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Ghostwriter

Charlotte Ross, Legend Lady
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- by Scott Nicholson

For Charlotte Ross, the “Legend Lady,” the best ghost stories are those that are connected to a specific time and place, especially when it’s the Appalachian Mountains. Ross, who lives in Boone, NC, has collected about 400 ghost stories among the more than 4,000 she has collected overall. She is a noted storyteller, folklorist and Appalachian State University professor.

“I love legends,” she said. “They are the most underappreciated form of narrative in America and one of the best.”

Ross’s main interest is in the historical grounding of a legend, and she enjoys researching the people and places that inspire later tales of supernatural or strange encounters.

While many urban legends are “traveling tales,” which are often localized to the area in which the story is being told, Ross prefers those that are place-bound.

She said that stories bearing the original names of the people involved not only have more authenticity but also an extra power to disturb, “something that stirs an atavistic fear.”

“The best legends are those that are redolent with social details so you can look into that time and place for a moment,” she said.

One of western North Carolina’s early legends involved a pioneering couple who built a house on rocky soil. When they lit their first fire for the winter, the ground warmed and the rattlesnakes slumbering in the stones came out in search of the heat.

“Everybody had a version of it,” she said. “There are 259 counties in the Appalachian region that have it. The closer I got to where I figured it happened, the more details came out.”

Ross believes the original incident occurred near the Linville Ridge area, but the legend made its way west or anywhere people were settling in the wilderness. Ross describes it as a “cautionary tale.”

In her collecting, she looks for stories tied to the landscape, farms, houses and communities as well as people. One of her most popular stories is “Long Dog,” which she describes as one of the oldest ghost stories west of the Blue Ridge. She said young boys especially love the chase tale of a large mysterious dog in the woods. She heard it as a youth from one of her teachers, but didn’t tell it for 32 years. She researched several books about dogs in America and lost interest when she saw no breeds that matched the description.

Then, on a trip to Ireland with noted Appalachian historian Cratis Williams, she was in a lightning storm at the Museum of Ulster. She heard laughter in the storm and the hair stood up on her arms, and looked at the front of the museum.

“I dropped my coat and purse, and I started to run and cry,” she said. “I thought, ‘It’s every word true, all those pioneer stories.’”

At the museum she saw a taxidermist’s exhibit of five large Irish wolf hounds that matched the description of the legendary Long Dog, with silver-white fur and large, glowing eyes.

“Usually there’s some basis for these stories,” Ross said. “Those old stories will make a believer of you when you least expect it.”

Another tale traced to Jackson County involved a German man who married a Cherokee woman in White Owl Valley. The wife loved the owls that were around their home property, and when her husband tried to sell the land, she said, “I will never leave this valley.”

One night, the husband was drunk and ended up signing the sale papers, then later sobered up and went home to tell his wife. He found her in her white wedding dress, hanging from a tree. As he cut her body down, owls flew out of the woods at him. He fell out of the tree and sought refuge in the cabin, and the owls pounded against the house all night. The husband stayed long enough to bury his wife and then left for Texas.

Ross said that “traveling stories” are usually dependent on plot and action, and become almost generic, such as the Vanishing Hitchhiker and the Hook on the Door. She prefers those in which she can interview families, read newspapers or other written records, then put the pieces together.

One of her favorites involves a farm in cave country in West Virginia. She visited the town of Union and saw the cemetery, then asked about the family she had heard about. Someone took her on an arduous journey to the farm, and above it she noticed chalky, white limestone cliffs.

The lime made the grass “as green as the grass in Ireland,” Ross said, but also the ground beneath was a honeycomb of caves because of water working through the limestone for eons.

In 1872, a Welsh man named Abraham Jones bought the place and later “won” a woman’s hand in marriage whose father had lost a poker game. Jones had a reputation for being moody and sullen, but he and Rachel had three children before Rachel began showing up at church with bruises, telling people her husband had gone crazy.

Several weeks later, someone reported the sound of crying children, and some of the town residents went to search the valley and the caves. They found Abraham pushing a plow that had no draft animal attached. They searched the cabin and found Rachel, who had been killed with an ax.

They asked Abraham about the children, but all he said was, “They’re safe from nosy neighbors the likes of you. I put my children in the caves.”

Hundreds of people searched the 67 caves in the region, a risky and treacherous search involving subterranean rivers and drop-offs. The sound of crying still came from the ground but grew fainter as days passed, then ended altogether. The governor called off the search and Jones was placed in an asylum, where he never spoke again.

Residents reported hearing the sound of children crying many times over the following decades, and the farm lay unused until a modern couple bought it and began operating a dairy farm.

The wife, Laura Coolridge, couldn’t bear children, so she threw her energy into renovating the cabin. Then she became interested in the caves and started exploring them until her husband made her promise to stop because they were so dangerous.

Later, though, the husband found drawings and maps she had made, a wet suit and spelunking gear.

Thirteen months after she began searching, Laura found three skeletons of children who were resting as if they had been tied together. They were later buried in the town cemetery.

An old Welsh legend says that if a barren woman releases the spirit of a dead child, she will have a child of her own.

Ross said that within five years, Laura had three children, two girls and a boy, the same as Rachel and Abraham Jones.

“I try to do the legend first, then the supernatural,” she said. “I don’t care about jump or scare stories. I just love history and folklore. There are things in this life that none of us can explain."

-- copyright 2003 by Scott Nicholson. Photo by Marie Freeman. Contact for reprint permission.

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