Remembering one of Doc Amiss’ Ghost Stories
Article of 9/29/2005

Telling ghosts stories was indeed something of an art and something to pass the time in “the old days,” and, from what has been remembered of Doc Amiss, he was one of the best story tellers around. In his “Home of the Birds” column from the May 9, 1930 issue of the Page News & Courier, Jacob R. Seekford recounted one story in particular.

“A real spook story”

“I must write about the great spook story told by Dr. Tom Amiss back in 1874 in the old Alma store.”

“Doc was a doctor in the army. He got a furlough to come home. The army was encamped down near Richmond. At the same time a friend, Jim Weasel Greene [like Doc Thomas Benjamin Amiss, also a Confederate surgeon] was furloughed and accompanied him.”

“Both started for Slate Mills, Va., the home of the Amiss family. They rode all day. Late in the evening, they came to a very swampy country. Only a house now and then. Clouds came over the sky and it looked like rain.”

“Doc said he came to a very old log house, stopped and called and found the house was vacant and rode on about a mile and came to a log house and called when a man came out. Doc asked the man if he could keep them over night. The man said he had a large family and would not have room. He then asked about the house they had just passed. The man said, ‘it is my house, but I could not live in it.’ He said about eight years before there had been a dance in that house and some of them fell out and four were shot and killed in the front room, and no one could live there any more. He said he had to leave the place and move to his present cabin.”

“Doc asked the distance to the next house. The man then told him he would come to a house occupied by very poor people about five miles up the road.”

“Then Doc asked if he could go back and stay at the old house. The man said, ‘You are welcome to go back and stay, cut corn and feed your horses and eat all the corn you want. I will give you an axe, some bread and salt. You can cut up some wood and make a fire in the front room.’”

“On getting back, Doc cut corn and feed for the horses and cut green wood and made the fire. Then both got supper and eat. Doc said his friend always carried a little Bible.”

“After supper Jim read several chapters, then making a bed on the floor out of some broom sedge, they lay down for a good night’s sleep, but about ten o’clock the spooks began to come in the shape of large cats, some as big as large dogs, about 25 or 30, some white, some black, some gray, and some yellow. All the spooks sang and danced. Finally, the spooks fell out and went to fighting. They kept up the racket until after midnight when a large man came down the steps with long white hair and beard. He called for order and told the spooks to go to their homes over in the grave yard and not come back until he let them know. Then the old man sat down and asked Doc and Jim Weasel Greene many questions. After telling them of a woman that had been killed in the old house, he said, ‘She may come here tonight, but if I meet her on my way back home in the graveyard, I will tell her not to come in tonight, Now I bid you farewell, sleep and take your rest.’ Of course everyone that heard Doc tell this spook story believed every word of it.”

Since we are on the eve of October, Doc Amiss’ story will be the first of several “haunting tales of Page County” that I will bring to life again in upcoming weeks. Both Jacob R. Seekford and Jacob H. Coffman gave a number of ghoulishly scary stories – all which I have recently “unearthed” from the dark and dusty vaults of the Page News & Courier. So, as E.G. Marshall used to say on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, “Until next time, pleasant dreams?”

Caroline & the Jack O’ Lantern
Article of 10/6/2005

For this week’s (seemingly) spooky tale, we glean portions of a story from the “Do You Remember” column that ran on January 24, 1939 in the Page News & Courier.

Setting a part of the scene – this story took place, in part, back in Ida Valley in the vicinity of the house known as “Mountain Home,” which sits along Rt. 628 (also known as Balkamore Hill Road). According to Jennie Ann Kerkhoff’s Old Homes of Page County, at this home resided John Brumback (1795-1877) and his family – the house having been built less than a year after John Brumback and Martha Elizabeth Thomas (1804-1893) had been married (December 1822).

In addition to the Brumback family there were also five slaves owned by John Brumback. Caroline was probably the oldest of these slaves, and the story from 1939 goes so far as to state that Caroline wore “a bandana handkerchief around her head and had only a few tufts of hair apparently driven in her skull.” However, it appears she probably wasn’t any older than John Brumback himself.

Nevertheless, the “Do You Remember” story reads:

“Caroline, like others of her race at that early time, believed in ghosts, spooks, jack o’ lanterns and that the latter could lead people anywhere when night came on and they danced and sputtered along boggy spots. Caroline on one occasion was sent by the Brumback family to clean fish along one of the branches near by at that time and still murmuring over its pebbly bed.”

As the story goes – the night was indeed dark! While Caroline “was scaling the fish, a jack o’ lantern, perhaps out on a lark, came dancing along nearby. . . . for a time she watched the ‘lantern,’ then was drawn irresistibly in its direction. At times she reached out her hand to grab the thing and in a second it was gone, taking ‘roundance’ and coming back, more bewitching each time. Finally, Caroline threw down her batch of half cleaned fish, tossed her butcher knife to one side and started following the will o’ the wisp, over ditches, through bramble brier patches, rocks and other obstructions. Caroline kept following the igneous fatuous as it took its way toward the top of Piney Mountain. At times Caroline was far behind, but she kept pressing on, grasping – the jack o’ lantern being her goal.” Apparently, Mr. Brumback, as the story goes, was “doubtless in bed and asleep” knowing assuredly that Caroline “would carry out the fish cleaning commission.” However, by morning, the story states that “Caroline had not put in an appearance” giving the Brumback family ample reason for concern, even “believing that a bear or panther had swooped down from the Blue Ridge and captured her. Recruits began to help the Brumback family in its search for Caroline. It was easy enough to take up the trail that Caroline had left from the spot where she abandoned the fish-cleaning job. The trail made an in and out path in the direction of Piney Mountain. Broken down briers, turned over rocks and flattened out grass made the direction she had gone easy to follow. When the first rays of the sun began to peep over the Blue Ridge the vanguards of the searching party found Caroline sound asleep in a pine needle patch. Her red bandana was gone, part only of her dress was clinging to her and she had lost both shoes in her wild pursuit of the jack o’ lantern. She was nervous and wanted to know where ‘Marse John’ had gone with his lantern the night before.”

To conclude this story and to put everybody’s minds to rest a bit about the thought of dancing and bewitching jack o’ lanterns, the author of the story from 1939 wanted to clarify that “To those who do not believe in jack o’ lanterns it must be stated that they abound in certain localities where the lands are marshy and swampy and they carry on such capers as the one that led Caroline astray more than one hundred years ago. In many sections of the deep south where the colored population in ante-bellum days was as numerous as the whites the latter often had trouble keeping their slaves from following the lanterns. They have been seen on many occasions in Page County and in the swampy sections of Mississippi they are perhaps as numerous as in the days before the War Between the States.”

Laying jack o’ lanterns aside, next week, we investigate a few additional scary (and a few not so scary) tales, including those about local witches.

Tales of Witches and Scary or Bizarre Happenings
in Page County,
Parts 1 – 2
Articles of 10/13/2005 – 10/20/2005

In February 1930, in his “Jacob’s Well” column, Jacob R. Seekford opened the subject of witches and ghosts in Page County when he responded to a student at the University of Virginia who was working on collecting folk stories. The student wrote:

“These stories are concerning those traditions and tales which circulated among the mountaineers and farmers in the rural and more isolated districts. Such stories are often told like the one about the haunted rocking chair in Pine Grove Hollow near Marksville and the old superstition about the Round Head mountain near Stanley, and I feel sure there must be many nice tales about Massanutten mountain.”

Seekford responded:

“The Haunted Rocking Chair of Pine Grove”

“Yes, I remember the rocking chair up in Pine Grove Hollow at the home of John Gray, who was a fine truthful man. I remember when people out at Alma went out to Mr. Gray’s home to see the chair rock when no one was near it. The room could be full of people and about nine o’clock at night, the chair would begin rocking and would rock for about fifteen minutes then stop and rock no more until the next night. That was a chair that caused a great deal of excitement in all parts of Page county on account of Mr. Gray’s prominence. After so many years the chair would not rock any more.”

“The Silver Mine of Round Head Mountain”

“Then the story about the silver mine in the Round Head Mountain. Only one person ever knew anything about the silver mine. That was old Joe Roadcap who lived on Mill Creek about six miles away. He would go up to the mine about once a month and go back home with his saddle pockets full of ore, then work it up in the blacksmith’s shop. Hundreds of people searched the mountain over to find the mine, but never could find it. Men came here from Indiana for this purpose.”

“The Mysterious Mine of the Massanutten”

“Then over in the Massanutten mountain, West of Alma was a place that no one could go to pick or shovel. You could go and look around if you had no tools to work with. The late Andrew Huffman and six or eight men went over one day to dig under a great flat rock and when all parties got within about fifty yards of the place a great wind began to blow and bent the tops of the trees near the ground. After that experience no one ever tried to dig for the hidden treasure supposed to be hidden by the Indians.”

“Spook Indians War Whoops Terrified Hunters”

“Then down on the North side of the river from Rileyville near the Massanutten mountain is the Indian grave ridge. On the ridge there is a flat place of about three acres. There is one grave about 100 feet long and about ten feet high, and one about thirty feet in diameter and about ten feet high. I always though these two mounds were monuments marking the place of holding court and a place of worship and probably many dances took place there. When men would go near this place to hunt at night and when the men or dogs would approach close hundreds of voices of Indians could be heard giving the Indian whoop. Not many huntsmen would go near the place.”

“Now About the Witches of Page County”

“When I was a boy sixty years ago I heard Granny and Grandpap tell about the witches around over the county. All of the witches were well known and were more spoken of than any other people. Down in the lower end of Page were witches who would put spells on men, women and babies. People would come up near Newport and bring the babies and parties that had been bewitched to the homes of old women who were witches and pay money to have the spell taken off. [According to Samuel Kercheval in his book A History of the Valley of Virginia (1833), these people were known by some as “witchmasters.”] One of the most dreaded witches lived in the upper end of Page. She was an old colored witch. Hundreds of people would go to her home and pay lots of money to have the spells taken off. Near Granny’s home lived a witch. One day some women went to her home to have a spell taken off. She had her dinner on the table. She told the women to sit up and ear but the women said, ‘We eat before we left home,’ and in a few minutes the table began to walk up where the women were sitting and the old woman said, ‘Now eat.’”

“Milked Mug of Milk out of the Towel”

“Then the women sat around the table and the old witch poured out the coffee. Then she put the coffee pot back and picked up a mug, and walked over where the towel hung and milked a mug full of milk out of the towel. At that time Page had twenty-three well known witches.” [This is in tune with something mentioned by Kercheval in his book: “Witches were often said to milk the cows of their neighbors. This they did by fixing a new pin in a new towel for each cow intended to be milked. This towel was hung over her own door, and by means of certain incantations, the milk was extracted from fringes of the towel after the manner of milking a cow. This happened when cows were too poor to give such milk.”]

“The Red-Headed Witch of Ingham”

“Up at Ingham lived a red-headed woman that all classes of people were afraid of. She was a witch and when she went to the store at Honeyville the people along the road would close up all the doors. Men working along the road would leave their work and go out in the fields. When people had to meet the witch almost all would give her a piece of money. She died about twenty-five years ago. All of the old time witches died years ago. No one now has the honor of being a witch. Many of the old witches would lose their husbands and most of them could talk with their dead. I have heard some of the old witches tell about talking to their husbands, most of whom had gone to rest. I knew of many of the old witches.”

Not long after Seekford’s front page article on witches, Jacob H. Coffman wrote of knowing about local witches as well.

“Seeing that my old friend Mr. Seekford has been telling you of old time ways and witches, I will tell you what I know about them.”

“I knew a woman in Page county that was always called a witch, and her real name was ‘Granny’ – who lived and owned what was later known as the Harvey Coffman place near Stanley, Va. There are a few people still living near Stanley that know of the old graveyard of this old today’s family just Southwest of Stanley, if it is there yet.”

“Whether she was a witch or not I cannot say but one thing I do not know, she kept a padlock on the windlass of her well so that people going to the mountains for huckleberries could not get water from the well. My father had moved from near Mauck in 1869, to the old lady’s neighborhood and as soon as an acquaintance had been formed, she invited our woman folks to call and spend the day, as was the custom of those days. My sister and sister-in-law called on them about 10 a.m. and soon drifted into a homelike entertainment when the old lady put on a bug pot of snitz and dumplings on the fire in a kettle handing on a chain, hanging down the chimney. After they had cooked and stewed for a few hours and things seemingly looked bright for a good old winter dinner, until about 2 o’clock the pot and contents were removed and placed in a corner besides the fire-place, so our women folks seeing their prospects vanish for a good dinner, they immediately left for dome and never called there again.”

“I knew some people who took babies to that old woman to have so-called ‘spells’ broken and cured. Again Mr. Seekford speaking of the old woman at Honeyville said all would take to the fields rather than pass her on the road. Well, I can see a lot of wisdom in that for it is often cheaper to run than part with a nickel.”

“Now in regard to the silver mine in the Round Head, near Stanley, Mr. Seekford has a slight error in this as he gives the name of the ‘silver miner’ as Joe Rothgeb when it should have been David Rothgeb, if the story told me by Frederick Judy, long since passed on, is correct. He told me that David Rothgeb would come to his home, put his horse in the stable and go up in the mountain, and, he never knew what time he would return, but in the morning his horse would be gone. Joe Campbell, of near Stanley, claimed to have found the Rothgeb mine, but after making arrangements to work at it he could never find it, although it was said to be in a few feet of a forked pine tree. I have seen that tree many times and could still locate the place, although the tree may have been cut away long ago. It is not far from the road and close to the Caleb Campbell well and near the corner of the Fred Judy land.”

“And, then again, Mr. Seekford says some people visiting a certain witch, and upon refusing to eat at the table it walked up to them and they were then told to eat, and while I am not doubting the above, I am thinking how much more fortunate were they than my people were at the ‘snitz and dumpling dinner.’”

On a historical note, while Coffman makes light of Seekford’s witch stories, Page County was quite “ripe” for such stories and beliefs over the years simply for the fact that its population was largely dominated quite early on by persons of Germanic descent, not to mention the lively beliefs in such things by persons of African descent in this locale. It is interesting to consider that many families who later immigrated to the area we now know as Page County, brought with them some of the same beliefs made even, perhaps, in the wake of Germany’s own witch hysteria. The first major “witch-hunt” actually took place in Switzerland as early as 1427 and later, with Germany at the “epicenter” of the European witch hysteria, at least 3,000 people were recorded to have been executed in that country between 1560 and 1680 for being accused of witchcraft. Considering the German language (albeit somewhat broken over time) survived in Page County well into the middle 1800s, so too did the traditions, customs and beliefs well into the very time in which both Coffman and Seekford were born.

Next week, we’ll make more of a turn toward stories about ghosts in Page County.

*The Marksville Undertaker and his Ghostly Client
Article of 10/27/2005

On two separate occasions, Page News & Courier columnist Jacob R. Seekford wrote of an account of a particular undertaker and his encounter with a ghost. The first mention of this was in 1930 and the second was in 1937. It is interesting to note that the story got a little better with age. The story as written in 1937 was certainly more interesting and much more detailed (and slightly altered at different points from the story from 1930).

Nevertheless, since the story from 1937 has so much more detail in it, we will use that version as the primary source for this week’s dispensing of the macabre.

Seekford opened:

“In this letter I am going back to 1867. At that time Sam [Samuel M.] Larkins lived out on the Hawksbill not far above the old Marksville Store, where Skeet Good now lives.”

Note that Samuel Larkins married Mary Jane Koontz in 1859 – she being a daughter of James Thomas Koontz and Jane Snyder.

“Mr. Larkins had a shop and made all kinds of furniture and coffins.”

“Mr. Larkins said, ‘One day a strange looking woman walked in my shop and I gave her a chair to sit on.’”

In 1930, Seekford’s story differed slightly when he said that Larkin encountered the ghostly woman after “going up in the mountain to bury an old woman and after the burying . . . just about dark, and when he got down in a dark hollow.”

But onward with the story from 1937.

“She said to him, ‘Do not be frightened when I tell you my story. Seventy odd years ago I died and was buried down here on the hill. I am not a human being. I am a spirit from the spirit world. I came here today to see you on some business. Not long after I died the Indians made a raid through this country. My father and mother left their home and went up in the Blue Ridge [Seekford said the “Roundhead mountain” in his story from 1930] to hide from them. They took shelter in a cave under a large flat rock. That night it got very cold and my father and mother froze to death. Their bones are in that cave, also the money that my father took with him. I want you to make a coffin and go up there and get all their bones and bring them down and bury them in the old grave yard by the side of my grave. For your trouble you can keep the money. Come outside your shop and I will show you where you can go and find the cave.”

“Mr. Larkins said that she promised to go and get the bones and the woman then turned to a shadow and he could see her fly away. He said that he was very much excited and called his friends in and told them the story. They all agreed to go with him and gather up the bones.”

“He made the coffin and soon one morning they put it in the wagon and started to the place that she had pointed out.”

“They drove as far as they could go up in the Ridge, they took the coffin out of the wagon and carried it up to the cave.”

“They had taken some fat pine along to make a light in the cave. Mr. Larkins lit the pine and started back in the cave when he got in about two steps he heard some rattling and he looked ahead and saw a pile of rattlesnakes bigger than a washing tub. He went out and told his friends what he had seen and all the rest of them one by one went in and saw the great piles of snakes. [In his story from 1930, Seekford made no mention of snakes but of a “great black animal’ that came to the mouth of the cave] Finally they all got deathly sick from the poison that the snakes had thrown out. They then stuck the coffin back in the cave and started down the mountain to their wagon. Mr. Larkins never went back any more.”

“Twenty years after that time old man Joe Campbell was up in the Ridge after chestnuts and he passed by the big flat rock and saw the coffin still in the cave.”

“Mr. Larkins was a Dunkard preacher and nobody ever doubted his story. This was the most exciting time that we ever had in this part of the country.”

“Fifteen years after that time Mr. Larkins left here, moved to Kansas and died there.”

A few weeks after the appearance of Seekford’s article in 1937, Jacob H. Coffman responded.

Coffman wrote:

“I am writing this time to see if I can straighten some kinks in some of the good letters in the dear old paper.”

“I read the story by Brother Seekford. I am speaking of the story of Sam Larkins and the shadow woman. Had it been of divine origin, would God not have known that the cave in the Blue Ridge was so full of poison snakes that no man could enter? Let us take a searching view of this tale of tales – First, we have the tale of the shadow woman and Sam Larkins, then the tale of the uprising of the Indians and how they fled to the cave in the mountains, that they took all their money with them and how they froze to death. Next comes the tale of Sam Larkins, how he was to make a coffin, go to the cave, get the bones, bring them out and bury them, all to which he consented. The money he might find with the bones was to compensate him for his work, but lo and behold he found it a den of rattle snakes, a bunch the size of a wash tub, no doubt 50 or more and it is only reasonable to believe all of the snakes had a tail. I have had quite a lot of business dealings with Sam Larkins but this story was all news to me.”

Well, that ends this years tales of ghosts, witches and jack o’ lanterns in Page County, but I promise there is much more to be told – just keep an eye out for new stories to come back around to these same old haunts again next October.


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