Tales of Knotts Island

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Be aware that the information in these tales is dated and, as expected, may not be as socially, politically, or racially sensitive as current writings.

by Henry Beasley Ansell

from 1907 to 1912


Two thousand and more years ago the Greek and Roman States were presided over by mythical deities under whom all lived, moved and had their being. In every vocation of life there was a myth that presided its destiny. These myths presided over religions school where the power of these gods was taught. Doubtless, these schools had many participants and graduates from the governing class; but the poor and ignorant were not allowed to enter these mystic religious orders, for thus could the common people be better governed end led. But the masses were allowed to attend the outside exhibitions, the sacrificial dances conducted by these wise old pagan priests.

These priest-actors resorted to all manner of ways to stupfy and bewilder the audiences, thus demonstrating the power of these myth-gods. The people were made to hear mysterious voices, singing, whispering, sighing, and mystic, gleaming lights. This power of the gods, so set forth, kept the masses from revolution and bloodshed.

Later on when Christianity made an entrance in the Roman states and eventually took charge of its heads, it appears the Roman Church began trying slowly and softly, to rid the people of the popular tendency to myth worship; and, in this manner, it adopted many of the former mythological wonders and phantoms and side-shows handed down from the great storehouse of mythology and paganism. It might appear that as the Christian became fully established in Rome, myths would have been eradicated; but no; ghosts, haunts, witchcraft, and other hallucinations grew up instead. These superstitious ideas overspread all Christendom and were little less hurtful than the former practices of paganism. All such doctrine held to by the early Church and state, helped in a great degree to blight Christanity, retarded its development, and finally helped to bring about the dark ages.

After the early Christian Church became fully established in Europe, the popes ruled not only spiritually but temporally throughout all western Europe up to and after the 12th century; later on the machinery of the Roman Church became so merged into external government and took such little in its proper official religious duties, that in 15th century its spiritual life began to decay even in Rome itself. Rome was the center of this vast church and state system, and its spiritual decay began to show itself in many forms. The priests, both high and low, became ignorant bigots; and gave themselves up to worldly life and to the abuse of spiritual privileges. The papacy itself became half pagan. The Church, having already forgotten its religious mission was now used not even for governmental purposes but for the extravagant and selfish luxury of the executive heads of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church now granted indulgences for the commission of crimes and sinful offences; the friars or preachers were going through Europe disposing of papal indulgences; in other words, you could indulge yourself in crime to any degree whatsoever by paying to the priest a little money, to help build Saint Peters' or for other even less worthy purposes. Such a scandal had the pernicious practice become. So in the 16th century Luther and other wise heads of the Church and of educational institutions, protested and rebelled against the thousand misdoings that were now prevalent and predominant; as a result, the wars of the Reformation came on, and blood-shed in the name of God was the order of the day. In this war, murders in all manner of ways were committed, as first one and then the other party rose dominant. After a long contest in Europe came out of this conflict double-creeded--Roman Catholic and Protestant.

Now, is it not astonishing that these great Roman superstitions cheats, imbedded so long in the mind of all Europe, were not all wiped out in this fought-to-a-finish Reformation? But not so; the old cherished superstitions, especially witchcraft, haunts, ghosts, spirits, visions, etc., still hung on with a tenacious grip, as they had been hanging on for centuries past and as they were to hang on for centuries to come, even following our worthy English ancestors to this land. The tenacity of such superstitions is one of the wonders of the present enlightened age. Even those who should long ago have known better--judges, clergymen, generals, statesmen, lawmakers, those that have led the society of the nations--were all imbued, little or much, with these hallucinations.

When a reformation, led by some wiser heads, did set in to annihilate this great incubus upon society, one is reminded very much of trying to rid a kerosene cask, after emptied of its contents, of its previous smell; it requires long soakings and many washings. It is as easy to rid the fishy taint from fishy meat as to rid the ignorant of these superstitions.

Now, as all Europe and America were saturated with them, why should not Knotts Island, in and before the first half of the last century, have its share of witchcraft,--visions, ghosts, haunts and warning dreams? That is precisely what it did have.

When the writer was a child and often carried visiting at night to neighbors homes, or when visitors would come to our home to sit till bed-time, a cricket in the corner would be his place; and, perched on that cricket, with hair standing perpendicular to the scalp, he took in many horror striking tales about "haunts," witches and ghosts.

After this he would be afraid to go to bed, for he had to sleep alone; and if he didn't get to sleep before his father did, he could often hear witches and haunts coming from the stairs, across the room toward him, cracking the sand on the floor under their feet. Then he would squall out for his daddy. The father would get up and assure him no witches were there. Now, if the boy could get to sleep before his father did, he would be all right. But frequently this squalling out would be so often repeated in one night that his daddy would get worried at his son's pranks and would make him dance to the the tune of a privy-bush switch; and the fright would be over for that night. The witches always came from the stairs and acrossed the room step by step to the bedside. The boy got many a flogging for disturbing his papa on this account.

These coming bedside witches, had never got on the bed is strangle this youngster, nor to ride him out to a witch ace as they had others; perhaps they no taste for cold riding; he began to think possibly there might be some mistake about these bedside witches.

His father told him that if he would uncover and look when the witch got over him at the bed side, he would see nothing. He had suffered so much he had determined to look the next time.

It was a lovely moon-light night; he could see almost everything within the room; his mind was fully prepared for this severe testing trial. By and by he heard the witch coming, as often before, and when at the bedside; tremblingly he looked. No witch there. This somewhat assured him. He covered up again, and again the witch arrived: again he uncovered: and no witch there. He lay there and tried to unravel the mystery. His covering was a woolen counter fram in winter and a cotton one in summer; lying flat-a-back; the counterpane; now you have it.

At first the eyes would open and close slowly, the witch far away; then as he got more frightened and winked faster, the witch came nearer and nearer, until she came to the bedside; then he shut his eyes expecting to be grabbed; and squalled, and of course the witch stopped or went away.

The counterpane and eye lashes brought him loads of trouble and many stripes; he was only a small boy then, and he long ago bade farewell to all these superstitious crafts.

The witch-ridden people who were continually seeing haunts and ghosts received false impressions, so that a great many ordinary objects seen and noises heard in the dark became hideously "haunty." The whole brain was enveloped with layer upon layer of ghostism.

When any noise struck the ear or a ray of light the eye it had to penetrate these layers; there the mind received a series of these false impressions, or phantasmagoria.

It should be remembered that the people in those days had but few books other than the children's school books; these latter consisted of the Blue-back Speller, Walker's Dictionary, a Popular Lesson, and from this, they graded up to an English Reader which, to render its lessons clear and plain, would have acquired a Harvard graduate; but in the highest grade you could find a Murray's Grammar; and, in every house, a Bible, or at least the New Testament with Psalms. These last bought, paid for and read; and no dust accumulated on them as now. Almost every family on the Island at leisure hours, especially Sunday mornings, had some lesson in the New Testament read aloud. Many a Sunday morning, when the writer was a child in bed, his father would get up, do the chores, and then sit and read aloud some of the Saints, while my mother-in-law with an attentive ear, reverential demeanor prepared breakfast; and very likely, at this same time, there were scores of others doing the same thing, for the good and the bad read this book.

As I have said before, these people read the Bible, and after Tom Jones's meeting, their personal magnetic needle pointed toward the "meeting-house"; but now-a-days in every house may be found stacks of newspapers, magazines, novels and other literature in immense quantities and qualities; the Bible appears to have been assigned to a back-seat where dust and cob-webs gather; and, if placed on a center table, it is there only for ornament. Reading the Bible has grown wonderfully less outside of Sunday-schools. In olden days, all the old people in coming home from church of preaching days, could in one minute by the watch, find the preacher's text it would be marked for future reference, and seldom ever forgotten. Now-a-days, I doubt if, one in twenty, recollects anything about the text when arriving at home but can tell in detail of dress lectures and of the hats worn.

The old-timers though not only read the Bible but they argued the Bible. Should one have the temerity to tackle one of these, who believed in witch-craft and ghosts, and overtake to convince him of the fallacy, he would soon cite to the 28th chapter, first book of Samuel: "See if he was not, after having been dead two years, raised from the dead by the witch of Ender, to have a chat with King Saul, face to face, sir." "For does not the Devil enter people and make witches of them to torment us?" "Is not the Devil let loose like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour?" Over hearing such strong proof, and that from the Bible, you very likely would find yourself squelched.

I forgot to mention in the proper place some other books read here besides those already named:--Book of Martyrs, books of Sea-Tales, the latter giving accounts of pirates and sea phantoms. These books, and their like, were second only to the Bible; and reading these startling phantom-ship tales helped the people to keep in line with spirits and religious mysteries.

What a misfortune it was for a woman to arrive at old age with dark eyes and hair, dark and wrinkled face for she would surely be dubbed "witch." They were not so particular and rigid about the complexion of a wizard, for I am sure there was a light-haired man on there who was accused of wizardism and of having turned many of these wizard-ridden subjects into horses and then riding them spur-speed to a witch dance in the forest. I was young then; yet, I knew this good, inoffensive old man well--there was none better. There were several witches, so called, on there good old creatures. Most of the houses, on there, at that day were clap boarded, shingled, floored, windowed and accompanied with a chimney. There were many cracks and peep-holes in this whip-sawed lumber for weatherboarding and also in the doors, made of the same lumber. Many had peep-cracks or knott holes near the beds, where they might be used to watch for the dawn of day; for it must be understood that seventy and more years ago, clocks were not so plentiful and cheap as now. The time of night was pretty accurately guessed at by the different cock-crows, the going down of the evening stars and the first dim glaze that precedes the morning light hence the peep-holes. The people of those days were our superiors in guessing the time of night. The moon also was a great factor in their guessing the time of night.

These witches and wizards, it seems, operated thus: They would first turn to a bug on the outside; they would then utilize these cracks and knot holes and enter the inside. The subject to be ridden very likely had eaten much supper or was in a sickly state; and soon he would be in nightmare land. In this condition the crack or hole would be seen to darken; in would come the bug, fly around with a roaring noise, dab on the floor near the victim; going through the retransformation, there would stand the old witch or wizard well known to the victim on the bed. Grinning fiendishly and with a satanic spring it would land with a heavy thud on the victims abdominal regions. Then with knees on the victim's stomach, elbow on his breast and hands on his throat, choking, horribly, the unfortunate was soon overcome; a sense of the most oppressive helplessness set in; he could neither move, nor speak, nor breathe. When the subject was near death's door, the witch lightened up, went out as it came in, and departed to wreck vengence on some one else; unless per chance it took a notion to ride the victim out to a witch dance. This seldom happened with women victims; but when a disciple of his Satanic Majesty tackled a male, the subject was almost always turned to a horse and ridden under spur to a dance and tied to a tree until the dance was over at dawn.

Let it be understood by those who may read these stories that the appellation of "uncle" and "aunt" (used much herein) applied to old people which I may speak about, is not intended to convey blood or marriage relationship, but these words were considered by all, when I was a child, and it hangs on me yet, to convey a tender, reverential respect for the old. So when I say "uncle" or "aunt" the person referred to, may or may not be a kin to me. After this explanation, I will go on with my story.


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