While living in Bagwell, a young Robert E. Howard became enamored with ghost stories told to him by a former slave and family cook, “Aunt” Mary Bohannon. The stories of the horrors, both man-caused and supernatural, the slaves endured scared him and at the same time piqued his interest in the darker side of the Old South.
But it was the stories told by his Irish grandmother that had the most profound effect on Howard – stories that had a grimness about them, deeply steeped in the forboding folklore from the Old Country, mixed with the superstitions of the New World.
The following is an excerpt from a letter Howard wrote to H. P. Lovecraft in September of 1930 describing these early horror influences.
Aunt Mary said that when a good spirit passes, a breath of cool air follows; but when an evil spirit goes by a blast from the open doors of Hell follows it.
She told many tales, one which particularly made my hair rise; it occurred in her youth. A young girl going to the river for water, met, in the dimness of dusk, an old man, long dead, who carried his severed head in one hand. This, said Aunt Mary, occurred on the plantation of her master, and she herself saw the girl come screaming through the dusk, to be whipped for throwing away the water-buckets in her flight.
Another tale she told that I have often met with in negro-lore. The setting, time and circumstances are changed by telling, but the tale remains basically the same. Two or three men — usually negroes — are travelling in a wagon through some isolated district — usually a broad, deserted river-bottom. They come on to the ruins of a once thriving plantation at dusk, and decide to spend the night in the deserted plantation house. This house is always huge, brooding and forbidding, and always, as the men approach the high columned verandah, through the high weeds that surround the house, great numbers of pigeons rise from their roosting places on the railing and fly away. The men sleep in the big front-room with its crumbling fire-place, and in the night they are awakened by a jangling of chains, weird noises and groans from upstairs. Sometimes footsteps descend the stairs with no visible cause. Then a terrible apparition appears to the men who flee in terror. This monster, in all the tales I have heard, is invariably a headless giant, naked or clad in shapeless sort of garment, and is sometimes armed with a broad-axe.
But through most of the stories I heard in my childhood, the dark, brooding old plantation house loomed as a horrific back-ground and the human or semi-human horror, with its severed head was woven in the fiber of the myths.
But no negro ghost-story ever gave me the horrors as did the tales told by my grandmother. All the gloominess and dark mysticism of the Gaelic nature was hers, and there was no light and mirth at her. Her tales showed what a strange legion of folk-lore grew up in the Scotch-Irish settlements of the Southwest, where transplanted Celtic myths and fairy-tales met and mingled with a sub-stratum of slave legends. My grandmother was but one generation removed from south Ireland and she knew by heart all the tales and superstitions of the folks, black or white, about her.
As a child my hair used to stand straight up when she would tell of the wagon that moved down wilderness roads in the dark of the night, with never a horse drawing it — the wagon that was full of severed heads and dismembered limbs; and the yellow horse, the ghastly dream horse that raced up and down the stairs of the grand old plantation house where a wicked woman lay dying; and the ghost-switches that swished against doors when none dared open those doors lest reason be blasted at what was seen. And in many of her tales, also, appeared the old, deserted plantation mansion, with the weeds growing rank about it and the ghostly pigeons flying up from the rails of the verandah.
There is a legend that was quite popular in its day in the Southwest, which I am unable to place. That is, I cannot decide whether it is one of the usual inconsistencies negro-folk-lore often displays, or a deliberate Irish invention, intended to be a bull. That is the one about the headless woman, who strange to say, was often heard grinding her teeth in the angle of the chimney, and whose long hair flowed down her back!
One can easily imagine a wide eyed, young and impressible Robert sitting on the edge of his chair, listening to these dark tales of the supernatural spun by his grandmother and “Aunt” Mary, subconsciously storing them away in his mind for future use, and they no doubt served as the genesis for many of his regional horror stories, including his most frightful tale, “Pigeons from Hell.”
Some of these tales of terror grew out of real places and real events, while others were pulled from Howard’s incredible imagination. Such is the mixed bag of East Texas ghost stories on the Texas Ghost Hunters website. And I have reason to be a little scared myself — at least five of the haunted places listed are in Old Town Spring, which is just up the road from where I live. Today, the old town is a popular tourist attraction with restaurants and an eclectic shopping area. Below you will find some examples of these harrowing tales of horror from the website.
Jackson Plantation (Lake Jackson, Brazoria County)
One night the two Jackson brothers had a fight. One ended up decapitating the other and throwing the head into the lake. The head was never found and the body had to be buried without it. To this day residents say that you can hear the sounds of someone wading into the lake and asking, “Where is my head?”
The lake for which the town was named is a slave-built structure with a strange history. The lake was made to serve the Jackson Plantation, owned by two brothers. During a particularly ugly spat, one of the Jackson brothers murdered the other and threw his head into the nearby lake. From that day, apparitions have appeared as well as sounds of the headless brother searching for his head. The plantation was moved decades later to make way for a new subdivision. People who live in the now-called Lake Jackson Farms have reported apparitions outside their homes, strange noises, and in at least a few cases, full hauntings. All that remains on the site of the original plantation house is the fireplace, made of mud brick.
Old Caddo Indian Museum (Longview, Gregg County)
This museum off Loop 1845 has been closed down for many years. The museum displayed artifacts that were found in burial sites in East Texas. Several people have seen a little ghost girl standing beside the road or in front of the museum during the night and strange sounds can sometimes be heard while driving down the street in front of the museum late in the evening. The ghost girl is said to be that of a little Indian girl that was killed from a head injury. Her skeleton was on display in a glass case for many years.
Ghost Riders (Neches River)
The ghost riders started haunting the Texas plains in the 1870s, when a cattleman driving his herd to market came across a new homestead blocking his normal route. It was a time of intense hatred between ranchers and farmers, and the cowboy was so angry that he stampeded his cattle right through the farmhouse, crushing everyone inside. Their screams are still heard whenever the phantom longhorns are sighted above the dusty plains. The legend inspired the popular song, “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
Old Plantation Home (Paris, Lamar County)
This house is located off FM 195. Scores of people report seeing a small boy crying in the corner of his supposed room of this very large house. The house resembles an evil watcher of its woods, standing upright looking out over the moon. Some claim to see wheelchairs creeping across rooms. Contains large amount of missing boards.
This house can be found in Slate Shoals. Most people get a bad feeling just looking at this house because of the way that it seems to just stare at you. When you see it, you feel like someone is watching you. People report seeing a woman in the attic and hearing strange sounds. It has also been reported that you can see a wheelchair move across the room. If you look down into the well on the corner of the kitchen in the front of the house, you can see a reflection and this may be the son of the slave master. Out back there are eleven cabins. On one side there are six and on the other there are five. If you go to the middle cabin on the side with five cabins, known as cabin number five, you may hear screams. Cabin number five is where it is believed that some of the slave girls were raped and killed.
Dead Man’s Run (Sulpher Springs, Hopkins County)
Word has it that around 1890, a man was working on the railroad tracks that were being laid through town. About two miles off of 19 on Highway 11 to the right on a little black top road is a desolate patch of railroad tracks. Now this man who was working on the railroad was having a bad time with his wife. So one night he took her out for what he said was a romantic interlude. Instead he beat her badly and tied her to the tracks. Thinking she was unconscious he sat down beside her to rest and without his knowledge, she tied his bootlaces to the track. He felt so guilty as he sat there on the tracks that he didn’t move until he saw a train barreling down on him. When the train was almost upon him, he got up to move and couldn’t. He looked down to see his wife grinning up at him and his laces tied in multiple knots. He tried to untie his laces, but to no avail. He was killed with his wife on the tracks. Now if you go to those tracks on November 12 at about 2:00 to 3:00 AM, you can sit on the tracks and you will witness the entire scene. You can hear the man screaming and the woman laughing.
With Halloween just a few days away, I don’t want to scare you too much, so I’ll leave it to you to further explore these mysteries on your own. As for me, I’ll be sharpening my axe, locking my doors and listening for the rattle of bones.
(For more on “Aunt” Mary Bohannon and Howard’s life in Bagwell, read Patrice Louinet’s excellent essay, “Pigeons from Bagwell.”)