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



My real Uncle Mac was full to the brim of illusions, ghosts and wizardry. He had a large family of children; and almost every year brought its baby; and, of course, it slept with its parents. One night the baby, being thus couched,was heard to cry as if under the bed--baby gone! Up got Uncle Mac, under the bed he went, among some myrtle bushes put there keep fleas away; no baby there; the baby cried again; surely it was under the bed; he bent there again, found it sitting erect among the myrtle bushes where he had searched before.

The baby now, for security, was placed between parents with arms around it; all at once the baby was gone again. Its whining could be heard but not located. A lightwood blaze was made, to aid the search, but no baby found; as the lightwood torch was placed in the fire-place, the child was heard as if up the chimney; lo and behold; there sat the baby erect on the lubber-pole. First-class dream. This child lived to three score and ten years of age, and has recently died.

Now this is the case even with those that believe no in haunts and ghosts; now multiply the imaginative element of their minds by a score and you have the minds of those who see so many sights. The questions arises, Did these people see the objects and hear the noises they said they did? Yes, their brains were shrouded in hallucinations; their minds were in a condition to receive the impression, and the circumstances of life did the rest. Their minds dwelt much upon the dead and their coming back to earth.

A ghost would always be wrapped in a shrouding sheet, and, if seen by a female, was generally of the female sex; but when seen by a male, it often changed to a male-ghost; usually with its head cut off.

Women, as a rule, saw these sights more frequently than did the men; and some were regarded by most people as specially endowed with the "sight to see spirits." There was little argument against it. A dark drizzly night, a span of bark off the end of a fence rail or a stump, its place watered by vapor and lighter than its surroundings; in a second, this would be a ghost, and would, at once, become life-size.

To verify this conclusion as to the true view to be taken of the mind of these sight-seers, I will relate a true story that came under my own observation: Mr. Leven Ballance lived just across the way from and near our home. He owned a white-and-yellow dog, with a white ring around his neck, named "Ring." I had been over to Ballance's house, on one occasion, and was coming back, when I saw this dog climb over our yeopon fence and pass by me, going home. As I came up to the place where the dog got over the fence, I saw a woman of our house-hold only about twenty yards away with a gazing stare directed toward me. When I got to her she appeared to be much agitated. "Did you see that woman, just as you were coming near here, get over our yeopon fence, and immediately vanish?" I told her no, it was not a woman at all, but it was old Ring. "Oh, no: You could not have seen that woman; she had a dark calico frock, with a white handkerchief tied around neck." Yes, I said, "and old Ring was dressed that way too; I saw him get over that fence at the same time you saw the woman." I doubt that I ever thoroughly convinced her that it was old Ring. When Ring jumped over, the fence hid him, and then her woman vanished in spirit-air, you see.

My father, to allay the fears of his family on this line, would tell us there were no spirits around that could be seen by the human eye; and further there were no witches , that rode folks; that it was a nightmare people had, as a consequence of over-eating or lying flat on the back. He would prove his assertions by the Doctors from Princess Anne, who attended on the Island.

This evidence had convinced me long ago; but father had nightmares frequently and to keep it away my mother-in-law kept a Bible under his pillow. This somewhat staggard my faith; for I had heard that when a witch came and found a Bible under the pi11ow, she had to read it through before she could tackle the subject. Nor did my father believe in spirits and ghosts; but his father's house had the reputation of being visited by a spirit, walking on the house-top, and groaning. It was said to have come along in this way: In a war between England and France, that ended about 1815, some two or three English men-of-war ran a French frigate ashore on the beach opposite the South End of Knotts Island. The French grounded their ship on our shore, and stark naked waded and swam across the bay to Knotts Island. My grandfather's house was near the bay and was the first house approached. My grandmother took in the situation at once, and threw to them every bit of men's clothing in the house, and not having enough, threw them her own garments and bed clothing for hip garments, and also gave them what she had to eat.

They went their way, getting a garment here and there, until they could get to Norfolk.

It was said one poor fellow comrade died or was drowned before reaching the Island; and, ever after, his spirit went foaming around hunting for his comrades; and as that house was the first stopping place, his spirit was frequently heard here moaning and groaning for his absent shipmates.

Now it was said, that each one of this large family, at some time had heard the groaning and audible walking to and fro on the house top. Father being the youngest of the family, had, himself, when a child, heard something groaning and walking which he could not account for. So you can see the "haunt" and other like "isms" pervaded the minds of the ignorant and education, the wise and the foolish, and stuck there like a tar-plaster to the skin.

This English and French war was fought after our Revolutionary war; indeed, I judge in the neighborhood of the dates 1800-l8l0, for the United States had to pay for that French frigate, as she was chased within the three-mile limit.

There was a chest of money on board, and to keep the British from capturing it, the French tried to get it into a small boat, in order to get it on shore; but the chest either went through the boat bottom or capsized it, and was lost. The French set their ship on fire, when leaving, and at lO:00 o'clock that night it blew up with a terrible noise and made so vivid a light throughout the Island that a pin could easily be seen on the ground.

Now, if haunts, witchcraft, and the like were believed in as true, as described above, in the first half of the 19th century, what must the condition of things have been hundreds of years ago? It is true in the last century, the courts had quit hanging, drowning, burning, and otherwise murdering these poor innocent creatures called witches; but did this stop the popular belief that witches, etc., did exist? I say no, there are today hundreds of thousands, yea, millions, in this country who believe in such; and to verify the truth in what I assert, I will spin you a yarn, and a true one, that did not happen on Knotts' Island, but in Currituck County, and in that portion nearest to Norfolk City, and of recent date. Parden the digression. When the writer was County Surveyor in the last '70's, about thirty years ago, I was called to do some surveying in Moyock Backwoods. While surveying near the public road, I saw, during the day, where half-dozen carts, loaded with people, both male and female, going south and I believe they were all whites. Being a stranger in this section, I inquired where all these people were going (it was not a "big meeting" season), and was informed that they were going to consult a conjurer by the name of Clarenda Cartwright, who I learned was an offspring of a family of famous conjurers by the name of Cuffey. The old man Cuffey, perhaps the father or grand-father of Clarenda (who was a Cuffey before marriage), lived in my early life in Backwater, Va., and administered to the "spell" subjects of Currituck, Camden, Princess Anne, Norfolk and perhaps other counties.

This old man Cuffey in Backwater was considered by the people of a large range of country, to be the most famous conjure-doctor of that age. He was over-run with patients, some of whom, being ashamed for people to know that they sought the old conjurer's aid, would arrive there at the hour of midnight, when the old man would tip them with a flagon of grog; for the subject was often jaded down having travelled many miles through mud and mire; and Cuffey was now ready to diagnose the case.

The crowd with us in that survey told me that these visits to consult Clarenda was of daily occurrence and these loads I saw were from Virginia, the land of "F.F.V's." These all came from the north; now the query arose with me, how many that day were going there from other points of the compass? I learned she was over-run with patients every day.

A while thereafter, I was called to run a line for Clarenda. She had purchased a tract of land from one Powers; another party had laid claim to a portion of her cleared land; hence I was employed to run the line. When I drove up to Clarenda's there were plenty of negro servants to wait on me. I took my compass to the road, awaiting orders; and, looking south, I saw a negro man coming with a bundle in hand and a woman in tow, a white woman at that.

I was told that she was a subject whom this negro had brought to have a "spell" taken off by Clarenda. I was asked to listen and I would hear and see her practicing her art. I did so, and went into the yard to observe the proceedure. I saw the patient seated on a stock or log, and in front of her was Clarenda with a circle drawn on the ground in front, blowing her incantations. She would turn her face north, east, south, west, cut all manner of figures with her body and hands arms, her eyes following her extended fingers, and all the while making mumblings that I could not understand.

I put my compass on the line, pointed out to me, and found it would cut off a portion of her cleared land, even part of her yard. She thereupon heaped Dante's Inferno upon Powers, and prophesied his near downfall. Strange coincidence, Powers did soon die. She sued Powers before death or his estate after death and won. I know Powers was dead when the suit ended. Eventually the more intelligent class in Moyock ran her away, and she domiciled herself on the outskirts of Berkley (South Norfolk now) where she got plenty to do in the craft.

Since I have lived in Coinjock, very frequently subjects have passed my home, travelling thirty more or less miles to Clarenda to enlist her crafty aid; but this was before she was driven off.

This doesn't look as if our "skin-deep civilization" (as the Atlanta Constitution calls it) has done such wonders as is generally attributed to it. One step backward would land us where we were a hundred years ago.

Education is the only thing that puts a blot on superstition; every other institution, it appears, has tended to foster it. Education of the ignorant masses will eventually eradicate the unreasonable promptings on this line of thought which have hung on for ages; for the ignorant man both loves and fears superstitious doctrines, and is obedient to its every suggestion.

The tunes sung by the people in olden-times were rendered in solem dirg-like funereal minors; the aged love these tunes yet, I do; but the young--no. Some good people, who have had courage enough to introduce sprightly, lively, child-like songs into the Sunday Schools, which are now sweeping the world, have done a great amount of good; this has a tendency to draw the children from the control and influence of superstitious parents; so some progress in this respect is being made.

There are people by the thousands, and some are found in every district, who tremble at the weird caw of the raven on the chimney or house-top before breakfast--a bad omen; and if a member of such family be taken sick before night of that day, dire prophecies are made by the score.

Screech owl, don't come with your shivering song; Don't carry that axe through the house; Don't take up ashes between Christmas and New Year's Day; man, don't you first meet a woman, when starting on a journey; Be sure and see the new moon, first, over the right shoulder, and in a clear sky; be sure in castrating hogs and other animals, to consult the almanac to see if the signs are right; plant seed, for a crop to be raised under the surface in the dark of the moon, for one above the surface, in the light of the moon; People who teach such are just as harmful to the young of society as the conjurer whose willing subjects they would be.

I have seen an almanac, the age of which is over a hundred years old; its maker and compiler said he put these superstitious signs and wonders in it for a speedy sale; of course he did, such stuff make a speedy sale yet.

Back again to old times on the Island. Even Colonel Jones, who had represented Currituck County many times in the General Assembly of the State, and who was the Island's reader, socially and politically, after having two horses to die about the same time, was accused of going to the famous Wizard Cuffey of Blackwater, to ascertain the one who poisoned or bewitched them. When accused of this by his admirers, the Colonel would laugh and say: "You know, boys, that is not so." But the most of his friends believed it, for the news came direct from his friends in Princess Anne.


Besides witchcraft and spirits both dead and alive to be contended with, when I was a child, the nether world was revealed through dreams. I will relate one story which will serve as an example, for most of the dreams of that day was on a line with this one, which struck me with wonder and alarm. The dreams always represented the dreamer in extreme weal or woe. The children of that day would often be frightened, by parents and other, when they missed doing the right thing, by telling them the Devil would get them and pour hot lead down their throats in place of water, etc.

One morning one of these dreamers, a neighbor woman, came hurriedly over to our home while we were eating breakfast; distress and melancholy were pictured on her features. "What now Betsy" asked father. "Oh! What an awful dream I had last night." My mother-in-law, full of sympathy, said, what was it?

"I dreamed an angel came and carried me away to show me torment. Before we got there, I could see the smoke of that place ascending from a deep hollow; and when we arrived there, the angel told me this was the place where the wicked go after death, and the Devil served them just as you see him serving them now.

"I saw a dilapidated house, a very long one, covered with slabs, under the eves of which were hooks; on these hooks, hanging by the hair of the head, were many new subjects come from our world to this bottomless pit. The Devil, from a scaffold in their front, was giving them a foretaste of the lake that burns with fire and brimstone; by pouring hot lead down their throats. The mouth of the crater of this pit, boiling and belching forth a liquid of fire and brimstone, was about one hundred yards below this old house; and when the devil had tempered these hair hanged subjects sufficiently with the heat ascending from below, and the hot lead poured within them, he cut the victims down. After turning several somersaults, they swiftly plunged into the gulf below whence arose noises as of human beings in agonizing torture. Hot sulphurous vapors and smoke hung over this region, and a rumbling noise accompanied with sharp explosions came from the pit below.

With these and a multitude of other sounds my inmost soul was stirred with horror. If, in coming away, the angel had not given one a glimpse of the good place (Heaven) I surely would have died. When I awoke, I almost died in fright and fainted."

This was about the drift of dreams in those days, for the reason that from the pulpit rang out the lake of fire and brimstone, the worm that dieth not, the unquenchable fire, and the rattling of Satan, chains in the pit. All of this, and more like it, was heralded from the sacred stand.

Hell has grown wonderfully less frightful now-a-days, until there is scarcely any hell at all. One more translation, and it may be a thing of the past.

I have dwelt somewhat at length on superstition because am sure that, more than all other causes combined, it has kept the human family in ignorance and away from englightened progress; yet, in our past ignorance, without education, how could the masses be governed except by superstition and war. Many a nation has been driven to war, to allay revolutionary tendency within; war neutralized it.

Who can give a definition, a natural philosophical definition, of man's physical organization and the workings of the mind, brains, soul therein? The evolutionary mind, in the far-off future, may develop a definition.

It is said that in the Bible, somewhere, can be found, "As you believe, so be it unto you." I do not know whether it is there or not, but nevertheless I believe it is so, in many instances.

Those that believe in haunts, ghosts, etc., can see them; those that do not, cannot.

We have eyes and ears, two of the most important organs of nature; and it does appear that other laws of nature deceive them, especially the eye. To the eye, is the earth round? No, it is as flat as a pancake. Does the sun stand still? Of course not, she has moved fifteen yards, west, in the last hour. On a still cloudy morning, look across the sound or bay to the opposite shore, do the land, bushes, trees look higher or lower than where you stand? Higher, but they are really lower.

The writer has had occasion to ask scores of people of good hard sense, which way does the moon run? The answer has always been, west.

This old world has no doubt been going around the sun millions of years, and been globe-like; and if man has not inhabited it but six thousand years, as some have it, about five thousand and eight hundred years of that time the earth was flat and still with the sun whirling around it like a comet. Is it not a singular coincidence when a Country is impregnated with hallucinations and mysteries, and filled with preternatural "knowledge," that its subjects should have so many mysterious ailments which baffle the diagnosis of the most skillful physicians? Diseases of the mind are worse than those of the body, but they soon reach the physical organization; then the patient is sick all through and through. I have known people of this class to lie in bed for a year or more; they could not be persuaded to an attempt to rise; and they would talk but little; all at once through some freak of their makeup they would arise-the "spells" had left. The medical books I presume, have no set names for these mind diseases and the doctors, not wishing to hatch out new ones, are compelled to resort to the old chestnuts: women, hysteria; men, hypochondria. These diseases in women, may not always arise from the hallucinated tendency in them but may arise from their peculiar, internal arrangement.

Get lost, and you always go round and around, or precisely backward from the way in which you wish to go; when you get out, your own house stands on the opposite side of the road. All at once your brain whirls around as on a spinning button, and you are yourself again. So it is with the mind--sick folks. Such people believe in signs and wonders; they have wondering and diseased minds. There are many who have this diseased perception now; the old backtraining still hangs on. Are we very far advanced from the days of witchcraft, ghosts and conjurism?

In the writer's first recollection the people of the Island, especially the women and children, saw great distress, not only because of the Devil and his torments and the world soon to be destroyed by fire; but also from the no less mighty fear of another "Nat Turner war" prevailed not only on Knotts Island, but pervaded north eastern Carolina and south eastern Virginia as well. Indeed it made the whole South uneasy.


Old "Prophet Miller" of the "Advent Band" frightened the ignorant and superstitious all over this country. His prophecy of a certain named day, near at hand, when the world was to be deluged in flame, followed by the judgment-day, enhanced these fears. This day of consuming fire was to come I think the latter part of April or the first part of May, of the year, I think, of 1843. I cannot precisely fix the day or year of the prophet's great catastrophy but I am satisfled it was not later than 1843, and was in a late Spring month.

A thunder storm was to come from the west at half after l:00 o'clock, p.m., another from the east was to meet it; and then the conflagration was to take place.

It did appear nature gave Miller a helping hand on this Island; for before 12:00 o'clock, noon, on that day (I recollect double-headed cumuli were seen in the west, lazily drifting horizontally southeasterly and coming nearer as they drifted. At one o'clock p.m., thunder was heard in northwest and a dark cloud hung over there. I lived near by, and Mrs. Ballance called me to come and stay with her children till the squall was over. I lived near her door and played with her children daily. Mrs. Nancy Ballance was a good woman and believed in Miller's prophecy; and these squalls floating around, as Miller had said, gave her a dreadful fear. Mr. Malachi Beasley had sent his boys in the field, a few hundred yards from Mrs. Ballance's home, to cut and pile cornstalks. There were a hundred piles, maybe, and Beasley, seeing rain on hand, ordered his boys to burn them.

The squall from northwest came, with rain, hail and a shift of wind. Mrs. Ballance, at the window, saw these numerous piles of burning stalks beyond her Yeopon nursery. She thought the world was in flame, as old Miller had said, and had it not been for me and her son Alexander, she would have gone into spasmodic convulsions. We told her it was nothing but corn-stalks buring in Mr. Beasley's field; this reassured her. I was very young and was not afraid of Miller's fire; my father, some time previous, had taught me better; but even yet I can see that good woman, a picture of despair. These Advent Bands expressed their beliefs in poetry and music, as

"I will be in that band, hallelujah;
For the Second Advent Band, hallelujah:
My leader tells me not to fear,
I will be in that band, Hallelujah: etc.

The people of the Island would get some of this music from Norfolk, through curiosity or belief, and sing it. I know the tune to this day. Even when Miller's prophecy turned out untrue, it didn't create disbelief in his followers. No, such will not receive the truth! Are not some of these bands in the land yet, as well as the mormon. Yes, indeed, there are plenty.

If I am not mistaken, a religious fanatic set, of deciples of Miller no doubt; their prophet had set a day that they were to be caught up in the heavens to meet the son of man and Gabriel, to be by them wafted away to Heaven without dying: It was in a large city or village Church, with large windows above the basement room; when the hour arrived to be caught up in the heavens, they were so selfish each wanted to mount first; so the windows from which they were to rise, were so crowded, they were pushed out by those behind and fell to the ground, and those made a leap to fly upward fell downward, on brick walks or pavements, with those who had been pushed out before. I believe it was said a score or more were killed and others seriously injured. This was in the 20th century.


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