Category Archives: History

St Andrews Day: The Witches of Fife


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MacDonald, Stuart. The Witches of Fife: Witch-Hunting in a Scottish Shire, 1560-1710. John Donald, 2002; 2014.


This was one of those books I was excited to read before I actually read it. I had (as most of you probably know by now) lived in St Andrews for six years and St Andrews was the primary town in Fife, even during the town’s low point in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today is St Andrew’s Day, the day for the saint who gave his name to the town for reasons rather legendary and complicated (they involve a shipwreck with the saint’s bones and a saint who may never have existed named “Regulus”).

St Andrews was a major hotbed for witchcrazes in the 16th and 17th centuries. According to MacDonald, over a thousand people (most of them women and most of them by burning) were executed for witchcraft in Fife over the course of about a century and a half, and a total of over three thousand were accused, some of them by “dying witches” who were either delusional or vengeful. Those are the low-ball numbers. We don’t know the real count.

Religious authorities were heavily involved, though local nobility participated. The rocky relationship involving the slow and not-so-willing union with England under one king (still nominally Scottish) turned the screws. But MacDonald tends to agree with other historians of the period that the witchcrazes in Scotland were mostly about “hunting women.” Can’t argue with that.

When I was in the Mediaeval History program at St Andrews, the Scottish History department was totally separate from us. Despite being right across the hall and up the stairs, they did an excellent job of utterly ignoring us. Something-something about us not being Scottish and being a bunch of total nutters. The upshot is that while I picked up a lot of local popular history and had chats with some notables like Peter Maxwell-Stuart, I got most of my impressions about the history of the Fife witchcrazes from looking around town.

What I found was bloody and ugly and scary. The Covenanters under people like John Knox who launched the religious sect of Presbyterianism had a passionate and stirring dream of a new society completely reoriented to God. Too bad that dream was twisted and fundamentalist and truly misogynistic to the core. MacDonald actually compares them at one point to the Taliban and that is not an exaggeration.

The Covenanters covered the Reformation period in Scotland in blood and no more so than in Fife (probably because St Andrews had been the ecclesiastical capital under the previous religious regime). The presbyteries of Scotland enthusiastically used accusations of witchcraft and the process of witchfinding to suppress all religious dissent. There is literally one woman in the book who was accused because she cursed out the minister and his wife. In another case, a man was convicted in the presbytery court of violating the Sabbath because he was riding on a Sunday to seek a pardon for his wife who was a convicted witch.

And a lot of people who weren’t quite accused (or whose accusations didn’t rise to conviction and execution) were denied the sacrament of Communion for years at a time by petty and spiteful religious authorities. Other people were “watched and warded” (a sort of torture that wasn’t actually considered torture in which people were kept awake and isolated from their families for days or weeks at a time) until they confessed, then executed within days of their trial with no appeal. The sheer viciousness, pettiness and self-righteousness of the Covenanters would be breathtaking if it weren’t repeated in so many situations and cultures over the course of history. Nothing scarier than a sadist who thinks God is on their side.

The scars of both the Reformation (when mobs stripped churches of their vestments and icons and even damaged the buildings) and the witchcrazes are visible in St Andrews to this day. There is what used to be a walled off area that had been a tidal pool for recreational swimmers. It’s near the St Andrews Aquarium, next to West Sands. The legend was that back in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was called “Witch Lake.”

Women were taken down there and “dunked” (in this case, tossed into the water with a thumb tied to the opposite toe). If the woman drowned and sank, it was assumed she was innocent (oh, well!), since witches floated and could not be drowned. If the woman managed to survive and float, she was dragged out and up to a nearby hill known as Witch Hill (also, Martyrs’ Hill, as some Protestant martyrs had previously been burned at the stake there) to be burned alive. Charming.

Unfortunately, one of the limitations of MacDonald’s book, which is rather short, is that it restricts itself to taking cases in Fife from a massive, country-wide compilation of cases created in the late 1970 called A Sourcebook of Scottish Witchcraft (1977). MacDonald himself admits that it doesn’t always deal with the most local cases, let alone the extra-legal executions, so we only get to hear about one such lynching from near the very end of the period, in 1710. No confirmation one way or the other about Witch Lake/Hill. So, that was disappointing.

Another disappointment was that MacDonald seemed to do a lot more scene-setting than he did actual analysis. Sure, I get that it’s an academic book (that’s why I bought it), that it’s got a specific focus and that we’re missing a lot of information about the cases (including, for many of the accused, whether or not they were ever executed). Even so, I felt he got bogged down in the geographical studies early on and rushed the general analysis of motivations and patterns at the end. I felt it would have worked better if he’d flipped that around and and that he chickened out a bit on extending his analysis as far as the information could have borne.

I also felt he left out a lot of potentially important context. If you didn’t know about Scottish history, and especially if you’d never been to Fife, you might well get very lost with this book. Even knowing about the period and having lived there for six years, I felt there were points where MacDonald could have fit his localized analysis into a more in-depth framework. I kept wondering what effect James I/VI’s obsession with witches had on the Fife witchcrazes, but found MacDonald’s suppositions too vague and unsatisfying. He seemed uninterested in looking too much at the few cases with lots of detail, with the excuse that we don’t have enough information on enough cases in general to tell if these more-famous cases were typical or not. This struck me as a cop-out. Nobody’s asking to invent information, but get wacky and take a risk or two, son. Come on.

I also found his conclusion that the witchcrazes fell apart in Fife because the coalition of religious and secular authorities responsible for them collapsed was too Captain Obvious. Well, duh, but surely, the repression of the Covenanters in the 1680s following the Restoration of Charles II had something to do with the timing of that collapse. Their successors called it the “Killing Time” because, like all fanatics, they would have to cast themselves as the victims, wouldn’t they, not all those poor women they burned? But their repression was a natural result of a bigger bully coming in and smashing the previous bully. Both the Covenanters and the lairds who supported them were crushed or at least diminished by the increase of English power over the country, so there went the coalition that created recurring witchcrazes.

I’m no fan of the English takeover of Scotland following the reign of James I/VI, but in this case, it appears the English invaders may have done the poor women of Scotland a favor.


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Halloween in North Carolina, All Souls’ Day: Bonus Round #2: Scottish Ghosts (1999)


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Seafield, Lily. Scottish Ghosts. Lomond Books, 1999.


So, as promised, I’ve continued my reviews through All Souls’ Day (today), but with the twist that the last two days, since they’re in November, are reviews of ghost stories from other regions than North Carolina. But possibly, these are regions that may have influenced or have similar tropes to what you find in NC.

I picked this one up at the bus station in Glasgow almost two decades ago. It’s one of several books I have of Scottish folklore. The cover above is very nice, but the edition I picked up actually looks like this:

Kinda cheesy, I know. The apparent editorial excuse is that this edition is for kids. It might be a bit too creepy and historical for American kids, though.

Also, for such a short book, it has a whole lot of stories in it – over 150. Each one is maybe a page or two, though the entry on Second Sight in the “Signs, Prophecies and Curses” section is (appropriately) several pages long, as Second Sight is a major part of Scottish folklore. With most entries, the author gets in, gets out, and then moves on to the next, grouping them thematically into several sections, such as “Military Ghosts,” “Fairies, Green Ladies and Devilish Struggles,” and “Poltergeists.” The stories are sometimes sad, sometimes horrifying, sometimes educational. But they’re also mostly fun.

My favorites, of course, tend to be about St Andrews, where I lived for six years. Alas, there are really only two stories (for some reason, the very haunted St Andrews Castle didn’t make it into the “Ghostly Castles” section). St Andrews Cathedral, for example, has a Lady in White and a ghostly monk who haunts St Rule’s Tower. The late-11th century St Rule’s Tower is the tallest (and probably oldest) building in St Andrews. It’s pretty much the only remaining intact structure for St Andrews Cathedral. It’s a bit of a hike that I’ve done a few times, but sadly (or not?), I’ve never seen the monk.

Stories range from the humorous to the creepy to the quite-disturbing. One of the funniest is the large “Demon Crab” of Dundee that crawls out of a drowned ferryman’s coat after he washes up on the beach. The Devil doesn’t last long in that guise, as he is quickly snatched up by a fishwife who happily cooks him for her dinner. One of the creepier ones is a story of a pair of eyes (just eyes) haunting a room in Crail, down the coast from Dundee, in the section, “Ghosts in the House.” And then there’s the scary tale from the “Mind How You Go” section of the Big Grey Man who haunts the mists of Ben MacDuibh in the Cairngorms (Scotland’s mountain range) and attacks anyone who visits it.

The witchcrazes of the 16th and 17th centuries hit Scotland especially hard. It’s believed that thousands were accused and over a thousand executed (by burning at the stake) as a result. You can see the scars of that and the rest of the Covenanters’ repressions to this day on the Scottish landscape (never been fan of John Knox).

The author is sympathetic to the doomed accused witches. She discusses the witchcrazes in her introduction, but also writes about some witch tales more sympathetically than how they appear in North Carolina folklore. The interesting thing is that you can see some Scottish influence (North Carolina has had quite a few Scottish settlers in its early history) on NC folklore.

For example, the famous tale of “The Miller’s Wife” ends fatally in North Carolina lore, with the blame clearly laid on the witchy wife (despite the Miller character being kind of an idiot). In Scotland, you get “The Cursed Mill.” In this story, set near Newtonmore in the Highlands, an old woman curses a miller and his mill. It’s never stated what the insult was, but you start to get some clues as the story progresses.

The first miller dies in a fire. The one after him contracts a fatal illness and the mill burns down. After the mill is rebuilt (because mills were critical to a town or village’s life), the witch relents a little and changes the curse. People can now use the mill for all except one day of the year. The mill runs well once subsequent millers follow these instructions.

However, long after the witch dies, the mill comes into the hands of an ambitious, grasping man who believes the curse is just superstition. So, he uses the mill on that one forbidden day of the year. Predictably, the mill grinds to a standstill. The miller tries again the next year, but this time, rats eat up all his corn. He gives up and sells the mill, but has no fortune in his business ventures thereafter and dies of a wasting illness.

The mill then goes to another man who is kind and gets the mill working again with the help of a young Traveler boy he adopts. After the man dies, the Traveler has to be recalled to get the mill working again. Once he dies, it falls apart for good.

This tale bears a lot of resemblance to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, but in this instance, the sin is a refusal to observe a single Sabbath day of rest in the year. We humans just can’t resist crossing boundaries we just shouldn’t cross and that we don’t need to cross. There is also a clear subtext that when the mill is run with kindness rather than covetousness, all goes well. It’s only when the mill is run meanly, with greed, that everything comes to a screeching halt. Here, you can see the mill as a metaphor for Scottish society.

This indicates that the witch’s original grievance was a sound one and the curse not due to an evil nature. It also shows the witch as a productive member of society who brings necessary justice to those who transgress by treating others badly (very different from how witches were perceived back in the Convenanters’ day!). Scottish folklore often shows a balance in the Scottish cultural psyche between great generosity of spirit and the kind of miserliness for which the Scots have too-often become famous (even when it wasn’t true) worldwide. This story is a classic example.

The plan from here on out is to continue reading NC folklore and reviewing the books, just at a slower pace and over on Patreon. If you found these enjoyable, and want to follow my research plans, you can do so there. I’ll still be posting stuff here (including my Supernatural recaps and possibly reviews), but it will involve another one of my projects this month (likely, my mom’s family cookbook). I got a lot done on the NC folklore stuff in October and now that I am thoroughly creeped out, I need to do some other stuff.


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Halloween in North Carolina, All Saints’ Day: Bonus Round #1: The Little Book of the Hidden People (2015)


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Sigsmundsdóttir, Alda. The Little Book of the Hidden People: Twenty Stories of Elves from Icelandic Folklore. Enska Textasmiðjan, 2015.


So, this is the first day of the bonus round for folklore reviews, commemorating All Saints’ Day. The days of the dead actually comprise All Hallows’ Eve (October 31) for the damned and other evil spirits, All Saints’ Day (November 1) for the holy dead, and All Souls’ Day (November 2) for the rest of us. Today, we’re off to Iceland and its thorny folklore.

This is a relatively short (111 pages) book about a group of relatively unknown mythological and legendary figures – the elves (álfar) or “hidden folk” ( huldufólk) of Iceland. People who write about the Icelandic hidden people tend to do so from two perspectives – either belief in their actual existence or belief in them as a metaphor for the extreme isolation and privation in which most Icelanders lived for their millennium-plus existence. The estimate of how many Icelanders still believe in the actual existence of hidden people varies on which side of the spectrum an author lies. This author spends the bulk of her introduction insisting that this is an outmoded belief amongst Icelanders today, thus obliquely proving the above point.

Whether in the literal or the metaphorical/psychological sense, Icelandic elves are deeply fascinating, underexposed as a mythology in the speculative genres, and pretty friggin’ scary. Imagine a large island the size of New York State, but with less than two percent of the population, one with white nights in summer and long, frozen, dark winters, with the not-so-occasional volcanic eruption. One not anywhere close to anywhere else.

Now imagine mentally populating it in your folklore with a far-more-numerous race of prosperous, beautiful, strong, lucky, deadly, invisible shadow people. Who will probably kill you if they realize you can see them and totally mess with you whenever you can’t.

That’s what the Icelanders did, first the Norse settlers (calling them álfar) and then their Irish slaves (who called them huldufólk). To the Norse, the hidden people were creepy and dirty and numerous and dangerous. To the Irish, they were an enviable, golden race. You can probably see some class issues creeping in along with the psychological issues involving populating an empty island with folkloric beings out of sheer collective loneliness.

These 20 stories are among the more famous (at least, for Icelanders) of the folk tales about Icelandic elves. Some of them are plays on biblical lore, such as “On the Origins of the Hidden People.” Here, the álfar are those of Eve’s children that she hid away from God when He came visiting (because she had so many that she couldn’t wash all their faces in time and was ashamed of them). God then says that what Eve hid from Him, He will hide from the world – hence, how these children became “hidden folk” ( huldufólk).

This is obviously a pejorative story, but it also reflects the Icelandic ideal of many (healthy and legitimate) children. For much of Icelandic history, the infant mortality rate was so high that people might have many children and be unable to raise any to adulthood (at one point, Iceland had the highest infant mortality rate in Europe). There was even a tradition of naming the first four sons after the father, with the hope that at least one of them would live to carry on his father’s name.

“The Elf Adornment” story is a whole other kettle of fish. In this extremely violent tale about the perils of dancing, a family goes off to evensong at church on New Year’s Eve, leaving behind a maid to tend the farm. Some hidden people show up and invite her to dance with them. After she happily accepts and goes off with them, they murder her and leave her on the threshhold.

Another New Year’s Eve, another maid. This time, the hidden people cut off her head and leave her in the doorway.

A third maid saves herself only by sitting resolutely at her sewing in the baðstofa (the main room of a traditional Icelandic turf house) until dawn. And dawn takes a mighty long time to come on New Year’s Eve in Iceland. Frightened off by her comment that the sun is rising, they leave, but they give her the treasure of the title for her bridal chest in admiration of her resolve.

There’s a lot to unpack here, not least the overt message not to go dancing because it led to illegitimate pregnancies the poor and stressed Icelandic communities couldn’t support. That’s much like the 1970s Mexican American trope of the Devil and the Dance Floor from Ghost Stories from the American South (which I reviewed early in October).

There’s another version involving a man where he’s much more active and has better luck, so it’s about gender roles, too. Men tend to have more luck in these stories with transgressive behavior, such as in “Snotra the Elf Woman,” where a guy stalks a selkie-like elf woman and inadvertently breaks a curse on her. He’s rewarded for his creepy behavior with good fortune after she thanks him and returns to her world under the sea.

Another wrinkle is that the hidden people are indistinguishable from regular humans and can even take the form of someone you know (and that there’s a whole genre of “outlaw” stories tied up with stories of elves). So, there’s no actual reason to believe the first two maids “The Elf Adornment” knew they were interacting with hidden people. Plus, there’s the whole serial killer vibe of murdering the servant stuck at home during church and leaving her on the threshold. You don’t mess with the álfar.

With so much mistaken identity in the folklore, it’s unsurprising that a story like “Father of Eighteen in the Elf World” involves the shifty old goat of the title changing places with a woman’s baby. The woman is smart and figures out what he did (in a way not unlike the Rumpelstiltskin tale), then proceeds to beat him. His wife then shows up and hands her back her baby.

Changeling stories always have some nasty subtext. You’re basically talking about a folkloric explanation for a colicky or sickly baby whose mother never bonds with it. In real life, such stories generally didn’t have happy endings.

Intimacy with a hidden person could be used as code for an illegitimate liaison, as in “The Girl in the Mountain Dairy.” The mountain dairy (sel) was where flocks were kept in summer and it always had a female keeper. The title character falls pregnant by a hidden man who woos her while she works the dairy. After she gives birth and the baby mysteriously disappears, she is forced to marry another (human) man, but there are tragic consequences when her elf husband and son return years later.

These stories reflect some harsh realities in Icelandic culture and history. Iceland was a hard place to live for a long time. It’s lovely to visit now, and the people there are wonderful, but I’m pretty glad I didn’t live there even a century ago.


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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #31: Pirates and Ghosts of the Carolinas’ Coast (2014)


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Brown, Cynthia Moore. Pirates and Ghosts of the Carolinas’ Coast. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2014.


Arrr, me hearties, and a Happy Halloween t’ye all!

I decided to end my grand (albeit not comprehensive) tour of North Carolina ghost story books with one set on the coast because it has pirates, and a somewhat unusual structure (the last chapter has a section on Carolina seafood recipes, along with some space to include your own), and I hadn’t covered the author before, and – oh, yeah – pirates.

This is not Cynthia Brown’s first ghost story collection. She also co-wrote Folktales and Ghost Stories of North Carolina’s Piedmont and Folklore and Food: Folktales that Center on Family, Food, and Down-Home Cooking (hence the presence of a recipes chapter for this one) with Theresa Bane. Bane has also solo-published Haunted Historic Greensboro, among others. I interviewed her for Innsmouth Free Press, not just once but twice, a while back about that collection and one of her vampire folklore books.

Brown is a retired librarian and co-founder of the North Carolina Storytelling Guild. That tells you right off the bat her approach to the material. The book also includes an introduction written by another local folklorist (from Washington County), Terry A. Rollins.

You would think that after all the books I’ve reviewed this month, we’d have exhausted what the Coastal Carolinas had to offer, but nope. There are some original tales in here, too. Yes, there’s stuff about Blackbeard and Theodosia Burr, and the Maco Light, and a less-fatal version of the “I Could Slap the Life Out of Her” tale from Cursed in the Carolinas. “The Live Oak Tree” is the buried alive story from Wilmington with, again, a somewhat happier ending. In “Stella,” the fatal love triangle, where the wife murders the mistress from beyond the grave, from Barefoot’s Haunted Hundred trilogy gets a spooky and more detailed, but also lighter, twist.

But Brown puts her own spin on the stories by telling about her own experiences with the areas connected to these historical figures. I also like that she breaks the stories up into thematic groups, such as tales about pirates and ones about lost love. It’s nice that she uses a lot of photographs to give the reader an idea about the area and to break up the text.

But then, as I said, there are also some new stories. For example, the very first story, “Spirits of the Fog,” is about Highway 17 South (AKA the Ole Plank Road) near Wilmington. The legend Brown recounts is that the fog along the highway contains mystery lights and spirits – voracious shadow figures that attack and kill unsuspecting travelers. Shadow people creep me right out, so that one definitely worked for Yours Truly.

Another one from Wilmington, about a Boogeyman figure called “The Hairy Man,” is good for a scare. And in her chapter about Stede Bonnet, Brown talks about visiting the old jail in Charleston and experiencing a distinct and unusual chill.

All in all, despite being a fairly short book, Pirates and Ghosts of the Carolinas’ Coast has some enjoyable meat on its rattling bones, especially for this time of year. Recommended.

As I said, this is the last day for the NC folklore tour. But I’ll be doing a little bonus coda here of some ghost story books from other places for All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). After that, I’ll continue reading and reviewing ghost story books from NC (at a much gentler pace) over on Patreon. I also have stories from North Carolina history and what I find in my own investigations. You can join up and check them out over there, get some perks, and help support my spooky research!

Happy Halloween! Be safe!


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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #30: Ghost Tales of the Moratoc (1992)


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Carter, Catherine T. Ghost Tales of the Moratoc. John F. Blair, Publisher, 1992.


This is another one from the publisher John F. Blair, dating to 1992. It consists of 18 tales and is the author’s only collection. Most of the tales incline toward the romantic or sentimental in the telling, notably the two about Somerset Place in Washington County (“Charlotte, Ghost of Somerset,” which inspired the cover illustration, and “Blood on the Floor”) and Native American tales like the Tuscaroran “White Feather,” from Bertie County. I was a bit confused by how the two Somerset stories fit together, as they were each told without mentioning the events of the other, despite occurring in about the same time period.

It was nice to see some Tuscarora influence, for once, but odd to see a Cherokee tale about Spearfinger (“The Witch Hag of the Roanoke” from Martin County) so far east, albeit with new details related to the Colonial period. The same period also produced the Zorro-like “Phantom of the Forest.”

“Moratoc,” according to the author, is an old word for the Roanoke River, which originates in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and comes down through the northeastern Coastal Plain of NC to the coast. The name comes from a large tribe that once lived on the river’s banks.

There are several other stories that contain common folkloric tropes seen in other parts of NC. There’s a story from Bertie County of desecrated Native American bones in “The Restless Skull.” An ugly 1920s love triangle in “May She Rest in Peace” results in both women dead and the “spiteful” wife’s ghost blamed for hastening the mistress’ death. The author does not fill out the rather obvious Bluebeard-like subtext in the survival of the husband who played the two women against each other before marrying them in turn.

“The Oyster Shells” from post-Civil War Washington County is a somewhat more elaborate version of the “Fork on the Grave” trope, where a mean and ungrateful son is apparently frightened to death by his mother’s apparition.

You’ve got the “Mystery Lights of Tyrrell County,” also known as “The Death Light” or “The Doom Light,” as well as the lights of “Dymond City, Ghost Town of Martin County.” Washington County also has a spectral “Coach of Death” and a “Hanging Church” where mysterious tramps have been wont to kill themselves.

But not every story follows the usual NC tropes, especially the unclassifiably whimsical Christmas story of “Aunt Liza and the Sweet Baby Jesus,” from Washington County, and also the two creepiest tales. “The Little Red Man” in this collection should not be confused with the more-famous Little Red Man of Old Salem. The vicious being (which may or may not have been a ghost) that drives a poor family from their new home in Martin County bears a lot more resemblance to Redcap from Scottish fairy lore than the benign Moravian brother who plays gentle pranks on the living.

“The Rag Doll and the Knife” runs like a Twilight Zone episode and dates from the same period. It’s not necessary to believe the person who stabbed a rag doll on a pillow in lieu of a young girl hiding under a bed in Beaufort County was a ghost. The non-supernatural explanation is, if anything, even more disturbing than the supernatural one.

Another largely non-supernatural tale is “Brotherly Love.” It’s a gruesome 1950s true crime story about a Cain-and-Abel-style murder-suicide in Washington County, with a few ghost stories tacked on the end. Of all these tales, this one may be the most tragic because the tragedy was both unnecessary and inevitable, considering the personalities of the two brothers involved.


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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #29: North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred, Volume 3: Haints of the Hills (2002)


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Barefoot, Daniel W. Haints of the Hills. North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred, Vol. 3. John F. Blair, Publisher, 2002.


So, this is the third volume in Daniel Barefoot’s hundred-county experiment and we finish up in Appalachia. The alliterative title may seem redundant, but it’s actually not. “Haint” is believed to be a folkloric entity originally from the African American Gullah people on the Carolina coast. In South Carolina, it’s a specifically evil entity that haunts children, but this isn’t true everywhere. I talked earlier about this bit of folklore when discussing the use of paint in “haint blue.” The title, therefore, is specifically stating that these haints (or “hanks” as they may be called in Virginia) are from the mountains and not the coast.

Since the Mountain region is very popular with folklorists and ghost storytellers, it should be no surprise that several of these stories would be familiar. You’ve got Tom Dula and his love quadrangle representing Caldwell County, the giant leech of Cherokee County, and the unfortunate hanging ghost of Dan Keith for Rutherford County. But even in these familiar tales, there may be some new angles. For example, the tale of the newlyweds lost in a storm from Cursed in the Carolinas gets a location (Mount Pisgah in Buncombe County) and a rough period (late 19th or early 20th century).

In the Dan Keith chapter, there’s an eerie coda to the original haunting. Historic preservationists failed to save the old jail where he was hanged from demolition in 1971 (still not an uncommon occurrence, as the case of a developer with more money than brains, who demolished the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Montana earlier this year, basically just because he could, can attest). Every business established in the new building built on the site (at least, up to 2002) has failed miserably. And some employees began to report seeing a shadow of a hanged on the wall – again.

Some omissions are rather puzzling, not just because of choices Barefoot made, but because they reflect equally puzzling omissions made by other popular ghost storytellers. Barefoot gives us a rather abrupt and uninteresting story, of a gold prospector who hit it rich and disappeared on his way to Connecticut, for Burke County. This ignores what is probably the most notorious story for that county – the night in 1831 Frankie Silver killed her husband with an ax and burned him in the fireplace. The only woman ever hanged in Burke County, Silver was railroaded through a two-day trial by her angry in-laws, despite possible evidence that her husband had been abusive and her crime self-defense. Ghost story collections don’t tend to carry the Frankie Silver story (which I first encountered on Investigation Discovery’s Deadly Women), even though a famous ballad and at least one recent ghost story are attributed to her.

True to form, Barefoot gives us more stories of witches (Alleghany, Haywood and Macon counties), Native Americans (Jackson and Swain counties), a haunted college theater (Catawba County), Bigfoot (Yancey County) and the Devil. In fact, possibly the creepiest chapter in the entire series hails from Ashe County. This chapter focuses on a natural feature called the Devil’s Stairs. It’s pretty common in the western part of the state to call particularly rugged terrain (especially if it has a lot of Cherokee lore about it) after the Devil. Barefoot even mentions some of these features. But he claims that the Devil’s Stairs (a manmade formation created by dynamite blasting in 1914 during the building of the railroad) is the most haunted of them all. It’s got fatal railway accidents, infanticide, ghostly coffins, Phantom Hitchhikers, and at least one guy who died of a quick wasting illness after supposedly encountering Old Scratch himself. Tough to top that.


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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #28: North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred, Volume 2: Piedmont Phantoms (2002)


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Barefoot, Daniel W. Piedmont Phantoms. North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred, Vol. 2. John F. Blair, Publisher, 2002.


This second volume is the longest of the three in Daniel Barefoot’s North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred trilogy. It’s 187 pages to the other two’s 130 each. There is actually a good reason for this. As I’ve said before, North Carolina is divided up into different distinct regions. But there are four, not three: The Coast, the Coastal Plain, the Piedmont, and the Mountains, and they are separated along geological lines. Basically, the Coast is the current coast. The Coastal Plain is what was under water up almost to Raleigh not so long ago and may end up under water again if the oceans continue to rise. The Piedmont is an area of metamorphic, disrupted rock from when continents were jamming together and pulling apart, creating the Appalachian Mountains, which comprise the Mountain region. The Uwharries lie in the Piedmont. This has relevance to Barefoot’s material, since the regions affect the folklore due to natural features and resources. The Coast has lots of stories about haunted marshes and ghost ships. The Coastal Plain and the Piedmont have stories about gold rushes, plantations, and the Revolutionary War. The Mountains have a lot of Appalachian lore. And so on.

I guess Barefoot (or his publisher, John F. Blair, which also published Whedbee’s collections) decided he preferred a trilogy over a tetralogy. Since Barefoot was doing that, he had to fit one of those regions into at least one of the other books. That “lost” region turned out to be the Coastal Plain, where I live. It is also sadly neglected by North Carolina ghost story books in general, even though we actually have some pretty distinctive stories of our own.

The Coastal Plain is a curiously diverse place, further divided into the Outer and Inner Coastal Plains, or into the Upper and Lower Coastal Plains (though apparently not both at once, since one division is more environmental and the other is more political). I live on the Inner and Upper Coastal Plain.

For Volume 1, Seaside Spectres, Barefoot included the Outer Coastal Plain as part of the coast, but he also included parts of the Inner Coastal Plain (such as Edgecombe and Halifax Counties). For Volume 2, he includes the eastern parts of the Inner Coastal Plain (such as Nash, Wilson, Johnston and Franklin counties) in the Piedmont section. The methodology is confusing, but I guess it kept the books more or less within shouting distance of equal length.

As with Volume 1, there are a lot of witch stories (and also one about the Devil’s footprint in Largo, Warren County). In part, that’s because NC has a lot of witch stories. In part, I suspect Barefoot just likes them. He gets to decide which stories to include, after all.

I was glad to see some African American ones in this volume. As I mentioned in my reviews on the two folklore articles about witchcraft and Guilford County, African Americans have contributed quite a lot of NC lore, frequently without much recognition of that fact. Despite this contribution, their presence in popular ghost story collections has been scant. Curiously, Barefoot shows no knowledge of the Guilfort County article, choosing instead to discuss a haunted theater for that chapter.

Barefoot manages to stuff in two witch stories from Person County, involving encounters with children. The general impression I got from this chapter was that children can be terribly cruel (not a shocking revelation to me, considering I got bullied mercilessly as a child) and you have to school that out of them with some lessons about appearances and compassion. In the first section, two young boys balk at helping an old woman who seems, to them, to be a teleporting witch. The folkloric motif that Carolina witches and ghosts are not necessarily a separate category appears here.

In the second section (which shows the shamanistic aspect of NC witches in the powers of shapeshifting and flight), a bunch of children brutally bully an elderly African American field hand (it’s implied the children are white). Finally, she snaps. She beats them and curses them by predicting “sudden and horrible deaths” for them. The brats tattle on her and get her fired. This causes her to curse the whole lot of them, kids and parents.

Soon after, two of the kids die of mysterious illnesses. Historically speaking, this was the kind of thing that led to a lynching, but the witch in this story gains herself a happy ending of sorts. When a mob of men confront her at her cabin, the old woman coolly faces them with a large owl perched on her shoulder. When they attack her, she escapes them by turning into a bird and flying away. Unnerved, some of the families move out of the area. Moral of the story: Don’t be a bully. You might end up cursed by a witch.

The story for Nash County is rather blah (another Theodosia-in-Distress story? Really?), but the Wilson County one is quite intriguing. North Carolina used to be a lot larger than it is now, even after splitting from South Carolina, because its original borders extended to the West Coast, encompassing what is now Tennessee. This means that certain famous figures (like the Harpe Brothers) and legends (like the Bell Witch) from points further west had their origins in NC. The story of the Bell Witch, in fact, begins in Wilson County. That’s where the Bell family came from.

It’s probably not a huge surprise that Barefoot chooses the Bentonville Battlefield for Johnston County. Not only is it a famous site that’s appeared in other collections I reviewed this month, but it’s also quite haunted. The Franklin County section eschews the numerous college hauntings in Louisburg for a story about a traveler (known only as the Lady in Blue) who died at a plantation house in Belford in 1835. She continued to appear as a ghost for another century until she managed to save the owners of the house from a devastating fire. Her final purpose fulfilled, she appeared no more.

Tomorrow, I’ll review the third volume about the Mountain region, Haints of the Hills.


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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #27: North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred, Volume 1: Seaside Spectres (2002)


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Barefoot, Daniel W. Seaside Spectres. North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred, Vol. 1. John F. Blair, Publisher, 2002.


Remember how I said (when I reviewed the book that claimed to contain every known ghost story in North Carolina) that there was no way there could be less than a hundred ghost stories in NC? This book (which is part of a trilogy) is how I know. The neat conceit of the trilogy is that the author picks a folkloric story from each of the hundred counties in North Carolina and retells it. Collectively, these three books have 100 stories in them. Therefore, there have to be at least a hundred ghost stories and legends in NC because that’s how many there are in this book. And since I know for a fact that Barefoot left many out (because he could only choose one for each county), I happen to know that there are, in fact, many more than a hundred.

And that’s the really cool thing about this trilogy.
The trilogy breaks things up into three regions: the Coast, the Piedmont area, and the Mountains. This first one is for the Coast.

Some of these stories, I already knew. The Edgecombe one was fairly disappointing, for example, as not only was I well aware of the Banshee legend, but I already knew all those details. And there are some others from that county that might have been more fun.

There are some quite-creepy stories in here (Barefoot knows how to give you a chill). There are, for example, several stories of ghost lights (some including pretty close encounters with what sounds almost like a fireball) such as the Cove City Light and the Pactolus Light. One story from Bladen County also involves a brief case of multiple spontaneous combustion (though no one died).

Several about the Devil show up (a few new to me, though not all of them). The book starts off with the curse of Bath in Beaufort County by the Reverend Whitefield early in the 18th century (and a quick segue to include the Devil’s Hoofprints, also of Bath). The creepiest is probably the rather-less-lucky Reverend Glendinning’s being plagued by a short demon while he was staying with a family in Halifax County a few decades later. The demon would knock at the door and yell at him through the window. North Carolina used to be a real tough crowd for itinerant preachers.

Witches show up in several tales, though they often are as sinned against (as in “The Evil That Will Not Die” from Dare County) as sinning (“The Bewitched Miller” from Chowan County and “Bewitched in Currituck” in Currituck County). In Tyrrell County, you get an alleged Native American legend (though it sounds more like an especially misogynistic Victorian romance) about a young Native American girl who was burned as a witch simply because she was beautiful and spoiled, and wouldn’t marry anyone. Naturally, since this is the coast, you’ve got a fair bit of cursed coastline, with a haunted island in Carteret County and a haunted coastal woods in Martin County called Devil’s Gut Creek. One of the nastiest stories is a cursed house in Pasquotank County.

Many of these are just legends with few facts to support them (especially since history on the coast goes all the way back to the 1580s). But some are based on actual, recorded tragedies. One of the most notable is the murder of inventor Henry Gatling in Hertford County. Gatling was working on an early version of an airplane some three decades before the Wright Brothers when he was murdered in 1879 by a man who claimed he was angry at Gatling for refusing him a ride the day before. Gatling’s ghost reportedly still haunts the area, though the house has long been torn down.

Obviously, a book like this is worth a read. There are no other projects of this type that systematically include at least one legend from every county in NC. And Barefoot is a good storyteller who also often includes a fair number of facts, certainly enough to go do your own research. While some of these may be rather overexposed and oft-told, there are also some more obscure gems. Check it out.


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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #26: Ghost Stories and Legends of Murphy, NC (2015)


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Ault, Marie. Ghost Stories and Legends of Murphy, NC. 2015.


Murphy is the county seat in Cherokee County, in the Mountain region of the far-western part of North Carolina. The county is so-named because it was heavily populated by the Cherokee, most (but not all) of whom were forced to leave on the Trail of Tears. It has a lot of Appalachian history to it.

I wasn’t too sure what to make of this one, at first, whether it was genuinely a collection of ghost stories, a novel, a family memoir, or what. It turned out to be a collection in two main sections with a distinct literary conceit, and a non-fiction epilogue.

In part one, several children taking refuge upstairs in a house during a storm in the 1920s (for fear of the many floods that used to plague the area before several dams were built) decide to tell each other ghost stories to pass the time. One of the saddest tales involves a haunting sparked by a mother and her son who were swept away by a waterspout in 1906.

Many decades later, in part two, a bunch of teenagers around a campfire decide to trade some updated versions of these stories, as well as some new ones. The creepiest one, by far, in the second section, Prohibition era “Moonshiners and Police Shootout,” the author later exposes as mostly an urban legend. The shootout occurred, but though the legend has the moonshiners dying in a swamp and haunting/guarding it in a most deadly manner, it turns out they were later captured and put on trial for killing two policemen. So, no lethal ghosts as the two who appear in the story.

I’m not a huge fan of heavily fictionalized folklore (as is probably clear at this point), but something about using a campfire tale frame works for this book. Ghost stories, after all, are told and retold over the years, changing as they go. It helps immensely that while the characters Ault has tell the tales are fictional (she makes this clear at the beginning), the details they mention come from the research the author includes and discusses at length at the end. If you are looking for a folkloric and historical background to Murphy and Cherokee County, so the stories make more sense, you could do worse than to read the last part first.

Some of the stories are well-known, particularly the Cherokee legends of the Moon-Eyed People, the Great Leech, and Spearfinger. But even so, Ault manages to dig up some new details. There’s a photo of a sculpture in a nearby museum allegedly by/of the Moon-Eyed People and I didn’t realize Spearfinger had a male counterpart known as Stone Man (Nun’yunu’wi). Nor had I heard of the Legend of Hanging Dog, where a hungry young Cherokee hunter chooses to give up a chance to track down a wounded deer to save his trapped dog. He is then rewarded for his kindness when the grateful dog promptly finds the deer for him.

But there is more to this collection than Cherokee legends. For one thing, Ault digs fairly deeply into the checkered Civil War history of the area (the residents were about evenly divided between Union and Confederate, and bushwacker gangs terrorized the area during and immediately after the war). She also relates its bloody history of lynchings and even which trees for famous for their occurrence. Unsurprisingly, these parts of Murphy and its environs are reputed to be extremely haunted, usually by hanging specters.

Probably the ugliest story (though “Carson Lane Ghost” gives it a run for its money) is about a local slaver, Joshua Harshaw. Slavery was apparently unusual in Murphy, so Harshaw’s reputation was perhaps not the best with his neighbors. A legend that grew up after his death didn’t do it any favors. Like a real-life Ramsay Bolton, he reputedly would set his dogs to hunt down and eat alive slaves who were too old and/or weak to work. This may have been confirmed as a real story by recent archeological digs in a local cemetery that discovered bones gnawed by dogs.

It’s kind of a shame the author self-published, not because self-publishing is bad (I do it where it works for the material), but because the book looks self-published. The cover’s a bit too 1970s conspiracy theorist paperback basic, some of the typesetting is a little wonky (especially where the photos come in, though I liked their inclusion), and it could have used a good copy edit. I can’t help imagining this getting the Cursed in the Carolinas or the Haunted Hills.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of good stuff in here, with sources, and Ault is an engaging writer (now I’m all curious about the one she did about Helen, Georgia). If you’re looking for a good overview of the history and folklore of the area, or just a good and creepy campfire tale, pick up this book.


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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #25: Legends of the Outer Banks and Tar Heel Tidewater (1966)


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Whedbee, Charles Harry. Legends of the Outer Banks and Tar Heel Tidewater. John F. Blair, 1966 (20th printing 2005).


Charles Harry Whedbee (1911-1990) was a judge from Greenville, NC who developed a life-long fascination with North Carolina’s Outer Banks at a young age. He visited and wrote about them every chance he got, even telling beach stories on an early morning TV talk show he hosted in the early 1960s. Published in 1966, this was the first of his five collections of stories about the area.

I had my reservations about reading Legends of the Outer Banks and Tar Heel Tidewater, since Whedbee was both contemporaneous with Nancy Roberts and equally famous for popularizing NC folklore. Those reservations were initially borne out by the second story, which is basically an unattributed synopsis of Sallie Southall Cotten’s The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare, an Indian Legend from 1901. That book is a cheesy, late-Victorian romance I discussed yesterday as the origin of the White Doe legend. He was fortunate Cotten died in 1929, or she might have sued him for copyright infringement.

Whedbee has a tendency to embroider his stories – a lot – but I didn’t encounter any tales that seemed like pure invention on his part. His storytelling hook was that his stories came in three categories – ones he’d experienced himself (like a personal experience with the Devil’s Hoofprints of Bath), ones told him by trusted and reliable informants, and ones he’d only heard about – but he wouldn’t tell his readers which were which.

Beechland, for example, is a real place, with an established academic historiography discussing its possible connections to the Lost Colony. I know some of the more outrageous tales, like the floating church of Swan Quarter, are real history, because really strange stuff can happen on the coast at high tide in the middle of a hurricane. And then there’s the odd tale (illustrated on the cover) of the harbor porpoise that used to guide ships to safety in the 18th century.

But there were some stories (like the aforementioned Virginia Dare fantasy) I was familiar enough with to know he added a whole lot of detail to someone else’s already-tall tale, or a story where we really just have the bare bones of the facts.

Fortunately, things improved later in the book, and Whedbee’s affection for the Outer Banks and its people is infectious. At his worst (which is mostly near the beginning), Whedbee has a florid, overwritten style as a storyteller that greatly dates his material. At his best, he can be both dramatic and laugh-out-loud funny.

“The Boozhyot” and “The Boozhyot Apocrypha” is a hysterically funny pair of Prohibition era tales (where all of the names have been judiciously changed or left out to protect the totally guilty) about what happened when a rum runner accidentally dumped its load off the shore of a small Outer Banks village. Personally, I’m a tad skeptical of Whedbee’s arch insistence in the latter story that the Outer Banks residents were too honest to swindle a bunch of big city gangsters. I’ve read about Buffalo City, the nearby Inner Banks town that was a bootlegging capital at this time. But Whedbee’s retelling is still a hoot.

It’s also hard to fault a man who has a soft spot for cats. My personal favorite of the stories is “The Witch of Nag’s Head Woods.” It’s the story of an elderly female hermit from the early 20th century who told neighborhood children’s fortunes, and kept herself and her clowder of black cats in fish with a coyly not-quite-professed talent for controlling winds. Whedbee recounts the tale with a wry sympathy toward the title character and her cats not usually found in North Carolina storytellers when it comes to witches (or cats), real or otherwise.

Whedbee also goes into some detail about the only known survivor of the Carroll A. Deering wreck of 1921 – a ship’s cat found by Coast Guardsmen when they boarded the boat, after it ran aground on a sand bank one winter morning, and found it deserted by the crew (who were never seen again). The rescuers took the cat with them. I’m not sure if Whedbee found these details or made them up, but he describes the cat as gray, well-fed and friendly when they found it in the dining saloon, and that it was subsequently named “Carroll.” An odd detail with this story is that Whedbee repeats the same error as John Harden in The Devil’s Tramping Ground from 1949, in that he calls the ship the Carroll M. Deering. Makes me wonder where that error originally came from.

Even though Whedbee calls these tales “legends,” most of them are not at all scary and some are not even supernatural in nature. Strangely enough, the eeriest one is the Carroll A. Deering chapter. For some reason, abandoned ghost ship mysteries are extremely creepy. But the book is still a good way to pass the time and get acquainted with some of the Outer Banks’ stranger stories.


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