MOONLIGHT AND MADNESS

Ambrose Bierce as he looked during the Civil War.

Ambrose Bierce as he looked during the Civil War

I was recently informed by a respected Literary Agent authoritatively that trade editors these days don’t want to see anything from contemporary writers that reeks of more than a single point of view or attempts to render a narrative in anything other than the third person “literary” past tense. I’m not sure how “literary” the simple past tense may be, but I presume this current editorial fad is in deference to what they regard as the abilities of the average modern reader. One wonders how the works of such writers as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad would have fared at the hands of such editors—assuming they would even have gotten an agent to handle their writing. As a journeyman scrivener I bow to their superior wisdom; but in the hope that your reading skills are somewhat better than what modern editing trends will allow, I present a tale of Southern spooks by a master of sardonic horror—Ambrose Bierce.

Bierce is best known for his biting satire and his macabre Civil War Tales filled with deadly ironies. Yet Bierce also wrote quite a bit about the South, even though he is not considered a Southern author by any means. He survived four years of the “blood-stained period” tramping all about the Mid South, including Nashville, and continuing on well after the war the shadow of death lingered on in his mind, spilling out onto the pages of his short stories. This is not a tale of the Civil War, but it does take place in Nashville, a city he knew well during the war. I think we may safely class it as a choice piece of Southern Gothic, even if it was written by a Yankee.

In honor of Bierce, Dixie and Halloween, therefore, I reprint this, one of Bierce’s best ghost stories. If you are a Bierce devotee, forgive me, for doubtless you have read it before; but it is worth re-reading nonetheless. I fear it would be rejected out of hand by a modern trade editor, for it relates the story from multiple points of view. But if Bierce’s narrative technique was good enough for filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, I trust you may find it equally edifying as well.

THE MOONLIT ROAD

STATEMENT OF JOEL HETMAN, JR.

I am the most unfortunate of men. Rich, respected, fairly well educated and of sound health–with many other advantages usually valued by those having them and coveted by those who have them not—I sometimes think that I should be less unhappy if they had been denied me, for then the contrast between my outer and my inner life would not be continually demanding a painful attention. In the stress of privation and the need of effort I might sometimes forget the somber secret ever baffling the conjecture that it compels.
I am the only child of Joel and Julia Hetman. The one was a well-to-do country gentleman, the other a beautiful and accomplished woman to whom he was passionately attached with what I now know to have been a jealous and exacting devotion. The family home was a few miles from Nashville, Tennessee, a large, irregularly built dwelling of no
particular order of architecture, a little way off the road, in a
park of trees and shrubbery.
At the time of which I write I was nineteen years old, a student at Yale. One day I received a telegram from my father of such urgency that in compliance with its unexplained demand I left at once for home. At the railway station in Nashville a distant relative awaited me to apprise me of the reason for my recall: my mother had been
barbarously murdered–why and by whom none could conjecture, but the circumstances were these:
My father had gone to Nashville, intending to return the next afternoon. Something prevented his accomplishing the business in hand, so he returned on the same night, arriving just before the dawn. In his testimony before the coroner he explained that having no latchkey and not caring to disturb the sleeping servants, he had, with no clearly defined intention, gone round to the rear of the house. As he turned an angle of the building, he heard a sound as of a door gently closed, and saw in the darkness, indistinctly, the figure of a man, which instantly disappeared among the trees of the lawn. A hasty pursuit and brief search of the grounds in the belief that the trespasser was some one secretly visiting a servant proving fruitless, he entered at the unlocked door and mounted the stairs to my mother’s chamber. Its door was open, and stepping into black darkness he fell headlong over some heavy object on the floor. I may spare myself the details; it was my poor mother, dead of strangulation by human hands!
Nothing had been taken from the house, the servants had heard no sound, and excepting those terrible finger-marks upon the dead woman’s throat–dear God! that I might forget them!–no trace of the assassin was ever found.
I gave up my studies and remained with my father, who, naturally, was greatly changed. Always of a sedate, taciturn disposition, he now fell into so deep a dejection that nothing could hold his attention, yet anything–a footfall, the sudden closing of a door–aroused in him a fitful interest; one might have called it an apprehension. At any small surprise of the senses he would start visibly and sometimes turn pale, then relapse into a melancholy apathy deeper than before. I suppose he was what is called a “nervous wreck.” As to me, I was younger then than now–there is much in that. Youth is Gilead, in
which is balm for every wound. Ah, that I might again dwell in that enchanted land! Unacquainted with grief, I knew not how to appraise my bereavement; I could not rightly estimate the strength of the stroke.
One night, a few months after the dreadful event, my father and I walked home from the city. The full moon was about three hours above the eastern horizon; the entire countryside had the solemn stillness of a summer night; our footfalls and the ceaseless song of the katydids were the only sound aloof. Black shadows of bordering trees lay athwart the road, which, in the short reaches between, gleamed a ghostly white. As we approached the gate to our dwelling, whose front was in shadow, and in which no light shone, my father suddenly stopped and clutched my arm, saying, hardly above his breath:
“God! God! what is that?”
“I hear nothing,” I replied.
“But see—see!” he said, pointing along the road, directly
ahead.
I said: “Nothing is there. Come, father, let us go in—you are
ill.”
He had released my arm and was standing rigid and motionless in the center of the illuminated roadway, staring like one bereft of sense. His face in the moonlight showed a pallor and fixity inexpressibly distressing. I pulled gently at his sleeve, but he had forgotten my existence. Presently he began to retire backward, step by step, never for an instant removing his eyes from what he saw, or thought he saw. I turned half round to follow, but stood irresolute. I do not recall any feeling of fear, unless a sudden chill was its physical manifestation. It seemed as if an icy wind had touched my face and enfolded my body from head to foot; I could feel the stir of it in my hair.
At that moment my attention was drawn to a light that suddenly streamed from an upper window of the house: one of the servants, awakened by what mysterious premonition of evil who can say, and in obedience to an impulse that she was never able to name, had lit a lamp. When I turned to look for my father he was gone, and in all the years that have passed no whisper of his fate has come across the borderland of conjecture from the realm of the unknown.

II

STATEMENT OF CASPAR GRATTAN

To-day I am said to live; to-morrow, here in this room, will lie a senseless shape of clay that all too long was I. If anyone lift the cloth from the face of that unpleasant thing it will be in gratification of a mere morbid curiosity. Some, doubtless, will go further and inquire, “Who was he?” In this writing I supply the only answer that I am able to make–Caspar Grattan. Surely, that should be enough. The name has served my small need for more than twenty years of a life of unknown length. True, I gave it to myself, but lacking another I had the right. In this world one must have a name; it prevents confusion, even when it does not establish identity. Some, though, are known by numbers, which also seem inadequate distinctions.
One day, for illustration, I was passing along a street of a city, far from here, when I met two men in uniform, one of whom, half pausing and looking curiously into my face, said to his companion, “That man looks like 767.” Something in the number seemed familiar and horrible. Moved by an uncontrollable impulse, I sprang into a side street and ran until I fell exhausted in a country lane.
I have never forgotten that number, and always it comes to memory attended by gibbering obscenity, peals of joyless laughter, the clang of iron doors. So I say a name, even if self-bestowed, is better than a number. In the register of the potter’s field I shall soon have both. What wealth!
Of him who shall find this paper I must beg a little consideration. It is not the history of my life; the knowledge to write that is denied me. This is only a record of broken and apparently unrelated memories, some of them as distinct and sequent as brilliant beads
upon a thread, others remote and strange, having the character of crimson dreams with interspaces blank and black–witch-fires glowing still and red in a great desolation.
Standing upon the shore of eternity, I turn for a last look landward over the course by which I came. There are twenty years of footprints fairly distinct, the impressions of bleeding feet. They lead through poverty and pain, devious and unsure, as of one
staggering beneath a burden—
“Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow.”

Ah, the poet’s prophecy of Me–how admirable, how dreadfully
admirable!
Backward beyond the beginning of this via dolorosa–this epic of suffering with episodes of sin–I see nothing clearly; it comes out of a cloud. I know that it spans only twenty years, yet I am an old man.
One does not remember one’s birth–one has to be told. But with me it was different; life came to me full-handed and dowered me with all my faculties and powers. Of a previous existence I know no more than others, for all have stammering intimations that may be memories and may be dreams. I know only that my first consciousness was of
maturity in body and mind–a consciousness accepted without surprise or conjecture. I merely found myself walking in a forest, half-clad, footsore, unutterably weary and hungry. Seeing a farmhouse, I approached and asked for food, which was given me by one who inquired my name. I did not know, yet knew that all had names. Greatly embarrassed, I retreated, and night coming on, lay down in the forest
and slept.
The next day I entered a large town which I shall not name. Nor shall I recount further incidents of the life that is now to end—a life of wandering, always and everywhere haunted by an overmastering sense of crime in punishment of wrong and of terror in punishment of crime. Let me see if I can reduce it to narrative.
I seem once to have lived near a great city, a prosperous planter, married to a woman whom I loved and distrusted. We had, it sometimes seems, one child, a youth of brilliant parts and promise. He is at all times a vague figure, never clearly drawn, frequently altogether out of the picture.
One luckless evening it occurred to me to test my wife’s fidelity in a vulgar, commonplace way familiar to everyone who has acquaintance with the literature of fact and fiction. I went to the city, telling my wife that I should be absent until the following afternoon. But I returned before daybreak and went to the rear of the house, purposing
to enter by a door with which I had secretly so tampered that it would seem to lock, yet not actually fasten. As I approached it, I heard it gently open and close, and saw a man steal away into the darkness. With murder in my heart, I sprang after him, but he had
vanished without even the bad luck of identification. Sometimes now I cannot even persuade myself that it was a human being.
Crazed with jealousy and rage, blind and bestial with all the elemental passions of insulted manhood, I entered the house and sprang up the stairs to the door of my wife’s chamber. It was closed, but having tampered with its lock also, I easily entered and
despite the black darkness soon stood by the side of her bed. My groping hands told me that although disarranged it was unoccupied.
“She is below,” I thought, “and terrified by my entrance has evaded me in the darkness of the hall.”
With the purpose of seeking her I turned to leave the room, but took a wrong direction–the right one! My foot struck her, cowering in a corner of the room. Instantly my hands were at her throat, stifling a shriek, my knees were upon her struggling body; and there in the darkness, without a word of accusation or reproach, I strangled her
till she died!
There ends the dream. I have related it in the past tense, but the present would be the fitter form, for again and again the somber tragedy reenacts itself in my consciousness–over and over I lay the plan, I suffer the confirmation, I redress the wrong. Then all is blank; and afterward the rains beat against the grimy window-panes, or the snows fall upon my scant attire, the wheels rattle in the squalid streets where my life lies in poverty and mean employment. If there is ever sunshine I do not recall it; if there are birds they
do not sing.
There is another dream, another vision of the night. I stand among the shadows in a moonlit road. I am aware of another presence, but whose I cannot rightly determine. In the shadow of a great dwelling I catch the gleam of white garments; then the figure of a woman confronts me in the road–my murdered wife! There is death in the face; there are marks upon the throat. The eyes are fixed on mine with an infinite gravity which is not reproach, nor hate, nor menace, nor anything less terrible than recognition. Before this awful apparition I retreat in terror–a terror that is upon me as I write. I can no longer rightly shape the words. See! They—
Now I am calm, but truly there is no more to tell: the incident ends where it began–in darkness and in doubt.
Yes, I am again in control of myself: “the captain of my soul.” But that is not respite; it is another stage and phase of expiation. My penance, constant in degree, is mutable in kind: one of its variants is tranquillity. After all, it is only a life-sentence. “To Hell for life”–that is a foolish penalty: the culprit chooses the duration of his punishment. To-day my term expires.
To each and all, the peace that was not mine.

III

STATEMENT OF THE LATE JULIA HETMAN,
THROUGH THE MEDIUM BAYROLLES

I had retired early and fallen almost immediately into a peaceful sleep, from which I awoke with that indefinable sense of peril which is, I think, a common experience in that other, earlier life. Of its unmeaning character, too, I was entirely persuaded, yet that did not banish it. My husband, Joel Hetman, was away from home; the servants slept in another part of the house. But these were familiar conditions; they had never before distressed me. Nevertheless, the strange terror grew so insupportable that conquering my reluctance to move I sat up and lit the lamp at my bedside. Contrary to my expectation this gave me no relief; the light seemed rather an added danger, for I reflected that it would shine out under the door, disclosing my presence to whatever evil thing might lurk outside. You that are still in the flesh, subject to horrors of the imagination, think what a monstrous fear that must be which seeks in darkness security from malevolent existences of the night. That is to spring to close quarters with an unseen enemy–the strategy of despair!
Extinguishing the lamp I pulled the bed-clothing about my head and lay trembling and silent, unable to shriek, forgetful to pray. In this pitiable state I must have lain for what you call hours–with us there are no hours, there is no time.
At last it came–a soft, irregular sound of footfalls on the stairs! They were slow, hesitant, uncertain, as of something that did not see its way; to my disordered reason all the more terrifying for that, as the approach of some blind and mindless malevolence to which is no appeal. I even thought that I must have left the hall lamp burning and the groping of this creature proved it a monster of the night. This was foolish and inconsistent with my previous dread of the light, but what would you have? Fear has no brains; it is an idiot. The dismal witness that it bears and the cowardly counsel that it whispers are unrelated. We know this well, we who have passed into the Realm of Terror, who skulk in eternal dusk among the scenes of our former lives, invisible even to ourselves and one another, yet hiding forlorn in lonely places; yearning for speech with our loved ones, yet dumb, and as fearful of them as they of us. Sometimes the disability is removed, the law suspended: by the deathless power of love or hate we break the spell—
we are seen by those whom we would warn, console, or punish. What form we seem to them to bear we know not; we know only that we terrify even those whom we most wish to comfort, and from whom we most crave tenderness and sympathy.
Forgive, I pray you, this inconsequent digression by what was once a woman. You who consult us in this imperfect way–you do not understand. You ask foolish questions about things unknown and things forbidden. Much that we know and could impart in our speech is meaningless in yours. We must communicate with you through a stammering intelligence in that small fraction of our language that you yourselves can speak. You think that we are of another world. No, we have knowledge of no world but yours, though for us it holds no sunlight, no warmth, no music, no laughter, no song of birds, nor any companionship. O God! what a thing it is to be a ghost, cowering and shivering in an altered world, a prey to apprehension and despair!
No, I did not die of fright: the Thing turned and went away. I heard it go down the stairs, hurriedly, I thought, as if itself in sudden fear. Then I rose to call for help. Hardly had my shaking hand found the doorknob when–merciful heaven!–I heard it returning.
Its footfalls as it remounted the stairs were rapid, heavy and loud; they shook the house. I fled to an angle of the wall and crouched upon the floor. I tried to pray. I tried to call the name of my dear husband. Then I heard the door thrown open. There was an interval of unconsciousness, and when I revived I felt a strangling clutch upon my throat–felt my arms feebly beating against something that bore me backward–felt my tongue thrusting itself from between my teeth! And then I passed into this life.
No, I have no knowledge of what it was. The sum of what we knew at death is the measure of what we know afterward of all that went before. Of this existence we know many things, but no new light falls upon any page of that; in memory is written all of it that we can read. Here are no heights of truth overlooking the confused landscape of that dubitable domain. We still dwell in the Valley of the Shadow, lurk in its desolate places, peering from brambles and thickets at its mad, malign inhabitants. How should we have new knowledge of that fading past?
What I am about to relate happened on a night. We know when it is night, for then you retire to your houses and we can venture from our places of concealment to move unafraid about our old homes, to look in at the windows, even to enter and gaze upon your faces as you sleep. I had lingered long near the dwelling where I had been so cruelly changed to what I am, as we do while any that we love or hate remain. Vainly I had sought some method of manifestation, some way to make my continued existence and my great love and poignant pity understood by my husband and son. Always if they slept they would wake, or if in my desperation I dared approach them when they were awake, would turn toward me the terrible eyes of the living, frightening me by the glances that I sought from the purpose that I held.
On this night I had searched for them without success, fearing to find them; they were nowhere in the house, nor about the moonlit lawn. For, although the sun is lost to us forever, the moon, full-orbed or slender, remains to us. Sometimes it shines by night, sometimes by day, but always it rises and sets, as in that other life.
I left the lawn and moved in the white light and silence along the road, aimless and sorrowing. Suddenly I heard the voice of my poor husband in exclamations of astonishment, with that of my son in reassurance and dissuasion; and there by the shadow of a group of trees they stood–near, so near! Their faces were toward me, the eyes of the elder man fixed upon mine. He saw me–at last, at last, he saw me! In the consciousness of that, my terror fled as a cruel dream. The death-spell was broken: Love had conquered Law! Mad with exultation I shouted–I MUST have shouted, “He sees, he sees: he will understand!” Then, controlling myself, I moved forward, smiling and consciously beautiful, to offer myself to his arms, to comfort him with endearments, and, with my son’s hand in mine, to speak words that should restore the broken bonds between the living and the dead.
Alas! alas! his face went white with fear, his eyes were as those of a hunted animal. He backed away from me, as I advanced, and at last turned and fled into the wood–whither, it is not given to me to know.
To my poor boy, left doubly desolate, I have never been able to impart a sense of my presence. Soon he, too, must pass to this Life Invisible and be lost to me forever.

 

Ambrose Bierce as he appeared in his later years, when he penned "The Moonlit Road."

Ambrose Bierce as he appeared in his later years, when he penned “The Moonlit Road.”

For true ghost stories of Nashville and the Mid-South, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.

 

The Medium and the Message: the Evidence for Lincoln’s Encounters with Psychics.

Abraham Lincoln visited mediums and attended séances with and without his wife, dating to before the war.

Abraham Lincoln visited mediums and attended séances with and without his wife, dating to before the war.

 

I must first apologize for being remiss of late in updating the Late Unpleasantness.  I’m afraid like many, the summer heat has made me lax–that and having the house torn up with a major renovation–so my various files and notes are every which way for now.  Of course I am not solely guilty of this venial sin: August is traditionally a month when nothing gets done in publishing.  I am still awaiting final approval from one publisher n one book and I have been querying agents left and right (or write) for my latest manuscript.  With summer waning into fall, however, it is time to get caught up.  Halloween is just around the corner after all.

This outing let us delve a little into a much neglected aspect of Abraham Lincoln: his interest—nay obsession—with the paranormal.  To be sure, I covered the subject in depth in The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and I have blogged on some aspects of it before.  However, the subject is worth more exploring, since mainstream historians have largely ignored the subject or dismiss it by emphasizing that our 16th President was merely humoring his “neurotic” wife (they really mean bitchy, but don’t wish to sound sexist) and they let it go at that.  Mary Todd Lincoln had her faults, to be sure; and after the death of their son Willie she was indeed very much drawn to Spiritualism, both as an emotional outlet and as a method to get in touch, not only with Willie, but her dead brother, a Confederate officer killed in combat.

But in truth, in my research for The Paranormal Presidency, I uncovered evidence pointing to Lincoln’s involvement with psychics—or at least persons posing as psychics—well before Willie’s death and which did not involve his wife.

The evidence for Lincoln’s early involvement with psychics is admittedly sketchy.  The trail is difficult to follow in this and other controversial aspects of Lincoln, mainly because his sole surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, did such a good job at suppressing all evidence after the war that did not portray his father as a living saint.  We know for a fact that for several days Robert Lincoln running burned reams of papers relating to his father’s life and politics.  So, when you read about Honest Abe, bear in mind that as voluminous as the Lincoln Papers may seem, they are in fact heavily “scrubbed.”

But not everything went up in flames.  There was eyewitness testimony, for one thing, although here again, historians cast aspersions on the witnesses, dismissing them as liars and cranks.  One witness in particular, testifies to Abraham Lincoln consulting at least one psychic which had anything to do with Mary and preceded the death of their son Willie.

After the war a gentleman named Colonel Simon P. Kase came forward to testify that he had been instrumental in securing a meeting between the President and a “writing medium” by the name of “Mr. Conkling.”  He recounts visiting Washington on business (he was a government contractor) and out of curiosity visiting his old apartments only to encounter the mysterious Mr. Conkling.  Being already a believer in Spiritualism, this Conkling prevailed upon him to deliver a letter to Lincoln and to set up a meeting between him and the President.  Colonel Kase obliged, but for whatever reason, Conkling stayed in another room of the White House during Kase’s interview with the President.

The story is a curious one and Colonel Kase conflated this encounter with a full séance attended by the President sometime later, attended by the young medium Nettie Colbun.  In seeking to verify Kase’s accounts, it is not helpful that he related these encounters with the President a number of years later, when the good gentlemen was apparently up in years and his memory less than perfect.

Fortunately, we have contemporary documentation to support Colonel Kase’s narrative.  Deep within the Library of Conress’s Lincoln Papers is preserved the missive from Conkling which he delivered to Lincoln.  Kase recalled it happening sometime in 1862; in fact the letter is date December 28, 1861 and the medium’s name was H. B. Conklin.  His return address was actually New York City, not Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C.

Conklin’s missive to Lincoln was actually just a cover letter for another gentleman’s letter, a man named Edward Baker.  Baker was a person well known to Lincoln, having been a good friend of the President’s.  The reason Baker was unable to deliver the letter in person is that he had been killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, months before and he had written it from the grave!

The Library of Congress not only has transcribed this correspondence into a readable printed text, it has also provided access photostats of the original documents.  Curiously, there are some eight pages to the original, although the printed transcription is much shorter.  Most of the original papers seemed to be filled with meaningless scribbling and when I first examined it I was at a loss to make sense of it.  Then I realized: Conklin was a “writing medium” and what those pages were what we would call today “automatic writing.”

Beyond Kase’s eyewitness account, there is other evidence of Lincoln’s encounters with H. B. Conklin.  Apparently Lincoln met Conklin even before he became President; an article published in March of 1861 and entitled “The President is a Spiritualist,” relates how Conklin met him a year before and delivered another message from a dead acquaintance.

Whether H. B. Conklin was the real deal or simply a clever charlatan is irrelevant.  The fact remains that there is solid evidence that Lincoln was frequenting psychics and mediums without Mary and doing so well before their son’s death.  What Lincoln’s motives may have to do is open to debate: the fact that he did so is not.  For more on the subject, see Chapter 14 of The Paranormal Presidency.

The Faeries of Blackheath Wood

I normally don’t do much reposting from other blogs, but this short film about dark fays is so good it is worth wider appreciation.

I’m afraid Tolkien’s love of the Fair Folk has spread the false belief that all faeries are innately good, angelic even.

This short reminds us that the Fairy Realm is called the Perilous Realm for good reason:  The Faeries of Blackheath Wood.

original posting:

The Faeries of Blackheath Wood

The Faeries of Blackheath Woods; don't go alone!

The Faeries of Blackheath Woods; don’t go alone!

Aliens, Lincoln and Vampires, Oh My!

Just did an interview with Prometheus Productions last week, the folks who produce Ancient Aliens (you know the show with the bad hair guy) and while I am not exactly an expert on UFO’s I did ramble on a bit about Abraham Lincoln and his beliefs in the paranormal.

In my ugly mug did not crack the camera lens they should be taking at least some of the interview for one or another of their shows on the History Channel–it remains to be seen.  While I’m not quite sure whether ancient aliens landed on earth, I have weighed in on more recent historic sightings in both Strange Tales of the Dark & Bloody Ground and in Dixie Spirits.

More about Abraham Lincoln when the show airs, but just for the record, Lincoln did not hunt vampires, although he did consult a Voodoo Priestess or two, attend séances and have several prophetic dreams.  Oh yes, and he did observe the skies for omens, so maybe he was in contact with alien life forms–maybe.

Modern alien somewhat upset with the Bad Hair Guy.

Modern alien somewhat upset with the Bad Hair Guy.

 

Memphis, the Mothership and other weirdness

via turbosquid

Artist’s conception of a mothership. Did one hover over Memphis, Tennessee in 1904?

December 2, 1904, dawned clear and cold over the Bluff City. People in the city were going about their normal Friday morning activities, rich and poor, black and white.

Then, around nine a.m., something strange happened. Without warning the sun was blotted out of the sky. In the space of a minute or so, the day went from a bright, sunlight autumn morn to utter and complete darkness. Work came to a crashing halt; laborers and others scramble to turn on gas lamps, oil lamps or incandescent bulbs. It soon became apparent that this was no ordinary event.

The “inky darkness” was sudden and complete; there had been no warning, no approaching storm. The schools, which relied on daylight for illumination, were plunged into darkness, throngs of children terrified. Adults too were scared out of their wits, both at home and at work. One longshoreman hugged a telegraph pole for dear life, too frightened to let go.

All in all, the eerie darkness lasted more than half an hour, then disappeared as quickly as it had begun. The mysterious blackout was soon followed by a real storm, which was itself awful in its ferocity. For days the people of Memphis, Tennessee, were bothered and bewildered by what had happened.

A sudden "inky blackness" descends on Memphis without warning.

A sudden “inky blackness” descends on Memphis without warning.

Of course, there were the usual naysayers who tried to dismiss it as just a dark storm cloud passing over. But those who experienced knew that was a lie. The storm came after the blackness, not before or during it. It was an eclipse then; unexpected but nothing more? Well, neither the sun nor moon make special side trips for eclipses; no solar eclipse was scheduled for that day in that place.

Having myself experienced a number of total eclipses in my lifetime, from the written accounts it is clear that it couldn’t have been a natural eclipse. For one thing, the sky gradually gets darker, like a cloudy day, before the total eclipse and even then the blackness only lasts few minutes at most. This was different: it was sudden, it was total and it lasted a long time. The object blotting out the sun had to have been in stationary orbit between the earth and sun to create such an effect. No natural celestial body could have done that.

Though no one at the time voiced the opinion, only a UFO of massive size and capable of maintaining a stationary orbit above the city could have done that: in effect, a “mothership.”

Now this event is but one of the many strange things that has been know to happen in Memphis. Aside from a surfeit of haunted houses and similar apparitions, there was the case on January, 15, 1877, when it rained snakes on the city. They were not little hatchlings either: the snakes were all dark brown—thousands and thousands of them—a foot to a foot and a half in length.

via Pinterest

In January, 1877 thousands of snakes rained down on Memphis, one of the weirdest Fortean Falls on record.

Again scientists tried to explain away the unexplainable: they had been picked up by a “hurricane” and somehow deposited by the tens of thousands on the city. The fact that hurricanes don’t occur in January, that Memphis, Tennessee is too far inland for a hurricane to reach or the fact that snakes, being cold-blooded animals, would be hibernating securely underground in January did not seem to phase the professional debunkers then, any more than it does now.

For more true accounts of high strangeness in the Mid-South, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground.

“Bitter” Bierce

Christopher Coleman:

Here is a brief piece on Bierce from the Emerging Civil War blog. It is a nice summary, although a whole book could be written of Bierce’s war career–and has. The only thing I would add at this point is that Bierce rejoined the army in time for the Autumn Campaign and that there are some discrepancies regarding his actual date of separation from the service.

Originally posted on Emerging Civil War:

Bierce, AmbroseAmong the men missing from the roles of the Army of the Cumberland after the Kennesaw Line was twenty-two-year-old Lt. Ambrose Bierce. Bierce is famous for his dark and disturbing writings, the most famous of which, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, has been adapted to film numerous times—most notably by the Twilight Zone during the Rod Sterling era. Bierce’s writings are still impactful today, influencing the writings of such noted authors as Stephen King. Bierce’s writings were influenced by the horrors he witnessed at places such as Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Pickett’s Mill in the Atlanta Campaign.

Bierce, who served on the staff of General William B. Hazen—whom he called “The Best Hated Man in the Army”—really lost his faith in humanity during these engagements.

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Tall Betsy, Bradley County’s Lady in Black

Tall Betsy, Cleveland, Tennessee's resident spook, comes on Halloween to deliver tricks and treats.

Tall Betsy, Cleveland, Tennessee’s resident spook, comes on Halloween to deliver tricks and treats.

In the pages of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I have previously chronicled some high strangeness originating from the area near Cleveland, Tennessee, as well as a rather scary apparition from East Tennessee referred to as The Lady in Black.  In Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, I delved even more deeply into the supernatural stirrings of the Mid-South.  Even with the ghost stories and mysteries which I did not chronicle in those books, I had assumed I had researched just about every paranormal phenomenon and tale there was to known about this region; my file cabinets are bulging with accounts and my computer files contain even more.  Well, I was wrong, for until just recently, I had never heard of Bradley County’s favorite apparition, Tall Betsy.

While most folks outside of Cleveland have never heard about Tall Betsy, anyone who grew up in or around the East Tennessee city can give you an earful about this unusual hobgoblin.  An online search of the usual ghost-hunter websites and directories will generally give you a blank; but that is not to say she is not real–or as real as any immaterial being can be.

I stumbled across Tall Betsy through one of my son’s friends who grew up in Cleveland.  My son Bubba knows just about everyone in Sumner County and his friend, who now hails from here, spent most of his boyhood in Bradley County.  So, knowing my interest in all things weird and wonderful relating to the South, Bubba’s friend regaled me with what he knew of Tall Betsy.  The game afoot, I dug deeper and came up with more on this mysterious apparition and what passes for the facts about her—admittedly not much.

Unlike TV ghost hunters, who go armed with all sorts of high tech gear and flashlights glued to their faces and generally end up scaring themselves, I resort to low tech methods to research ghost stories: word of mouth, hearsay, old newspaper clippings, an occasional eyewitness and the like.  No, it’s not scientific–but then neither are those TV “experts” who charge a large hunk of chump change for their expertise these days.

In her present incarnation, Tall Betsy dates back to 1980, when a local Cleveland Tennessee businessman and entrepreneur, Allan Jones, decided to get up on stilts, don a long black gown and a witches’ fright mask and hand out candy to neighborhood kids.  At first his fright costume worked too well; the local children avoided his home on Halloween like the plague.  Bit by bit, however, the kids got used to the spooky seven and half foot crone and the appearance of Tall Betsy became an annual tradition until it grew into a day long block party with thousands attending.  In recent years the celebration has also included TV celebrities and rock stars such as Little Richard.

Whether the block party got a little too big or whether Squire Jones simply got weary of standing on stilts all day, Tall Betsy disappeared from the Cleveland celebration for several years.  By all accounts she is back on the scene, handing out candy as before and a documentary has even been made about her legend.  So Cleveland, Tennessee is definitely a fun place to be on Halloween.

Although Allan Jones can certainly be credited with reviving the tradition regarding Tall Betsy, contrary to what professional debunkers may claim, he by no means originated the legend.

Jones actually learned the story of Tall Betsy from his mother, Giney Jones, who in turn had heard it as a girl from her mother, Marie Slaughter. So the tale of Tall Betsy, also known as Black Betsy or simply The Lady in Black, goes back to at least the 1920’s and 30’s and the story seems to be a genuine local tradition.

In her original incarnation, Tall Betsy was a real apparition—or at least “told as true”—who was of uncommon height (seven and half feet tall) who had a persimmon tree for a cane and who wandered the streets of Cleveland late at night.  Her grave is located in Fort Hill Cemetery, where she seems to have originally been seen and all sorts of dark tales were told about her to young children.  She was alleged to kidnap children out too late on Halloween and carry them off to her mausoleum, where she would cook and eat them and gnaw on their bones.

At this point in time it’s impossible to say how the story of Tall Betsy originated.  Whether there was indeed a cemetery ghost who was a Lady in Black (Kingston, Tennessee has one too) which was sighted on dark and gloomy nights, or whether she was just some eccentric old crone of uncommon height whose nocturnal wanderings became the subject of unkind gossip, is not known.  Tall Betsy defies easy explanations; but as far as the folk of Cleveland, Tennessee are concerned, she is a reality—at least once a year.

For further uncanny tales of ghosts, ghouls and witches, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, and, of course, Dixie Spirits.