Henry Ruffner’s Ghost Story (“A Screech”)

Posted on October 31, 2014 by

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A Screech

Amongst the earliest settlers in the Kanawha valley was george Alderson, who had been a man of the woods from his youth. Though not much of a scholar, yet he could read, write, and cast up accounts, which, altogether was more than the majority of his sylvan contemporaries could do. He was a very shrewd man, and knew very well on which side his bread was buttered. He was notable for using small land warrants for 100 acres, to advantage. As the large bottoms along the rivers had been surveyed and patented, he selected the smaller valleys near the bottoms, wher he cound them aunappropriated, and would clap on his little warrants at the mouths and along the principal branches, so as to get possession of the entrances of these valleys, which was almost equivalent to getting the whole valleys and adjacent mountains. He thus at small cost for warrants and surveying, locked up large tracts of lands, which others could not use without his leave.

He was one of the primitive justices of Kanawha county, at its formation in the year 1790.

He and William Morris, senior, (old Billy, as he was called) were the first delegates from Kanawha to the General Assembly of Virginia… Both he and Alderson were able men in their way, but very uncouth legislators, by reason of their ignorance of public affairs and of the usages of polite society. Both attracted notice by their backwoods garb and manners; and Alderson also by his stammering tongue, which had often to make three or fiur trials at a word. The latter became, therefore, if not the lion, yet the bear of the day in Richmond; and as such would sometimes be invited to dine with company at fashionable houses in the city.

Once at a dinner table a pert young man, to shew him off to the company, asked him with affected politeness what he would be helped to. Alderson could hardly have named one of the fashinably cooked dishes at the table, and if he had known, he could hardly have uttered, such strange terms. But knowing what the young fellow was after, and having wit enough to baffle his impertinence, he assumed a two-fold rusticity and awkwardness of manner, and adding a few voluntary quavers to his usual stutter, he promptly stammered out, – Gi-gu-gug – give me a gi-gu-gug – gob of the b-bubbar meat and h-h-huh-huh-huh hominy. The intelligent part of the company shoted well done! and the fashionable youngster felt that he was defeated by the stammering backwoodsman.

Like most Kanawha men of his day, Alderson was a whiskey drinker. He habit of intemperance grew on him, until he became in his latter days a confirmed sot. From worse he went on to the worst stage of suicidal, unintermitted drunkeness. Kanawha in those days had drunkards and sots of every sort and degree – daily and monthly – surly and merry – reeling and wallowing – roaring and spewing, sots. But Alderson was at last the most unhappy of them all. He would swallow quarts of strong whiskey every day. Of course he was now confined to his bed and became a raving maniac. Consumed with alcoholic fire, he groaned for more wiskey, drank, saw visions of hell, shuddered and gave up the ghost.

From these circumstances we must not infer, that George Alderson was a guiltier man than others who dies of drunkeness. The horrors of his death were the natural consequence of extreme intemperance. But those horrors affected the feelings and imaginations of the neighbors, and prepared the superstitious to see and hear signs of his restless ghost. When the mnd is on tip-toe, looking out for apparitions, it seldome fails to discover one, especially in fog or evening twilight, for then the excited imagination can easily transform a white calf into a sheeted ghost, and the stump of a broken limb into “auld clootie,” hoofed and horned.

Alderson had built a little grist mill on a little stream, two or three hundred yards from his dwelling, and by the side of the mill-house he had a little blacksmith’s shop. These were favorite establishments of his, though the mill could seldom grind for want of water; and the hammer was but occasionally heard in the shop for want of business. Here, therefore, solitude and silence generally reigned at night; and here first the hapless ghost of Alderson was reported to give tokens of his presence. In the dead hours of the night, sounds of grinding were heard at the mill, and the clink of a hammer was heard in the shop, whilst will-‘o-the-wispish lights faintly glimmered and flitted about the place.

A few months before Alderson’s death, my father and uncle had purchased the land on which he lived near the old salt lick above Charleston, with the view of experimenting for salt water upon it. A few months after his death, the surviving family left the dwelling house vacant, and so it continued to be for several months, because the owners had no immediate use for it. Now, as ghosts, like rats and owls, are apt to haunt a deserted house; so this poor ghost took possession of his old residence, and began frightening passers-by. He was seen gliding through the dusky yard in the evening shadows, and was heard at late hours of the night making a pother in the empty rooms. These signs of his presence were the more frequently observed, because the house stood by the road side near the river bank. He had the boldness, one Sunday morning, when a fog obscured the atmosphere, to look out of an upper window at a couple of young people passing along the road, and to frighten them with an indistinct view of his physiognomy.

But this ghastly occupant was not permitted very long to keep exclusive possession of his old premises. My uncle, an old bachelor, had newly taken a wife; and not havint the fear of ghosts before his eyes, took the occupancy of the house, – had it swept and garnished, and made ready in every respect to receive him and his bride, when they should return from a visit to some kinsfolk in the east.

Now as there was valuable property in the house, my uncle asked me to go and lodge there every night, as a guard during his absence. An old negro woman, who occupied a cabin near the house, would be sufficient protection by day; but not by night, because her fear of the ghost would cause her either
to desert the premises, or to call in company who might not be altogether trustworthy.

I readily consented to be the night guard of the haunted house, though I felt rather queer, when I thought of the ghost stories. I was a youth of 16 years, devotedly fond of books, given to solitary misings [sic], of a nervous temperament and a susceptible imagination. My memory was full of ghost stories which I had read or heard; but I was a firm disbeliever in apparitions of the dead. Intellectually, therefore, I had no fear of seeing a disembodied spirit, or of any harm that could result from the sight of such intangible beings; yet I was so affected by mere association of ideas, that whenever I passed a graveyard, alone, by night, or other gloomy place reported to be ghost-haunted; I felt a vague, nervous apprehension, that some shadowy form might rise before my imagination, if not before my eyes. To the living, the state of the dead, and the nature of a disembodied spirit, are involved in mystery; and the idea of meeting with one of these departed spirits in gloom and solitude, raises an instinctive dread, lest the veil which covers the secrets of the grave to which we hasten should be prematurely raised.

The evening after my uncle’s departure, I went alone to his house, a mile from my father’s, and arrived at dark. The old negro furnished me with a lighted candle, and forthwith left the place, fearing it seemed, that the ghost might come upon her in the cabin, notwithstanding my presence in the house, a few yards distant.

The night – a September night – was warm and perfectly calm; the room – my uncle’s bed room – was small and close. I therefore opened a window looking into the back yard, and placing the candlestand near it, I went to a small book case in the room, to get something to read until bed time. Some of the 30 or 40 volumes I had read; others I cared not to read. At length I met with a small duodecimo volume, bearing the strange title of “The Bloody Buoy,” which I found to be a compilation by Peter Porcupine (Cobbett) of all the horrible atrocities committed by the French revolutionists during “the reign of terror.” This volume excited my curiosity, and notwithstanding the horrifying nature of its contents, I selected it for my evening’s entertainment.

I sat down by the open window, and was soon immersed in scenes of blood and murder – once shocking realties, and now reproduced in my imagination, and the more vividly by reason of the gloomy and exciting circumstances around me. Here was I, half a mile from all living men, alone in a dark night, in the room where the dissipated man had given up the ghost – that mad, miserable ghost, which was believed by many to haunt the place where he had lived so long and died so wretchedly.

Readily, therefore, did my imagination body forth the horrible scenes of the French revolution – atheistical frenzy, reveling in blood – base born
wretches yelling, like demons, for death and destruction; – a good king and a beautiful queen dragged from the throne to the prison, and from the prison to the scaffold; – then the scaffold daily drenched with the blood of the aged and the young, the wise and the fair: – crowded prisons emptied by wholesale murder with knives and bludgeons, and whole families. of innocent citizens, jammed by hundreds into covered boats, and sunk, shrieking, to the bottom of the deep river. The longer I read the heart-sickening details of these cruelties, perpetrated by demonical atheists in the name of liberty, the more did my head grow dizzy and my blood run cold at the contemplation of so much wickedness and so much suffering. I could almost see the forms of the murdered, and hear them as they ascended from their gory beds, shrieking to heaven for vengeance upon their murderers.

I laid the book down. The night was nearly half gone. Every thing around me was still as death. Not even a cricket chirped on the hearth, nor did a beetle’s low whir break the solemn silence. I heard nothing to indicate life or motion, but the pulsations of my own heart. Outside, the night was intensely dark and sultry. Dank vapors brooded over the earth. I held my candle out of the window, .but could see nothing except the branches of a golden willow tree that grew by the window.

I resumed my seat and fell into a train of musings. Gloomy and tragical thoughts ran through my mind. I reflected on the folly, the wickedness and the misery of my fellow creatures. Human life, (thought I), must appear to an atheist as a thing of no consequence; blood as merely a red liquor, thoughts and feelings as nothing more than changes of action in the electric fluid, and death as the stoppage of a worn-out or disordered machine. But man has a spirit within him, which outlives the body. That immortal part of our nature, when it leaves its house of’ clay, carries with it the memory and the feelings of its former life in the body. If it went forth imbued with earthly affections, and unprepared for spiritual enjoyments, it would desire still to hover about the place of its former abode. And who knows whether it may not be permitted sometimes to do so, – to punish itself by frequenting the scene of pleasures now lost forever, and by seeing others enjoy there the warm life it loved and has lost. So, as the living go to renew their grief at the tombs of the dead, the dead may, for aught that we know, haunt the abodes of the living, to torment themselves with vain regrets for enjoyments past, and fruitless remorse for sins yet to be atoned for.

From this train of thought I was suddenly startled by the sharpest, the most ear-piercing cry that I had ever heard. I knew it instantly to be a cry, – quick and momentary, as a stroke of lightning: but what could have uttered it, was past conjecture. I knew of no earthly creature’s voice, that could make a sound so quick, and penetrating; nor could I distinctly characterize it as a scream, a shriek, or a screech. Nor could I have told where it originated. It seemed to have been uttered close to my ear, and I would have been sure that it was, had any living or moving form appeared, when I looked suddenly around me. But no such thing was visible. All things remained as they were before, motionless and silent as death. I was frightened and perplexed. It seemed that the ghost was present; and knowing my thoughts, had shrieked an answer to the question then on my mind.

With tingling nerves and palpitating heart, I sat still and watched for some development of the mystery. For a long time, as I thought, – but perhaps not so very long, – I saw nothing, and heard nothing more. My nervous agitation began to subside, but my mental perplexity rather increased. In vain did I try to conceive what could have uttered that sound.

At last I was startled again by the repetition of the cry, as quick and shrill, but not quite so strong as before. Now, it did not seem so strange and unearthly as in the first instance. Me- thought that I had heard something similar in former times. Now too, I perceived that it issued from the darkness outside. I was not kept long in suspense. In a few seconds, the sharp cry was succeeded by sounds less shrill and less equivocal, – namely by
the uh-huh-h-hoo of my old acquaintance – Minerva’s bird of wisdom – the owl. Probably my light had drawn him near to the window, on his silent flight; and as nothing to alarm him appeared, he perched himself upon a bough of the willow tree by the window to gaze at the candle. Not knowing what to make of this dazzling object, and perhaps intending to frighten it, if this light should conceal an enemy, he uttered that terribly startling sound.

Well was it for me, that he gave me a repetition of the cry, and wound it up with that unmistakeable token of his owlship, the uh-huh-h-hoo; or I should to this day have been unable to solve the mystery of that frightful screech, shot into my ear, that lonely and silent midnight, when I was thinking of murder, of death, and of Alderson’s ghost, in the room where he died. I could hardly have supposed, however, that stammering George’s ghost could have finished such an utterance at a single stroke. Had I known as little of owls as of ghosts I would sooner have supposed the stammerer to have been the author of the uh-huh-h-hoo.

Source: Southern Literary Messenger, Volume 23, Issue: 1, July 1856, pp. 50-54 (“A Screech” is the second part of “Kanawha Pieces).