Caroline & the Jack O’ Lantern

Posted on October 16, 2010 by


This ghostly tale is a bit differentv from that of Doc Amiss. What I find particularly interesting is that it comes from the time before the Civil War, and involves one of the Brumback family slaves. I found this tale in a column (a long-running column, I might add) called “Do You Remember”, which appeared regularly in the Page News and Courier from the 1930s through until, hmmm… I believe the 50s. The story appeared in the issue of January 24, 1939.

The setting for this tale is in a tucked-away corner of Page County known as Ida Valley. “Mountain Home,” which sits along Rt. 628 (also known as Balkamore Hill Road) was the home of the John Brumback (1795-1877) family, the house having been built less than a year after John Brumback and Martha Elizabeth Thomas (1804-1893) had been married (December 1822).


Mountain Home: The Brumback Family Home


According to the slave schedules, John Brumback owned five slaves. Caroline was probably the oldest of these slaves, and the story from 1939 goes so far as to reflect her age by adding that Caroline wore “a bandana handkerchief around her head and had only a few tufts of hair apparently driven in her skull.” Actually, it appears she probably wasn’t any older than John Brumback himself.

So, as for the story… as written for the “Do You Remember” column…

Caroline, like others of her race at that early time, believed in ghosts, spooks, jack o’ lanterns and that the latter could lead people anywhere when night came on and they danced and sputtered along boggy spots. Caroline on one occasion was sent by the Brumback family to clean fish along one of the branches near by at that time and still murmuring over its pebbly bed.

In the darkness of night… Caroline was out away from the house, scaling fish when…

…a jack o’ lantern, perhaps out on a lark, came dancing along nearby. . . . for a time she watched the ‘lantern,’ then was drawn irresistibly in its direction. At times she reached out her hand to grab the thing and in a second it was gone, taking ‘roundance’ and coming back, more bewitching each time. Finally, Caroline threw down her batch of half cleaned fish, tossed her butcher knife to one side and started following the will o’ the wisp, over ditches, through bramble brier patches, rocks and other obstructions. Caroline kept following the igneous fatuous as it took its way toward the top of Piney Mountain. At times Caroline was far behind, but she kept pressing on, grasping – the jack o’ lantern being her goal.

At the time of Caroline’s dance with the mysterious lantern, Mr. Brumback was “doubtless in bed and asleep”, knowing assuredly that Caroline “would carry out the fish cleaning commission.” However, by morning, “Caroline had not put in an appearance”, giving the Brumback family ample reason for concern…

…believing that a bear or panther had swooped down from the Blue Ridge and captured her. Recruits began to help the Brumback family in its search for Caroline. It was easy enough to take up the trail that Caroline had left from the spot where she abandoned the fish-cleaning job. The trail made an in and out path in the direction of Piney Mountain. Broken down briers, turned over rocks and flattened out grass made the direction she had gone easy to follow. When the first rays of the sun began to peep over the Blue Ridge the vanguards of the searching party found Caroline sound asleep in a pine needle patch. Her red bandana was gone, part only of her dress was clinging to her and she had lost both shoes in her wild pursuit of the jack o’ lantern. She was nervous and wanted to know where ‘Marse John’ had gone with his lantern the night before.

As a wrap-up to this story, the author of the original piece wanted to put everybody’s minds to rest regarding thoughts of dancing and bewitching jack o’ lanterns, noting…

To those who do not believe in jack o’ lanterns it must be stated that they abound in certain localities where the lands are marshy and swampy and they carry on such capers as the one that led Caroline astray more than one hundred years ago. In many sections of the deep south where the colored population in ante-bellum days was as numerous as the whites the latter often had trouble keeping their slaves from following the lanterns. They have been seen on many occasions in Page County and in the swampy sections of Mississippi they are perhaps as numerous as in the days before the War Between the States.


Side view of Mountain Home


*At least one of John’s sons, Edward Trenton Brumback (1842-1927), served for the Confederacy, having joined Mosby’s Raiders in time to participate in the attack on Wesley Merritt’s Reserve near Chester Gap, Virginia, September 23, 1864. He received his parole at Westmoreland Court House, Virginia, in May 1865. In years after the war, he served as president of the Farmer’s & Merchant Bank in Stanley, Virginia. He was present at the 1925 reunion of Mosby’s Rangers in Front Royal. His grave is in the family cemetery, behind “Mountain Home”.