The Mystery Woman of Shiloh  

Posted by Tony Hays in , ,

Sometimes called the “Gettysburg” of the western theater, the battle at Shiloh certainly held enough human drama and tragedy to merit the title. Stories of heroism and cowardice, fortune and disaster, abound. But perhaps the strangest tale of Shiloh is that of a young lieutenant named Harry T. Buford who allegedly appeared on the field at Shiloh Meeting House just after the first shots rang out. While many students of the Civil War assess Buford’s tale as more a pack of lies than a recitation of facts, it’s simply too good not to include.

Harry T. Buford was a lieutenant without a unit at the time of the battle of Shiloh. According to Buford’s own story, he arrived at Monterey, in the edge of McNairy County, late in the evening on April 5th just as rain began to fall in earnest. Taking refuge with some of the troops quartered there, he opted to wait out the rain before pushing on to the main body of the troops. The shower ended by 3 a.m., and with a jolt of brandy, he was off again towards General Hardee’s headquarters in the vicinity of Shiloh Meeting House. As he records the meeting:

"I found the general stationed near Shiloh Church, and rode up and saluted him just as he was mounting his horse. Showing him my pass, I said that I wanted to have a hand in this affair. Hardee looked at the pass, and replied, 'All right; fall in, and we'll see what can be done for you.'"

Buford was in the forefront of the Confederate assault on the Union camps, taking the opportunity to eat a little something more than the brandy and coffee he’d had earlier at Monterey.

In obedience to Hardee's command, I fell in with his men, and we advanced briskly upon the enemy's camp. It was a complete surprise in every respect. Many of the enemy were only half dressed, and were obliged to snatch up the first weapons that came to hand as the Confederates rushed out of the woods upon them. The contest was brief and decisive, and in a few moments such of the enemy as escaped the deadly volleys which we poured into them were scampering away as fast as their legs could carry them. We took possession of their camp, with all its equipage, almost without resistance, and I thought that this was an excellent good beginning of the day's work, especially as I had the pleasure of eating a capital hot breakfast, which had been prepared for some Federal officer. I enjoyed it immensely, for I was decidedly hungry after my early morning march, the cup of coffee tendered by my soldier friend not having proved as satisfactory as something more substantial might have done.

A full meal in his belly, Buford encountered Hardee again, and the general, pleased with the morning’s work was in a “high, good humor.” He asked Buford what could be done for him, to which Buford answered that he wanted in the thick of the fighting.
Earlier in his career, Buford had recruited a company of infantry in Arkansas and by sheer chance he spotted them moving towards the fighting. With Hardee’s permission, the young lieutenant approached the captain commanding the company who greeted him with great affection, something that pleased Buford a little too much.
Now, as Shakespeare would say, here’s the rub. The captain – Thomas C. De Caulp – was actually Buford’s fiancé, although De Caulp wasn’t aware of it at the time. War, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. Lieutenant Harry T. Buford was, in reality, a young Cuban woman dressed as a Confederate officer and as full of fire as Albert Sidney Johnston himself.
Born Loreta Janeta Velazquez in Havanna, Cuba in 1842, she was the daughter of a diplomat and the granddaughter of a famous painter. In 1876, she wrote her memoirs A Woman in War, and although it reads like a penny novel and has a Forrest Gump feel to it, it’s a fascinating tale nonetheless, maybe even the greatest folktale of Shiloh. Its basics are worth repeating here.
While a teenager, her father sent her to New Orleans for schooling, and there she fell in love with and married a young U.S. Army officer. At the outbreak of the war, she persuaded her husband, a Texan, to side with the Confederacy. The husband, who had served under Johnston in Utah, was amenable and soon was commissioned as a captain and dispatched to Pensacola, Florida.
Loreta, whose heroine was Joan of Arc, was imbued with a passion of her own. She had a uniform specially made, and ordered some sort of apparatus, designed to conceal her feminine physique. With that, she ordered a trunk labeled in the name of Harry T. Buford, and became a Confederate lieutenant.
Lieutenant Harry T. Buford and Loreta Janeta Velazquez. Source: A Woman in War

Traveling to Arkansas, she moved in with a family named Giles, whose daughter Sadie promptly fell in love with the dashing Lieutenant Buford. While there Loreta/Harry recruited an infantry company, including Sadie’s two brothers, and hustled them off to Pensacola where she turned them over to her husband. That accomplished, Loreta/Harry sought other ways to serve the Confederacy.
Over the course of the next months, if you believe her account, she participated in the battles of Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff, and Ft. Donelson, and also met President Lincoln. Her first husband had died, and she had begun a correspondence with his second-in-command Thomas De Caulp, a flirtation that eventually resulted in their engagement.
During a sojourn in New Orleans, her true gender was discovered, and she took off with the authorities hot on her trail. Finding herself in Memphis shortly after the fall of Fort Donelson, she was alerted to the impending battle at Shiloh. Which brings us to her meeting with Hardee at Shiloh Meeting House and her encounter with her fiance.
Velazquez/Buford joined the company commanded by her fiancé De Caulp and fought with them through a long, hot day, during the course of which, she assumed at least partial command of the company. In her words:

We had not been long engaged before the second lieutenant of the company fell. I immediately stepped into his place, and assumed the command of his men. This action was greeted by a hearty cheer from the entire company, all the veterans of which, of course, knew me, and I took the greeting as an evidence that they were glad to see their original commander with them once more, and evidently anxious to do a full share of the heavy job of work that was to be done before the field could be ours. This cheer from the men was an immense inspiration to me; and the knowledge that not my lover only, but the company which I had myself recruited, and thousands of others of the brave boys of our Southern army were watching my actions approvingly, encouraged me to dare everything, and to shrink from nothing to render myself deserving of their praises.

But wasn’t she afraid of what might happen to her beloved? Strangely enough, no.

It may be thought that, even if I felt no fear for myself, as a woman I should have had some tremors when beholding my lover advancing into the thick of a desperate fight, at the head of his men. The idea of fear, either on his or on my own account, however, never occurred to me at the time, although, on reflecting over the matter afterwards, it struck me that some slight emotion of that kind would perhaps have been proper under the circumstances. We cannot think of everything at once, however; and just at that time I was intent only on defeating the enemy before me, and proving myself a good fighter in the eyes of Captain De Caulp and his command. As for him, I desired for his sake, even more ardently than on my own account, that the occasion should be a glorious one, and I had a strange delight in following him into the thickest of the mêlée, and in watching with what undaunted spirit he bore himself throughout the long and sternly fought battle.

They fought on during the day, in heroic fashion, according to Velazquez/Buford.

"Our assaults upon the enemy were made with irresistible fury, and we rushed through their lines, literally mowing them down like grain before the mowing machine. It was grander fighting than I had ever witnessed before, surpassing even the great sortie at Fort Donelson in desperateness and inspirational qualities. The bullets whistled through the air thick and fast, cutting the trees, and making the branches snap and fly, splintering the fence rails, striking the wagons, or sending some poor soldier suddenly to the earth. A corporal who was by my side was shot through the heart by a Minie ball. He fell heavily against me, and all my clothing was reddened by his blood. His only words were, "Damn the Yankees! they have killed me." He was a very handsome young man, only about twenty two years of age, and his death perfectly infuriated me, as it did his other comrades."

As the sun set, the Arkansas boys with Buford/Velazquez among their ranks considered it a day well spent. But Johnston was dead and Beauregard declined to push the assault. Most soldiers were inclined to get a little sleep after such a hellish day. But not Buford/Velazquez. She decided that a little reconnaissance was in order. So, accordingly, she made her way to Pittsburgh Landing to assess the situation.

"I could not resist the temptation of making an effort to find out for myself exactly what the situation within the enemy's lines really was, and was willing to run all the risks of being caught and shot as a spy, rather than to endure the suspense of a long night of uncertainty.

"My station was with the advanced picket line, I having persuaded the captain to post me in a manner most favorable for carrying out my designs. I did not dare to tell him all I proposed to do, for fear that he would consider it his duty to prevent me, but gave him to understand that I intended, under cover of the darkness, to creep up as close as I could, with safety, to the Federal lines, with a view of trying to find out something concerning their movements. He hesitated somewhat at even permitting me to do this much without the knowledge of the colonel, but finally gave a tacit consent. I also refrained from telling my full design to my immediate companion of the picket station, and made up a story about my intentions, which I thought would keep him quiet, and also promised to give him a drink of good whiskey when I got back if he would mind his own business and not attempt to interfere with me."

Arriving at the landing, she discovered what she assumed would be the case – utter chaos. The Yankees were packing the terrain around the landing like so many sardines in a can.

"The Federals were crowding about the Landing in utter disorder, and were without any means of crossing the river. They were completely in a trap, and so evidently keenly appreciated the fact, that the capture of the entire army ought to have been an easy matter. One more grand charge along the entire line, in the same brilliant fashion that we had opened the battle, and every officer and man on this side of the river would either have been slain or taken prisoner, while we would have gained possession of the Landing, and have prevented any of the expected reinforcements from crossing."

Seeing the turmoil at Pittsburgh Landing, Buford/Velazquez was convinced that a nighttime strike against the Yankees was essential to victory. With that realization, she started her treacherous return trip to the safety of Confederate lines, but an odd incident happened along the way.

"While surveying, from my post of observation in the bushes, the movements of the routed Federal troops at the Landing, a small boat, with two officers in it, passed up the river. As it drew near the place where I was concealed, I recognized one of the officers as General Grant, and the other one I knew by his uniform to be a general. Grant I had seen at Fort Donelson, and I had met with pictures of him in some of the illustrated papers, so that I had no trouble in knowing him in spite of the darkness. The boat passed so close to me that I could occasionally catch a word or two of the conversation that was passing between the Federal commander and his associate, although, owing to the splashing of the oars, and the other noises, I could not detect what they were talking about.

"My heart began to beat violently when I saw Grant, and my hand instinctively grasped my revolver. Both he, and the officer with him, were completely at my mercy, for they were within easy pistol shot, and my first impulse was to kill them, and run the risk of all possible consequences to myself. I did even go so far as to take a good aim, and in a second more, had I been a little firmer nerved, the great Federal general, and the future President of the United States, would have finished his career."

And, so, with one well-placed pistol shot, Buford/Velazquez could have changed destiny. But, she didn’t. She returned to her fiancé and tried to convince him to go to his colonel and then to Beauregard to urge an immediate assault. De Caulp balked and history played itself out. Buford/Velazquez later claimed to have been wounded while on an expedition with the 11th Louisiana Infantry to bury their dead in the Shiloh vicinity.

She claimed to have continued serving the Confederacy both as a man and as a woman. Later in the war, De Caulp died, but not before the couple was wed in a touching bedside ceremony. During the postwar years, she married for a third time. In 1876, she published her memoirs.

Is there any truth to Buford/Velazquez’s story? A little. Loreta Janeta Velazquez was a real woman, born in Havanna, Cuba on 26 June 1842. She is known to have frequented Baxter County, Arkansas about the time of the war, and was married at one time to a man named Roach, who was probably her last husband.

Her reminiscences of the war are general enough to have been gleaned from published accounts. She doesn’t always provide names for her closest associates, and when she does they prove very difficult to track down. She offers only her first husband’s given name and no surname. A Confederate officer named Thomas DeKalb did exist, but rather than dying battle, he deserted. No trace of Philip Hastings, a Confederate lieutenant with whom she claimed to have been friends has yet been found. And Lieutenant Harry T. Buford rates not one mention in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, although that, in and of itself, disproves nothing of her story. There are tantalizing clues in wartime newspapers that mention someone quite like Velazquez.

That women dressed as soldiers and fought is indisputable. Malinda Blalock served as an infantryman in a North Carolina regiment just to stay near her husband, Keith. It was only after Keith was wounded that Malinda revealed her true gender to their commanding officer. Albert D.J. Cashier served throughout the entire war and later lived in a soldier’s home. By some estimates, 750 women enlisted in the Union army alone.

I’ve dubbed Loreta Velazquez as the “mystery woman” of the battle at Shiloh, but perhaps the true mystery woman first came to light in 1934. A grave was discovered on the edge of the park that year, containing the remains of nine Union soldiers. When the bones were examined forensically, it was revealed that one of the nine was a woman, and from the placement of a musket ball in the grave, it appears that the woman was killed in battle, one of the thousands of casualties at Shiloh.


Posted by Tony Hays

I'm finally getting back to the old blog. It was an incredibly hectic and crazy late Spring, Summer, and Fall. I am now in residence on Rattlesnake Hill with all the puppies. George, Jack, and Tinker have now been joined by Bear and Junior. Junior is actually Jack, Junior, by name, not blood. Bear had been living with my old neighbor, dear Miss Ann Bain. She passed away this summer and Bear came back to live with me. He misses Miss Ann as we all do, but he's happy to be back with George.

Just to catch you up, big things have been happening. In the summer, the folks at Tor/Forge were able to sell the UK/Commonwealth rights to The Killing Way and The Divine Sacrifice to Grove/Atlantic UK's new imprint, Corvus (which also publishes Robert B. Parker, C.J. Box, Jane Smiley and Pat Conroy among others). The Beloved Dead comes out on March 29, 2011 and the calendar is already filling up. Stops have already been arranged for Memphis, Chicago, Madison, WI, San Mateo, CA, San Diego etc. A trip to England is in the works for May for the hardcover release of The Killing Way and to attend CrimeFest in Bristol. The Stolen Bride, volume #4 in the series, is now in my editor's hands.

I am just about to finish drafting a Shakespearian period mystery, currently untitled. With good sales for The Beloved Dead and plenty of luck, I'll get a new contract to extend the Arthur series in the spring. (Buy those books!)

Next week, look for a more regular blog posting. Oh, and avoid deer. I hit one on my way back from a great afternoon of mystery at Clues Unlimited in Tucson, AZ right before Thanksgiving.

Short Hiatus  

Posted by Tony Hays

I apologize for my absence, but my Spring book tour for The Divine Sacrifice has interfered somewhat. I'm happy to say, however, that the release of my new novel has gone very well. Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine named The Divine Sacrifice one of the best new mysteries of 2010. The Divine Sacrifice hit #2 in hardcover fiction on the Davis-Kidd bestseller list in the Nashville Tennessean in its April 17th edition. Richard on Mystery One Bookstore's blog named my series of his own new, personal favorites. I've got a lot to be appreciative and grateful for.

Back to the regular blogs soon.

The Mysterious Case of Etta Place Pt. I  

Posted by Tony Hays

There are, literally, hundreds of mysterious disappearances lurking in American history. What happened to Amelia Earhart, the famous female aviator of the 1930s? For that matter, what happened to Judge Joseph Force Crater, who disappeared in the summer of 1930? Or, a more recent case, what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters chief who went to meet a union official and was never seen again? But we can safely say that these were involuntary disappearances. Earhart's plane went down somewhere in the Pacific on a round-the-globe flight. Crater had some unsavory companions and was last seen carrying a great deal of money. In all fairness though, Crater's young mistress, Sally Lou Ritz, disappeared within weeks of Crater and, like him, has never been seen since. Hoffa, well, Hoffa had a lot of enemies.

But the story of Etta Place is rather more mysterious because it would appear that she chose to disappear, not long after the reported deaths of her lover, Harry Longabaugh and his friend, Robert Leroy Parker, better known to posterity as the Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. What makes it doubly mysterious is that we don't even know her real name or from whence she came. Katherine Ross did a wonderful job fixing her image in the public consciousness in the 1969 movie "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," elevating her to near iconic status. But all that did was birth a generation of Etta Place fans.

I would never claim to be a true Etta Place aficionado; I happened on the conundrum she poses quite by accident. In fact, I was a little surprised that the world had simply swallowed Etta up. But I quickly learned that except for about 12 years at the most, Etta Place didn't exist.

The majority of the experts agree that Butch and Sundance probably met Etta at a bordello around 1900. The Pinkerton Agency, which had a strong interest in Etta, described her as attractive, speaking with an educated tone. Estimates of her birth year range from 1878 to 1882 or 1883. Rumors suggest that she was a cousin of Longabaugh's since Longabaugh's mother was a Place. General consensus holds that Sundance met Etta at Fannie Porter's bordello in San Antonio about 1900. By 1909, Etta had ridden off into the sunset, while Sundance and Butch were said to be dead in South America. Indeed there are those researchers who say that Etta died in South America as well. Acquaintances, what few there were, called Etta beautiful and said that she spoke with a refined accent. Without ever saying anything explicit, she indicated that she hailed from the East Coast. Pinkerton Detective Agency reports supported this as well. Only a handful of people knew her well enough as Etta Place to offer descriptions – Annie Bassett, Josie Bassett, and Laura Bullion among these. This trio of young ladies were the girlfriends of various members of the Wild Bunch, the outlaw gang of which Butch and Sundance were a big part.

Assuming, as seems certain, that Etta (or Ethel) Place was not her real name, I set out to see what I could do to add to the mystery. (Notice I said "add.")

The United States census is a marvelous thing. Beginning with 1790, it has been taken every ten years. And, since I had a city (San Antonio) and a head of household (Fannie Porter), I thought it would be beneficial to look at the 1900 census of Bexar County, as the researcher consensus says that's the nexus year, the year they all came together. Fannie, herself little more than a girl in 1900, claimed to be of British extraction. The birthdates did not help all that much. Of the five girls, all were born in or around 1878-80. One girl in the household intrigued me beyond the others. Twenty-two year old Madaline (sic) Wilson appears in the census immediately beneath Madam Fannie. And like Fannie, she is listed as of English birth, immigrating to the United States in 1884 when she was six. Now here's where the conjecture has to come in. It is quite possible that she had changed her name, but does that dictate that she would have changed her date of birth, country of origin, and date of immigration? In the second part, I'll explore those questions and see if Madaline Wilson is a legitimate candidate for Etta Place.

On the Road Again  

Posted by Tony Hays in , , ,

I'm taking a short break from blogging. The Spring book tour has caught up with me, as I'm writing this from Tombstone, AZ. However, I'm coming up with great blog topics. Check back soon as I will be talking about the ghosts of Tombstone.

Let's Talk About Ghosts, Part II  

Posted by Tony Hays in , , , ,

A few weeks ago, I spent some time talking about the phenomenon of ghosts, spirits, whatever you choose to call them. My father lumped them all together under the name, "Casper." As I stated then, I'm open-minded on the issue. As technology has advanced, so have the efforts to "pin" down ghosts. Photography was the first tool to be used, and cameras have produced some of the most thought-provoking images. Consider the famous shot below of the "Brown Lady" of Raynham Hall, taken in 1936.

Skeptics argue that it was "the result of mundane causes such as camera vibration, afternoon light from the window above the stairs catching the lens of the camera, and double exposure" ( ). They may be right. But WHICH of those possible causes resulted in this photo. I'm sorry, but if you're going to demand that presenters of such photos or other data, you have an equal burden of showing why it is NOT evidence of the paranormal. You can't just toss out a global, "it could be."

But back to ghost photos.

The photo below is also a famous one. It purports to be of a WWI airplane squadron. Two days before the shot was taken, according to the story, a mechanic, Freddy Jackson, was killed. Sources say that Freddy couldn't bear to miss the squadron photo and peaked in from the grave. Check the inset.

True or a hoax? You tell me. But that certainly isn't dust and the afternoon light. And it would be a strange double exposure that impacted only that tiny fraction of the photograph. Critics spend most of their time discrediting the source of the photograph, a man named Goddard who, it would seem, was somewhat on the loony side. But, hey! Jack did indeed cry "Wolf!" a lot. And at least one time, there really was a wolf.

And then, there's the baby on the grave. Allegedly, when this photo was taken, there was nothing and no one on top of the grave. Only when the film was developed did the baby appear. And, again allegedly, there was a baby buried very, very near this grave.

I do not know that this is a fake. It looks much more like a double exposure than the first two. But who can say.

The Illogic of Skeptics  

Posted by Tony Hays

One of the things that I have done over the last twenty years is to teach basic writing at universities and community colleges. Hand-in-hand with that goes the task of introducing students to critical thinking and the research process. I've always hyped the virtues of being skeptical, of not taking things at face value, of looking at evidence and drawing your own conclusions. But then over this past weekend, I happened to surf onto a couple of the more prominent websites run by skeptics, and I realized that skeptics break faith with the critical thinking they claim to personify, and in a big way.

A basic tenet of critical thinking and the research process is to eliminate, as much as is possible, any research bias. When you enter into a project with a bias, you consciously or subconsciously seek out evidence that will support your position. Let's say you've always been intrigued by the legends of Robin Hood and you decide to write about that. If you already believe that Robin Hood existed, and you don't check that belief at the door, you are going to discount, disregard or downplay any evidence that strengthens the proposition that he was but myth.

Here's the thing. Skeptics approach their investigations automatically disbelieving. They demand to be presented with scientific, sustainable evidence before they will concede defeat. And they never concede defeat, or at least a cursory journey through their websites and magazines did not find such an instance. Besides having entered into the project with a pre-existing bias, they have another handicap – as avowed skeptics they have a vested interest in never being convinced that Robin Hood actually existed. How can they be a credible skeptic if they allow themselves to be convinced of anything. Thus, they never seem to have enough evidence to push them over that precipice, and they cloak their stubborn, biased brand of skepticism as critical thinking.

What they are not, in essence, are skeptics. Rather, they classify more closely as contrarians, always taking the opposite viewpoint, the negative side of any question. So, for these researchers, Lee Harvey Oswald will always be the lone assassin of JFK. Robin Hood will never be more than a myth dreamt up centuries ago. UFOs will never exist. King Arthur will never be more than a figment of Geoffrey of Monmouth's imagination. Ghosts and the paranormal do not exist.

We're humans, and we are susceptible to all the flaws and foibles that humans are heir to (to paraphrase Shakespeare – but wait a minute! He didn't exist either!) It is nearly impossible to eliminate all bias or prejudice from your research efforts. But it is a goal that we should never stop pursuing.

I don't have any problem with folks who try to argue that their point is a valid one, as long as they use facts and evidence to support their position and they acknowledge counter arguments. But don't cloak your bias as critical thinking when you start out violating a major tenet of the research process.

Okay, I'll climb down off my soapbox.

Let's Talk About Ghosts, Part I  

Posted by Tony Hays in , , ,

Let’s Talk About Ghosts, Part I

I spent my teenage years in an old house that was built before the Civil War. Our den was in the original log cabin portion of the house, and in the summer, it had the best cross breeze. Often, my father would sleep on one couch and I would sleep on the other. One night, when I was about 16, I awoke suddenly. I looked down at the end of the couch and saw the hazy form of a woman in 19th century dress standing and staring at me.

Then she disappeared.

Had I seen a ghost? Or was I really still asleep and dreamed it? I couldn’t possibly tell you. But I believe that I really saw her.

Are ghosts real? I don’t know. But I do know that there are innumerable things in our world that we do not understand, yet. Consider the photo below. It was taken by a security camera at infamous Hampton Court Palace, built by the ill-fated Cardinal Wolsey who used the luxurious manor as a forlorn last bribe to Henry VIII to save his life. Anne Boelyn walked the corridors as did Catherine Howard.

Skeptics have tried to debunk the event, but the staff at Hampton Court have politely burst all their bubbles. They call the figure “Skeletor,” and he appears to be clothed in Tudor period clothing. The staff are adamant that such a costume has never been used by anyone there, and they further insist that no one was in that particular area of the building when the shot was taken. Actually, cameras caught two other strange incidents at this very door.

Often, debunkers are able to prove a simple explanation. On the southern edge of Kuwait City sits an abandoned royal palace. Rumor had it that the Iraqis used it as a prison/torture house during their occupation of the tiny Gulf emirate. Back in those days, I was friends with a group of half Kuwaiti/half American kids. We would slip into the compound at night (avoiding the little red flags marking landmines) and wander through the spooky old place. The stories of torture had some basis in fact. A number of the rooms had blood splattered on the walls. The girls always claimed that they could hear a baby crying, but it was really just the wind whipping through a sad, lonely relic. But, occasionally, there just isn’t a simple explanation. Like “Skeletor” at Hampton Court.

The numbers argue against there being nothing to the phenomenon called ghosts if nothing else does. Hundreds of thousands of people have had such experiences. Not all of them were just seeing things. Not all of them were simply lying. Life is energy. We do not completely understand the mysteries of energy. Perhaps, just perhaps, phenomena such as “Skeletor” are the flickering impressions of energy on the atmosphere. Perhaps events of enormous emotion leave reminders where they occurred. Just perhaps.

The Bell Witch  

Posted by Tony Hays

When I was a little boy, my brother, Ronnie, told me that if you dialed a certain telephone number, you would reach the Bell Witch of Adams, Tennessee and hear her screech. Dutifully and curious, I dialed the number as instructed. You did hear a screech, but I think it had more to do with telephone circuits than the supernatural. But, in Tennessee and throughout the country, the witch was a true phenomenon. Few houses back then didn't have a copy of the infamous Red Book, written by 19th century newspaper editor M.V.B. Ingram, that detailed the witch's treachery, beginning in 1817. Nearly 200 years have passed since its alleged first appearance, but the Bell Witch story is still alive and well, evidence the movie An American Haunting with Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek.

According to the basic story, a paranormal entity (exhibiting poltergeist-like behavior) harassed the John Bell family of Adams, Tennessee starting in 1817. The "witch," frequently called Kate, was particularly cruel to John Bell and his daughter, Betsy, being eventually credited with causing John's death. It was said to slap and pinch Betsy mercilessly. Once it caused John's tongue to swell so that he could neither speak nor eat. Apparently, though, it had a soft spot for John's wife, Lucy, once treating her to grapes (appearing from thin air) when she was sick. A disembodied voice would regale visitors of happenings in the neighborhood or repeating, word-for-word two sermons given at the same time, but miles apart. According to Ingram's account, it was phenomena witnessed by many in the community and was widely spoken of throughout the region. Spinoff stories told of Andrew Jackson's encounter with the witch. The witch remained until 1820 and the death of John Bell. It promised to return at a specific time in the future, which the Red Book says it did. Included in Ingram's book is an eyewitness account written by one of John Bell's sons.

All of that said, there are problems with the story. It's not like the David Lang story that I spoke of last week. John Bell and his family were unquestionably real, living exactly where they were alleged to have lived. A few years ago, I took it upon myself to annotate the Red Book, tracking down as many of the people mentioned as best I could. The people were real. Ingram's book contains numerous interviews with people who witnessed those long ago events or whose parents did, allegedly. But here's the thing. While north central Tennessee was still, truly, a frontier at the time of the events in question, there were area newspapers. Extant copies are silent on the Bell affair. It is alleged that the Saturday Evening Post ran an article on the story in 1849, but the issues for that year do not exist any longer and so can't be checked. Ingram's account did not appear until 1894. There are absolutely no corroborating documents to support the Andrew Jackson encounter.

But the families named did exist. Their descendants were living in the area at the time that Ingram's book was released. Were the entire affair fabricated by Ingram, I sincerely doubt that those descendants would all have remained unanimously silent. Somebody would surely have disputed the account, unless they too had been hearing the story their entire lives.

It is a mystery. And is destined to remain one. All that I can say with any certainty is that the world contains many things that we do not understand, and most probably will never understand. This may be one of them.

(Thanks to my friend Woodson Marshall for prodding me on this.)

Of Man and Myth and History  

Posted by Tony Hays

Often, I'm reminded of Abraham Lincoln's old dictum: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." And, of course, there's George W. Bush's attributed quote on the same question: "You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on." In the course of my research on various topics, I'm often amazed at what people accept as the absolute truth without a speck of proof.

For many years, one of the oddest stories in human experience was that of David Lang. Lang, a farmer in Sumner County, Tennessee during the 1870s and 1880s, was out in a field near his home one soft, spring evening, just before sundown. As the rattle of a buggy sounded on the lane, he looked up to see his brother-in-law and a local judge riding towards the house, where his wife and children were outside as well. Lang started across the field to meet his visitors. And then something truly bizarre happened.

Lang disappeared in full view of the judge, the brother-in-law, his wife and children.

A full-fledged search was launched, but no trace of David Lang was ever seen again. That winter, the children noticed that at the very spot where their father was last seen, the grass had turned yellow in a perfect circle. They claimed that, once, they heard the distant sound of their father, calling for help.

In the 1950s, the story reached worldwide circulation through the writings of Frank Edwards, whose Amazing But True books were widely read. Reader's Digest carried the story in the 1970s. The Disney Channel also ran a program on the story. Always presented as the truth.

But there was a real problem.

David Lang never existed. Sumner County records show no Lang family at the time in question. Indeed county officials in Sumner County are still at a loss to explain how the story came to be universally accepted as fact. The judge cited could not be found. It was, completely and totally, a tall tale, but one that fooled not only a lot of people, but Reader's Digest, which has always boasted a world-class fact checking department.

Nobody checked the facts until long after the tale was in wide circulation. And even then, people refused to believe that it was made up. In actuality, it is virtually word for word a copy of Ambrose Bierce's 1909 short story "The Difficulties of Crossing a Field."

For me, the story of David Lang (or non-story) is a cautionary tale, reminding me to never accept anything at face value.

When Does History Surrender to Fiction?  

Posted by Tony Hays

I wrote recently about going to locations you were writing about. Another constant question concerns the integration of history and fiction. When does history take a backseat to the story or vice versa? In other words, when do we ignore the facts in favor of the fiction?

An old friend of mine, the late Dr. Frank B. Williams III, professor emeritus of history and former department chair at East Tennessee State University, often told the story of the so-called Battle of Mud Run in Savannah, Tennessee. It was a tongue-in-cheek appellation as the event in question centered around the day the Union gunboats first appeared on the Tennessee River at Savannah. There was no battle, but all the Confederates and Southern sympathizers panicked and fled, turning unpaved Main Street into a long "mud run." With a twinkle in his eye, Frank would regale his class, recounting how one of his ancestors, hobbled by a wooden peg-leg, made it ten miles out of town before he stopped. "That peg-leg is still in the family," Williams would say, "and it's still got mud on it from the Mud Run." Naturally, some credulous student would query, with mouth agape, "Really?" Dr. Frank would smile and say with a wink, "never let the facts get in the way of a good story." The phrase has almost become a cliché, but there is some truth in it. In the broader view.

But readers of historical fiction are some of the most demanding in the world. They are sophisticated readers, intelligent, who readily see the difference between "literary license" and factual errors. They will be the first to tell you when you've made a blunder. Quite frankly, I've seen more historical novels trashed in reviews for inaccuracy in their historical detail than for any flaw in the story. And that is the audience for which we write. Dedicated, demanding, and constantly challenging the writer to educate and entertain them. It is frequently said, "history makes good history." History is real life. Real life is surrounded by jagged edges and unfinished sentences. Those are what writers of historical fiction have to work with and around as they try to fashion a story from the flotsam and jetsam of reality.

Gore Vidal wrote in his author's note to Burr that he occasionally moved people and events around as the story needed. Indeed, he admitted to resurrecting someone long dead because he needed that particular person at that particular point in the story. That, I think, is the key. Hemingway once said that you could leave something out of a story if you knew what you were omitting and why. The reader will sense that and accept it. But if you leave something out because you don't know what goes there, said Hemingway, the reader will sense it and it will become a hole, a gap in the story. The same principle, I believe, applies to accuracy in historical fiction. As Vidal points out, if you move things around because you need them to be altered, and you know that's what you are doing, that's okay. The key in historical fiction is letting the reader know that you've changed things in an afterword or author's note. Then it becomes an error of design, not faulty research.