This is one of those WTH stories that occasionally emerge from the 19th century press. While there were plenty of Victorian urban legends and slow-news-day fantasies to be had, this story does not follow predictable supernatural paths in its description of a strange visitant making its noisy nightly rounds at a military encampment in Murfreesborough.
WAS IT A GHOST?
A Strange Nocturnal Visitant That Defied Capture.
A True Story Which Happened During the War–the Mystery Was Never Solved.
Ed, “Sentinel”: I submit this story for your paper for publication. It is true in all its details, and of my own actual experience. I wrote it for the Youth’s Companion, and Mr. Butterworth wrote me asking for the solution, which I could not give. It being against their rules to publish anything for children that was not fully explained, it did not appear in the Youth’s Companion.
“Ugh! ugh! Thar it goes; thar it goes.”
“Shoot it! shoot it! Wal, I’ll just be dingsizzled if ever I see’d sich a terrible critter as that ‘er in all my born days. Now I’ve hunted bars and panthers and wild cats on the mountains in old North Carlina, been howled deaf by the wolves and whooped blind by “harikanes” on the bald prairies of Illinois, but that ‘er pesky varmint takes the rag.”
“What now, Montgomery,” said the vidette, drawing near to where the speaker sat amid his blankets, after having been so rudely awakened from peaceful slumbers, superinduced by the fatigue incident upon a soldier’s life, and the burning, sluggish heat of a July day in Tennessee in 1865.
“What now?” snapped Montgomery. “I should think after a feller had been rolled on an’ wet to the skin, an’ about ‘friz’ to death here in the middle of summer, you’d know what’s the matter if ye had eyes to see or ears to hear.”
“Oh, the spook has been to visit you, has it?”
“Spook; that’s what you call it, is it? Wal, if I’d had old Betsy Jane close ter hand I’d given it a blow that would have settled its business mighty quick.”
The speaker was Jesse Montgomery, an eccentric character of Southern extraction, who had enlisted in the North and gone down to the “wah,” lis he said, to pay his folks a visit, which he really did by means of a short French leave while the regiment lay at Tullahoma, Tennessee. The real cause of the conversation above described requires a detailed elucidation. My regiment, the 155th Illinois, Col. G[ustavus]. A. Smith of Pea Ridge fame, was scattered from Tullahoma back North to Murfreesborough, and located along the line of the Louisville, Nashville and Chattanooga railroad, as guards at the various bridges, stations and block-houses along the line. Company B, to which I belonged, was quartered in the court-house square in the city of Murfreesborough, doing duty as military police and provost guards. Gen. R[ichard]. W. Johnson at that time had his headquarters located in a peculiarly shaped wooden building, situated on the east side of the city and on the south side of the old Liberty and Woodbury turnpike. In connection with our other duties a daily detail was made from my company to do duty at the General’s headquarters. On such occasions we made our bivouac beneath an umbrageous oak that stood in the grounds a little northwest from the house, and it was beneath the friendly mantling shadows of this sylvan patriarch that occurred the scene with which my story opens.
The house, as before stated, was of peculiar design, being in the form of the Greek Cross, or the plus sign; was two stories high and surmounted by on attic or cupula, the whole erected upon a high foundation, each story decreasing in dimensions, giving the pile much the appearance of a Chinese pagoda. Porches webbed the corners, and around their fronts was a circular balustrade. From the neglected appearance of the grounds and the general air of delapidation about the premises the house seemed to have been long unoccupied, and thereby hangs a “tale.” On our first visit to the place we noticed that there were some peculiar disturbances during the afterpart of the night, but as we were new to the situation and had received no special instructions from the old guards, we gave the matter little attention; but as the commotions continued to occur regularly each succeeding night, and the sound, as if made by some moving object, was plainly distinguishable, special orders were given to the guards to keep a sharp lookout for the intruder.
This soon confirmed our suspicions that there was something radically wrong about the place, and a close and critical investigation was instituted. There were five of us young hot-blooded madcaps from the prairies of the West, who knew no fear, but were always ready to give chase to every “will-o’-the-wisp” that bobbled serenely up in our paths. Now the thought took possession of us of a living, full grown, able-bodied ghost, which our school books taught us did not exist, skipping o’er the shadowy lawn and nightly gamboling on the green, making tracks and cutting capers right under our very noses. It was too much. Our ranger blood was up. If there was any sound-limbed, healthy constitutioned ghost making faces at us, we wanted it–we just needed it in our business. We held a hastily-improvised council of war and laid our plans for the campaign. Our first object, by means of an ambuscade, was to sight the enemy and locate his stronghold when we felt perfectly confident that we could carry his outer works with a rush, and then surround and capture him, bag and baggage. “But the best laid schemes of mice and men gang oft a glee.”
From our covert we watched and sure enough, between the hours of two and three o’clock in the morning an uneasy, rumbling sound was heard up in the attic, which seemed to be the ghost bed chamber, as if it were putting on heavy boots to begin its nocturnal wanderings. After lumbering around in the attic like some belated Bacchanalian tumbling over sofas and chairs it started down stairs, seeming to fall from one tread down to the next. Before dropping to the next tread it produced a sound like a heavy, solid shot, rolling over a board floor. It seemed to go all around the room, roiling over the sleeping orderlies who spread their blankets on the carpeted floors. When it rolled over one it left a narrow wet streak that saturated the clothing to the skin, and chilled to the very bone. Every room from the attic to the basement was gone over in the same manner, and with the same kind of noise every night as unerring as fate. With eager impatience we awaited its coming. Finally the sound reached the front doors, which were closed and bolted, but like the girl of seventeen, locks and bars were no impediment. It soon emerged upon the porch floor, which lay bathed in a flood of brilliant moon light, and here we got our first glimpse of the nightly marauder. Imagine our disgust and chagrin when an object resembling a large football with one half as white as chalk and the other black as Erebus, dropped from the door sill to the porch floor with a thud plainly distinguishable at least for fifty paces, and began rolling along the floor, emitting that same peculiar metallic sound to which we had been listening. When the porches had all been gone over, with a heavy bump against each post it came to the front steps and tumbled down one at a time, not forgetting to roll along their entire length and back before descending to the next, until the ground had been reached within twenty feet of where we lay concealed. Then it administered a hearty blow against each one of the great newels that stood at the base of the stairs, then having reached the middle of the walk it sped away around the house on its tour of inspection.
Considering discretion the better part of valor we silently awaited its return, which occupied but a few minutes, when its ominous tread was heard approaching from the opposite direction. This time entering one of the meandering paths it made for the center of the grounds, when we concluded the moment for action had arrived. We deployed as a line of skirmishes and steadily advanced, keeping the house to our rear, thereby cutting off, as we hoped, its line of retreat. At the slightest disturbance it took fright and beat a precipitate retreat. Its method of flight was somewhat different from its ordinary mode of procedure. At such times it would bound into the air some six feet high, describe the segment of a circle, spanning from six to eight feet at each bound. It continued its heavy bumping noise each time it descended, and the harder pressed the louder the concussion. When surrounded and closed upon it leaped wildly into the air several times, and then vanished. This was a feature that puzzled us to see it just suddenly vanish like a bubble and literally be non es, was calculated to make us feel that there was something truly uncanny in its make-up.
To give in detail all the plots and schemes we invented whereby to become possessed of his cunning ghostship, would exhaust both space and patience. Let it suffice that every suggestion bearing the semblance of a stratagem was carefully and persistently tried, but all came short of the mark. Our stock of genius being exhausted, the council of older heads was eagerly sought while the available brain force of our comrades was ruthlessly poured into this deep dry hole and firing seemed the last and only means, but permission for that proved difficult to obtain, as every one who has gone through the red-tape regime of army life too well knows. With our gun barrels blackened and all burnished trappings of our accoutrements disposed of, we lay on the “qui-vive.” Volley after volley night upon night, all to no purpose. The well-aimed muskets of the trained guardsmen were as ineffective as straws against the typhoon. The order was countermanded, and of course we came in for a large share of hard raillery and grinning from our company. Convinced that our campaign was a failure, and that this little Banquo’s ghost would not down, we moved our camp to where his wanderings came not, and consoled our vanquished dignity by watching its disportment when the brilliant Southern moon afforded an opportunity. If not molested it took the same route each time, going first to the center of the grounds and rolling around in small circles, then leaping several times high into the air, when it would set off on its tour of inspection, visiting each clump of flowers or shrubbery, describing a circle about them; then leaping over their tops, striking the ground on the opposite side with a heavy thud followed by several rapid bounds, then disappearing for a few moments, when it would again be seen near some other point, when the same performance would be enacted, continuing this until every point, no difference how remote or how difficult of access had been visited, always reserving the old oak under which we slept for the final compliment.
Owing to our presence there this visit was always made with great caution and distrust. Only after much reconnoitering and several scampering retreats did it finally approach the tree.
On the east side of the tree was an immense projecting root which extended outward some five feet from the base of the tree, and in uniting with the trunk about six feet from the ground, it formed almost a quarter circle. By the side of this root was a deep cavity formed by decay. The first act on reaching the tree was to describe a circle about its base, then enter the cavity, remaining about five minutes, during which time a succession of low bumping sounds could be heard. On emerging it next rolled carefully along the top of the old curving root toward the body as though attempting to ascend the tree. On reaching the junction of the root and tree it would drop to the ground with a loud thud, and then flee away with rapid bounds. In a few moments, however, the same performance might be witnessed again. How long this would have been continued I do not know, but I have observed four successive attempts before it finally departed, returning to the house, passing up the broad steps, entering the hall and mounting the stairs, at last reaching the attic, and becoming quiet as the first streaks of gray dawn began to appear in the East.
The citizens were cognizant of its existence, but extremely reticent when interrogated concerning it. Not the slightest hint could we surprise them into letting drop whereby we might gain the smallest clue to the mystery.
Many learned, scientific men came to watch with us and assist in our sorties. All were convinced that it was some strange visitant, but none gave a solution to the problem. The place was vacated and abandoned to the ghost, and desolation and decay soon succeeded. It was quickly over-grown with weeds and brambles, but the nocturnal intruder held sway, finally the house was carefully pulled to pieces and searched with minute care. The last brick was removed from the foundation, the earth delved deep beneath, the rubbish reduced to a heap of gray ashes, the bricks and plaster carted to a fill some distance away, and yet this strange, unnatural visitant came from whence, who shall say? It performed its accustomed rounds with no lack of interest or persistent determination; it departed wither, who can conjecture?
Like “Stonewall” o’er his sleeping army, it held its solitary, nightly vigil.
What was it anyway, you ask?
In the language of our…neighbors, I am compelled to admit, “me no sabbe.” I have given this for publication in the hope that some one may favor me with a solution. I do not believe in ghosts, but I have never been able to solve the greatest mystery of my life.
Santa Cruz, Cal.
Santa Cruz [CA] Sentinel 11 December 1896: p. 4
With such a fantastical story, naturally I went looking for background on the characters. The narrator is apparently Caleb J. Todd from New Liberty, Illinois who enlisted 7 February 1865 and mustered out 4 September 1865. He died in the National Military Home at West Los Angeles in 1931 and is buried in the National Cemetery there. You’ll find his obituary, photo of his tombstone, and military service record here.
Passing of Civil War Vet and Old Time Resident.
Caleb J. Todd died Thursday in the National Military Home at West Los Angeles. Death came months after suffering a stroke and five months after the death of his wife Mrs. Fannie Todd.
The funeral will be held at the burial home, West Los Angeles Monday December 14.
Mr. Todd, a native of Iowa was 86 years of age and was for many years a contractor and builder in Santa Cruz. He was a Civil War veteran and a member of the G.A.R. when here, also of the first Christian church. He was a great Bible student and for years conducted the Sunday morning YMCA bible class, which was largely attended.
He is survived by three children, Mrs. Vera Barnes, Santa Cruz; Richard Todd of Portland Ore., and a granddaughter, Clarice Crews, of this city.
Jesse Montgomery is more problematic. He enlisted 21 February 1865 and died at Nashville 4 April 1865. However, in the story he is supposedly speaking in July of 1865. He is buried at Stones River National Cemetery in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. We might get the feeling that he was pasted into the tale to open it with a spot of dialect humor because he doesn’t play any further role beyond the first few paragraphs and the rest of the narrative is more matter-of-fact. He would have been played by Walter Brennan in the film.
That said, are we looking at yet another example of a fantastical story, enhanced by including real people or is this a genuine account of a bizarre visitation? The elaborate and monotonous description of the Visitant’s nightly movements seems more detailed than necessary to make a fictional impression. If this was fiction, we might expect it to end with a ball-and-chained skeleton being found when the house was torn down (or when the oak tree was felled, suggests Dr Beachcombing). Does the fact that this narrative appeared in Todd’s own home-town newspaper work for or against its credibility?
But, if a real story, what in the world was it? It bears some resemblance to rolling spook lights, but does not appear to be luminous. There are rolling wool boggarts in England, but I don’t think they make noise. Is there a separate “rolling shot bogey” category? It seems drawn to an oak tree, which would have Elliott O’Donnell proclaiming it a malign tree-elemental. The “wet streak that saturated the clothing to the skin, and chilled to the very bone” also suggests an elemental horror. And what about the yin-yang coloration?
In a completely irrelevant aside, the bumping down the stairs hints of the staircase scene in the movie The Changeling and the metallic banging reminds me of the door-smashing cannon-ball manifestation in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
The author claims that “many learned scientific men” came to study the visitant. Any other contemporary reports from one of these investigators? And does the military history and the descriptions of Murfreesboro hold up? Follow the bouncing ball to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.