Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bill Sketoe's Ghost: Alabama's "Hole that will Not Stay Filled"

Although the story has been known in the "Wiregrass Region" of South Alabama much longer, it developed a national fascination after it appeared as a chapter in noted writer Kathryn Tucker Windham's popular book, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. She called it the tale of the "hole that will not stay filled."

It is the story of Bill Sketoe. Or rather, the story of his ghost.

Although Mrs. Windham, using the information available to her at that time, wrote that Sketoe was a native of Spain, he actually was born in South Carolina in 1818. His father, however, was from Spain. Along with many other members of his family, he migrated down to Dale County, Alabama, during the years before the Civil War.

The exact details of the events leading up to his hanging are murky. Sketoe's family maintains that he was a Methodist minister and Confederate soldier who had hired a substitute to fill his place in the ranks of the Southern army while he came home to care for his sick wife. As the story goes, he was on his way back home from a visit to the county seat of Newton when he was taken prisoner, accused of being either a deserter or enemy of the South, and hanged by members of Captain Joseph Breare's cavalry company.

Taken to the river bank opposite Newton and placed in the back of a buggy or wagon, he had a noose placed around his neck with the other end attached to the limb of a post oak tree. Sketoe, however, was a tall man and when the whip was cracked on the backs of the horses and the buggy or wagon driven out from under him, he was able to keep himself alive because his toes touched the ground. To solve this situation, a wounded soldier in Breare's company used his crutch to dig out a hole under Sketoe's feet so he would hang and die.

For more than 100 years, for reasons that no one could explain, the hole mysteriously was swept clean each night. Many thought that the swinging feet of Bill Sketoe's ghost swept away any straw, sticks or other debris that fell into the hole. Others thought that a local resident kept the hole clean as a reminder of his friend's unfortunate death.

Whatever the case, the "hole that will not stay filled" became a major part of Alabama folklore. The real facts of the story are a bit different than the legend, which is common with such tales. To learn more about the ghost of Bill Sketoe and the true story of the events surrounding his death, please visit

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The White River Monster - Arkansas

One of the strangest and most enduring tales involves claims that a giant monster of some sort inhabits the White River in Arkansas.

The White River Monster first appeared in the press in 1912, when a party of timber workers spotted what they described as a giant 300 pound turtle on the bottom of the river downstream from Branson, Missouri. The claim led to considerable excitement in Branson and a party of sportsmen set out with ropes and other gear to try to capture the creature. The results of their expedition are not known.

The monster surfaced again 12 years later, near the town of Newport, Arkansas, but it was not until 1937 that it made its first huge splash. Hundreds of people flooded to the community in hopes of catching a glimpse of the monster after it was seen by Bramlett Bateman and workers on his farm in a deep eddy of the White River six miles below Newport. The local Chamber of Commerce made the most of the opportunity, spreading the news to newspapers far and wide, placing signs on highways and charging people 25 cents a head to look for the monster.

A former navy diver went into the river three times looking for the monster, joined once by a local resident who donned homemade diving gear made from an old gas tank, a rubber hose and a bicycle pump. The monster was not found.

Another major burst of publicity was generated in 1971 when sightings of the monster surged following a spell of high water.

What could it be? Theories range from a giant catfish to some kind of ocean creature that wandered off course to a prehistoric monster. Others less inclined to believe it is alive have suggested logs, masses of vegetation or a sunken boat that sometimes rises to the surface.

One thing is certain, over the last 100 years, the White River Monster has become an important part of the folklore and tradition of northeastern Arkansas. To learn more and see a possible photograph of the monster, please visit

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Bell Witch - Adams, Tennessee

One of the best known ghost stories in American history surrounds an old farm place near the Kentucky line northwest of Nashville, Tennessee.

The story of the Bell Witch has been loosely popularized in modern movies and literature (the movies "An American Haunting" and "The Blair Witch Project," for example). But the real story is much more interesting.

According to tradition in the Bell family, the haunting began in 1817 when strange incidents began to take place on the farm of John Bell. His family lived near the modern community of Adams, Tennessee, having settled there in 1804. As the story goes, the strange events started when Mr. Bell spotted a strange animal on the farm. It had the body of a dog and head of a rabbit, but escaped when he tried to kill it. Almost immediately, the family began to experience a series of strange and terrifying things.

As was the case with the Edgefield Ghost in South Carolina a few years later, the spirit terrorized the family with strange noises and voices and seemed to focus on John Bell and his young daughter, Betsy (Elizabeth). Unlike the Edgefield story, which was reported at the time of the events, the Bell Witch story does not seem to have appeared in print before the latter part of the 19th century, long after the alleged events.

To learn more about this unique Southern ghost story, please visit

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge - Florida

One of the most interesting Southern ghost stories revolves around an old iron bridge that spans the Chipola River a few miles north of the charming small city of Marianna, Florida.

Local legend holds that the area around the bridge is haunted by the ghost of a young woman who died long before the Civil War. As the story goes, she somehow got too close to an open fire on her wedding night and her beautiful gown burst into flame. She rushed from the house in panic and was so severely burned that she died a short time later.

Since then, according to the story, her ghost has been seen around Bellamy Bridge. Often at midnight and usually in the form of a glowing figure moving through the Chipola River swamps. Her grave is nearby.

It is a fascinating story and while the facts don't stand up to much real scrutiny, the real story is even more fascinating. The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge is a strange combination of 19th century reality and fantasy involving one of that era's most famous novelists.

To learn more, please visit Be sure to check out the photo of the ghost and also click the "True Story of the Ghost of Bellamy Bridge" link at the bottom of the page to read the detailed account of how the ghost story came about.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Springer Opera House: Georgia's Haunted Theater

The historic Springer Opera House dominates a city block in downtown Columbus and is one of the most beautiful buildings dedicated to the arts in Georgia. It also is reputedly one of the most haunted.

The Springer is unique because it opened in the midst of the turbulent Reconstruction Era as a tribute to culture and arts in a time of great violence. Over its long and storied history it has hosted such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Will Rogers, Edwin Booth, John Philip Sousa, Ethel Barrymore, William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It is a true landmark of Southern history and heritage and, if stories told around Columbus are to believe, at least one of the finest actors who performed there is still hanging around.

According to Columbus legend, the Springer Opera House is haunted by the playful ghost of noted 19th century actor Edwin Booth. Sort of the Brad Pitt or George Clooney of his day, Booth was one of America's most famous actors until a fateful day in 1865 when his brother, John Wilkes Booth, shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln.

The assassination forced the entire Booth family into self-imposed seclusion. But in the 1870s, as animosity over the assassination began to fade, Edwin Booth began an effort to salvage is career. As part of this move, he came to Columbus to perform "Hamlet" at the Springer Opera House. The performance was warmly received and did much to help Booth redeem his career.

Legend holds, though, that Edwin Booth promised to haunt the theater after his death until it staged a performance of "Hamlet" once again. Strange events began in the theater after Booth passed on from this world and continue to this day.

To learn more, please visit

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Edgefield Ghost: A 19th Century Poltergeist Incident in South Carolina

With Halloween approaching, I thought you might enjoy learning about some unusual Southern ghost stories over the next week or so.

Let me say first that everyone can make their own mind up about ghosts. My interest in them is totally from a historical perspective. I think old ghost stories are interesting bits of our culture as Southerners, especially those handed down from long ago.

Perhaps the best known such story of the early 19th century was the strange case of the Edgefield Ghost, so named because it appeared in the Edgefield District of South Carolina. The story dates back to 1829 and it was widely reported in America's newspapers that year.

In brief, the ghost first made its appearance when Isaac Burnett heard strange sounds near his one-room house in a rural area near what is now known as Sheppard's Crossroads, a small community about 15 miles northwest of the town of Edgefield. At first the voice imitated normal sounds heard around the farm, a spinning wheel, ducks or hens clucking. Over time, however, it began to communicate with members of the family.

The ghost took an unusual interest in Martha Burnett, the 10-year-old daughter of the homeowner. Unlike the other members of her family, however, Martha had no interest in communicating with the strange voice. In fact, the ghost terrified her. She consulted with a friend who recommended that she memorize a Bible scripture to repeat to the ghost any time it attempted to communicate with her. This led to a confrontation between the two, but the strategy worked.

Others, however, continued to communicate with the strange spirit. Among those who talked with it in 1828-1829 were a Baptist minister, a physician and a state legislator. One thing that quickly became apparent about the ghost was that it became angry and withdrew anytime someone mentioned Christianity or Jesus Christ.

To learn more about this bizarre and well-documented story, please visit

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

St. Simons Island, Georgia

Over the last few days I've been posting about some of the historic sites on St. Simons Island. This beautiful coastal island on the Georgia coast is one of the real jewels of the Golden Isles.

Connected to Brunswick by the Torres Causeway and located about halfway between Savannah, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida, St. Simons Island is a beautiful Southern setting noted for its ancient oak trees, historic sites and stunning waterfront.

The island was once the home of the Guale Indians who lived in the region when the first Spanish explorers arrived. The Spanish established missions in an effort to convert the Guale to Christianity and maintained control over the island for more than 100 often turbulent years.

By the early 1700s, however, the Spanish had withdrawn from the area although they still claimed Georgia as a possession of Spain. The English challenged this and during the 1730s sent Gen. James Oglethorpe to establish a colony in Georgia. Oglethorpe established Savannah and then looked south for a site to built a military settlement that would serve as a bulwark against any attack by the Spanish in Florida. He picked St. Simons Island.

The English built Fort Frederica and Fort St. Simons on the island and defended it against the Spanish at the Battles of Gully Hole Creek and Bloody Marsh in 1742.

The beautifully-designed English village of Frederica flourished for a time, but eventually faded when the military garrison was disbanded. Most of the town was destroyed by fire during the 1750s and only ruins remain today at Fort Frederica National Monument.

The island remained inhabited, however, and prospered under American control during the early 19th century. Today it is considered a beautiful resort area, noted for its charming and supposedly haunted lighthouse, numerous historic sites and much more. To learn more, please visit

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fort Frederica National Monument - St. Simons Island, Georgia

It is hard not to fall in love with the picturesque setting of old Fort Frederica.

Located on a bend of the Frederica River and looking out over poet Sidney Lanier's famed "Marshes of Glynn," the ruins of the old fort and associated English village still stand beneath massive oak trees draped in Spanish moss.

Now a national park area, Fort Frederica was once a powerful defensive position built by General James Oglethorpe in 1736 to defend his fledgling Georgia colony against attacks from the Spanish in Florida. Oglethorpe picked St. Simons Island because it commanded both the vital inland waterway leading up the Georgia Coast as well as one of the best deep water harbors between Savannah and the St. Johns River. The large island also offered decent lands for farming, a vital necessity for the support of any town established there.

Frederica's history is extremely rich. The powerful fort was the target of a Spanish campaign in 1742 that was turned back at the nearby Battles of Gully Hole Creek and Bloody Marsh. The success of English arms in these battles allowed the little English village established by Oglethorpe inside a stout wall of earth and timber to prosper for a time as one of the most successful settlements in Georgia.

The famed ministers Revs. Charles and John Wesley preached there in homes and beneath the natural arbors of the island. John Wesley is remembered today as the father of the Methodist Church, while Charles is best known for the many beautiful hymns he wrote, including "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

Time, however, eventually moved on past Fort Frederica. The garrison was disbanded, a move that was also the death blow for the town. Left in ruins by a fire during the 1750s, the site was eventually reclaimed by the lush forests of St. Simons Island.

Today visitors to the site can still see the ruins of Oglethorpe's original fortress and look out at the river over the barrel of what is thought to be one of his original cannon. Ruins of the barracks and other military structures also survive, but equally fascinating are the ruins of the homes of Frederica's citizens. In one of them a tavern keeper's wife attacked one of the Wesley brothers with her scissors, while in another trades were negotiated with hunters and chiefs of the Creek Nation. Archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of many of the homes and interpretive panels help visitors understand what went on in each.

To learn more, please visit

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Battle of Bloody Marsh - St. Simons Island, Georgia

Legend holds that on July 7, 1742, an expanse of saltwater marsh ran red with blood as English troops ambushed and drove back Spanish soldiers on St. Simons Island, Georgia.

The event has been remembered as the Battle of Bloody Marsh and the site is now preserved as a detached unit of Fort Frederica National Monument.

The real story of the fight at Bloody Marsh is a bit different, but still highly significant. English troops led by General James Oglethorpe had defeated a Spanish advance force earlier in the day at the smaller but actually bloodier Battle of Gully Hole Creek (see yesterday's post). When the Spanish forces withdrew down the island's Military Road following that encounter, Oglethorpe followed them. Recognizing that he would need additional men, the general put his company of Independent Highlanders and part of the 42nd Regiment of Foot into position along the edge of an area of woods looking out across the open marsh any Spanish advance would likely cross. He then started to the rear to speed up his reinforcements that were moving down the island from Fort Frederica.

By mid-afternoon, Spanish commander Governor Don Manuel de Montiano ordered additional troops forward to help his retreating advance make it back to his base at Fort St. Simons. Moving up the Military Road, they soon reached the open marsh covered by Oglethorpe's troops.

Although legend holds that the Spanish were caught by surprised and ambushed by the English, an eyewitness described them moving forward with shouts. This indicates they probably knew Oglethorpe's men were waiting and were launching an attack against them.

Additional support for this is provided by the fact that part of the English line collapsed in the face of the Spanish attack. At least three "squads" from the 42nd Regiment of Foot retreated in confusion, leaving the Highlanders along with some rangers and a few allied Indians. The story with the hard-fighting Highlanders was different. As they Spanish approached they fought with such fury that the battle quickly turned into a stalemate and finally an English victory when the Spanish ran out of ammunition and were forced to withdraw. While it is true that blood may have been seen running in the marsh, casualties were light.

The Battle of Bloody Marsh marked the end of the last major Spanish land campaign to retake the nation's lost lands in Georgia and South Carolina. Combined with the English victory at Gully Hole Creek earlier in the day, the engagement convinced Montiano that he could not overwhelm Oglethorpe with his land forces. He soon would withdraw back to St. Augustine leaving Georgia firmly and permanently in English possession.

To learn more, please visit

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Battle of Gully Hole Creek - St. SImons Island, Georgia

It is strange to consider today, but one of the most significant battles in the history of the South was actually a small skirmish fought at a place called Gully Hole Creek on St. Simons Island, Georgia.

The War of Jenkins' Ear (named for the severed ear of an English sea captain) was then underway between England and Spain. English troops, led by General James Oglethorpe, had invaded Florida but failed to take the powerful fort of Castillo de San Marcos at St. Augustine. In June of 1742, the Spanish retaliated when Governor Don Manuel de Montiano led a fleet of warships and an army of 5,000 men up the Georgia coast.

After forcing his way into St. Simons Sound past the guns of Fort St. Simons (see yesterday's post), Montiano began landing his army on St. Simons Island. Realizing that he was outnumbered, Oglethorpe executed a withdrawal up the island to Fort Frederica while Montiano occupied the now evacuated Fort St. Simons.

On July 7, 1742, the Spanish moved forward a force of around 200 troops and Indian auxiliaries, intending to take up a position near Fort Frederica from which they could launch an attack on the English post. This force was to prepare entrenchments for the main army, which would soon follow.

As the Spanish force was moving across the open marsh at Gully Hole Creek, a small stream about one mile south of Fort Frederica, they ran into Oglethorpe's scouts who engaged them while the General brought up a company of Independent Highlanders to join the resistance, while ordering other troops to follow.

The sudden counterattack stunned the Spanish, who fought fiercely but were soon forced to withdraw back down the island. Oglethorpe and his forces followed. The fight resulted in the deaths of 12 Spanish soldiers and the capture or wounding of a number of others. The English supposedly lost only a single man.

Remembered today as the Battle of Gully Hole Creek, the skirmish turned the tide of the campaign against the Spanish. It was followed later in the day by the Battle of Bloody Marsh (also on St. Stimons Island). Together the two skirmishes overawed the superior Spanish force and prevented them from making further land attempts against Fort Frederica.

The failure of the Spanish troops at Gully Hole Creek began a chain of events that unraveled the whole campaign. Montiano's dream of taking both Georgia and South Carolina back from the English would fail and, as a result, the Spanish forever lost their hold on both colonies. A large part of the South fell permanently under the influence of the English.

To learn more, please visit

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fort St. Simons - St. Simons Island, Georgia

A little known fort built by English troops under General James Oglethorpe in 1738, Fort St. Simons played an important role in the strangely named War of Jenkins' Ear.

Located on the southern tip of St. Simons Island, Georgia, where the St. Simons Lighthouse stands today, the bastioned fort was built to protect the island's harbor from attack by enemy warships - in specific those of the Spanish. The coast of Georgia had long been claimed by Spain, but Oglethorpe challenged that claim by planting the settlements of Savannah and Frederica directly on the contested lands.

Although Spain protested these settlements, it did not immediately move against them. It took the War of Jenkins' Ear (named for the body part of an English sea captain who was captured and had his ear severed by the Spanish) to bring about the campaign. When war was declared between England and Spain, Oglethorpe moved against the Spanish city of St. Augustine, Florida, but was unable to capture the powerful fort of Castillo de San Marcos.

Spanish Governor Don Manuel de Montiano retaliated two years later in 1742 by attacking Georgia with a powerful fleet and an army of 5,000 men. When he attacked, it was Fort St. Simons that stood in his way.

To learn more about the Spanish attack and the subsequent history of Fort St. Simons, please visit

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Lake Tenkiller - Oklahoma

Nestled in the hills of eastern Oklahoma, Lake Tenkiller is a stunning body of clear water that attracts visitors from around the nation.

This area of Oklahoma is as Southern as any in the nation. Part of the Cherokee Nation, this area was settled by members of that famed Indian nation who were forced west on the Trail of Tears during the 1830. They brought with them customs and names that also remain common in the lands they left behind in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas.

During the Civil War, control of this area was bitterly contested. As was the case in much of the South, the war in the Cherokee Nation was very much a "brother against brother" fight. Some of the Cherokee, led by Brig. Gen. Stand Watie, fought ferociously for the South, while others fought for the Union. Battles and skirmishes took place throughout the region and raiders destroyed homes, farms and settlements. Many innocents died.

In the bitter years following the war, outlaws from across the United States flooded into the hills of eastern Oklahoma, believing that the Indian Nations offered them sanctuary from the law. They preyed on Cherokee families and committed widespread acts of murder, robbery, theft, rape and vandalism. Judge Isaac Parker, the famed "Hanging Judge" of the Old West, was sent to Fort Smith to bring law and order to the region and his deputy marshals joined with Indian policemen in rounding up the outlaws and bringing them before the hanging judge in Fort Smith.

Lake Tenkiller today is a beautiful area that is popular for outdoor recreation, weekend getaways and vacations. To learn more, please visit