Present at a Hanging (2 of 2)

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Present at a Hanging and Other Ghost Stories by Ambrose Bierce
For many years there lived near the town of Gallipolis, Ohio, an old
man named Herman Deluse. Very little was known of his history, for
he would neither speak of it himself nor suffer others. It was a
common belief among his neighbors that he had been a pirate—if upon
any better evidence than his collection of boarding pikes,
cutlasses, and ancient flintlock pistols, no one knew. He lived
entirely alone in a small house of four rooms, falling rapidly into
decay and never repaired further than was required by the weather.
It stood on a slight elevation in the midst of a large, stony field
overgrown with brambles, and cultivated in patches and only in the
most primitive way. It was his only visible property, but could
hardly have yielded him a living, simple and few as were his wants.
He seemed always to have ready money, and paid cash for all his
purchases at the village stores roundabout, seldom buying more than
two or three times at the same place until after the lapse of a
considerable time. He got no commendation, however, for this
equitable distribution of his patronage; people were disposed to
regard it as an ineffectual attempt to conceal his possession of so
much money. That he had great hoards of ill-gotten gold buried
somewhere about his tumble-down dwelling was not reasonably to be
doubted by any honest soul conversant with the facts of local
tradition and gifted with a sense of the fitness of things.
On the 9th of November, 1867, the old man died; at least his dead
body was discovered on the 10th, and physicians testified that death
had occurred about twenty-four hours previously—precisely how, they
were unable to say; for the post-mortem examination showed every
organ to be absolutely healthy, with no indication of disorder or
violence. According to them, death must have taken place about
noonday, yet the body was found in bed. The verdict of the
coroner's jury was that he "came to his death by a visitation of
God." The body was buried and the public administrator took charge
of the estate.
A rigorous search disclosed nothing more than was already known
about the dead man, and much patient excavation here and there about
the premises by thoughtful and thrifty neighbors went unrewarded.
The administrator locked up the house against the time when the
property, real and personal, should be sold by law with a view to
defraying, partly, the expenses of the sale.
The night of November 20 was boisterous. A furious gale stormed
across the country, scourging it with desolating drifts of sleet.
Great trees were torn from the earth and hurled across the roads.
So wild a night had never been known in all that region, but toward
morning the storm had blown itself out of breath and day dawned
bright and clear. At about eight o'clock that morning the Rev.
Henry Galbraith, a well-known and highly esteemed Lutheran minister,
arrived on foot at his house, a mile and a half from the Deluse
place. Mr. Galbraith had been for a month in Cincinnati. He had
come up the river in a steamboat, and landing at Gallipolis the
previous evening had immediately obtained a horse and buggy and set
out for home. The violence of the storm had delayed him over night,
and in the morning the fallen trees had compelled him to abandon his
conveyance and continue his journey afoot.
"But where did you pass the night?" inquired his wife, after he had
briefly related his adventure.
"With old Deluse at the 'Isle of Pines,'" {1} was the laughing
reply; "and a glum enough time I had of it. He made no objection to
my remaining, but not a word could I get out of him."
Fortunately for the interests of truth there was present at this
conversation Mr. Robert Mosely Maren, a lawyer and litterateur of
Columbus, the same who wrote the delightful "Mellowcraft Papers."
Noting, but apparently not sharing, the astonishment caused by Mr.
Galbraith's answer this ready-witted person checked by a gesture the
exclamations that would naturally have followed, and tranquilly
inquired: "How came you to go in there?"
This is Mr. Maren's version of Mr. Galbraith's reply:
"I saw a light moving about the house, and being nearly blinded by
the sleet, and half frozen besides, drove in at the gate and put up
my horse in the old rail stable, where it is now. I then rapped at
the door, and getting no invitation went in without one. The room
was dark, but having matches I found a candle and lit it. I tried
to enter the adjoining room, but the door was fast, and although I
heard the old man's heavy footsteps in there he made no response to
my calls. There was no fire on the hearth, so I made one and laying
[sic] down before it with my overcoat under my head, prepared myself
for sleep. Pretty soon the door that I had tried silently opened
and the old man came in, carrying a candle. I spoke to him
pleasantly, apologizing for my intrusion, but he took no notice of
me. He seemed to be searching for something, though his eyes were
unmoved in their sockets. I wonder if he ever walks in his sleep.
He took a circuit a part of the way round the room, and went out the
same way he had come in. Twice more before I slept he came back
into the room, acting precisely the same way, and departing as at
first. In the intervals I heard him tramping all over the house,
his footsteps distinctly audible in the pauses of the storm. When I
woke in the morning he had already gone out."
Mr. Maren attempted some further questioning, but was unable longer
to restrain the family's tongues; the story of Deluse's death and
burial came out, greatly to the good minister's astonishment.
"The explanation of your adventure is very simple," said Mr. Maren.
"I don't believe old Deluse walks in his sleep—not in his present
one; but you evidently dream in yours."
And to this view of the matter Mr. Galbraith was compelled
reluctantly to assent.
Nevertheless, a late hour of the next night found these two
gentlemen, accompanied by a son of the minister, in the road in
front of the old Deluse house. There was a light inside; it
appeared now at one window and now at another. The three men
advanced to the door. Just as they reached it there came from the
interior a confusion of the most appalling sounds—the clash of
weapons, steel against steel, sharp explosions as of firearms,
shrieks of women, groans and the curses of men in combat! The
investigators stood a moment, irresolute, frightened. Then Mr.
Galbraith tried the door. It was fast. But the minister was a man
of courage, a man, moreover, of Herculean strength. He retired a
pace or two and rushed against the door, striking it with his right
shoulder and bursting it from the frame with a loud crash. In a
moment the three were inside. Darkness and silence! The only sound
was the beating of their hearts.
Mr. Maren had provided himself with matches and a candle. With some
difficulty, begotten of his excitement, he made a light, and they
proceeded to explore the place, passing from room to room.
Everything was in orderly arrangement, as it had been left by the
sheriff; nothing had been disturbed. A light coating of dust was
everywhere. A back door was partly open, as if by neglect, and
their first thought was that the authors of the awful revelry might
have escaped. The door was opened, and the light of the candle
shone through upon the ground. The expiring effort of the previous
night's storm had been a light fall of snow; there were no
footprints; the white surface was unbroken. They closed the door
and entered the last room of the four that the house contained—that
farthest from the road, in an angle of the building. Here the
candle in Mr. Maren's hand was suddenly extinguished as by a draught
of air. Almost immediately followed the sound of a heavy fall.
When the candle had been hastily relighted young Mr. Galbraith was
seen prostrate on the floor at a little distance from the others.
He was dead. In one hand the body grasped a heavy sack of coins,
which later examination showed to be all of old Spanish mintage.
Directly over the body as it lay, a board had been torn from its
fastenings in the wall, and from the cavity so disclosed it was
evident that the bag had been taken.
Another inquest was held: another post-mortem examination failed to
reveal a probable cause of death. Another verdict of "the
visitation of God" left all at liberty to form their own
conclusions. Mr. Maren contended that the young man died of
Henry Saylor, who was killed in Covington, in a quarrel with Antonio
Finch, was a reporter on the Cincinnati Commercial. In the year
1859 a vacant dwelling in Vine street, in Cincinnati, became the
center of a local excitement because of the strange sights and
sounds said to be observed in it nightly. According to the
testimony of many reputable residents of the vicinity these were
inconsistent with any other hypothesis than that the house was
haunted. Figures with something singularly unfamiliar about them
were seen by crowds on the sidewalk to pass in and out. No one
could say just where they appeared upon the open lawn on their way
to the front door by which they entered, nor at exactly what point
they vanished as they came out; or, rather, while each spectator was
positive enough about these matters, no two agreed. They were all
similarly at variance in their descriptions of the figures
themselves. Some of the bolder of the curious throng ventured on
several evenings to stand upon the doorsteps to intercept them, or
failing in this, get a nearer look at them. These courageous men,
it was said, were unable to force the door by their united strength,
and always were hurled from the steps by some invisible agency and
severely injured; the door immediately afterward opening, apparently
of its own volition, to admit or free some ghostly guest. The
dwelling was known as the Roscoe house, a family of that name having
lived there for some years, and then, one by one, disappeared, the
last to leave being an old woman. Stories of foul play and
successive murders had always been rife, but never were
One day during the prevalence of the excitement Saylor presented
himself at the office of the Commercial for orders. He received a
note from the city editor which read as follows: "Go and pass the
night alone in the haunted house in Vine street and if anything
occurs worth while make two columns." Saylor obeyed his superior;
he could not afford to lose his position on the paper.
Apprising the police of his intention, he effected an entrance
through a rear window before dark, walked through the deserted
rooms, bare of furniture, dusty and desolate, and seating himself at
last in the parlor on an old sofa which he had dragged in from
another room watched the deepening of the gloom as night came on.
Before it was altogether dark the curious crowd had collected in the
street, silent, as a rule, and expectant, with here and there a
scoffer uttering his incredulity and courage with scornful remarks
or ribald cries. None knew of the anxious watcher inside. He
feared to make a light; the uncurtained windows would have betrayed
his presence, subjecting him to insult, possibly to injury.
Moreover, he was too conscientious to do anything to enfeeble his
impressions and unwilling to alter any of the customary conditions
under which the manifestations were said to occur.
It was now dark outside, but light from the street faintly
illuminated the part of the room that he was in. He had set open
every door in the whole interior, above and below, but all the outer
ones were locked and bolted. Sudden exclamations from the crowd
caused him to spring to the window and look out. He saw the figure
of a man moving rapidly across the lawn toward the building—saw it
ascend the steps; then a projection of the wall concealed it. There
was a noise as of the opening and closing of the hall door; he heard
quick, heavy footsteps along the passage—heard them ascend the
stairs—heard them on the uncarpeted floor of the chamber
immediately overhead.
Saylor promptly drew his pistol, and groping his way up the stairs
entered the chamber, dimly lighted from the street. No one was
there. He heard footsteps in an adjoining room and entered that.
It was dark and silent. He struck his foot against some object on
the floor, knelt by it, passed his hand over it. It was a human
head—that of a woman. Lifting it by the hair this iron-nerved man
returned to the half-lighted room below, carried it near the window
and attentively examined it. While so engaged he was half conscious
of the rapid opening and closing of the outer door, of footfalls
sounding all about him. He raised his eyes from the ghastly object
of his attention and saw himself the center of a crowd of men and
women dimly seen; the room was thronged with them. He thought the
people had broken in.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, coolly, "you see me under
suspicious circumstances, but"—his voice was drowned in peals of
laughter—such laughter as is heard in asylums for the insane. The
persons about him pointed at the object in his hand and their
merriment increased as he dropped it and it went rolling among their
feet. They danced about it with gestures grotesque and attitudes
obscene and indescribable. They struck it with their feet, urging
it about the room from wall to wall; pushed and overthrew one
another in their struggles to kick it; cursed and screamed and sang
snatches of ribald songs as the battered head bounded about the room
as if in terror and trying to escape. At last it shot out of the
door into the hall, followed by all, with tumultuous haste. That
moment the door closed with a sharp concussion. Saylor was alone,
in dead silence.
Carefully putting away his pistol, which all the time he had held in
his hand, he went to a window and looked out. The street was
deserted and silent; the lamps were extinguished; the roofs and
chimneys of the houses were sharply outlined against the dawn-light
in the east. He left the house, the door yielding easily to his
hand, and walked to the Commercial office. The city editor was
still in his office—asleep. Saylor waked him and said: "I have
been at the haunted house."
The editor stared blankly as if not wholly awake. "Good God!" he
cried, "are you Saylor?"
"Yes—why not?" The editor made no answer, but continued staring.
"I passed the night there—it seems," said Saylor.
"They say that things were uncommonly quiet out there," the editor
said, trifling with a paper-weight upon which he had dropped his
eyes, "did anything occur?"
"Nothing whatever."
About three miles from the little town of Norton, in Missouri, on
the road leading to Maysville, stands an old house that was last
occupied by a family named Harding. Since 1886 no one has lived in
it, nor is anyone likely to live in it again. Time and the disfavor
of persons dwelling thereabout are converting it into a rather
picturesque ruin. An observer unacquainted with its history would
hardly put it into the category of "haunted houses," yet in all the
region round such is its evil reputation. Its windows are without
glass, its doorways without doors; there are wide breaches in the
shingle roof, and for lack of paint the weatherboarding is a dun
gray. But these unfailing signs of the supernatural are partly
concealed and greatly softened by the abundant foliage of a large
vine overrunning the entire structure. This vine—of a species
which no botanist has ever been able to name—has an important part
in the story of the house.
The Harding family consisted of Robert Harding, his wife Matilda,
Miss Julia Went, who was her sister, and two young children. Robert
Harding was a silent, cold-mannered man who made no friends in the
neighborhood and apparently cared to make none. He was about forty
years old, frugal and industrious, and made a living from the little
farm which is now overgrown with brush and brambles. He and his
sister-in-law were rather tabooed by their neighbors, who seemed to
think that they were seen too frequently together—not entirely
their fault, for at these times they evidently did not challenge
observation. The moral code of rural Missouri is stern and
Mrs. Harding was a gentle, sad-eyed woman, lacking a left foot.
At some time in 1884 it became known that she had gone to visit her
mother in Iowa. That was what her husband said in reply to
inquiries, and his manner of saying it did not encourage further
questioning. She never came back, and two years later, without
selling his farm or anything that was his, or appointing an agent to
look after his interests, or removing his household goods, Harding,
with the rest of the family, left the country. Nobody knew whither
he went; nobody at that time cared. Naturally, whatever was movable
about the place soon disappeared and the deserted house became
"haunted" in the manner of its kind.
One summer evening, four or five years later, the Rev. J. Gruber, of
Norton, and a Maysville attorney named Hyatt met on horseback in
front of the Harding place. Having business matters to discuss,
they hitched their animals and going to the house sat on the porch
to talk. Some humorous reference to the somber reputation of the
place was made and forgotten as soon as uttered, and they talked of
their business affairs until it grew almost dark. The evening was
oppressively warm, the air stagnant.
Presently both men started from their seats in surprise: a long
vine that covered half the front of the house and dangled its
branches from the edge of the porch above them was visibly and
audibly agitated, shaking violently in every stem and leaf.
"We shall have a storm," Hyatt exclaimed.
Gruber said nothing, but silently directed the other's attention to
the foliage of adjacent trees, which showed no movement; even the
delicate tips of the boughs silhouetted against the clear sky were
motionless. They hastily passed down the steps to what had been a
lawn and looked upward at the vine, whose entire length was now
visible. It continued in violent agitation, yet they could discern
no disturbing cause.
"Let us leave," said the minister.
And leave they did. Forgetting that they had been traveling in
opposite directions, they rode away together. They went to Norton,
where they related their strange experience to several discreet
friends. The next evening, at about the same hour, accompanied by
two others whose names are not recalled, they were again on the
porch of the Harding house, and again the mysterious phenomenon
occurred: the vine was violently agitated while under the closest
scrutiny from root to tip, nor did their combined strength applied
to the trunk serve to still it. After an hour's observation they
retreated, no less wise, it is thought, than when they had come.
No great time was required for these singular facts to rouse the
curiosity of the entire neighborhood. By day and by night crowds of
persons assembled at the Harding house "seeking a sign." It does
not appear that any found it, yet so credible were the witnesses
mentioned that none doubted the reality of the "manifestations" to
which they testified.
By either a happy inspiration or some destructive design, it was one
day proposed—nobody appeared to know from whom the suggestion came-
-to dig up the vine, and after a good deal of debate this was done.
Nothing was found but the root, yet nothing could have been more
For five or six feet from the trunk, which had at the surface of the
ground a diameter of several inches, it ran downward, single and
straight, into a loose, friable earth; then it divided and
subdivided into rootlets, fibers and filaments, most curiously
interwoven. When carefully freed from soil they showed a singular
formation. In their ramifications and doublings back upon
themselves they made a compact network, having in size and shape an
amazing resemblance to the human figure. Head, trunk and limbs were
there; even the fingers and toes were distinctly defined; and many
professed to see in the distribution and arrangement of the fibers
in the globular mass representing the head a grotesque suggestion of
a face. The figure was horizontal; the smaller roots had begun to
unite at the breast.
In point of resemblance to the human form this image was imperfect.
At about ten inches from one of the knees, the cilia forming that
leg had abruptly doubled backward and inward upon their course of
growth. The figure lacked the left foot.
There was but one inference—the obvious one; but in the ensuing
excitement as many courses of action were proposed as there were
incapable counselors. The matter was settled by the sheriff of the
county, who as the lawful custodian of the abandoned estate ordered
the root replaced and the excavation filled with the earth that had
been removed.
Later inquiry brought out only one fact of relevancy and
significance: Mrs. Harding had never visited her relatives in Iowa,
nor did they know that she was supposed to have done so.
Of Robert Harding and the rest of his family nothing is known. The
house retains its evil reputation, but the replanted vine is as
orderly and well-behaved a vegetable as a nervous person could wish
to sit under of a pleasant night, when the katydids grate out their
immemorial revelation and the distant whippoorwill signifies his
notion of what ought to be done about it.
Present at a Hanging and Other Ghost Stories by Ambrose Bierce
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
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."
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
"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.
"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
"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
"'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
"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."
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
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
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?
Present at a Hanging and Other Ghost Stories by Ambrose Bierce
One morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six
miles from Selma, Alabama, was sitting with his wife and a child on
the veranda of his dwelling. Immediately in front of the house was
a lawn, perhaps fifty yards in extent between the house and public
road, or, as it was called, the "pike." Beyond this road lay a
close-cropped pasture of some ten acres, level and without a tree,
rock, or any natural or artificial object on its surface. At the
time there was not even a domestic animal in the field. In another
field, beyond the pasture, a dozen slaves were at work under an
Throwing away the stump of a cigar, the planter rose, saying: "I
forgot to tell Andrew about those horses." Andrew was the overseer.
Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a
flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture,
pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a
passing neighbor, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation.
Mr. Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of
thirteen. When he had driven some two hundred yards from the point
of meeting, Mr. Wren said to his son: "I forgot to tell Mr.
Williamson about those horses."
Mr. Wren had sold to Mr. Williamson some horses, which were to have
been sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it
would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow. The
coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned
Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the
pasture. At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came
near falling. It had no more than fairly recovered itself when
James Wren cried: "Why, father, what has become of Mr. Williamson?"
It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.
Mr. Wren's strange account of the matter, given under oath in the
course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate, here
"My son's exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had
seen the deceased [sic] an instant before, but he was not there, nor
was he anywhere visible. I cannot say that at the moment I was
greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence, though
I thought it singular. My son, however, was greatly astonished and
kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at
the gate. My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a
greater degree, but I reckon more by my son's manner than by
anything he had himself observed. [This sentence in the testimony
was stricken out.] As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the
field, and while Sam was hanging [sic] the team to the fence, Mrs.
Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several
servants, came running down the walk in great excitement, crying:
'He is gone, he is gone! O God! what an awful thing!' and many
other such exclamations, which I do not distinctly recollect. I got
from them the impression that they related to something more—than
the mere disappearance of her husband, even if that had occurred
before her eyes. Her manner was wild, but not more so, I think,
than was natural under the circumstances. I have no reason to think
she had at that time lost her mind. I have never since seen nor
heard of Mr. Williamson."
This testimony, as might have been expected, was corroborated in
almost every particular by the only other eye-witness (if that is a
proper term)—the lad James. Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason
and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. The boy
James Wren had declared at first that he SAW the disappearance, but
there is nothing of this in his testimony given in court. None of
the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going
had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire
plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most
monstrous and grotesque fictions, originating with the blacks, were
current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are
to this day; but what has been here related is all that is certainly
known of the matter. The courts decided that Williamson was dead,
and his estate was distributed according to law.
James Burne Worson was a shoemaker who lived in Leamington,
Warwickshire, England. He had a little shop in one of the by-ways
leading off the road to Warwick. In his humble sphere he was
esteemed an honest man, although like many of his class in English
towns he was somewhat addicted to drink. When in liquor he would
make foolish wagers. On one of these too frequent occasions he was
boasting of his prowess as a pedestrian and athlete, and the outcome
was a match against nature. For a stake of one sovereign he
undertook to run all the way to Coventry and back, a distance of
something more than forty miles. This was on the 3d day of
September in 1873. He set out at once, the man with whom he had
made the bet—whose name is not remembered—accompanied by Barham
Wise, a linen draper, and Hamerson Burns, a photographer, I think,
following in a light cart or wagon.
For several miles Worson went on very well, at an easy gait, without
apparent fatigue, for he had really great powers of endurance and
was not sufficiently intoxicated to enfeeble them. The three men in
the wagon kept a short distance in the rear, giving him occasional
friendly "chaff" or encouragement, as the spirit moved them.
Suddenly—in the very middle of the roadway, not a dozen yards from
them, and with their eyes full upon him—the man seemed to stumble,
pitched headlong forward, uttered a terrible cry and vanished! He
did not fall to the earth—he vanished before touching it. No trace
of him was ever discovered.
After remaining at and about the spot for some time, with aimless
irresolution, the three men returned to Leamington, told their
astonishing story and were afterward taken into custody. But they
were of good standing, had always been considered truthful, were
sober at the time of the occurrence, and nothing ever transpired to
discredit their sworn account of their extraordinary adventure,
concerning the truth of which, nevertheless, public opinion was
divided, throughout the United Kingdom. If they had something to
conceal, their choice of means is certainly one of the most amazing
ever made by sane human beings.
The family of Christian Ashmore consisted of his wife, his mother,
two grown daughters, and a son of sixteen years. They lived in
Troy, New York, were well-to-do, respectable persons, and had many
friends, some of whom, reading these lines, will doubtless learn for
the first time the extraordinary fate of the young man. From Troy
the Ashmores moved in 1871 or 1872 to Richmond, Indiana, and a year
or two later to the vicinity of Quincy, Illinois, where Mr. Ashmore
bought a farm and lived on it. At some little distance from the
farmhouse was a spring with a constant flow of clear, cold water,
whence the family derived its supply for domestic use at all
On the evening of the 9th of November in 1878, at about nine
o'clock, young Charles Ashmore left the family circle about the
hearth, took a tin bucket and started toward the spring. As he did
not return, the family became uneasy, and going to the door by which
he had left the house, his father called without receiving an
answer. He then lighted a lantern and with the eldest daughter,
Martha, who insisted on accompanying him, went in search. A light
snow had fallen, obliterating the path, but making the young man's
trail conspicuous; each footprint was plainly defined. After going
a little more than half-way—perhaps seventy-five yards—the father,
who was in advance, halted, and elevating his lantern stood peering
intently into the darkness ahead.
"What is the matter, father?" the girl asked.
This was the matter: the trail of the young man had abruptly ended,
and all beyond was smooth, unbroken snow. The last footprints were
as conspicuous as any in the line; the very nail-marks were
distinctly visible. Mr. Ashmore looked upward, shading his eyes
with his hat held between them and the lantern. The stars were
shining; there was not a cloud in the sky; he was denied the
explanation which had suggested itself, doubtful as it would have
been—a new snowfall with a limit so plainly defined. Taking a wide
circuit round the ultimate tracks, so as to leave them undisturbed
for further examination, the man proceeded to the spring, the girl
following, weak and terrified. Neither had spoken a word of what
both had observed. The spring was covered with ice, hours old.
Returning to the house they noted the appearance of the snow on both
sides of the trail its entire length. No tracks led away from it.
The morning light showed nothing more. Smooth, spotless, unbroken,
the shallow snow lay everywhere.
Four days later the grief-stricken mother herself went to the spring
for water. She came back and related that in passing the spot where
the footprints had ended she had heard the voice of her son and had
been eagerly calling to him, wandering about the place, as she had
fancied the voice to be now in one direction, now in another, until
she was exhausted with fatigue and emotion.
Questioned as to what the voice had said, she was unable to tell,
yet averred that the words were perfectly distinct. In a moment the
entire family was at the place, but nothing was heard, and the voice
was believed to be an hallucination caused by the mother's great
anxiety and her disordered nerves. But for months afterward, at
irregular intervals of a few days, the voice was heard by the
several members of the family, and by others. All declared it
unmistakably the voice of Charles Ashmore; all agreed that it seemed
to come from a great distance, faintly, yet with entire distinctness
of articulation; yet none could determine its direction, nor repeat
its words. The intervals of silence grew longer and longer, the
voice fainter and farther, and by midsummer it was heard no more.
If anybody knows the fate of Charles Ashmore it is probably his
mother. She is dead.
In connection with this subject of "mysterious disappearance"—of
which every memory is stored with abundant example—it is pertinent
to note the belief of Dr. Hem, of Leipsic; not by way of
explanation, unless the reader may choose to take it so, but because
of its intrinsic interest as a singular speculation. This
distinguished scientist has expounded his views in a book entitled
"Verschwinden und Seine Theorie," which has attracted some
attention, "particularly," says one writer, "among the followers of
Hegel, and mathematicians who hold to the actual existence of a so-
called non-Euclidean space—that is to say, of space which has more
dimensions than length, breadth, and thickness—space in which it
would be possible to tie a knot in an endless cord and to turn a
rubber ball inside out without 'a solution of its continuity,' or in
other words, without breaking or cracking it."
Dr. Hem believes that in the visible world there are void places—
vacua, and something more—holes, as it were, through which animate
and inanimate objects may fall into the invisible world and be seen
and heard no more. The theory is something like this: Space is
pervaded by luminiferous ether, which is a material thing—as much a
substance as air or water, though almost infinitely more attenuated.
All force, all forms of energy must be propagated in this; every
process must take place in it which takes place at all. But let us
suppose that cavities exist in this otherwise universal medium, as
caverns exist in the earth, or cells in a Swiss cheese. In such a
cavity there would be absolutely nothing. It would be such a vacuum
as cannot be artificially produced; for if we pump the air from a
receiver there remains the luminiferous ether. Through one of these
cavities light could not pass, for there would be nothing to bear
it. Sound could not come from it; nothing could be felt in it. It
would not have a single one of the conditions necessary to the
action of any of our senses. In such a void, in short, nothing
whatever could occur. Now, in the words of the writer before
quoted—the learned doctor himself nowhere puts it so concisely: "A
man inclosed in such a closet could neither see nor be seen; neither
hear nor be heard; neither feel nor be felt; neither live nor die,
for both life and death are processes which can take place only
where there is force, and in empty space no force could exist." Are
these the awful conditions (some will ask) under which the friends
of the lost are to think of them as existing, and doomed forever to
Baldly and imperfectly as here stated, Dr. Hem's theory, in so far
as it professes to be an adequate explanation of "mysterious
disappearances," is open to many obvious objections; to fewer as he
states it himself in the "spacious volubility" of his book. But
even as expounded by its author it does not explain, and in truth is
incompatible with some incidents of, the occurrences related in
these memoranda: for example, the sound of Charles Ashmore's voice.
It is not my duty to indue facts and theories with affinity.
Ambrose Bierce
End of Present at a Hanging and Other Ghost Stories
by Ambrose Bierce �