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Coleman, Christopher K. Dixie Spirits: True Tales of the Strange and Supernatural in the South. Cumberland House, 2008 (2nd edition).
I decided to start out general, as this has given me a lot of insight into the difference between regional lore and stories specific to North Carolina. Dixie Spirits does have a North Carolina section, but (as is often the case with these regional ghost story books), it’s a bit thin and the lore obvious.
This is the second, revised version of the book (the original came out in 2002). Contrary to the image of the Antebellum plantation house on the cover, Coleman addresses a pretty wide variety of subjects and situations. There’s a good fair bit of outdoor campfire tales. Despite my misgivings that the book would turn out to be a tedious read through a Hoary History of Old Houses like last year’s The Haunted South (yeah, I’m still a bit salty about that), Coleman’s book is an entertaining and quick read for its length (nearly 300 pages). Admittedly, he’s not so hot at providing sources, and the stories I knew the best had some distinctly literary origins of the Victorian variety, but the book itself is a fun read. Especially for this time of year.
Easily my favorite chapter is the one on Marie Laveau (“The Witch Queen of New Orleans” in the Louisiana section). I was expecting the usual attention paid to Creole monster slave owner Madame LaLaurie. Actually getting a chapter-length bio on Laveau instead was a refreshing change.
I don’t know how many of Coleman’s “facts” are taken from contemporary sources, but he does a pretty even-handed take on her. He puts her in context in both the New Orleans overall culture of the 19th century, and her role in the growth and evolution of Voodoo culture in the American South.
She appears to have been quite the enigma in contrasts – a devoted wife and mother, and devout Catholic, who was also a feared witch queen (who died in bed rather than at the stake). A black woman who dressed the hair of rich white women, yet knew more about the affairs of her city than any of the rich elites and who ended up living alongside them as their equal. A ruthless woman who died wealthy, but beloved thanks to her decades of charity. I think she deserves more attention than just in ghost story collections at Halloween.
Another good chapter is the third (“Graveyard Shift: The Haunting of Sloss Furnaces”) about the post-Civil War iron works that grew up around Birmingham, AL. It’s a different kind of site for a haunting than the usual sprawling mansion or college or hospital (as Coleman himself points out in the chapter’s introduction). This setting has led to stories of some unsettling and even malevolent ghosts, especially a scorched and vengeful foreman who was much-hated in life and may have been hastened to his death. Equally disturbing is chapter one (“The Face in the Courthouse Window”) about a near-lynching that may have ended in a quiet murder. This story bears a remarkable resemblance to the contemporary accounts about the last hanging in Nash County (on March 15, 1900), despite the tale hailing from Columbus, AL.
The chapter about Natchez (“The Devil’s Backbone: Ghosts and Haunts of Natchez and the Natchez Trace”) is early Western history at its darkest and bloodiest. There’s surprisingly little about the infamous Harpe Brothers of the Early Republic, but Coleman gets into plenty of detail about other river pirates and dastardly deeds.
There are some inaccuracies in there, though. For example, while Big Harpe was known for killing at least two infants (one of them his own daughter), neither murder occurred in a Natchez, as one story claims. In fact, the Brothers appear to have avoided civilization (even what passed for it in Natchez), and mostly kept to Kentucky and Tennessee.
Another flub pops up in “Savannah Specters,” with that old time-traveling tale from Nancy Roberts of Blackbeard visiting a Savannah pub that wasn’t built into 16 years after his death. And, unfortunately, North Carolina is largely represented by Sallie Southall’s bathetic (and vaguely racist) invented story of Virginia Dare as a white doe. All of the Native American tales in the story suffer from similar levels of Victorian cheese.
Coleman is pretty sympathetic toward the Lost Cause, but he mostly keeps it on the back burner except for the chapter on Robert E. Lee (“The Haunted Homes of Robert E. Lee”), which turns into a Lost Cause paean to the Civil War general. Needless to say, we get no mention of Lee’s brutal pre-War treatment of his wife’s slaves or the blunders laid at his door by more recent Civil War historians. In the process, a nascent and potentially fascinating discussion of the origins of Arlington Cemetery gets derailed.
The previous Virginia chapter about accused “witch” Grace Sherwood (“The Devil’s Dominion”) is fun, though. She sounds like a spitfire along the lines of 19th century Yorkshire noblewoman Anne Lister.
Alas, the book ends with a serious turn for the weird – and not in a good way. The creepy Mothman mystery of West Virginia (“Cornstalk’s Curse: The Mothman Enigma”) is worth including, but a lot of this legend’s mystery stems from confusion over how to classify it. Reports of it were largely cryptozoological for years until the shocking and fatal collapse of the Silver Bridge to Ohio on December 15, 1967. After the disaster, the Mothman phenomenon essentially faded away and many later perceived a pattern of predictive warnings for the collapse in the Mothman’s appearances.
Unfortunately, Coleman then lets himself get mired in a discussion about UFOs, which continues in the next and final chapter. As some reviewers on Goodreads have pointed out, this is an abrupt change in tone from the rest of the book. Also, the incident the last chapter centers on sounds an awful lot like a meteorite paired up with mass hysteria and a general ignorance of astronomy. Not the best way to end a book on ghost stories.
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