A Curious County: Bracken County, Kentucky Forteana

Devil Backbone, looking towards Maysville, Kentucky. Image from Kentucky Digital Archives

Devil’s Backbone, Bracken County looking towards Maysville, [taken from near Germantown] Kentucky. Image from Kentucky Digital Archives

While I was working on The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past, I ran across an article, widely syndicated, about “The Devil in Bracken County (Ky.)”  It sounded perfect for the book—so I went online looking for more information—and this is what I found—a wonderful article by Theo Paijmans on the fiery devils.  I was so inspired, I wrote a whole chapter on these smokin’ hot entities in TGWB.

So far, so good. Nothing like a little whiff of sulphur and a visit from His Satanic Majesty to liven things up. But while searching farther, I found a number of other odd stories from Bracken County, which I present here as a snapshot of minor fortean oddities focused narrowly on a single location.

You’ve already read the story about the mysterious treasure cave and its giant skeleton here. 

One of the earliest bizarre stories from Bracken County is too long to print here. It is called “The Return of the Captive.” It is an excruciatingly detailed and heart-rending story of one John Wood who enlisted in the War of 1812, was captured by the British and sent first to Quebec, then to Dartmoor as a prisoner of war. He escaped, only to be pressed into the British Navy. He and some other Americans escaped, were recaptured and severely punished—twice—he was then sent to Calcutta in the East India service. Eventually he was sent back to England where he appealed to the US Consul and was shipped to New York.

“It is now twenty-six years since he left his wife and children in Kentucky; and not one syllable has he heard relative to their situation, since the moment of their separation…Will the wife of his youth be ready, in the fidelity of her early love, to hail the return of her long lost husband? Or will her duty and affections have been given to another? Or will she be reposing beneath the clods of the valley?” [the “thousand overpowering emotions” may be taken as read.] The story was repeated in multiple newspapers in May and June of 1838. I thought the story didn’t ring true and was gratified to have my suspicions that it was a hoax confirmed by The Cincinnati Daily Gazette, which quoted a Kentucky paper exposing Wood as an imposter. Here are some excerpts from that story.

“On Saturday last, we transferred into this paper an article which originally appeared in the Massillon (Ohio) Gazette, detailing the circumstances attending the impressment and long captivity of Mr. JOHN WOOD, who is stated to have been, at the commencement of the war of 1812, “a young and industrious farmer of Bracken County Kentucky.” On Thursday after that tale of captivity, so well calculated to enlist the public sympathy, was put into the hands of the compositors, no less a personage than John Wood, the veritable captive himself, appeared in our city, and attracted crowds to see him, and to hear from his own lips, a detail of his wrongs and sufferings in British prison ships and on board British men of war. Some heard his narrative without suspicion of imposture—others, more incredulous, believed that his language was too chaste and his deportment too refined, for a British sailor, [!!] and occasionally insinuated a doubt as to the truth of his statements.”

When pressed by questioners, he called for a Methodist Episcopal Minister and confessed. He was originally from Vermont and had come to Moscow in Clermont County, Ohio for his health. There he worked at the glass works and became licensed to preach the Gospel. He also told a variation of the British prisoner-of-war story: he’d left behind a mother and two sisters in Vermont instead of a family in Bracken County, Kentucky. He was sent by the Methodists to a mission, where he did well, until he got drunk and disappeared, unable to face the disgrace. He then roamed hither and thither, telling his fabulous story until he was outed in 1838.

“From whatever cause, however—whether it be avarice or mental aberration—we feel it our duty to guard the community against his imposition.

“He left on Friday afternoon, evidently under some apprehensions of personal injury, although nothing was said or done calculated to excite his fears. [Maysville Eagle.]” Cincinnati [OH] Daily Gazette 31 May 1838: p. 2

We find the usual strange wildlife stories in Bracken County, pretty much as you’d find them reported in any part of the country.

A LARGE BIRD

The Maysville [Ky.] Express says that a bird of extraordinary size, and of an unknown species, was killed in Bracken County, a few days since, by Mr. A. McDonald. It was six feet high, its wings measuring seven feet nine inches from tip to tip, and white as snow. [Sandhill Crane?] Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 28 April 1853: p. 1  

 A black snake measuring about fifteen feet in length and five inches in diameter has been seen on the farm of James Donovan, in Bracken County, Ky. This snake was seen several times last summer. Mobile [AL] Register 27 April 1870: p. 1

 The snake story segues neatly into this folkloric tale.

 BOY CHARMED BY SERPENTS.—The Maysville (Ky.) Eagle says that a little boy four or five years of age, of Irish parentage, in Bracken county , was in the habit during the whole of last summer, of going out in the woods near his home, to play with his “pretty things,” as he called them. After much persuasion, one day, his mother was induced to follow him to his play grounds to see what attracted him so much, when to her horror she discovered her little darling playing with a trio of huge black snakes, wholly unconscious of his peril. The boy was completely fascinated, and would advance and retreat, and sport and dally with his hideous comrades as if he were in the charmed circle of his brothers and sisters. The mother, in terror, ran to the house crying for help, when the father of the child rushed to the rescue of the boy, and, after some difficulty, killed the snakes. Wonderful to relate—and we have this information from a gentleman of unquestionable veracity—the little boy soon took to his bed, from which he never rose—he pined away and died—an early victim of the fascination of the serpents. Vincennes [IN] Weekly Gazette 3 January 1867

[You’ll find a similar story here in a post on Snaix.]  

There are also the usual persons of astonishing age and mad inventors:  

“I was a boy at Braddock’s defeat in 1755,” says Jean Revose, of Bracken County, Ky. This beats Count Waldeck [109 years 45 days] and Capt. Lahrbush [107 years]; in fact, Revose is thought to be full 130 years old and the oldest man in the civilized world. Rochester [IN] Union Spy May 14, 1874: p. 7 

FOUND AT LAST

Joe D. Blades, the noted inventor, who resides in the wilds of Bracken County, says he has found perpetual motion, and is building an automobile to be propelled by this power. He says that the power to run the automobile will be produced by springs. When one spring is running down the other one is winding up, thus creating perpetual motion. The auto is now about completed and he says it will be on the road in a short time. It is a self-starter. When you sit down in the seat the machine is put in motion; when you get up it stops. Falmouth (Ky.) Outlook. New Oxford [PA] Item April 3, 1913: p. 10 

One of the odder articles from Bracken County was titled “White Man Sold at Very Low Price.” (Certainly African Americans had been bought and sold without headlines prior to Emancipation, but this was obviously a novelty.)

The notice of the sale read:

SHERIFF’S SALE

“By virtue of an order of sale made by the Bracken Quarterly Court the 22d day of February, 1887, in the case of the commonwealth of Kentucky against Henry Dodson, wherein it was adjudged that the said Henry Dodson be sold for a space of seventy-five days, I will sell the said Henry Dodson at the courthouse door, in the town of Brooksville, on Monday, March 7, 1887, 12 o’clock m., for cash in hand, for a space of seventy-five days. The sale will be made as the law directs in such cases and the requirements will be made known to the purchaser at time of sale.

“Description: Henry Dodson is a white man, about 47 years old, stout built and able-bodied. W.J. IRWIN, S.B.C.  February 23, 1887.”

Dodson was the “second white man” sold in the county under the “Vagrancy Act.”  He was knocked down for $1.00 to Jailer Metcalfe. Metcalfe at once set him free and he “left town in the direction of the infirmary, of which his family are inmates, as soon as he could escape the crowd.” Hamilton [OH] Daily Democrat March 8, 1887: p. 1

While the country was swept by images mysteriously appearing in window-glass in 1871, there was a late report from Bracken County.

VISIONS ON THE GLASS

Bracken County Fearfully Excited Over Some Wonderful Pictures That Have Mysteriously Taken Shape on the Window-Panes of a Locality.

Augusta, Ky., July 3. Excitement is at fever heat in the Milford neighbourhood, in the southern portion of this county, over the mysterious appearance of the most wonderful faces and figures upon the window-glass of the houses in that section.

The first appearance of these singular and most extraordinary pictures on the glass was at the residence of William Showalter, two miles from Milford, on the north fork of Licking, where the window panes all at once showed the colors of the rainbow, on which two days later the heads of people and animals were clearly visible. On the glass at another house a head and face resembling President Lincoln’s were to be seen. On another the form of a young girl bending over an infant; the body of a lion, the figures 22, and a landscape, were all visible, as distinctly outlined as any artist could have drawn them.

Impressed by the marvellous tales to which he had listened, many of which were confirmed by witnesses of indisputable veracity, your correspondent visited the scene in person, and to his amazement found out that the half had not been told. The phenomenal appearances are visible over a territory only two or three miles in extent, and the houses at which they are to be seen are being visited daily by hundreds of wondering people, many of whom are awe-stricken and fearful that something terrible is about to take place.

Some persons attribute these strange appearances to the reflection of the sun in the water, others to the action of the moon; but neither theory seems plausible, since some of the most striking pictures are on the windows of the Milford Baptist Church, which are protected with shutters that are kept tightly closed. No one has yet visited the scene who has been able to give a sensible scientific reason for the miraculous visions he beheld, and until the matter is explained there are many who will persist in their superstitious views that it is of unearthly origin.

The people of Bracken County have not in years been more worked up over anything than they are now over these pictures. Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 7 July 1887: p. 7  

Let’s finish with a “remarkable story well-known to residents of Bracken County, Ky.”  

CARRIED TO A GRAVE

Remarkable Story Well Known To Residents of Bracken County, Ky.

The citizens of the northwestern part of Bracken County, Kentucky, in the vicinity of the village of Minerva, will on the slightest provocation revive one of the most remarkable ghost stories ever heard. The astounding incident occurred more than 25 years ago, but the old settlers relate the affair as though it had taken place only yesterday. A singular part of the story is that the ghost was a daylight prowler. He did not wait until the twilight or after dark to perform the ghastly trick which he did in this case. A respectable woman residing on a farm was engaged in making washing soap in the yard. A bright three-year-old boy was sitting in the grass nearby. Suddenly in front of the very eyes of the mother he arose and, with arms outstretched, fairly floated away over the top of the fence to a graveyard about a half a mile away. The frantic mother followed, calling in vain to the little fellow to stop. With outstretched arms he moved along without paying the slightest attention to her cries.

While the terrified woman could see no one leading or carrying the boy she felt that something, a ghost or unseen power, was impelling him forward. When the graveyard was reached the lad skimmed over the fence in the same miraculous manner as at his home. When he reached the gravestone under which the remains of his ancestors were buried he sat down in apparently hypnotic state. His mother rushed up to him. The boy did not recognize her and jabbered away in an unintelligible way. She took him home and he was then and has ever since been a hopeless idiot. Occasionally he has partially lucid periods in which he talks about the other world and seems to be looking into a country that exists in space. No one has ever been able to furnish an explanation of the strange occurrence. One theory advanced by the superstitious is that the little fellow, who is now a grown man, with a mind that is blank, was afflicted as a punishment on the parents. The father and mother had buried the children, who were not baptized, in a corner of their yard, but the older members of the family and those who had received the rite of the church were taken to the family cemetery on the hill about a mile away. No matter what may have produced the insanity in the child there are many people who believe implicitly the story of the mother of the boy, who followed him to the graveyard on that fatal day.  Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 7 January 1900: p. 16

A “Devil’s Backbone,” a treasure cave with a giant skeleton, an imposter on a grand scale, mysterious faces in window glass, big snakes, fiery devils, and sin-induced levitation—who knew that one small and very rural Kentucky county could be so infested with fortean excitement? 

While researching The Face in the Window and The Headless Horror, I noticed (and continue to notice) a series of strange stories in the newspapers with the byline “Nevada, Ohio.” This is a small village in Wyandot County, Ohio with no real claim to fame except that the homeopathic doctor who attended President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding was born there. I have always wondered why Nevada was such a hotbed of fortean activity or why an imaginative editor would choose that as a byline. There’s a missing subtext there somewhere. I haven’t looked at the dates of articles to see if they cluster in any significant manner.

Which, in a backhand manner, leads me to wonder if “Bracken County” was a kind of journalistic shorthand for “Caution! Tall Tale Ahead!”  Any local knowledge? Etch by some mysterious process on a glass pane and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.