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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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