Sunday, July 23, 2017

“Dude, Scary Lady!”—New Bern, North Carolina

The British do love their ghosts. A few grainy seconds of Snapchat video that may show a ghost at New Bern, North Carolina’s Tryon Palace, has been making waves in Britain and here, “across the pond.” Articles in the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, both British newspapers known for their snarky and sensational, tabloidesque reporting, discuss the “chilling” video. Two visitors from Goldsboro, NC were touring the palace with their cellphone capturing everything on video. In one of the building’s parlors, the camera scans over a doorway that is first seen empty. As the camera scans back over the same doorway, a woman in period clothing is seen walking past. The video is captioned, “Dude Scary Lady.”

The woman appears for about a second as she walks quickly past the doorway holding a basket, or perhaps, a hat to her side. The figure reminds me of the servant girl that French painter Jean-Etienne Liotard painted in his circa 1745 painting, The Chocolate Girl. Could these two young visitors have captured the image of a ghost?
 
Jean-Etienne Liotard's 1745 painting of a servant
girl with a cup of chocolate. The "scary lady"
in the Tryon Palace video is similarly dressed.
Tryon Palace is a reconstruction of North Carolina’s colonial capitol and governor’s residence. It was constructed overlooking the Trent River just before it meets the Neuse River which quickly spills into Pamlico Sound. From this powerful vantage point, the Royal Governor could reign over his colonial subjects in this wild, new land. Royal Governor William Tryon hired English architect, John Hawk, to design a graceful and substantial public palace fitting for the King’s representative in the colony. This handsome Georgian palace was constructed over about three years, from 1767-1770, much to the chagrin of the locals who bore the costs of the building through increased taxation.

Construction caused considerable discord among the citizenry, particularly the farmers in the western Piedmont region. Angered by corrupt and greedy tax collectors, these harried farmers, frontiersmen, and landowners rose against the royal government officials in what is now called the War of Regulation. Fought between 1765 and 1771, this series of backcountry skirmishes led to an actual battle fought at Great Alamance Creek in May 1771, one of the many blights on the King’s name leading to the American Revolution.
 
Tryon Palace, 2017, by Smallbones. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Governor Tryon only occupied the completed palace for about a year before being reassigned as governor of the colony of New York. Governor James Hassell occupied the royal capitol followed by Josiah Martin who fled on the eve of the Revolution. After rebels seized the building, it served as the governmental seat of North Carolina until Raleigh was established as the state capital in 1792. Afterward, the building was infrequently used for other functions including a boarding house, school, and Masonic lodge. In February 1798, hay stored in the basement caught fire and destroyed the main building.

Interest in reconstructing the palace surfaced almost a hundred years later and was discussed until the mid-20th century when money was finally raised to rebuild it. Building on the original foundations, the structure arose through the 1950s. The palace now serves as a focal point for history in this most historic of North Carolina cities. Today, costumed interpreters guide visitors through the recreated rooms and moments of daily life from the colonial period.

Despite my years of collecting ghostlore from throughout the South—including numerous stories from New Bern—I have yet to encounter stories from Tryon Palace. Of course, that doesn’t mean there are not stories, just that they don’t appear in any of the material I have. According to the articles from the British papers, there are tales of a young servant girl dying in the 1798 fire who may remain in residence in the reconstruction. This is not unheard of as there are stories of ghosts from the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia, the history of which parallels the history of Tryon Palace—it was destroyed by fire during the American Revolution and subsequently recreated for Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s.

As for the video that recently surfaced, there is nothing to indicate that the “scary lady” is a spirit. With the number of costumed interpreters roaming through the palace, the figure in the video is most likely one of them. Having served as a costumed interpreter, I have been asked several times if I was a ghost. While we can sometimes be a bit scary, we’re still perfectly alive, thank you very much!

Sources
Bishir, Catherine W. & Michael T. Southern. A Guide to the
     Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina. Chapel
     Hill: U. of NC Press, 1996.
     21 July 2017.
     21 July 2017.
     Two women insist it’s true.” Charlotte Observer. 21 July 2017.
Tryon Palace. “The Palace.” Accessed 23 July 2017.
Tryon Palace.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed
     23 July 2017.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Of Werewolves and White Screamers—Dickson County, Tennessee

Sometimes aimless searching online produces serendipitous results. Thus, this was the case when I stumbled upon a mention of a place called “Werewolf Springs.” Reporter Josh Arntz of the Dickson Herald wrote a fabulous article about the legend of Werewolf Springs in 2011. He has since done some excellent reporting on several haunted locations within Dickson County. What’s interesting about this legend, is the possible connection with the more well-known story of the White Bluff Screamer located roughly 5 miles away in the same county.
 
The Dickson County Courthouse in Charlotte, the oldest courthouse
still in use in the state of Tennessee. Photo by Brian Stansberry, 2008,
courtesy of Wikipedia.
Dickson County retains its rural character despite being within (about 35 miles) listening distance of Nashville’s country music. Several sites within the county are the subject of ghost stories and legends including Montgomery Bell State Park (the location of Werewolf Springs), the small town of White Bluff (where the legend of the White Screamer may be found), and the Clement Railroad Hotel Museum in Dickson (the childhood home of Governor Frank Clement whose parents owned the hotel).

The legend of Werewolf Springs begins with a circus train passing through Dickson County in the late 1860s. The train derailed near the community of Burns, southeast of Dickson, and some of the animals escaped. Among the escapees were a pair of half-human, half-wolf creatures who were exhibited under the moniker, “The Wolfmen of Borneo.” Circus employees caught all the other escaped animals, though the wolfmen were nowhere to be found.

A couple of years later, two locals traveling on a nearby road—where modern State Route 47 now runs from Burns to White Bluff—found themselves being stalked by a large creature. The two men, a local landowner and a hired hand, attempted to outrun the creature, but it caught up with them, and the duo split up and fled into the forest.

The creature pursued the hired hand, and the landowner was shocked to hear the man’s screams and cries as he was presumably torn apart. The hired hand’s body was never located. A mob of locals, I imagine classically armed with pitchforks and torches, formed from nearby farms and towns to bring justice to this dreadful creature. Near the springs where the duo had encountered the beast, the mob led a live goat to a clearing where it was tied to bait the monster. Extinguishing their torches and lanterns, the posse waited with bated breath for the hungry creature to make its appearance.

The prowling creature eventually appeared. The group opened fire then quickly lit their torches and lanterns to see if they had bagged their quarry. The clearing was empty. The creature, goat, and two members of the posse had vanished into the thick night air. With terror, the group dispersed fearing to pursue the mysterious creature any further.

Later, a big game hunter attempted to kill the creature of Wolfman Springs. Setting himself up in a nearby cabin, he slept soundly the first two nights, but on the third night, he heard howling in the distance. A short time later, the frightened hunter began to hear the creature outside his cabin. When it appeared to pass by one of the windows, he aimed and fired. The gunshots only served to rile the creature’s wrath, and it broke down the door. The hunter fired all but two rounds at hairy bipedal, but it only seems to anger more with every shot. With only two rounds left in the chamber, dawn arrived, and the light from the rising sun caused the creature to flee into the shadows of the forest.
 
Replica of the cabin where the Cumberland Presbyterian Church
was founded in Montgomery Bell State Park. Photo 2006, by
Leylander, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Just as the sun rose to banish this creature of the night, Arntz sheds some light on the legend and the history of the area. Wolfman Springs is actually Hall Springs which is located in one of the areas of Montgomery Bell State Park (1020 Jackson Hill Road, Burns) that is only accessible by a hike. The springs are named for the Hall family who had a homestead near the springs. The family’s home is long gone, but a small family cemetery remains nearby. A few weeks after the appearance of the Wolfman Springs article, Arntz followed up with an article about a descendent of the Hall family who grew up near the infamous springs. She denied that she ever heard anyone speak of a mysterious creature in the area.

The land that the state park now occupies was purchased by a National Park Service in 1935 to develop the Montgomery Bell National Recreation Demonstration Area. The park’s namesake is local manufacturing entrepreneur, Montgomery Bell, who was instrumental in building the local iron-smelting industry. Interestingly, even he has been pulled into the Wolfman legend. Some tellers of the story feature Mr. Bell as the local landowner, though this wouldn’t be possible as he passed away before the Civil War.

The railroad tracks where the train derailed still run their original course along the southern edge of the park. Evidently, there were several train derailments on this stretch of line, though none that specifically involved a circus train.

What is the origin of this odd story? I can attest that in my research in Southern ghost and folklore, stories involving these type of creatures appear less frequently than ghost stories. Among these stories are the tales of the Pig Woman in Cecil County and a goat-man creature in southern Maryland; the “Bunny Man” who supposedly haunts a bridge in Virginia; the infamous Mothman of Point Pleasant, West Virginia; the Skunk Ape spotted in Florida; the Lizard-Man of South Carolina; Sasquatch activity that may be associated with the haunting of Spring Villa in Opelika, Alabama and throughout the nearby Tuskegee National Forest in Macon County; and the goat-man creature that has led, like a siren, a handful of young people to their deaths at Pope Lick Trestle in Kentucky. Among these stories, I only know of one other wolfman or werewolf-like creature, and that is a story from Talbot County, Georgia that Nancy Roberts documented in her 1997 opus, Georgia Ghosts.

Interestingly, just five miles from Montgomery Bell State Park and within the same county is the small town of White Bluff. For some time, stories have circulated regarding a creature or entity that is known to prowl the community emitting a terrifying scream. Known as the White Bluff Screamer, the explanations appear to fall into two camps: one believing that the screamer is a banshee while the other camp believes the screamer is a cryptid.

Alan Brown, one of the more venerable writers on Southern ghostlore, makes the argument for the banshee camp in his 2009 work, Haunted Tennessee. Relating the “standard version” of the story, he tells of a settler building a cabin in an isolated hollow near town. However, the man and his family were plagued by a high-pitched screaming that woke them every night. Determined to bring peace, the man took his rifle and hunting to pursue the source of the screams. As the man entered the forest, the screams began anew, and the dogs bounded towards them. Though a short time later the dogs returned frightened with their tails between their legs. The settler continued towards the wailing and climbed a hill to get a view of the surrounding landscape. Reaching the summit, the hunter's ears were besieged with the screaming once again, though this time is seemed to come from the man’s cabin. He sprinted back to his home and discovered his family’s mangled remains.

The story is not really about a banshee as they are rarely known as malevolent spirits, mostly as heralds of death. A banshee would not typically use her wails to distract a man to kill his family. According to West Virginia writer Rosemary Ellen Guiley in her 2007 compendium, Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, a banshee (or Bean Shide in Gaelic, literally “woman of the fairies”) is “a female death omen spirit of Ireland and Scotland that attaches itself to families…and manifests to herald an approaching death in the family.” She continues, “the banshee most commonly is heard singing or crying, but is not seen.” Speaking with an Irish friend of mine, he noted that banshees are generally considered harbingers and occasionally provide protection to family members when traveling alone or at night. According to him, “the only legends of the banshee killing is if she is disturbed whilst combing her hair. She is reputed to throw her comb, piercing the heart and killing her victim.”

Guiley states that legends of banshees followed the Scots and Irish immigrants who settled throughout the South. One primary legend that appears in Southern folklore is the story of the Tarboro Banshee. Originating in the town of Tarboro, North Carolina on the banks of the Tar River, the story recalls the days during the American Revolution when a patriotic miller operated a grist mill on the banks of the river. Refusing to abandon his operation at the approach of the British, he was captured and drowned in the river, but not before warning his captors of a banshee that would avenge his death.

As the miller sank beneath the brackish water of the river, a wail arose from the watery grave. A feminine form began to take shape in the mist over the river while an agonizing cry was heard on the river banks. The beautiful maiden terrorized the British soldiers responsible for the miller’s death, eventually leading all to grisly deaths. Legend still speaks of the lovely creature appearing over the river waters still mourning the miller’s early departure from this world.

Returning to Middle Tennessee, I need to acknowledge the other camp of thought on the White Bluff Screamer, the camp that believes that the creature may be a cryptid and not a spirit. The authors of the 2011 Nashville Haunted Handbook remark that the creature is commonly heard and sometimes even seen. “Some who see the creature report that it is a white, misty apparition that flits through the woods quickly and ominously in the night…Others report that the source of the screams is an actual creature that resembles an alpaca [a domesticated relative of the llama]: a white furry beast that walks on all fours and stands about six feet tall with a face resembling a camel.” It should also be noted that alpacas can produce a high-pitched whine or scream when frightened.

Screaming is also a purported characteristic of the Sasquatch or Bigfoot. Some witnesses have been able to record the mysterious screaming that may be produced by a sasquatch. This leads me to believe that there may be a connection between this screaming creature and the Sasquatch, though the description that this creature is a quadruped rather than a biped puts that connection into jeopardy.

Returning to the creature that may haunt “Werewolf Springs,” in recent years screaming has been reported in the area. Josh Arntz in his Werewolf Springs article ends with a report from a local teacher who “heard ‘the most blood-curdling scream’ from a wild animal at 1 a.m.” near the park inn on Lake Acorn. The teacher also reported to have heard “plenty of eerie sounds while walking through the park’s woods at night.”


There are several creatures native to the area that can produce human-like screams in the night including fox and bobcat. Regardless of whether these stories contain any truth, they have left a marvelous mythological legacy on the landscape.

Sources
Arntz, Josh. “The half-wolf, half-man of Werewolf Springs.” Dickson
     Herald. 28 October 2011.
Arntz, Josh. “Hall Springs resident debunks werewolf myth.” Dickson
    Herald. 28 December 2011.
Brown, Alan. Haunted Tennessee: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the
     Volunteer State. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2009.
Corlew, Robert E. “Montgomery Bell.” Tennessee Encyclopedia of History
     and Culture. 25 December 2009.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, 3rd Edition.
     NYC: Checkmark Books, 2007.
Manley, Roger. Weird Tennessee. NYC: Sterling Publishing, 2010.
Morris, Jeff; Donna Marsh; and Garret Merk. Nashville Haunted
     Handbook. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy Press, 2011.
Nichols, Ruth D. “Montgomery Bell State Park.” Tennessee Encyclopedia
     of History and Culture. 25 December 2009.