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Lilly-Bowyer, Karen C. The “Wettest & Wickedest” Town: An Illustrated Guide to the Legends & Ghosts of Salisbury, North Carolina. Frank Chodl, photos. 2011.
I was pleased to find this book while attending a conference in Salisbury a couple of years ago. It’s the kind of local, indie book that is very hard to find outside of its own location. You’d probably have to call the South Main Book Company in Salisbury (where I bought the book) to get a copy. It’s self-published (with the ring-binder, that shows), and it’s short (73 pages), but the sepia photographs look really nice on glossy paper and there are ghost stories here you won’t find anywhere else.
You know a town has a pretty dark history when one of the ugliest “legends” (an extremely notorious group lynching that put Salisbury on the map for a time in the worst possible way) is just cold, hard fact. There’s a lot more to Salisbury than that, but the chilling unsolved ax murder of a family and the three unfortunate men whose lynching for the crime made international news in 1906 is probably its most famous tale. As with most lynchings during this time period, race was a major factor and the real murderers of the family (possibly the oldest two children, who survived) got away with it, as did the mob. At least, in a court of law. In the court of international opinion, Salisbury was thoroughly condemned.
The crime still resonates today. Just this year, the town council has been considering two resolutions that themselves thoroughly condemn the lynching and they’ve generated a lot of controversy, even in 2018.
The tree is still there.
But there are other tales, too. There are 14 in all from the author’s ghost tours in Salisbury. Though some of them follow folkloric tropes (such as the ghost of a little girl spotted in an upstairs window in the Wrenn House), you’re not likely to see very many in other collections. For example, there’s the quote used in the title. Salisbury began as a county courthouse and a tavern (known as an “ordinary”) in 1755. A century later, it had so many whiskey distilleries, saloons and whorehouses that it was considered “the ‘Wettest and Wickedest’ town in the state.” Prohibition had little effect on the town other than to drive its activities underground.
The Sessions House, on land once owned by the rich slave trader Maxwell Chambers, is built over the family graveyard and belongs to a nearby church. It’s speculated Chambers felt guilt late in life about his profession and wanted a connection to the church, but why are the graves under the house and covered by stone slabs? The author floats a more sinister theory – that Chambers feared the family’s bodies would be stolen by medical students looking for cadavers.
Unsurprisingly, the local cemeteries get an entry (some going back to the 18th century). In addition to being the cemetery for a former Confederate prison, one also has possible Masonic graves. Lutheran Cemetery has an odd ring around one tree of permanently trampled earth, reminiscent of the Devil’s Tramping Ground in Chatham County. The author also mentions legends of pirates and of tunnels under the town (some of which may actually have existed as escape tunnels from the prison).
All in all, Salisbury has a fascinating history and folklore. Even Lilly-Bowyer admits that this book just scratches the surface of the folklore, but it’s a good effort that adds some unique material to the North Carolina collection of ghost stories.
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