from World War I, alone of the Unknowns, does not rest easy.

Stories say that, when a Commander in Chief or a great military figure lies in state in the Capitol’s Rotunda in the District of Columbia, he comes back. Late at night, he appears, dressed in that unmistakable World War I uniform, comes to full attention by the coffin, snaps a brisk salute, and then is gone.

On this day of honor and remembrance, to all our veterans, male and female, living and dead, a heartfelt thanks for your service and sacrifice.

James Wentworth Day’s story of the Ghostly Cavalrymen of Bailleul comes from his book Ghosts and Witches (1991 reprint edition).

The story of Wilfred Owen’s appearance to his brother comes from the Reader’s Digest anthology Mysteries of the Unexplained (1982).

The story of the Unknown Doughboy of World War I is told in John Alexander’s Washington Revisited: The Ghostlore of the Nation’s Capital (1998; revised edition).

The phrase “bivouac of the dead” comes from Theodore O’Hara’s poem of the same name; written during the Mexican War of 1845-1848 but inextricably bound to all our wars and war cemeteries since, its first verse is prominently displayed on brass tablets at many such:

The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat
The soldier’s last tattoo!
No more on life’s parade shall meet
The brave and fallen few.
On Fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And glory guards with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.

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This past July 5th Knobite Corner experienced a weather phenomenon not common to this area. Called a derecho, it slammed into us from an odd direction–north by northeast; most of our bad weather moves in from the southwest–and consisted of a hard straight wind at speeds of seventy to ninety miles an hour. It did not turn circular on itself the way a tornado would, but it was quite as destructive, leaving millions of dollars in damage to trees and buildings and at least two dead in its wake in East Tennessee; other places were likewise affected.

There’s a story from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley of a similar sort of windstorm, but in the Shenandoah, the high wind is associated with appearances of a ghost called the Whirlaway.

They called the Shenandoah Valley “Mosby’s Confederacy” during the Civil War. It was home base to a Virginia cavalry battalion, led by a commissioned Confederate officer called John Singleton Mosby. Mosby’s Rangers, as they were commonly called, fought guerrilla style; although they did engage Union cavalry, they preferred to target Federal supply lines and railroads and, after raids, would vanish into the general population of the Valley until Mosby called them up again. So successful, and so elusive, were the Rangers that their commander acquired a nickname: the Gray Ghost of the Confederacy.

Mosby survived the war, and has never been reported to haunt the Shenandoah.

The gray ghost of the Shenandoah–the one they call the Whirlaway, whose appearances coincide with appalling windstorms–was, and remains to this day, nameless.

It’s said that the first sign of the Whirlaway’s approach was a brilliant shimmering silvery-green burst of light, out of which emerged the figure of a young man in gray, wearing a kepi-style hat that shadowed his face. He could move, they say, faster than the eye could follow: face him one place and before you could trace the movement, he was in another place, still surrounded by that odd shimmering light.

Sometimes the light was accompanied by the sound of a man’s heavy boots. Always, though, the light was followed by a hard straight wind that could almost blow down a grown man.

Legend has it that the Whirlaway had its origins in a Civil War murder. A young local man, dressed in gray and searching for Mosby, was captured by Federal troops. Although the tradition says that he was a civilian merely seeking to join Mosby’s Rangers, the Federals–angry over a hostile exchange that had left POWs, both Union and from the Rangers, dead–mistook him for an actual Ranger and beat him before dumping his body in front of a stampeding herd of cattle, which finished the job for them. This incident is said to have happened in late 1864, but was forgotten as Union general Philip Sheridan swept into the Shenandoah and proceeded to burn and starve out the natives, and by extension the Rangers.

The first appearance of the Whirlaway, the rushing wind preceded by the sighting of a young faceless man in gray, dates to the autumn of 1870. That time it was encountered by a local squire, who gave the description of the young man and also named the phenomenon “the Whirlaway”, apparently for the movement of the light, but not of the hard straight wind. After that first encounter, the ghost and the wind returned at five or six year intervals for more than half a century.

Over the years a number of farmers and a judge from nearby Front Royal are said to have witnessed the phenomenon, but the most memorable encounter dates to 1925, when a Mrs. Cook and her four daughters were surprised when, as they worked in their front lawn, a hard straight wind nearly knocked them off their feet. As they ran for shelter in the house they heard a man’s heavy tread following them; when they looked back, they saw the silvery-green shimmering light and watched in horror as a man clad in gray appeared in it. They managed to get into the house and bar all the doors and windows, but for the rest of the afternoon they were besieged indoors. They reported, once the wind died and the man vanished, that one of them would spot the man in gray at the front window, and almost simultaneously a scream would come from the back of the house, as another member of the family would spot him there. They were most thankful that the entity never managed to get into the house, although the wind pounded against it for hours.

They were not the only ones to report the Whirlaway’s appearance that day. A family whose farm lay directly across the Shenandoah River from the Cooks’ place also reported seeing the man in the shimmering light, followed by a high wind.

There seem to have been no further reports of the Whirlaway since that 1925 incident. One can only hope that the young man finally is at rest, and when the wind blows hard, it’s only wind and not a haunting reminder of an old and brutal death.

Christopher K. Coleman tells the story of the Whirlaway in his 1999 book Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

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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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There are those who say she’s a ghost: a lady dressed all in black, her face concealed by a black veil, who brings flowers to the crypt where lies the body of the great silent film star Rudolph Valentino. This lady–or, at least, a lady–has performed this ritual every August 23 since 1927, the one year anniversary of Valentino’s unmercifully early death.

She’s no ghost, though. The duty has been performed, more or less officially, by three living women in succession since then.

Born Rodolfo Guglielmi in Italy in 1895, Valentino was sent to the United States in 1913 after a troubled childhood and adolescence. He made his way in New York City as an exhibition dancer (a skill that stood him in good stead during his movie career), busboy, and, rumor has it, a gigolo. He moved to Hollywood in 1919, changed his name to Rudolph Valentino, and began to appear in small parts in films, usually cast as the villain–thanks to his dark good looks. He became a major star in 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, playing a French-Argentinian playboy who dies in WWI; this part led to his iconic role in the eponymous The Sheik.

His career did not last long; on August 15, 1926, he collapsed in a New York City hotel and died eight days later of peritonitis following a perforated ulcer.

At the time of his death he was allegedly engaged to the actress Pola Negri, following on two failed marriages. Negri (1897-1987) certainly seems to have been devastated by Valentino’s death; she fainted several times during his funeral. She also claimed, in her later years, to have been the black-clad, veiled lady who first placed flowers at his crypt in 1927.

Romantic though her claim may be, though, Negri was not the first Lady in Black. That honor falls to a girl who took it as a commission from Valentino himself.

In 1947, a woman named Ditra Flame (pronounced fla-MAY, 1912-1984) revealed that she was the original Lady in Black. Her mother was a friend of Valentino’s. When Ditra was a young girl, she was hospitalized for a serious illness, and Valentino came to visit her. At that visit, she said, Valentino asked her to come to his grave to visit him once he was dead, for he did not wish to be alone. Ditra recovered, and when Valentino died some years later, she–by then a teenager–kept her promise to him, first going to the crypt, in black and bearing flowers, on August 23, 1927. She only revealed her status as the original Lady in Black after a former showgirl named Marian Watson–who, like Pola Negri, claimed to have been Valentino’s fiancee–claimed she was the Lady in Black. In later years, Flame stopped wearing black clothes on her anniversary visits to Valentino’s crypt. As the legend grew, vast numbers of women in black would show up each August 23rd, rendering Flame somewhat superfluous.

A disgusted Flame discontinued her annual visits in 1954. In the wake of Elvis Presley’s death in 1977, she took up the tradition again, continuing her visits to Valentino’s crypt from then until her death in 1984. She is identified on her tombstone as the Lady in Black.

A woman named Estrellita del Regil began to visit Valentino’s grave in the early 1970s, and is generally accepted as the second “official” Lady in Black when she continued the role after Flame’s death. Del Regil also claimed that her mother, Anna Maria Carrascosa (1910-1973), had been the original Lady in Black, and that she was continuing a family tradition; this claim is not generally accepted. She continued in the role until 1993, when illness forced her to give it up. Del Regil passed away in 2001.

Since 1995, an actress named Vicki Callahan has been the “official” Lady in Black, and so identifies herself on her website.

And the list goes on. In addition to the no longer active Poe Toaster and Valentino’s Lady in Black, there was long a royal mystery: who was placing two dozen red roses on Anne Boleyn’s grave on the anniversary of her death?

Anne, the second wife of the infamous Henry VIII of England, was convicted on charges of treason, adultery, incest and witchcraft (her true crime being her failure to bear Henry the sons he craved) and executed on May 19th, 1536. Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, on May 19th of each year, someone began placing two dozen red roses on Anne’s grave beneath the floor of the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London.

The roses have been found, each anniversary, for more than one hundred fifty years now. In the last decade, however, it has been revealed that descendants of the Boleyn family began paying a London florist in the 1850s or thereabout to deliver the roses. Their descendants have continued the tradition, although it’s done nowadays by a different florist!

It’s also said–if Wikipedia is to be believed–that Valentino’s Lady in Black was one source of inspiration for the classic country song “The Long Black Veil,” written by Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill in 1959.

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