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Present at a Hanging and Other Ghost Stories

AT OLD MAN ECKERT’S


Philip Eckert lived for many years in an old, weather-stained wooden house about three miles from the little town of Marion, in Vermont.  There must be quite a number of persons living who remember him, not unkindly, I trust, and know something of the story that I am about to tell.

“Old Man Eckert,” as he was always called, was not of a sociable disposition and lived alone.  As he was never known to speak of his own affairs nobody thereabout knew anything of his past, nor of his relatives if he had any.  Without being particularly ungracious or repellent in manner or speech, he managed somehow to be immune to impertinent curiosity, yet exempt from the evil repute with which it commonly revenges itself when baffled; so far as I know, Mr. Eckert’s renown as a reformed assassin or a retired pirate of the Spanish Main had not reached any ear in Marion.  He got his living cultivating a small and not very fertile farm.

One day he disappeared and a prolonged search by his neighbors failed to turn him up or throw any light upon his whereabouts or whyabouts.  Nothing indicated preparation to leave: all was as he might have left it to go to the spring for a bucket of water.  For a few weeks little else was talked of in that region; then “old man Eckert” became a village tale for the ear of the stranger.  I do not know what was done regarding his property - the correct legal thing, doubtless.  The house was standing, still vacant and conspicuously unfit, when I last heard of it, some twenty years afterward.

Of course it came to be considered “haunted,” and the customary tales were told of moving lights, dolorous sounds and startling apparitions.  At one time, about five years after the disappearance, these stories of the supernatural became so rife, or through some attesting circumstances seemed so important, that some of Marion’s most serious citizens deemed it well to investigate, and to that end arranged for a night session on the premises.  The parties to this undertaking were John Holcomb, an apothecary; Wilson Merle, a lawyer, and Andrus C. Palmer, the teacher of the public school, all men of consequence and repute.  They were to meet at Holcomb’s house at eight o’clock in the evening of the appointed day and go together to the scene of their vigil, where certain arrangements for their comfort, a provision of fuel and the like, for the season was winter, had been already made.

Palmer did not keep the engagement, and after waiting a half-hour for him the others went to the Eckert house without him.  They established themselves in the principal room, before a glowing fire, and without other light than it gave, awaited events.  It had been agreed to speak as little as possible: they did not even renew the exchange of views regarding the defection of Palmer, which had occupied their minds on the way.

Probably an hour had passed without incident when they heard (not without emotion, doubtless) the sound of an opening door in the rear of the house, followed by footfalls in the room adjoining that in which they sat.  The watchers rose to their feet, but stood firm, prepared for whatever might ensue.  A long silence followed - how long neither would afterward undertake to say.  Then the door between the two rooms opened and a man entered.

It was Palmer.  He was pale, as if from excitement - as pale as the others felt themselves to be.  His manner, too, was singularly distrait: he neither responded to their salutations nor so much as looked at them, but walked slowly across the room in the light of the failing fire and opening the front door passed out into the darkness.

It seems to have been the first thought of both men that Palmer was suffering from fright - that something seen, heard or imagined in the back room had deprived him of his senses.  Acting on the same friendly impulse both ran after him through the open door.  But neither they nor anyone ever again saw or heard of Andrus Palmer!

This much was ascertained the next morning.  During the session of Messrs. Holcomb and Merle at the “haunted house” a new snow had fallen to a depth of several inches upon the old.  In this snow Palmer’s trail from his lodging in the village to the back door of the Eckert house was conspicuous.  But there it ended: from the front door nothing led away but the tracks of the two men who swore that he preceded them.  Palmer’s disappearance was as complete as that of “old man Eckert” himself - whom, indeed, the editor of the local paper somewhat graphically accused of having “reached out and pulled him in.”



THE SPOOK HOUSE



On the road leading north from Manchester, in eastern Kentucky, to Booneville, twenty miles away, stood, in 1862, a wooden plantation house of a somewhat better quality than most of the dwellings in that region.  The house was destroyed by fire in the year following - probably by some stragglers from the retreating column of General George W. Morgan, when he was driven from Cumberland Gap to the Ohio river by General Kirby Smith.  At the time of its destruction, it had for four or five years been vacant.  The fields about it were overgrown with brambles, the fences gone, even the few negro quarters, and out-houses generally, fallen partly into ruin by neglect and pillage; for the negroes and poor whites of the vicinity found in the building and fences an abundant supply of fuel, of which they availed themselves without hesitation, openly and by daylight.  By daylight alone; after nightfall no human being except passing strangers ever went near the place.

It was known as the “Spook House.”  That it was tenanted by evil spirits, visible, audible and active, no one in all that region doubted any more than he doubted what he was told of Sundays by the traveling preacher.  Its owner’s opinion of the matter was unknown; he and his family had disappeared one night and no trace of them had ever been found.  They left everything - household goods, clothing, provisions, the horses in the stable, the cows in the field, the negroes in the quarters - all as it stood; nothing was missing - except a man, a woman, three girls, a boy and a babe!  It was not altogether surprising that a plantation where seven human beings could be simultaneously effaced and nobody the wiser should be under some suspicion.

One night in June, 1859, two citizens of Frankfort, Col. J. C. McArdle, a lawyer, and Judge Myron Veigh, of the State Militia, were driving from Booneville to Manchester.  Their business was so important that they decided to push on, despite the darkness and the mutterings of an approaching storm, which eventually broke upon them just as they arrived opposite the “Spook House.”  The lightning was so incessant that they easily found their way through the gateway and into a shed, where they hitched and unharnessed their team.  They then went to the house, through the rain, and knocked at all the doors without getting any response.  Attributing this to the continuous uproar of the thunder they pushed at one of the doors, which yielded.  They entered without further ceremony and closed the door.  That instant they were in darkness and silence.  Not a gleam of the lightning’s unceasing blaze penetrated the windows or crevices; not a whisper of the awful tumult without reached them there.  It was as if they had suddenly been stricken blind and deaf, and McArdle afterward said that for a moment he believed himself to have been killed by a stroke of lightning as he crossed the threshold.  The rest of this adventure can as well be related in his own words, from the Frankfort Advocate of August 6, 1876:

“When I had somewhat recovered from the dazing effect of the transition from uproar to silence, my first impulse was to reopen the door which I had closed, and from the knob of which I was not conscious of having removed my hand; I felt it distinctly, still in the clasp of my fingers.  My notion was to ascertain by stepping again into the storm whether I had been deprived of sight and hearing.  I turned the doorknob and pulled open the door.  It led into another room!

“This apartment was suffused with a faint greenish light, the source of which I could not determine, making everything distinctly visible, though nothing was sharply defined.  Everything, I say, but in truth the only objects within the blank stone walls of that room were human corpses.  In number they were perhaps eight or ten - it may well be understood that I did not truly count them.  They were of different ages, or rather sizes, from infancy up, and of both sexes.  All were prostrate on the floor, excepting one, apparently a young woman, who sat up, her back supported by an angle of the wall.  A babe was clasped in the arms of another and older woman.  A half-grown lad lay face downward across the legs of a full-bearded man.  One or two were nearly naked, and the hand of a young girl held the fragment of a gown which she had torn open at the breast.  The bodies were in various stages of decay, all greatly shrunken in face and figure.  Some were but little more than skeletons.

“While I stood stupefied with horror by this ghastly spectacle and still holding open the door, by some unaccountable perversity my attention was diverted from the shocking scene and concerned itself with trifles and details.  Perhaps my mind, with an instinct of self-preservation, sought relief in matters which would relax its dangerous tension.  Among other things, I observed that the door that I was holding open was of heavy iron plates, riveted.  Equidistant from one another and from the top and bottom, three strong bolts protruded from the beveled edge.  I turned the knob and they were retracted flush with the edge; released it, and they shot out.  It was a spring lock.  On the inside there was no knob, nor any kind of projection - a smooth surface of iron.

“While noting these things with an interest and attention which it now astonishes me to recall I felt myself thrust aside, and Judge Veigh, whom in the intensity and vicissitudes of my feelings I had altogether forgotten, pushed by me into the room.  ‘For God’s sake,’ I cried, ‘do not go in there!  Let us get out of this dreadful place!’

“He gave no heed to my entreaties, but (as fearless a gentleman as lived in all the South) walked quickly to the center of the room, knelt beside one of the bodies for a closer examination and tenderly raised its blackened and shriveled head in his hands.  A strong disagreeable odor came through the doorway, completely overpowering me.  My senses reeled; I felt myself falling, and in clutching at the edge of the door for support pushed it shut with a sharp click!

“I remember no more: six weeks later I recovered my reason in a hotel at Manchester, whither I had been taken by strangers the next day.  For all these weeks I had suffered from a nervous fever, attended with constant delirium.  I had been found lying in the road several miles away from the house; but how I had escaped from it to get there I never knew.  On recovery, or as soon as my physicians permitted me to talk, I inquired the fate of Judge Veigh, whom (to quiet me, as I now know) they represented as well and at home.

“No one believed a word of my story, and who can wonder?  And who can imagine my grief when, arriving at my home in Frankfort two months later, I learned that Judge Veigh had never been heard of since that night?  I then regretted bitterly the pride which since the first few days after the recovery of my reason had forbidden me to repeat my discredited story and insist upon its truth.

“With all that afterward occurred - the examination of the house; the failure to find any room corresponding to that which I have described; the attempt to have me adjudged insane, and my triumph over my accusers - the readers of the Advocate are familiar.  After all these years I am still confident that excavations which I have neither the legal right to undertake nor the wealth to make would disclose the secret of the disappearance of my unhappy friend, and possibly of the former occupants and owners of the deserted and now destroyed house.  I do not despair of yet bringing about such a search, and it is a source of deep grief to me that it has been delayed by the undeserved hostility and unwise incredulity of the family and friends of the late Judge Veigh.”

Colonel McArdle died in Frankfort on the thirteenth day of December, in the year 1879.



THE OTHER LODGERS



“In order to take that train,” said Colonel Levering, sitting in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, “you will have to remain nearly all night in Atlanta.  That is a fine city, but I advise you not to put up at the Breathitt House, one of the principal hotels.  It is an old wooden building in urgent need of repairs.  There are breaches in the walls that you could throw a cat through.  The bedrooms have no locks on the doors, no furniture but a single chair in each, and a bedstead without bedding - just a mattress.  Even these meager accommodations you cannot be sure that you will have in monopoly; you must take your chance of being stowed in with a lot of others.  Sir, it is a most abominable hotel.

“The night that I passed in it was an uncomfortable night.  I got in late and was shown to my room on the ground floor by an apologetic night-clerk with a tallow candle, which he considerately left with me.  I was worn out by two days and a night of hard railway travel and had not entirely recovered from a gunshot wound in the head, received in an altercation.  Rather than look for better quarters I lay down on the mattress without removing my clothing and fell asleep.

“Along toward morning I awoke.  The moon had risen and was shining in at the uncurtained window, illuminating the room with a soft, bluish light which seemed, somehow, a bit spooky, though I dare say it had no uncommon quality; all moonlight is that way if you will observe it.  Imagine my surprise and indignation when I saw the floor occupied by at least a dozen other lodgers!  I sat up, earnestly damning the management of that unthinkable hotel, and was about to spring from the bed to go and make trouble for the night-clerk - him of the apologetic manner and the tallow candle - when something in the situation affected me with a strange indisposition to move.  I suppose I was what a story-writer might call ‘frozen with terror.’  For those men were obviously all dead!

“They lay on their backs, disposed orderly along three sides of the room, their feet to the walls - against the other wall, farthest from the door, stood my bed and the chair.  All the faces were covered, but under their white cloths the features of the two bodies that lay in the square patch of moonlight near the window showed in sharp profile as to nose and chin.

“I thought this a bad dream and tried to cry out, as one does in a nightmare, but could make no sound.  At last, with a desperate effort I threw my feet to the floor and passing between the two rows of clouted faces and the two bodies that lay nearest the door, I escaped from the infernal place and ran to the office.  The night-clerk was there, behind the desk, sitting in the dim light of another tallow candle - just sitting and staring.  He did not rise: my abrupt entrance produced no effect upon him, though I must have looked a veritable corpse myself.  It occurred to me then that I had not before really observed the fellow.  He was a little chap, with a colorless face and the whitest, blankest eyes I ever saw.  He had no more expression than the back of my hand.  His clothing was a dirty gray.

“‘Damn you!’ I said; ‘what do you mean?’

“Just the same, I was shaking like a leaf in the wind and did not recognize my own voice.

“The night-clerk rose, bowed (apologetically) and - well, he was no longer there, and at that moment I felt a hand laid upon my shoulder from behind.  Just fancy that if you can!  Unspeakably frightened, I turned and saw a portly, kind-faced gentleman, who asked:

“‘What is the matter, my friend?’

“I was not long in telling him, but before I made an end of it he went pale himself.  ‘See here,’ he said, ‘are you telling the truth?’

“I had now got myself in hand and terror had given place to indignation.  ‘If you dare to doubt it,’ I said, ‘I’ll hammer the life out of you!’

“‘No,’ he replied, ‘don’t do that; just sit down till I tell you.  This is not a hotel.  It used to be; afterward it was a hospital.  Now it is unoccupied, awaiting a tenant.  The room that you mention was the dead-room - there were always plenty of dead.  The fellow that you call the night-clerk used to be that, but later he booked the patients as they were brought in.  I don’t understand his being here.  He has been dead a few weeks.’

“‘And who are you?’ I blurted out.

“‘Oh, I look after the premises.  I happened to be passing just now, and seeing a light in here came in to investigate.  Let us have a look into that room,’ he added, lifting the sputtering candle from the desk.

“‘I’ll see you at the devil first!’ said I, bolting out of the door into the street.

“Sir, that Breathitt House, in Atlanta, is a beastly place!  Don’t you stop there.”

“God forbid!  Your account of it certainly does not suggest comfort.  By the way, Colonel, when did all that occur?”

“In September, 1864 - shortly after the siege.”



THE THING AT NOLAN



To the south of where the road between Leesville and Hardy, in the State of Missouri, crosses the east fork of May Creek stands an abandoned house.  Nobody has lived in it since the summer of 1879, and it is fast going to pieces.  For some three years before the date mentioned above, it was occupied by the family of Charles May, from one of whose ancestors the creek near which it stands took its name.

Mr. May’s family consisted of a wife, an adult son and two young girls.  The son’s name was John - the names of the daughters are unknown to the writer of this sketch.

John May was of a morose and surly disposition, not easily moved to anger, but having an uncommon gift of sullen, implacable hate.  His father was quite otherwise; of a sunny, jovial disposition, but with a quick temper like a sudden flame kindled in a wisp of straw, which consumes it in a flash and is no more.  He cherished no resentments, and his anger gone, was quick to make overtures for reconciliation.  He had a brother living near by who was unlike him in respect of all this, and it was a current witticism in the neighborhood that John had inherited his disposition from his uncle.

One day a misunderstanding arose between father and son, harsh words ensued, and the father struck the son full in the face with his fist.  John quietly wiped away the blood that followed the blow, fixed his eyes upon the already penitent offender and said with cold composure, “You will die for that.”

The words were overheard by two brothers named Jackson, who were approaching the men at the moment; but seeing them engaged in a quarrel they retired, apparently unobserved.  Charles May afterward related the unfortunate occurrence to his wife and explained that he had apologized to the son for the hasty blow, but without avail; the young man not only rejected his overtures, but refused to withdraw his terrible threat.  Nevertheless, there was no open rupture of relations: John continued living with the family, and things went on very much as before.

One Sunday morning in June, 1879, about two weeks after what has been related, May senior left the house immediately after breakfast, taking a spade.  He said he was going to make an excavation at a certain spring in a wood about a mile away, so that the cattle could obtain water.  John remained in the house for some hours, variously occupied in shaving himself, writing letters and reading a newspaper.  His manner was very nearly what it usually was; perhaps he was a trifle more sullen and surly.

At two o’clock he left the house.  At five, he returned.  For some reason not connected with any interest in his movements, and which is not now recalled, the time of his departure and that of his return were noted by his mother and sisters, as was attested at his trial for murder.  It was observed that his clothing was wet in spots, as if (so the prosecution afterward pointed out) he had been removing blood-stains from it.  His manner was strange, his look wild.  He complained of illness, and going to his room took to his bed.

May senior did not return.  Later that evening the nearest neighbors were aroused, and during that night and the following day a search was prosecuted through the wood where the spring was.  It resulted in little but the discovery of both men’s footprints in the clay about the spring.  John May in the meantime had grown rapidly worse with what the local physician called brain fever, and in his delirium raved of murder, but did not say whom he conceived to have been murdered, nor whom he imagined to have done the deed.  But his threat was recalled by the brothers Jackson and he was arrested on suspicion and a deputy sheriff put in charge of him at his home.  Public opinion ran strongly against him and but for his illness he would probably have been hanged by a mob.  As it was, a meeting of the neighbors was held on Tuesday and a committee appointed to watch the case and take such action at any time as circumstances might seem to warrant.

On Wednesday all was changed.  From the town of Nolan, eight miles away, came a story which put a quite different light on the matter.  Nolan consisted of a school house, a blacksmith’s shop, a “store” and a half-dozen dwellings.  The store was kept by one Henry Odell, a cousin of the elder May.  On the afternoon of the Sunday of May’s disappearance Mr. Odell and four of his neighbors, men of credibility, were sitting in the store smoking and talking.  It was a warm day; and both the front and the back door were open.  At about three o’clock Charles May, who was well known to three of them, entered at the front door and passed out at the rear.  He was without hat or coat.  He did not look at them, nor return their greeting, a circumstance which did not surprise, for he was evidently seriously hurt.  Above the left eyebrow was a wound - a deep gash from which the blood flowed, covering the whole left side of the face and neck and saturating his light-gray shirt.  Oddly enough, the thought uppermost in the minds of all was that he had been fighting and was going to the brook directly at the back of the store, to wash himself.

Perhaps there was a feeling of delicacy - a backwoods etiquette which restrained them from following him to offer assistance; the court records, from which, mainly, this narrative is drawn, are silent as to anything but the fact.  They waited for him to return, but he did not return.

Bordering the brook behind the store is a forest extending for six miles back to the Medicine Lodge Hills.  As soon as it became known in the neighborhood of the missing man’s dwelling that he had been seen in Nolan there was a marked alteration in public sentiment and feeling.  The vigilance committee went out of existence without the formality of a resolution.  Search along the wooded bottom lands of May Creek was stopped and nearly the entire male population of the region took to beating the bush about Nolan and in the Medicine Lodge Hills.  But of the missing man no trace was found.

One of the strangest circumstances of this strange case is the formal indictment and trial of a man for murder of one whose body no human being professed to have seen - one not known to be dead.  We are all more or less familiar with the vagaries and eccentricities of frontier law, but this instance, it is thought, is unique.  However that may be, it is of record that on recovering from his illness John May was indicted for the murder of his missing father.  Counsel for the defense appears not to have demurred and the case was tried on its merits.  The prosecution was spiritless and perfunctory; the defense easily established - with regard to the deceased - an alibi.  If during the time in which John May must have killed Charles May, if he killed him at all, Charles May was miles away from where John May must have been, it is plain that the deceased must have come to his death at the hands of someone else.

John May was acquitted, immediately left the country, and has never been heard of from that day.  Shortly afterward his mother and sisters removed to St. Louis.  The farm having passed into the possession of a man who owns the land adjoining, and has a dwelling of his own, the May house has ever since been vacant, and has the somber reputation of being haunted.

One day after the May family had left the country, some boys, playing in the woods along May Creek, found concealed under a mass of dead leaves, but partly exposed by the rooting of hogs, a spade, nearly new and bright, except for a spot on one edge, which was rusted and stained with blood.  The implement had the initials C. M. cut into the handle.

This discovery renewed, in some degree, the public excitement of a few months before.  The earth near the spot where the spade was found was carefully examined, and the result was the finding of the dead body of a man.  It had been buried under two or three feet of soil and the spot covered with a layer of dead leaves and twigs.  There was but little decomposition, a fact attributed to some preservative property in the mineral-bearing soil.

Above the left eyebrow was a wound - a deep gash from which blood had flowed, covering the whole left side of the face and neck and saturating the light-gray shirt.  The skull had been cut through by the blow.  The body was that of Charles May.

But what was it that passed through Mr. Odell’s store at Nolan?


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