Tag Archives: folklore

Pointing the Finger at Folklore: Where to find the Blame in Missouri

This article originally appeared on Ghostvillage News

It’s hard to put a warning on local ghostly folklore. It creeps into the personality of a place, feeding on universal themes and attraction and becomes a living, breathing thing that begs to be heard. By its very nature, it draws us in, and asks us to become part of the story. They are tales told during sleepovers and campfires, sometimes even as cautionary tales told by parents with pointed fingers, but they become the narrative of a location, the reason why the house is left unoccupied or the sign is posted. The lure to be part of the story and to test whether the tale could possibly be true is too strong. What fun is it to just hear the story anyway? It’s the easiest way for an ordinary person to be part of something extraordinary.

This week that attraction led to tragedy. In Poplar Bluff, Missouri, five teens were testing the validity of a local ghost story by parking on train tracks that are supposed to be haunted and waiting to see the apparitions that are supposed to invade the car. As the train drew closer, the car refused to start again, and two of the teens who could not get out of the car were killed while a third who rushed back to help them was seriously injured.

The children were trying to get a look at the two ghosts said to haunt the tracks, both of which supposedly died in a train accident that killed several people in the early 1900s. One is of a woman who lost her small child during the accident and who asks people who stop on the tracks for helping finding them. The other is a man who was decapitated and is seen searching for it in a ditch nearby. Other activity includes car radios being played with and an unexplained fog that clouds up the windows.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. The same story is probably told in your town or a town nearby. Everyone knows the tale, and it speaks to something inherently sad and attractive at the same time. We might not all believe in ghosts, but people tend to believe in the mythology surrounding ghost stories. Tales like this have all the earmarks of appeal: an accident that is plausible, a loss of life, a spirit unable to get to the other side because of unfinished business, children trapped in time. Throw in a specific location and the story that other people have witnessed it, and you too can be part of the legend that is too good to not be true.

The truly frightening part of a story like this is that when something like this happens, it only strengthens the lore of the story. Why was the car unable to start again? As time goes on and the names and faces of the victims fade, people will speak of the man who held them in or the angel who pulled the last girl to safety as she tried to help. At Session House, a dorm at Smith College in Massachusetts, there is a tradition of looking for the ghosts that haunt the building on Halloween night. One year a student got hurt falling down the stairs, but over the years the story became more sensationalized. She now is said to have died and is also haunting the college. And that is the way it goes, half truths become cemented and unquestioned fact.

It is not the first time something like this has happened. The most famous story happened almost six years ago when a group of teens trespassed on a property in Ohio, and one, Rachel Barezinsky, was shot in the head and barely survived. There have been other reports of teens getting hurt or lost looking to follow up on a local legend, but the tragedy in Missouri might be the most dreadful because of the loss of life and the way it played itself out. These stories appeal to people who look for ghosts, but the youth have always felt the stronger pull. Long before Ghost Hunters there was Bloody Mary and Suicide Rock down the street.

In the coming days there will be plenty of blame. Already people have pointed to Web sites such as StrangeUSA.com and the proliferation of ghost investigation television shows. People have said the trend of kids to want to legend trip too often leads to things like this happening, which is, of course, the kind of exaggeration that leads to legends in the first place. The fact of the matter is that people find these places and have found them long before there were lists of haunted places on the Internet. One administrator of a popular site that lists locations to find ghosts and ghostly legends has made it very clear where he stands. “If a place makes it to my site it is because a lot of people in that town know about it.” In other words, responsibility does not land on him because they were going to find in anyway.

Of course, this is only part of the answer. In actuality, today’s climate of investigating and tripping is different from the past. Social media is the campfire of today, Web conferencing the sleepover. People hear the stories from their friends or passed down from the older kid next door, but they also search them out. The information put out there often becomes the stepping stones for thrill seeker. Instead of a trickle whispered about, the information becomes a faucet, but this does not mean any of these sites or the producers of a ghost show are responsible.

There may truly be no blame. The folklore overrides the commonsense of the moment. Thinking educating teens, while a valuable endeavor in other respects, would have stopped this is like thinking teaching gun safety to gang members will stop drive-bys. In the moment there is only the story and something in us that we can only partly explain. It is the reason we watch scary moves or our minds wander during rainstorms. It is why we drive too fast on the highway at night or invent pastimes that call for us to throw ourselves off cliffs. The ghostly legend has its base in our very humanity, and you can’t put always put a warning on that.

The Angel of Hadley

When researching legends of Massachusetts, one will eventually come across the “Angel of Hadley”. The legend endures as part of our history, often quoted as fact, and has been used as the inspiration for stories by James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott and Nathaniel Hawthorn. Maybe it is because it links our present to the cold autumns and winters we spent struggling to establish a new colony. Maybe it is because it attacks our old enemies the Native Americans and speaks to our glorious triumph over them. Most likely it prevails because, like all good legends, it has all the elements of great fiction but claims to be true, and although it has been proven to be false by historical records and historians, it continues to show up in articles and published collections as being true.

The legend takes place on September 1, 1675 during King Phillip’s War. Most of the town of Hadley, at the time a little more than an outpost in the wilderness, was at church. The Wampanoag Indians attacked the town, catching them by surprise. They were disorganized and no match for the well prepared Natives until a stranger stepped forward and organized the troops. We was tall with a gray beard and hair and his military skills and paranormal appearance drove the natives back into the woods and turned the tide of the war. When the troops returned to the town, the stranger was gone, never to be seen again.

This story draws us in for different reasons. It informs us of our past and how we came to be a nation. There is also the draw of war and battlefield ghosts, and this helps justify the truth of the story. Battlefields are places of death and great sorrow, and if there was ever a place where the paranormal could happen, where ghosts could walk and remind us of the dead who gave their lives to the greater good, that would be it. Just look at the documentaries on television and the amount of literature this subject takes up.

More importantly, it reinforces our conflict and superiority over the Native Americans. Even though we were unprepared we prevailed. The appearance of the spectral general, godlike in features and voice and coming from nowhere, is like God himself tipping his cap to the settlers, a sort of divine intervention for his chosen people.

But there might be a supreme reason the tale prevails, which might be the best reason to excuse it as being false, more myth than history. Tracing back the legend one finds the very people from who’s lips and hands it came from being the same people who felt the strong pull to create local history to prove our independence from Britain. If you want to create national pride, create a rich history for oneself.

The legend goes deeper, however, and this is where the records conflict about the general’s appearance as well as the possible human who inspired it. One source says another source is wrong, while another reinforces the idea.

Erza Stiles wrote in 1794 of a man, very much human, who saved the town of Hadley. She claimed the man who led the troops that day was William Goff, a fugitive staying in the town with military skills and the kind of personality to assemble a army out of confusion. In 1648 Goff was a jurist in the trial of Charles I of England. Charles was overthrown and the Parliament accused him of crimes against the people. Goff was one of the people who signed his death warrant and the king was beheaded. Oliver Cromwell took over the country, but after his death Charles II came into power and sought revenge on those who had killed his father. Goff and another man hid out in England before sailing to the New World and hiding in parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut. One place he was rumored to stay was in John Russell’s house in Hadley.

Indeed, Russell had a hidden room in his house that could have been used to hide the outcast, but there is no report from either the town’s people or the local law of any such person being seen at all around town. It would have been almost impossible to hide the two men and there are conflicting reports. Some say that Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts at the time was the first to write of the story in his journal and then publish it and that other people picked up the story and continued to retell it until it became truth. It is said that Hutchinson, who allowed Goff to hide in Boston for a time, got the information directly from another source, but that source has never been found. Goff’s journal of his time has no reference to his helping the people, staying with Russell or a battle in Hadley.

In fact, there is no record of a battle even taking place.

The legend endures though, being published in Fate Magazine and in their collection of stories entitled Visions of Ghost Armies. There are other references to it in the official history of Hadley and Massachusetts as well as segments in television shows such as Sightings. The truth may never be fully known about what did or did not happen in Hadley in 1675, but over 225 years later its goal is still felt. It has become part of our collective history and part of the mystic of Massachusetts

The Haunted Schoolhouse

This is an older story of mine that I always considered an little piece of gold. I found it with the help of a librarian, and to this day I go back and forth on whether it should be considered a legend or a ghost story. It has a ghost, and a story for that matter, but falls into an older tradition. You can’t investigate it or prove anything, so what you are left with is an old story people believed in at the time but that has now been pushed to the shelf as tale. That to me seems like a definition of legend.  

I’ll let you decide.

The volunteer at the Newburyport library was sure the case had been a hoax.  Older people in town knew of the haunted house, or knew the old story of the dead child and class tortured for month by the odd winds, the voices and the floating arm.  The children had all seen the ghost of a boy in their classroom, but it had been disproved over one hundred, thirty years ago.  The case had been closed and the hoaxer had become infamous, but there was still a lingering doubt. 

In 1873, a twenty cent book was published entitled Expose of Newburyport Eccentricities, Witches and Witchcraft by someone calling himself H.P.  The small pamphlet included a story about a the ghost of a murdered boy who had come back to haunt the children of the school, and after its publication, the well known haunt became an open and closed case.  The truth, however, tells a slightly different story, and sometimes proving a fraud means having to ask more questions.  

By 1872, the Charles Street Schoolhouse had become a black spot of sorts for the community in Newburyport.  The building was falling apart and should have been remodeled decades before.  The heating system was ancient and the floors creaked when students thought about moving.  The drab color stuck out against the changing neighborhood, and most wished that it could be torn down.  

The school was a weigh station for the unwanted, “untidy”, students of the town and the leftovers from other communities.  They were the wayward urchins and the special needs kids of their time.  The sixty-three desks were always filled, rotating as pupils dropped out to work or because they had become bored.  

Lucy Perkins, the young teacher who accepted the job of instructing them, was known as an intelligent but sad woman.  She had worked at the school for two years, but when she was hired she was not told about the teachers before her.  The school committee kept why several teachers had quit suddenly.  

The children knew why.  

“The enemy to their public peace was supposed to be in the air, invisible, intangible and malignant, irregular but certain in its visits, and positive in it disturbances. “  

The schoolhouse was haunted.  In about 1860, a child had committed some “horrible” act in the school and had been given the appropriate punishment.  He was severely beaten and locked in the basement of the building.  He was left there the entire day and students were ordered to ignore his cries and moans.  When the school day ended he was helped home and died later that night.  The teacher, well within his rights as a disciplinarian, suffered no repercussions.  

While it is impossible now to say what the inhabitants of the school experienced in the next few years, the rumors say it was well known the place was haunted well before Ms. Perkins was hired.  She taught for two years without recording any negative instances, but late in 1871 things changed.  

The class was often made to suffer through 2-3 hours of knocks on the walls.  They came from the floor, from the ceiling, from the back wall and their own desks.  They often became so loud the students could not work.  A loud banging could be heard some days on the front door.  Several times Lucy tried to catch whoever was distracting her class, but there was never anyone there.  One days she opened the door and felt a person brush by her.  The children in the room also felt something enter the room and go by their faces.  

Doors would open and close by themselves.  A frustrated Lucy would lock the offending doors, but they would swing back open after she turned her back.  Clothes hanging from hooks in the back of the room would fall off.  Students suffered bad headaches and noises in their ears as atmospheric conditions in the room would changes dramatically from moment to moment.  A large vent located in the middle of the classroom was used to allow in fresh air.  It had a manual latch so heavy Lucy had to use all her strength to open it.  Sometimes the vent would open on its own or refuse to move no matter how she struggled.  

Lucy kept two bells on her desk to announce class and breaks throughout the day.  The bells would often ring by themselves in perfect time and in tones the bells should not have been able to make.  One time, during an outside break, one bell rang so loud all the kids lined up to reenter the building.  Lucy, outside and confused, unlocked the schoolhouse door to find the bell still on her desk and the room empty.  The children laughed, and she decided to start telling people what was going on.  

The school committee refused to hear her and most of the people in town believed she was crazy.  The story, however, was starting to attract attention to the town.  

Things intensified when the lights started.  While Lucy was conducting her class, a bright yellow light would appear through the window and remain shining “like the sun” for hours.  The light would come through almost everyday, even when the sky was overcast and there was no way the sun could be reflecting into the room.  

Once while Lucy was conducting her lesson, there were loud rappings from the attic.  She armed herself with a stick and took one of the young boys up with her to investigate.   The rapping was replaced by laughing as they climbed the stairs, but when they reached the top they found nothing.  As they searched the attic, they began to hear the same laughter below them on the bottom floor.  Running back down the stairs to try and nab the culprit, they found no one nearby and again heard the laughing upstairs.  

Until now the ghost had seemed playful and taunting but never really caused anyone harm.  It was a nuisance, but the class pressed on.   Then in 1872, the ghost finally took form.  The children began to see an oddly dressed boy standing outside looking in at them.  No matter how many times Lucy ran outside, she could never catch him.  The boy’s arm then started to appear inside of the room.  No one ever touched it, but they could see it floating in midair; the hand, arm and upper shoulder of a boy their age.     

In October things reached their peak.  The boy had already made several appearances to the children, but Lucy was finally able to see him for herself.  She described him as a boy of about thirteen with blue eyes and a sad mouth.  His clothes were of an older style and were brown and faded.  

Later that winter, the school committee finally decided to do something.  The whole town knew of the boy who had died fifteen years earlier and there was no silencing Lucy or redirecting the attention the town and its dilapidated schoolhouse was receiving.  They held séances over the next few months to try and contact the murdered boy and put him at ease.  The hauntings stopped, but most doubt it was communicating with the dead that caused peace to fall to the school.   

Historical research can be a tricky feat.  Old words can be translated and slang can be made understood, but euphemism is sometimes harder to nail down.  A prostitute becomes a woman of ill repute.  Alcoholism becomes a blackening of the gall bladder.  Lost to history is what people really thought of Edward De Lancy and his family.  

Edward lived near the haunted schoolhouse and his family was described as being eccentric and of “retired habits.”  He was said to be unsociable but with a good sense of humor and of “little sympathy with his local associates.”  Edward had received as a gift from a family member living in Europe some type of glass projection machine that could throw object far distances by catching the sun and then shining the trapped light.  He fiddled with smaller object before hearing of the odd noises in the school and the murdered boy.  He decided to project the image of a desolate schoolchild directly into the classroom, all the time laughing at the children down below.  

When the news came to light, Edward would entertain anyone who arrived at his house by throwing ghosts into the classroom and explaining the methods behind his practical joke.  The town considered the haunting solved, and as the author of the pamphlet writes, “Thus has Science given the world another proof of its power over the superstitions of the day.”  Nothing is said of what happens to the children or sad Lucy Perkins, but the case was lost to a locked file cabinet in the Newburyport Public Library.  The school is now a private residence and the latest owners report no loud noises, no odd laughter and no arm of a murdered boy hovering in their dining room.       

Questions still remain, however, and while Edward’s antics explain the most intense aspect to the haunting, they do not clarify all that happened in that schoolhouse.  While the atmosphere of the old building could have easily activated the imagination of the more undesirable students of the town, there was still Lucy Perkins and the other teachers who had quit the post.  There was no way Edward could have faked all of the haunting and never admitted to ever going near the school.  Rather the legend of the ghost and the murdered boy already existed and acted as his inspiration.  Someone might have been outside pounding on the walls when they heard it, but what about the laughing in the attic and mysterious bells that rang behind a locked door.   

What happened in the schoolhouse will never be fully explained.  Since the first unexplained cold spot, the town swept things under the rug and kept the truth locked inside the building.  People of the time did not want to face what might have been left behind by a boy beaten and left to die, but the story remains.  The school was once described as “dismal at best, and if built by the spectral-loving fraternity themselves for their special accommodations, it could not answer their purpose better.”  But the schoolhouse was more than just a prop or the backdrop to a story of tragedy, and if tragedy never rest, the murdered boy of the Charles Street Schoolhouse may never truly find peace.