Sally Carter’s Grave

Hey, everyone. This month’s Legends and Lore post takes place in the state of Alabama.

Huntsville is a city in Alabama, located in the hills north of the Tennessee River. Its population is around 215,000, making it the most populous city in the state. Founded in 1805 as Twickenham, it was renamed Huntsville in 1811.

Today Huntsville is a thriving city with its main economic influence from aerospace and military technology. The Redstone Arsenal and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center are located there.

Historic rockets in Huntsville (Public Domain)

But the modern city also has its share of legends and folklore, one of them involving the ghost of Sally Carter and Cedarhurst Mansion.

Stephen Ewing built Cedarhurst as part of a larger estate in 1823. It didn’t take long before tragedy struck the home when Mary Ewing’s sister, Sally Carter, came to visit.

Sally, just three weeks shy of her sixteenth birthday, took ill and died on November 28, 1837. She was buried in the family cemetery on the estate grounds. The epitaph on her tombstone read:

My flesh shall slumber in the ground

Till the last trumpet’s joyful sound

Then burst the chains with sweet surprise

And in my savior’s image rise.

Stories say Sally loved the estate and that’s the reason some say her presence is still there today. The legend began in 1919 when a seventeen-year-old boy visiting from nearby Dothan slept outside Sally’s bedroom. There was a storm during the night (yes, a dark and stormy night). The teenager claimed to have dreamed Sally visited him and asked him to prop up her headstone.

When he awoke the next morning, he told his family about the dream and said he was going to visit Sally’s grave. Strangely enough, Sally’s tombstone had toppled over during the storm.

Other stories claim Sally still walks the halls and grounds of Cedarhurst Mansion. A guard claims to have heard Sally walking upstairs one night. After her shift ended, the guard realized she had lost some money while doing rounds. After searching the grounds in vain, the guard gave up on finding the money. It was then she heard footsteps following her and her flashlight began flickering. When she returned to the guardhouse, the flashlight flickered brightly and shone directly on the cash she had given up for gone.

Another person who knew both families who lived in the mansion had a friend who slept in Sally’s room. The friend said doors opened and closed by themselves, covers were snatched off the bed, and lights turned on and off.

Other women claimed they had jewelry broken in the area of Sally’s room, with beads scattered everywhere.

Mapel Hill Cemetery, Huntsville. Creative Commons photo by Lonely Pilgrim via Wikimedia

The stories drew much attention and many visitors to the area, especially to see Sally’s grave. In 1982, the family had her body exhumed and relocated to an undisclosed location in Maple Hill Cemetery.

Today, Cedarhurst Mansion is now a part of a gated community with the home serving as a clubhouse. Sources say Sally’s bedroom has been preserved, but visitors aren’t allowed. Those wishing to catch a glimpse of Sally can always purchase one of the many condominiums.

A rather expensive price just to see a ghost, don’t you think?

Paul is Dead

Hey, readers. Last month, I wrote about how United States Presidents weren’t exempt from being the subject of supposed curses. Singers, such as those in the 27 Club, have also been a part of folklore. Even a member of my all-time favorite group, The Beatles, was once the subject of an urban legend.

The Beatles in 1964 (Public Domain)

Rumors alleging Paul McCartney was dead began circulating in 1967. Proponents of the rumor claimed he died in a car crash on November 9, 1966. They further stated that in order to spare the public from grief, the remaining Beatles replaced him with a look-alike.

This look-alike was “an orphan from Edinburgh named William Campbell.” Others say his name was William Shears Campbell, which was shortened to Billy Shears. The name Billy Shears is included in the words of the song, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

These conspiracy theorists claimed the group began leaving subtle messages in their music and album artwork. Among these “supposed clues” are:

  • The song “Glass Onion” includes the words, “The walrus was Paul.”
  • At the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” listeners can hear John murmuring some words. Many claimed he was saying, “I buried Paul.”
  • The White Album track “Revolution 9,” when played backward, supposedly includes the message, “Turn me on, dead man.”
  • The cover of Magical Mystery Tour shows one unidentified band member dressed in a dark costume while the other three wear white.
  • The back cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band shows George, John, and Ringo facing forward. Paul has his back to the camera.

The rumor continued to spread and grew rampant in the United States in 1969. That same year, the Beatles released Abbey Road. The album cover has become extremely famous in that visitors to London want to mimic the group walking across the street. However, the “Paul is Dead” theorists liken this cover to a “funeral march.”

  • John, dressed in white, is symbolic of a heavenly being.
  • Ringo, dressed in black, symbolizes an undertaker
  • George, dressed in denim, represents a grave digger.
  • Paul, barefoot and walking out of sync with the others, is the corpse

The license plate on the Volkswagen Beetle seen in the photo contains the characters LMW 28IF. Many say this is further evidence of Paul’s death, stating Paul would have been twenty-eight if he had lived until 1969. In fact, Paul was twenty-seven years old at the time the album was recorded. They also noted that left-handed Paul held a cigarette in his right hand, which was further proof the person in the photo was an imposter.

The main entrance of EMI, now Abbey Road, Studios (Public Domain)

Radio station WMCA in New York City sent talk show radio host Alex Bennett to Apple Corps. Ringo Starr told him, “If people are gonna believe it, they’re gonna believe it. I can only say it’s not true.”

In a radio interview, John Lennon called the rumors “insane” but added it was good publicity for the Abbey Road album.

The Beatles’ press office issued a rebuttal on October 21, 1969, calling the rumors, “a lot of rubbish.”

Apple Corps building at 3 Savile Row, site of the 1969 rooftop concert (Public Domain)

More than half a century has passed since these rumors circulated. Sir Paul McCartney is still very much alive today. He celebrated his 80th birthday on June 18 and recently completed a tour.

If you want to hear something that will send chills down your spine, watch the Peter Jackson documentary Get Back. (If you’re a Beatles fan and haven’t seen it, you really should.)

In 1969, George walked out of a rehearsal session saying he was leaving the group. John was late getting to the studio one morning. That left Paul and Ringo patiently (or maybe impatiently) waiting. At one point, Paul says, “And then there were two.”


The two remaining Beatles, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney in 2009.
Photo by Antonio Fucito, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Curse of Tippecanoe

It seems that no one is exempt from being the subject of an urban legend—including United States Presidents. Such is the case with the Curse of Tippecanoe.

William Henry Harrison was the eighth President of the United States and the first one to die while in office. He also has the unfortunate distinction of having served the shortest amount of time. His tenure only lasted one month.

President William Henry Harrison (Public Domain)

Prior to his election, Harrison was a military officer who fought in what’s known as Tecumseh’s War. Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his younger brother Tenskwatawa organized a confederation of Indian Tribes to resist the westward expansion of the United States.

In 1811, during the Battle of Tippecanoe, Harrison defeated Tenskwatawa and his troops. It was then that Harrison earned the moniker “Old Tippecanoe.”

In 1931 and 1948, the trivia book series Ripley’s Believe it or Not, noted a pattern in the deaths of several presidents and termed it “The Curse of Tippecanoe.” Strange as it Seems by John Hix ran a cartoon prior to the 1940 election titled The Curse of the Whitehouse and claimed that “In the last 100 years, every U.S. President elected at twenty-year intervals has died in office.”

In 1960, journalist Ed Koterba noted that “The next President of the United States will face an eerie curse that has hung over every chief executive elected in a year ending with zero.”

Let’s look at these presidents.

  • William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, died of pneumonia.
  • Abraham Lincoln, first elected in 1860, died at the hands of an assassin during his second term.
  • James A. Garfield, elected in 1880. Assassinated.
  • William McKinley’s second election was in 1900. He was also assassinated.
  • Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920, died of a heart attack.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose third election occurred in 1940, died of a cerebral hemorrhage during his fourth term.
  • John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960. Assassinated.

It seems the curse was broken after Kennedy’s death. To date, no elected president has died in office. Ronald Reagan, first elected in 1980, lived fifteen years after he left office. George W. Bush, first elected in 2000, is still living after leaving office in 2009. The current president, Joe Biden, was elected in 2020.

When running for reelection in 1980, a high school student in Dayton, Ohio, asked Jimmy Carter if he was concerned about the supposed curse and predictions. Carter responded he’d seen the predictions and said, “I’m not afraid. If I knew it was going to happen, I would go ahead and be the President and do the best I could until the day I died.”

At age 97, Carter is the longest living U.S. President in history and has lived forty-one years and counting since he left office in 1981.

Reagan survived an assassination attempt. In 2005, someone threw a live grenade at Bush, but it didn’t explode. Two presidents, Thomas Jefferson (1800) and James Monroe (1820) preceded the supposed curse. They survived their presidencies by seventeen and six years, respectively. Of the eight presents who died while in office, only Zachary Taylor was elected in an “off-year” in 1848.

Like Reagan and Bush, many presidents faced assassination attempts or health problems while in office and survived.

What do you think? Curse or strange coincidence?

The Bell Witch Legend

Many areas in the southern United States are rich with stories about hauntings and superstitions. Several of my ancestors who lived in Northern Alabama passed down many stories of hauntings, folklore, and unexplained events to younger generations.

The legend of the Bell Witch is a tale of American Folklore from the state of Tennessee. The legend supposedly attracted the attention of then future president General Andrew Jackson.

Like many legends, there are varying accounts as to the identity of the Bell Witch and the purpose of her visits.

John Bell, along with his wife and children, moved from North Carolina to Robertson County, Tennessee in 1804. The Bell Farm comprised 320 acres of rich farmland along the Red River. For the first thirteen years, the family lived a peaceful life. They attended the Red River Baptist Church, where John Bell became a deacon.

A Tenneesee Historical Commission Marker near Adams, Tennessee. Photo by Brian Stansberry, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During the summer of 1817, events happened that changed the lives of the Bell family. Some of them began seeing strange looking animals around the property. Knocking sounds on the doors and outer walls of the house came late at night. Sounds of rats gnawing on bedposts, chains dragging through the house, and stones being dropped were heard. These strange occurrences culminated in the sounds of someone gulping and choking.

The terrified family kept their problems a secret for over a year. Finally, John Bell confided in a neighbor, James Johnson. He invited Mr. and Mrs. Johnson to spend the night. After witnessing these strange occurrences, Mr. Johnson suggested more people needed to know.

Before long, people came from miles around to see and hear the unknown force that terrorized the Bell house. I find it interesting that as more people came, the unseen entity developed a voice. When asked, the voice gave different identities. The spirit once stated it was the witch of a neighbor woman named Kate Batts. From then on, people called the entity, “Kate,” the “Bell’s Witch.”

There are differing accounts of Kate’s reasons for visiting the Bell family. Even on the farm’s website (now a popular tourist attraction), the reasons vary.

Some say Kate wanted to kill John Bell. She also wanted to stop John’s youngest daughter Betsy from marrying a neighbor boy named Joshua Gardner.

For three years, “Kate” tormented the Bell family almost daily. John and Betsy received the worst physical abuse. Betsy’s hair was pulled, she was pinched, scratched, and stuck with pins.

John Bell suffered from spells of swelling of the throat. He later developed twitching and jerking of his facial muscles. Kate would blast him with curses and hideous threats during these spells. As time went on, John Bell became weaker and weaker.

Kate finally accomplished her mission when John Bell died in December 1820. The following March, Betsy broke off her engagement to Joshua Gardner.

Sources say Kate said goodbye, promising to return in seven years. Supposedly, she returned in 1828 for a few short weeks to the home of John Bell Jr. where she had several long talks with him about the past, present, and future. Kate also said there was a reason for his father’s death, but she never stated what it was.

Again, there are discrepancies. One account says Kate Batts was angry with John Bell, believing he cheated her in a land deal. On her deathbed, she vowed to haunt him and his decedents forever. Other accounts say the voice said, “I am a spirit. I once was very happy but have been disturbed.” The spirit gave diverse explanations of why it appeared, tying its presence to the disturbance of a Native American burial ground located on the Bell Property.

After “Kate’s” second visit, she vowed to return in 107 years. That would have been in 1935. However, some believe she never left the area.

The legend, along with numerous tales, continued into the twentieth century. There are many skeptics, and some who knew Betsy suspected her of fraud. One skeptic, Ben Radford, said the Bell Witch story is important for all paranormal researchers. “It shows how easily legend and myth can be mistaken for fact and real events and how easily the lines are blurred when sources are not checked.”

Regardless of skepticism, The Bell Witch Legend is a part of Tennessee history and is still taught in schools today.

The Loretto Chapel Staircase

This month’s Legends and Lore post takes us to New Mexico, the state where my Legends of Madeira series is set.

The city of Santa Fe was founded sometime between 1607 and 1610, making it the second oldest city in the United States. It’s an area rich in history dating back as far as 10000 BC when the Clovis, Folsom, and Ancestral Puebloan cultures inhabited the land.

Modern-day Santa Fe is considered one of the world’s great art cities and is home to several art museums including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. In 2005, Santa Fe became the first United States city to be chosen by UNESCO as a creative city, one of only nine such cities in the world.

Santa Fe is also the home of several historical buildings including The Palace of the Governors, St. Francis Cathedral, Santa Fe San Miguel Chapel, and the Loretto Chapel.

The Chapel

The Loretto Chapel is a former Roman Catholic church that is now used as a museum and a wedding venue. It was commissioned by the Sisters of Loretto for a girl’s school, Loretto Academy, in 1873. French architect Projectus Mouly designed the building in a Gothic Revival style, complete with spires, buttresses, and stained glass windows which were imported from France.

The Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo by Camerafiend, CC BY-SA 3.0

But the chapel is best known for its helix-shaped spiral staircase. It’s the subject of legend. The Sisters of Loretto considered the circumstances surrounding its construction and its builder miraculous.

After completion of the chapel, there was no access to the choir loft twenty-two feet above. Numerous carpenters were consulted, but all concluded access to the loft would have to be via ladder because a staircase would interfere with the small interior space of the chapel.

The Legend

Legend has it that the sisters made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a man appeared at the chapel riding a donkey and carrying a toolbox looking for work. The sisters hired him to design the staircase.

The work took several months, and after the staircase was completed, the carpenter disappeared without receiving pay. After searching for the man and finding no trace of him, some believed he was St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the sisters’ prayers.

The Staircase

The design of the staircase could be considered a miracle itself. It ascends twenty-two feet, makes two 360-degree turns, and has no visible means of support. It was built without the use of nails, only wooden pegs. Another fascinating aspect is the staircase contains thirty-three steps, a significant number in the Christian faith as Jesus was thirty-three years of age at the time of his death. Railings were added in 1887 by another craftsman, Phillip August Hesch.

The staircase inside the Chapel of Loretto. Attribution: Ben Frantz Dale (assumed based on copyright claims), CC BY-SA 3.0

The Builder

In 2004, amateur historian Mary Jean Cook identified the probable builder as Francois-Jean Rochas, a reclusive rancher and occasional carpenter who came to the Santa Fe area from France sometime in the 1870s.

Rochas was murdered in 1895. An article in the Santa Fe New Mexican at the time of his death stated, “He was a Frenchman, and was favorably known in Santa Fe as an expert worker in wood. He build [sic] the handsome staircase in the Loretto chapel and at St. Vincent sanitarium.”

Cook also found an entry in the Sisters’ logbook that states Rochas was paid $150.00 in 1881 (the equivalent of $4023.00 in 2020). The entry stated he had done some type of carpentry work for them. At the time of his death, Rochas reportedly owned an extensive set of carpentry tools.

A Miracle?

Whether the builder was Rochas or St. Joseph himself, the design of the staircase is remarkable. In a Washington Post column, Tim Carter wrote, “It’s a magnificent work of art that humbles me as a master carpenter. To create a staircase like this using modern tools would be a feat. It’s mind-boggling to think about constructing such a marvel with crude hand tools, no electricity, and minimal resources.”

For his book Mysterious New Mexico, author Ben Radford interviewed another professional carpenter who stated, “The execution is just incredible. The theory of how to do it, to bend it around in a two-turn spiral, that’s some difficult arithmetic there.”

Miracle or not, the staircase is a marvelous work of talent and ingenuity. It rightly deserves its place in New Mexico history and its legends.