An Ode to Ghost Stories
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Originally published by NC Coast in Carolina Shore. The words in italics are my additions, or things that did not quite make the cut for original publication. Think of it as bonus content!

It was not a dark and stormy night - it was a warm, clear September night off the coast of Ocracoke. There was no moon, but that did not dampen the light in the hearts of the refugees who were so close to their new home. It was the late 1600s you see, and wars were wrenching apart a section of Germany and Switzerland known back then as Palatine. The people who were anchored off the coast had made arrangements with privateers to be brought to the New World, for a fresh start and a safe future. The ship was full of well-off craftsmen, tradesmen and their families who had paid the privateer captain handsomely in advance. The captain began to take special notice of his passenger’s fine silks, their rings and ornate necklaces. A plan began to formulate in his mind, but he let most of the passage go on in peace. When the ship was close to shore on that moonless September evening, he lulled the passengers to sleep with the promise of a new life in the New World starting the very next morning. The privateers waited until half the night had passed, and then slipped down below, careful not to wake their passengers. One by one, they slit the throats of the people who had sailed across the globe to escape violence.

After the slaughter was over the privateers gathered their spoils, then they set about the task of concealing the murders. They coated the deck with oil and set it on fire, leaving the ship to sink while they escaped to shore in their longboat. As the privateers rowed away, the wind came up and filled the sails of the flaming ship. It began to pursue the longboat as if steered by a skillful crew, but there were no live souls on that ship. The privateers rowed desperately, trying to escape the ship that was lighting up the night sky. Smoke from the ship filled the privateer’s lungs. Their frantic rowing slowed as they gasped for air, choking on the flames that were meant to destroy any evidence of their crime. The blazing ship caught up with the privateers, and not one of them escaped that night with their lives. They say that if you are out in Ocracoke during a September new moon, you can hear the cries of the drowning privateers and their victims, you can smell the smoke coming up off the water, and sometimes you can even see the ship.

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The Manney House in Beaufort, supposedly home to Civil War era ghosts (and maybe a doctor?).

Stories like these have long caught the notice of humanity. Call them what you like, legends, ghost stories, folklore - they all have the ability to grab onto our attention and keep it until the story is finished. The area surrounding Beaufort certainly has its fair share of these tales; since it’s the third-oldest town in the state there has been time to accumulate people, and the stories that swirl around them. On Shackleford Banks, we have what used to be the community of Diamond City. Although it was once a thriving home to five hundred whalers, it was swept away by violent storms and is now abandoned, except for the graveyard and supposedly very active spirits. In the Langdon House in Beaufort there is said to be the ghost of a young woman named Charity, a heart-broken spirit. She can be seen standing in a pretty blue dress, mourning the loss of the man she loved (through a twisted series of events, he accidentally ended up marrying her twin sister and causing her to die of a broken heart, but that’s a longer story). And of course there is the famous story of Captain Madison Brothers, nicknamed “Mad Brothers” by his crew who were well-acquainted with his legendary temper. Captain Brothers came home after a long time at sea to find his fiancee hosting a party in the fine house he had bought for them to live in together, as husband and wife. As he looked through the window panes, she was dancing happily with a handsome British officer who was clearly a favorite of hers, and stopped to give him an affectionate kiss on the cheek. With a roar, Mad Brothers charged into the party. He ended up killing the young man in a duel on the staircase. Only after fleeing the scene did Captain Brothers found out that the young man was his fiancee’s brother, his future brother-in-law. It is said that to this day the bloodstain from that night’s duel always bleeds through, no matter what method is used to clean or cover it up. Stories like this abound, and can be found in books, overheard in bars and  coffee shops and listened to on tours.

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Port City Tours has been operating in town for 15 years, and has recently been taken over by longtime tour guide and storyteller Jonathan Edwards. Since purchasing the business Edwards and his creative director Joey Madia have revitalized their ghost tours, making a concerted effort to get back to the town’s historical roots. Every story that they tell while walking through the town has a book or a written source behind it. Hearsay tales that have not been directly disproved go into a ‘maybe, but let’s research’ pile.  Legends consistent across several books have a much better chance of making it into the tour. Since they do not want to lead anyone on, the blatantly false stories are framed as stories that most people believe, but are very improbable, or omitted altogether (sorry, Blackbeard did not actually hang a wife from a tree in town). It can be challenging, as stories must be interesting to people of all ages, from grandparents to toddlers. Roughly 6,000 take the tours each year, from all walks of life.

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On a Port City Tour, you are led around the town and regaled by an actor taking on the role of a spirit - in my group, our guide was Ezekiel Townsend, a whaler from Diamond City. That evening the noises of Beaufort provided a soundtrack to accompany all of the stories. People talking with neighbors on their front porches, crickets and cicadas, a strumming guitar and the humming town prepared for a certain Pyrate Invasion all provided the backdrop as we meandered around town, hearing some of the best legends Beaufort has to offer.

Over the years Edwards has told many stories and played many roles himself; last year his guiding spirit was one of the privateers from the flaming ship, this year it is Benjamin Combs, a Civil War soldier who was the first casualty in the Battle of Fort Macon. In illustrating how these two characters would tell the same story differently, he put on different accents and mannerisms. As the pirate, his brow furrowed and his eyes took on a hardened glint. For Ben Combs, he turned into a mild farm boy, with a distinctly Eastern North Carolina twang. While the privateer would not shy away from the murders, Ben Combs would be horrified by them. Storytelling is at the heart of Port City Tours, and it is a skill they are constantly honing along with the content of their tours. Finding solid subject matter requires a lot of detective work, starting with source recollections and trying to gather as many facts as possible to layer on. Madia explained that each story is like a person, with plain facts making the skeleton and creative details forming the muscles and flesh. So what makes for a winning story?

“As a storyteller, as creative director, I’m looking for compelling characters ... And I think just about all the stories we have now do have some sense of tension. And then there’s some kind of turn or twist.” Edwards added that it is important to bring the audience along with the main character, feeling how they might have felt.  

    “We don’t connect with stories, we connect with the people inside these stories,” Madia commented. Just gathering these narratives can be a challenge. “As you go from town to town, some people are proud of their ghosts, and some don’t want to talk about their ghosts,” Madia said, adding Beaufort falls mostly in the latter category. In my opinion, this is a very southern trait; a ghost in the house implies that something went wrong. We would rather tuck our skeletons neatly in the closet, behind our Sunday clothes.

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One couple in town is very forthcoming about their resident ghost: Meet Nancy and Elmo Barnes, longtime residents of Beaufort, and owners of Cousin’s Bed and Breakfast. They bought the house that contains both businesses back in 1988. Before they could even officially move in, they had their first ghost sighting. A cousin saw a man standing in the front window, by the stairs. Both Martha and Elmo had been upstairs, and there was no one else in the house. A series of unexplained happenings have been going on ever since. Footsteps along the hall without a person there to make them, a man appearing at the end of a bed, and someone walking across the dining room are just a few of the things that have happened. The figure is always a man, and he is always seen (or heard) exclusively by women. The ghost man has been credited for moving jewelry around, sitting on her sister’s bed, and even laying down on top of one visitor.

“He has never been mischievous,” Elmo said, talking about the ghost the way most people talk about a pet. “He has never bothered us at all. It don’t bother me.” Nancy agreed,

“It’s not a scary thing.” Of course, Elmo has nearly died a couple of times due to heart complications, so maybe he’s tougher to scare.

When ghost hunters came to town a couple of years ago, he would not stop tapping on the bedside table. On a tour of the B&B, I stopped to snap some photos of the rooms and hallway where the ghost seems to be most active. In the Bird Room (where, in addition to mysterious mists, all the rapping and tapping had happened), Nancy suggested I take a picture of the lamp. Although dubious, I took the photo to be polite. I checked my screen, and (as I had expected) no mist or mysterious figured had appeared.

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“Well, no mist today!” I said, and started to turn my attention elsewhere. As soon as I turned, there were four sharp, distinct knocks. I stood stock-still, all of the ghost stories I had seen and heard in the past twenty-four hours flooding my memory. A piece of my brain might have maintained its skepticism, but the rest of it threw reason out the window. My breath caught in my throat, and my heart picked up speed. I looked up at Nancy, a little bewildered.

“Do you want me to move?” she asked, thinking she was in the way of a photo. 

    “Um, no...what was that sound?” I was trying to keep my voice level, but looking back I’m pretty sure it went up a whole octave. With a smile, she replied,

     “Oh, that’s Elmo doin’ something in the kitchen.” Feeling very foolish, I let out all my breath in one gust, and my heart and brain went back to their normal functioning capacity. Nancy could see that I was sheepish. “That’s okay, people hear things like that around here all the time, it’s not always Elmo in the kitchen.”

     After that hair-raising experience (which, to add to my embarrassment, happened in broad daylight), I can understand the influence of hearing a few stories and then seeing or hearing things that are unfamiliar. Even in a cheerful place like Cousins’ B&B, with clean white walls and no broken window panes or headless dolls in sight, it is possible to be frightened by things you can’t immediately interpret. These unexplained sights and sounds do not bother Nancy in the slightest. She was wearing a small smile when she told me, 

     “We have haunted houses all year round, not just for Halloween.”

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When your hometown graveyard is draped in spanish moss and known as “The Old Burying Ground”, you know that fascinating stories are bound to appear, either on the tombstones or in local lore. North Carolina’s most successful privateer, Ottway Burns, is resting near the fence looking out on Craven Street. There is a common grave for all of the sailors that died of cold the night the Crissy Wright was driven aground during a howling storm. Men, women, and children from all walks of life are interred on the grounds. There are pastors, doctors, soldiers (both American and British), sea captains, young mothers and children who were taken away from their families at an early age. Each leaning headstone is a reminder of mortality, and yet during the day the burying ground is somehow peaceful. Each stone also has a story to tell, a message painstakingly carved, telling us details of life the deceased or their families wanted to make sure we know for decades to come.

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Toward the back left corner of the graveyard, there is a stone for a man named Captain Jacob Shepherd. In his life, he came back from an extended shipwreck-induced absence to find his wife married to another man. She had (reasonably) assumed him to be dead, remarried, and had a child. Not wanting to cause trouble, he agreed that Sarah should remain with her new husband, Nathaniel Gibbs, for as long as they both should live. But after she died, he requested that she be buried next to him. So it is; they are now resting side by side, together in death as they could not be in life. By all accounts, they are very happy to be reunited - no one has ever heard them argue.

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Just a few graves down from Ottway Burns is the little girl buried in a rum keg. According to Edwards it seems like every old southern graveyard has one of these, but she is the real deal. Her story runs something like this: back in the 1700s, this young girl was always begging her father to take her with him on his merchant trips to London. Once she was nine, she was finally allowed to go. Like any kid, she was excited to take in new experiences and sights. London suited her well, filling her with so much joy that she would twirl and twirl in her grandmother’s parlor from the sheer joy of it. On the trip home, she was suddenly overtaken by an illness, and died. Rather than throw her body overboard, her father preserved her in a small rum barrel so that she could be buried near her family in Beaufort. They buried her - rum keg and all - and the children of the town began to leave little presents on her grave. This was common in a time when child mortality rates were high; it helped the children say goodbye to their friends. What was uncommon about this arrangement was that the toys left on her grave began to move. To this day, locals and tourists leave trinkets on and around her grave, and they do still move.

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Supposedly the little girl will still appear; she is not a vicious spirit, just a little lonely at times. And she will still twirl in her white dress. While I walked through the graveyard collecting photographs for this article, a woman from out of town stopped me to ask if I knew the story of that grave. She wanted to know why so many necklaces and toys were draped over it. I told her the story, and got to enjoy the feeling of passing on a piece of lore. Watching my listener’s eyes widen as she got sucked into the tale made me realize part of why these stories keep getting passed on. Retelling legends not only helps the people from history live on, it’s a downright fun thing to do. But what does that say about human nature, that we love to share and hear stories that are tinged with sadness?

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“I think it’s a beautiful thing about us,” Joey Madia back at Port City Tours told me. He went on to say, “I really think story is our religion. It’s how we really commune, all of us in a really deep way.” 

     “It’s something that we can relate to on a deep level, because we experience pain and grief. That’s what’s real to us, very rarely do we have a life that’s just free of pain, and everything’s going great, things are good; those are dreams. But what we live every day is exactly what we say these spirits are going through,” Edwards added. Getting to experience the hardships of a life, to see its ups and downs and mistakes, without it being our life helps put our own experiences into perspective. Dee Lewis, historian and archivist at the History Place in Morehead City agreed with this view. 

    “You’re never quite so alive as when you are close to death,” he said, explaining that this is why we are fascinated with danger. “We want to walk the knife’s edge, but never want to fall over.” Hearing stories helps us to better understand ourselves, and the dangers we could fall into.

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Our favorite characters, legends, and stories only get to live on and pass on their lessons  if we keep telling them. As of right now, our past weaves a rich carpet together of noble and despicable deeds, of heroes and villains, of brilliant quick-thinking and awful mistakes. If we are not careful, this tapestry will dwindle away, and we will be left with scraps of information held loosely together by some names and dates in the old burying ground. So ask your grandparents for their favorite stories, talk to fishermen who have seen strange things on the water and look in on the little girl twirling in the graveyard, then retell their stories to keep them alive.