I have never understood slavery. I know that sounds stupid. I am as aware of the history as well as most people, but knowing is not the same as understanding. How could such vast numbers of people be so morally bereft, so cruel, so greedy, so unthinking? Yes, I know that slavery has existed in some form pretty much everywhere in the world throughout time, but that same much of the world rejected it in most forms long before the US fought a Civil War to end it here.

I’m from West Virginia, though it’s been a long time since I lived there, but that’s the home place for me. Most of the rest of my years were spent in Washington, DC and Maryland. I am a recent resident of North Carolina, which while not the Deep South, is still very southern. My new southern friends have families that go back for generations. I sometimes ask if any of their ancestors owned slaves. This is probably a rude question, but I always receive polite answers. In general, rather than answering the question, they tell me stories of grandparents and sometimes great-grandparents who were extremely helpful to people of color and who were greatly beloved by these people. No one has ever said yes, their ancestors owned slaves. I don’t disbelieve them, and I also believe their kin was always good to the black minority, but it does seem odd that no one has ever answered in the affirmative.

Because Rafe told me that Ada, the little girl spirit that “lives” beneath my house, was a slave child, and because Professor Aiden told me to do research into documents of the period, I discovered a cache of fascinating material: Slave Narratives, A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves. Typewritten Records Prepared by the Federal Writers’ Project 1936-1938 Assembled by the Library of Congress Work Projects Administration for the District of Columbia.

The short explanation of these papers is the WPA hired out-of-work writers during the depression to spread out across the south and interview people about the Civil War. When it quickly became clear that the interviews with those who had been slaves or who had relatives who were slaves were far more interesting that of the general public, they began to focus on just that one subject. There are thousands of these interviews, many of them from people who lived in the same area where I now live. I’m going to reproduce one of them here. While it may be shocking to some of you, these interviews were written in dialect, and in fact the writers attempted to exactly reproduce the sound of the speech; they even had style sheets showing how this patois was to be rendered into written form. I found the interview that follows riveting, filled with beautiful language and as dramatic and tragic, as filled with horror and pathos, as any Shakespearian play.



“Yes, suh, de wus’ I knows ’bout slavery times is what dey tols me ’bout how come dey hung my gran’mammy an’ gran’pappy. Dey hung dem bof at de same time an’ from de same lim’ of de tree, but dat was way back yonder befo’ Mistah Lincoln come down here to set de niggers free. My mammy wuzn’ but six months ole den an’ I wuzn’ even bawn, but Aunt Becky tole me ’bout it when I was ole enough to lissen.

“Dis ain’ no nice tale you gwine hear. It’s de truf, but ’tain’t nice. De fus’ time I heard it I didn’ sleep none for a week. Everytime I shut my eyes I seed Marse Drew Norwood wid dat funnel in his mouf an’ de hot steam blowin’ up like a cloud ‘roun’ his wicked face an’ skeered eyes.

“Dey say my gran’pappy’s Ole Marse was de meanes’ white man de Lawd ever let breath de breaf of life. His name was Marse Drew Norwood. He was de riches’ lan’ owner anywhare ‘roun’. He owned more lan’ an’ more niggers den anybody in Person or Granville counties. But he didn’ make his money wid no farm, no suh, he sho didn’, he made his money buyin’ an’ sellin’ niggers. He bought dem cheap an’ sold dem high. He would catch all de niggers dat run away from other plantations an’ keep dem in his lockup ‘twell he fatten dem, den he would take dem way off down in Georgia, Alabama or some place like dat an’ sell dem for a big price. He would come back wid his pockets runnin’ over wid money. Some folks say he stold niggers to sell, but nobody never could catch him.

“Marse Drew lived over here on de Virginia line ‘tween Red Bank an’ Blue Wing. He owned lan’ ‘cross de No’th Carolina line too an’ lived close to Blue Wing. He treated his niggers so mean dey was all de time runnin’ off. If he caught dem he beat dem near ’bout to death. He did beat Cindy Norwood to death one time kaze she run off to Marse Reuben Jones place an’ axed him to keep her. She got pizen in de cut places on her back an’ had fits three days befo’ de Lawd took her. But Marse Drew jus’ laugh an’ say he didn’ keer; dat she wuzn’ no ‘count nohow.

“I ain’t never seed Marse Drew kaze I was bawn way after de niggers was freed, but dey tole me he looked like a mad bull. He was short wid a big head set forward on his big shoulders. His neck was so short dat he couldn’ wear no collar; he jus’ kept de neck bindin’ of his shirt pinned wid a diaper pin. De debil done lit a lamp an’ set it burnin’ in his eyes; his mouf was a wicked slash cut ‘cross his face, an’ when he got mad his lips curled back from his teef like a mad dog’s. When he cracked his whip de niggers swinged an’ de chillun screamed wid pain when dat plaited thong bit in dey flesh. He beat Mistis too. Mis’ Cary wuzn’ no bigger den a minute an’ she skeered as a kildee of Marse Drew. She didn’ live long dey say kaze Marse Drew whipped her jus’ befo’ dey fus’ baby wuz bawn.

“Marse Drew done whip Luzanne kaze she burnt de biscuits, an’ Mis’ Cary give her some salve to rub on de cut places on her back. When Marse Drew foun’ it out he got so mad dat he come back to de big house an’ tole Mis’ Cary dat he gwine touch her up wid his whip kaze she give Luzanne de salve, dat when he want his niggers doctored he gwine doctor dem hese’f, so he got to use his lash a little bit to make her remember.

“Mis’ Cary got so skeered dat she run ‘roun’ an’ ‘roun’ de house, but Marse Drew run after her, an’ every now an’ den he th’ow out dat plaited whip an’ curl it ‘roun’ her shoulders. Every time it hit it cut clean through her clothes. Mis’ Cary got so skeered dat de baby come dat night befo’ ‘twuz time. De baby wuz bawn dead an’ Mis’ Cary went on to glory wid it. Dey say she was glad to go. Yes, suh, everything on dat plantation, animal an’ man was skeered of dat whip—dat whip dat never lef’ Marse Drew’s wris’. It was made of home-tanned leather plaited in a roun’ cord big as a man’s thum’. All day it swung from a leather strop tied to his wris’ an’ at night it lay on a chair ‘side de bed whare he could reach it easy.

“It was jus’ befo’ de Yankees come over here to fight dat Marse Drew bought Cleve an’ Lissa Lawson. Dey was my gran’mammy an’ gran’pappy. My mammy den was a baby. Marse Drew bought dem for fo’ hundred an’ fifty dollars. Dat was cheap kaze de niggers was young wid hard farm trainin’. Ole Marse didn’ buy mammy. He said a nigger brat wuzn’ no good, dey wouldn’ sell an’ dey might die befo’ dey growed up, ‘sides dey was a strain on de mammy what breas’ nussed it. Lissa cut up powerful kaze he made her leave de baby behin’, but Marse Drew jus’ laughed an’ tole her dat he would give her a puppy; dat dey was plenty of houn’s on de plantation. Den he snapped de chains on dey wris’ an’ led dem off. Lissa an’ Cleve never seed dat baby no more. Aunt Beck Lawson took an’ raised her an’ when she got grown she was my mammy.

“Yes, suh, Marse Drew bought dem niggers like he was buyin’ a pair of mules. Dey wuzn’ no more den mules to him. It was early summer when he brung dem to de plantation, but when wheat cuttin’ time come Lissa an’ Cleve was sent to de wheat fiel’s. Dey was smart niggers, dey worked hard—too hard for dey own good. In dem times ‘twuz de smart, hard workin’ niggers dat brought de bes’ price, an’ nobody didn’ know dat better den Marse Drew.

“One day Cleve seed Marse Drew watchin’ Lissa. She was gleamin’ de wheat. Her skin was de color of warm brown velvet; her eyes was dark an’ bright an’ shinin’ like muscadines under de frosty sun, an’ her body was slender like a young tree dat bends easy. As she stooped an’ picked up de wheat, flingin’ it ‘cross her arm, she swayed back an’ fo’th jus’ like dem saplins down yonder by de creek sways in de win’.

“Cleve watched Marse Drew on de sly. He seed him watchin’ Lissa. He seed de lustful look in his eyes, but ‘twuzn’ Lissa he lustin’ after; ‘twuz money he seed in her slender swayin’ body, in de smooth warm brown skin, an’ de quick, clean way she gleam de wheat. Stripped to de wais’ on de Alabama auction block she would bring near ’bout a thousan’ dollars. Cleve ‘gun to sweat. He turned so sick an’ skeered dat he could hardly swing de scythe through de wheat. Marse Drew done took his baby away, an’ now sumpin’ way down in his heart told him dat he was gwine take Lissa. He didn’ keer if he parted dem, ‘twuz dollars he seed swingin’ ‘roun’ his head—gol’ dollars shinin’ brighter den stars.

“‘Twuz de nex’ day dat Marse Drew went to Cleve’s cabin. He walk up whistlin’ an’ knock on de door wid de butt of his whip.

“Cleve opened de door.

“Ole Marse tole him to pack Lissa’s clothes, dat he was takin’ her to Souf Boston de nex’ day to sell her on de block.

“Cleve fell on his knees an’ ‘gun to plead. He knew Ole Marse wuzn’ gwine take Lissa to no Souf Boston; he was gwine take her way off an’ he wouldn’ never see her no more. He beg an’ promise Marse Drew to be good an’ do anything he say [HW: to] do if he jus’ leave him Lissa, dat she was his wife an’ he love her. But Marse Drew hit him ‘cross de face wid his whip, cuttin’ his lip in half, den he went over an’ felt of Lissa’s arms an’ legs like she might have been a hoss.

“When he done gone Cleve went over an’ set down by Lissa an’ took her han’. Lissa ‘gun to cry, den she jumped up an’ ‘menced to take down her clothes hangin’ on de wall.

“Cleve watched her for a while, den he made up his min’ he gwine do sumpin’, dat she ain’t gwine be took away from him. He say: ‘Quit dat, Lissa, leave dem clothes alone. You ain’t gwine leave me, you ain’t gwine nowhare, hear me?’ Den he tole her to make up a hot fire while he brung in de wash pot. He brung in de big iron pot an’ set it on de hearth an’ raked de’ red coals all ‘roun’ it, den he filled it wid water. While it was heatin’ he went to de door an’ looked out. De sun done gone down an’ night was crowdin’ de hills, pushin’ dem out of sight. By daylight dat white man would be comin’ after Lissa.

“Cleve turned ‘roun’ an’ looked at Lissa. She was standin’ by de wash pot lookin’ down in de water, an’ de firelight from de burnin’ lightwood knots showed de tears droppin’ off her cheeks. Cleve went outside. ‘Bout dat time a scritch owl come an’ set on de roof an’ scritched. Lissa run out to skeer it away, but Cleve caught her arm. He say, ‘Don’t do dat, Lissa, leave him alone. Dat’s de death bird, he knows what he’s doin’. So Lissa didn’ do nothin’, she let de bird keep on scritchin’.

“When ‘twuz good an’ dark Cleve took a long rope an’ went out, tellin’ Lissa to keep de water boilin’. When, he come back he had Marse Drew all tied up wid de rope an gagged so he couldn’ holler; he had him th’owed over his shoulder like a sack of meal. He brung him in de cabin an’ laid him on de floor, den he tole him if he wouldn’ sell Lissa dat he wouldn’ hurt him. But Marse Drew shook his head an’ cussed in his th’oat. Den Cleve took off de gag, but befo’ de white man could holler out, Cleve stuffed de spout of a funnel in his big mouf way down his th’oat, holdin’ down his tongue. He ax him one more time to save Lissa from de block, but Marse Drew look at him wid hate in his eyes shook his head again. Cleve didn’ say nothin’ else to him; he call Lissa an’ tole her to bring him a pitcher of boilin’ water.

“By den Lissa seed what Cleve was gwine do. She didn’ tell Cleve not to do it nor nothin’; she jus’ filled de pitcher wid hot water, den she went over an’ set down on de floor an’ hol’ Marse Drew’s head so he couldn’ move.

“When Ole Marse seed what dey was fixin’ to do to him, his eyes near ’bout busted out of his head, but when dey ax him again ’bout Lissa he wouldn’ promise nothin’, so Cleve set on him to hol’ him down, den took de pitcher an’ ‘gun to pour dat boilin’ water right in dat funnel stickin’ in Marse Drew’s mouf.

“Dat man kicked an’ struggled, but dat water scalded its way down his th’oat, burnin’ up his insides. Lissa brung another pitcher full an’ dey wuzn’ no pity in her eyes as she watched Marse Drew fightin’ his way to torment, cussin’ all niggers an’ Abraham Lincoln.

“After dat Lissa an’ Cleve set down to wait for de sheriff. Dey knew ‘twuzn’ no use to run, dey couldn’ get nowhare. ‘Bout sunup de folks come an’ foun’ Marse Drew, an’ dey foun’ Lissa an’ Cleve settin’ by de door han’ in han’ waitin’. When dem niggers tole what dey done an’ how come dey done it dem white folks was hard. De sheriff took de rope from’ roun’ Marse Drew an’ cut it in two pieces. He tied one rope ‘roun’ Cleve’s neck an’ one rope ‘roun’ Lissa’s neck an’ hung dem up in de big oak tree in de yard.

“Yes, suh, dat’s what happened to my gran’mammy an’ gran’pappy in slavery times. Dis here cabin we’s settin’ in is de same cabin whare Cleve an’ Lissa scalded Marse Drew, an’ dat oak tree ‘side de paf is de same tree dey was hung on. Sometimes now in de fall of de year when I’se settin’ in de door after de sun done gone down; an’ de wheat am ripe an’ bendin’ in de win’, an’ de moon am roun’ an’ yeller like a mush melon, seems like I sees two shadows swingin’ from de big lim’ of dat tree—I sees dem swingin’ low side by side wid dey feets near ’bout touchin’ de groun’.”


Those of you who would like to read more of these incredible interviews can find them at:

Anyone who would like to tell me about ancestors who owned slaves, please send me your stories in the comment section.

Those of you who are offended by the language of Dave Lawson in the interview, send your comments to the Library of Congress.





Good-Bye, Lead Penny, Hello


Local Burger w/Chipotle Curry Sauce, Muenster Cheese, Bacon, Tomato, Mayo, Red Onion.

The Lead Penny is closing! I was shocked to see the announcement of its last day on Instagram. I was aware that the restaurant group that owns the Penny was opening a new place three doors north of their present location, but I thought this new bar/restaurant would be in addition to the Penny and that the Penny would remain open. That’s what I get for leaving town for two weeks. I had plenty of questions, primarily would they continue the 69 drinks challenge? Like I said, I was shocked.

I don’t like going out of town and leaving my house. It’s a bit like leaving an aging mistress. (Not that I would know.) There are many things with the various systems that can go haywire — cooling, heating, plumbing, electric — events that could prove disastrous if I’m not around to catch them early. The house is old: everything old is prone to problems. Now add the strange occurrences that I have been chronicling here: the little girl apparition, Rafe digging up bones, the lights, the possibility of an even more malign being under the house, cat kidnapping, killer squirrels, the moving of the camera into the pillar, the house shifting, the fact that my phone camera no longer works under the house, the increasing number of nuisance computer problems. (The Hell to Pay type is still there, I can work around it, but I can’t remove it.) The fact that I found the base of the remote camera inside the house sitting on my keyboard upstairs in my office. This is perhaps the most disturbing element; we lock the house every night, but something, someone, is able to move freely inside when I’m sleeping a few feet away. What are they doing when I’m not here?

So I depend on the Penny as a place of refuge. It was with some trepidation Sherry and I went to the last-night celebration. It was crazy. The place was jammed, people were standing on tables shouting, taking picture, drinking toasts. I looked for Rafe, but he’s hard enough to spot on a calm night. I had a Fernet Branca, which is an Italian liquor, a type of amaro known for its bitterness. I have a long Fernet Branca story from my youth, which I sometimes tell if I’ve had enough to drink. I had originally thought I would recount it on these pages, but I’ve changed my mind. It’s indeed long, too long, involves a beautiful Englishwoman I met in Rome, a night of epic drinking and a terrible hangover the next morning whereupon the English lady taught me about the restorative powers of Fernet Branca; then she took me on a trip to a black-sand beach down the boot of Italy where the ladies strutted around the sand wearing bikini bottoms, no tops, and high heeled shoes; promises were made, promises were broken. If anyone passes through my town and we end up at the New Penny, buy me a few drinks, maybe I’ll tell you the story.

It was not my finest moment; or maybe it was.

For some reason Fernet has become a hipster drink, beloved by chefs for after-work drinking. Bitter is the operative word, but I like it and keep a bottle in the back of the liquor cabinet for those rare occasions when I need a hangover remedy.

Here’s a picture of me and the Big Guy grabbed in the midst of the craziness of that last night.

me and the Big Guy


The New Penny has opened. Here’s a report.

Beefeater Gin

Steelhead Salmon Tacos w/slaw, Creamy Dressing, Cilantro

They debuted the new bar just a few days after they closed the old one, three buildings up the street in what was originally a drug store. The new version looks pretty much like the old, only cleaner and bigger. All the old “art” is on the walls, including a line of the plaques honoring those who have entered the pantheon of 69 drinks. All the handwritten chalkboards announcing the changing lineup of food and drink are back up. There’s more room inside and a nice outside seating area. The only drawback is that with more people it’s extremely loud. You have to shout to be heard over the crowd noise and the music. This may sound like a geezer complaint and it may quiet down if there are fewer people, but it was REALLY loud. I may have to become an outside drinker, at least until it gets too cold.

And so the saga of the Lead Penny, and my 69 drinks, continues.

Next week: Things get serious.





I’ve been back for several days, and I’ve been busy. And now I’m worried.

I have to say, being on the road for two weeks was in many ways a relief. When you’re staying at a motel somewhere in Arkansas you don’t have to think about spirits knocking around underneath your room. But you always have to come home, eventually. Did I hope that maybe they’d just leave while I was gone? Maybe a little. But they didn’t leave. Nope.

The camera I ordered from Amazon arrived while I was away.  It’s a Wyze Cam 1080p HD indoor wireless smart home camera with night vision, about four inches square and comes with a detachable base. It streams directly to my phone and turns on when it detects motion up to 30 feet away even in total darkness. It records sound and has free rolling 14-day cloud storage. All for the magnificent sum of $25.95. That’s one hell of a deal

.Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 2.13.05 PM

I studied the directions for the camera until I got bored then went ahead and set it up. It worked fine while I was sitting on the front porch. I recorded several minutes of boring footage of my neighbors walking their dogs on the street in front of my house. I then crawled under the house, about five feet in and settled the camera into the dirt, pointing at the area where I had seen the little girl spirit when she was trying to abduct Sweetie.  (See post # 19) Toward one of the dozen or so pillars that hold up the house. I tested it again; all good.

Could I see a show of hands from those of you out there who believe in spirit photography?

Not me.

I had originally planned a post about the history of spirit photography when I ordered the camera, but I’m not going to bother. I emailed my pal Dan Stashower who wrote a book about one of the most famous and credible spirit photographers of all time, Arthur Conan Doyle. My question to Dan was simple: did Conan Doyle — one of history’s supposedly most rational men — actually believe one could photograph ghosts and fairies? Really? Dan’s answer: yes.

So I’m going to give it a try, as a number of you suggested I do. Or rather, I gave it a try. Remember earlier in this post I said I was worried? Well, here’s what happened.

I set up the camera. I tested it, it worked. I went to bed.

In the morning, this morning, I got up early and the first thing I did was look at the camera app on my phone.

Nothing. A series of black screens. Fifty of them, one after another. Something triggered the camera, a sound or motion, to take a picture, but nothing was recorded. Well, I didn’t really think it was going to work the first time. I needed to check out the camera and see how I screwed up. Is this what’s worrying me? No.

After I looked at the camera phone failure, I dressed, went downstairs and had breakfast on the side porch. After, I went back upstairs to my studio. Now you’ll see why I’m worried.

Sitting on my computer keyboard was the detachable base of the camera. Dirt was scattered around my desk. I had to look hard and think about what it was that I was seeing. I needed to process what I was looking at. It took a few minutes.

Let me say it again: the base of the camera that I had carefully set up to record any activity under my house was now sitting inside the house. INSIDE THE HOUSE!

I stood there like a mute fool, I don’t know how long, until I worked up the courage to pick it up. It seemed intact. Just like it had when I took it out of the box, except it was dirty. And there was no camera.

The next step was obvious: I was going to have to go look under the house and see if the camera part was there.

By now I was running on autopilot. There was no use in mentally asking the obvious questions (how did it get upstairs, etc.) It was inexplicable, and would be until I had more information.

It wasn’t 7:00 AM yet and Sherry was still sleeping. I went downstairs (bringing the camera base with me) and went outside. It was sunny; the skies were clear with nary a single ghost or malevolent spirit to be seen. I walked around the side of the house; the low wooden door to the crawlspace was open. I sank to my knees and squeezed through the door, dragging myself along on my elbows. I was trying to keep my mind blank. I could have easily stopped and backed out if I gave what I was doing a minute’s rational thought. It was dark, or rather darkish under the house, but there was plenty of light coming in around the edges of the crawlspace to see.

No camera.

I pulled myself over to the spot where I knew had planted the camera; I could see the shallow depression where I had buried the bottom of the base. The ground was dug up a bit.

No camera.

I lay there, trying to keep my head up so I wasn’t sucking in a century’s worth of dirt. I was breathing kind of hard. After a few minutes, I noticed something odd about the pillar that was another ten feet in front of me. I had pointed the camera at this pillar when I set it up, so I would have something solid, something real in the pictures if the camera was triggered.

There was something white in the side of the pillar, three-quarters of the way up the base. The rest of the pillar was made up of the usual: old bricks, stone blocks, all of it covered with the grime of a hundred plus years. I crawled slowly toward the pillar.

Halfway there I could see that the white object was the camera I had bought and set up the night before, even though it was impossible to believe. I kept crawling.

This was the furthest I had ever come. I was right at the base of the pillar. I took out my phone and used the flashlight. The camera was buried in the pillar; its front, the lens side, was flush with the stone block above and below. I wondered if this was where the inspector had found the old bottle jammed into the pillar. I couldn’t see any way this four-inch cube of plastic could have been crammed into where it was. I reached up and touched the camera to see if I could remove it.

When I put my hand on the camera, the pillar seemed to shift, as if I had pushed a critical block, a key. The entire pillar shifted away from me and a thin cascade of grit sifted down on my head. I could hear a grinding noise. I was convinced it was coming down.

I scrambled backwards faster than I thought I could move. I had a vision – was it a vision? – of the entire house sliding forward and crashing down on me; for just a second I imagined the scene from the Wizard of Oz, the one with the Wicked Witch’s demise, but this time it was my family and friends standing and looking at my legs protruding from beneath the house. Cue the munchkins.

I made it out. I stood up, trying to brush the dirt off my body. It was quiet. No grinding and groaning foundation, no falling bricks and stones, no teetering house, no spirits laughing at me. Just the bright sunshine of a North Carolina summer day. Had I imagined it?

I went upstairs, quietly. Sherry was still asleep. If the house really did teeter it hadn’t knocked her awake. I took a shower and changed clothes.

Now I’m sitting here typing this. I’m numb.

My phone just made a little buzz, indicating some function. I looked at the screen. There was a picture of me, looking into the lens, under the house, a terrified expression on my face. As I watched, the picture faded away. The screen went black.


Pause Three


Roast Beef Sub w/thin sliced beef, Cheddar, Deli Pickles, Dijon, L. T. Mayo

I’m at the Penny with Mark. I’ve worked my way through most of the brown spirits on my drink list and am into the clear stuff. I’m making headway, I’m into the low forties on my way to the finish, number sixty-nine. But I’ve got five tequilas to get through; I hate tequila. I consulted with my bartender, the Tall Guy, who suggested since I liked Bloody Marys I should disguise the tequila that way. The drink is known as a Bloody Juanita. I ordered it. It was terrible. I just now looked up the brand, Tequila Ocho, and found that it is a pricey, high-class tequila with numbered and dated bottles, aged in American whiskey casks for one year. I would have been far better off just sipping it straight.

Sherry’s home from her sister’s. She put a new rug in her office so I can no longer see if the light beneath the house is on. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

There seems to be nothing much going on since the big fight with the girl spirit over Sweetie, (see post # 19) but I haven’t been watching very carefully. With Sherry home, it’s difficult to skulk around at night in my robe, especially since I now need to go outside and look under the house that way if I want to see anything. I have visions of the police pulling up and wanting to know what I’m doing in my bathrobe shining a flashlight under my house at 3:00 am in the morning.

I’m taking a break from blogging for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile I’ll continue to read the period newspapers to see if I can shed some light on why the two rooms of the Ashburn school were moved to my lot. My remote-controlled camera should be here soon, and I’ll set it up underneath the house.

And then there’s this…


This is the bottle the under-house inspector found jammed into one of the pillars. I keep meaning to take a picture of it for you. You can see it’s a really old bottle. The liquid inside became kind of foamy while I was fooling with it setting up the picture. Like it was angry, or something. I know, it sounds crazy. Hey, if you’re so brave, come on by and I’ll pull the cork and you can take a shot. I’m thinking about it, but I’m not there yet.

Those of you are behind on the blog can catch up. Remember: sit down; have a drink; read.

I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.



When I sat back down at my computer at home the first thing I did was order a remote-controlled camera from Amazon for $29.99. At that price I don’t expect much quality from the pictures, but I’m not looking for art, I’m looking for… what? Something I can see, something I can put up on these pages so you don’t think it’s all been a figment of my imagination. So I don’t think it’s been a figment of my imagination.

Next I did a Google search on Aiden from the library. It was easy to find him. He told me he was a history professor and from all the Duke gear he had — notebooks, t-shirt, coffee mug – it figured that must have been where he taught. Bingo. Aiden Nye Mann, professor of various varieties of History at Duke from 1980 to 2017, receiver of a long list of awards, prizes, fellowships and grants. His specialty was, unsurprisingly, the antebellum period in the south, in particularly North Carolina, particularly, Orange County surrounding Hillsborough. (For those of you who have trouble remembering the meaning of antebellum, (me!) the word is from the Latin, ante, meaning before and bellum, meaning war.) A little more digging turned up an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a PhD from Duke. Duke has his picture on their History department page with the word Retired. The entry says he studied and taught comparative slave systems, with a special interest in the development of slave society and the evolution of slave life. His specialty was a new branch of study of the period termed “hard history,” which concentrates on the lives of ordinary slaves rather than those who escaped the bonds and succeeded in white society. Of course I was aware of that after the chat we had had at the library. Dr. Mann, according to the article, is single and lives in Hillsborough.

And now, I thought, he holds court on the second floor of the local library, surrounded by students, at least I assumed they were students, backpacks overflowing with notebooks, hardback books, bottled water and an array of energy bars.

After I finished reading about Dr. Mann I looked up the newspaper records he and Rafe told me about. I found them online at the Library of Congress, my homework assignment, and, sure enough, there was the Hillsborough Record from the years 1820 to 1879. The newspaper pages are photocopies that vary in quality from difficult-to-read to impossible-to-read. Here’s the front page from the Hillsborough Record, 1840. I’m attaching it just to give you an example, although this one is in far better shape and more readable than most:

H. Record 1840 example

The newspaper was 4 pages, with national news on the first and second pages, the local news and advertisements on page three and almost all advertising on page 4. The example above (this is just a piece of the front page) is the transcript of a speech given by a member of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC. Then, and now, it’s pretty boring, but all of a sudden the names of famous politicians of the time – John Q. Adams, Henry Clay, President John Tyler – speeches by Frederick Douglas and other famous people, appear and suddenly the period comes alive. Whoever reported the speeches included asides that transmit the atmosphere – laughter, hoots and jeers from the opposition, shouts from the balcony – so you can almost smell the vitriol in the chambers. Some things never change.

The fourth page has the advertisements; some are funny like this ad for a brass band that is looking to be hired out to provide music for various functions. See if you can make it out. This will give you some idea of the difficulty of reading these newspapers:

Brass Band Ad

I’ve cleaned the screen shot up as much as I could. It’s nice to see that the Hillsborough Brass Band is much better than that piece-of-crap Boots’ band, who only seem to know two tunes.

Here’s a review of a music recital put on by the young ladies of the Burwell School, another all-female academy in Hillsborough. I’ll post the clipping and then transcribe it:

notice about music show at school

“The Fall session of this school for young ladies closed on the 27th ultimo. The extensive preparation for the accommodation of pupils to the last session, it seems, was fully warranted, and the increase in their number was quite equal to their ability to accommodate; thus proving both the superior excellence and advantages of the school, and its just appreciation by parents and guardians.  At the close of the last session, the parents and friends of pupils were permitted to enjoy a rich treat in hearing the performance of the music scholars in which they exhibited a proficiency which could not fail to afford high gratification. Mr. Kerne, the teacher in this department, has few equals, and perhaps no superiors, in the state, in his qualifications as an instructor in Music.”

It was when I got to the third and fourth pages that I began to see why Dr. Mann gave me this assignment.

I don’t care how liberal one is, and I count myself among the most liberal of men, when you see something like this you begin to have more of an understanding of the period and the sickness, the blight, the abomination that was slavery.

slave runaway reward 1

These individual ads ran in the paper sometimes for weeks. One can’t help giving a silent cheer when they crop up week after week because it must mean that the runaways have not been captured and are still on the loose. At least that’s what one hopes.

slave runaway reward 2

Runaway reward Henry

slave sale ad 1


There’s a certain sick feeling that grows in your heart as you read these notices, sales of men, women, and children, rewards for runaways, admonitions to anyone aiding a fleeing slave, all recorded in the same manner, as if the newspaper employed someone to take down the information, write it up, and collect the payment for running the ads. And I suppose they did, though I believe there were only a few employees at the Hillsborough Record and it’s just as likely that the chief editor did all this sort of work as well as putting together the other pages of national news. One of the ads on the back page informs readers that they can find some excellent turnip seeds for sale at the offices of the Record. The editor was probably in charge of turnip seed sales as well.

I’ll keep reading the paper and putting up examples of this sort of thing. I wonder if Rafe thinks I’ll find something that relates to Ada, the spirit who lives, or exists beneath my house. Or the second grave he is searching for. Perhaps.

And now I’ll leave you with another little story from the paper. This is a news report, not unlike the crime news reports of our time.

shocking death notice

I’ll transcribe it for you, as it’s a bit difficult to read:

Shocking Death. – Mr. Ludwick Albright, in Alamance County, came to a shocking death on Tuesday the 24th ult. He had been drinking freely, and was left seated before the fire. After about an hour one of his sons returning, found him lying upon his face, with his head and shoulders in the fire, and dead. His head was nearly consumed, and his hands dropped off at the wrist upon his being lifted up.”

God. I hope he doesn’t show up in the crawlspace.









Fried Catfish Sandwich, Jalapenos, Iceberg Lettuce, Pickled Green Tomato, Toasted Roll

The next morning I realized I had a review due for Publisher’s Weekly, so I opened a new page in Word and began entering the header material for the book. The first thing I noticed was that the Hell to Pay words, in red, appeared when I opened the blank page. This was a surprise, but not a shock; my computer is an aging iMac and while it works perfectly well most of the time it will occasionally throw off an annoying error that I have to stop and fix. I deleted the blank page and opened a new one. Same problem. I’ll spare you the various fixes I tried, but after an unfruitful, frustrating fifteen minutes I ended up highlighting the text and changing the font color to white, which made it “disappear” on the page. Yes, crude, akin to fixing a typo on a gravestone by chiseling off the offending letters with a rock, but so far it’s working. It’s there, but I can’t see it and neither can you, so I’ll just pretend it’s gone and hope it eventually fixes itself.

I wrote my review, rewrote it six or seven more times and sent it off to my editor, gathered up my various notebooks and my pack and headed off to the library. Rafe had asked me to go look up his friend there, Professor Aiden Mann.

I have always loved libraries and librarians. I wrote my first published book, Time After Time (still available for purchase at Amazon!) at a table in my tiny, local storefront library in the town of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, while two wonderful elderly librarians took care of my daughter, Leah, who was a baby at the time. She would sit on the checkout counter and play with one of the book stamps while they made sure she didn’t fall off. It was hell getting that ink off her at the end of the day.

The American Library Association selected Till the End of Time as one of their Books of the Year when it was published. When I started my second book, Twice Upon a Time, the library had moved to larger permanent quarters, in the same small town but down the street. My old librarians had been transferred to other branches, and no one was willing to babysit while I wrote. Time, and progress, I guess, marches on.

Hillsborough, another small town, has a terrific library. Housed in a new but old-appearing Greek Revival building, it has lots of books, helpful librarians and many computers for the public. I think they would draw the line at babysitting, but everyone has always been friendly, and as I said, helpful.

When I asked the librarian downstairs if she knew an Aiden Mann, she pointed at the nearby stairs.

“The Professor. He’s up there at a table way in the back,” she said, gesturing toward the rear of the library. “You can’t miss him. He’s the one who looks like he’s camping out.”

I walked up the broad staircase and was distracted by the Recent Novels display. Since I review thrillers professionally, I seldom have time to read for pleasure. I scanned the books on the shelves and though tempted to stop and leaf through a few of the recent bestsellers, I moved on. I was here on a mission.

There were six or seven tables with computers and patrons, but no one who looked like he was camping out. I followed the downstairs librarian’s directions and walked straight back to the rear of the room through ranks of bookcases housing the nonfiction collection. There, at a table that would seat at least eight, was a grey-haired, ruddy complexioned man who could only be the professor. He was seated at the head of the table behind a laptop computer and surrounded by open packs and briefcases that held reams of paper, blue notebooks, snacks of all sorts and bottles of water. He was wearing a blue Duke t-shirt. He looked up over a pair of bright red reading glasses and raised his eyebrows. He was a smallish man, about my size or a little slighter, meaning he wasn’t portly as I tend to be.

“Rafe sent me,” I said, sounding like I had just knocked on the door of a speakeasy and uttered the secret password.

“Aiden,” he said, holding up his hand. We shook. He pushed away a pile of books on the table to his left and gestured to the seat. I sat down. There were several younger people at the far end of the table, but they were working on their computers and didn’t look up.

“You can speak in a normal tone,” he said. “They can’t hear us up front. That’s why they stuck me back here.”

I nodded and sat for a minute trying to decide what I was going to say. I certainly wasn’t going to mention any poltergeists or paranormal activity.

“I live in a house on West Orange. I’ve been researching its history and Rafe said you might have some information about it.”

“What years are you interested in?”

“Probably 1850 to 1857. Maybe before. Up to the Civil War. It’s called the Daisy Lynch house.” Aiden nodded.

“I know the house,” he said. “It’s been pieced together over the years like a three dimensional puzzle. Starting from the old school house, which was procured from the Ashburns by Lemuel Lynch, one of the region’s most famous silversmiths. Actually, I think the schoolhouse was given to the guy who was doing the renovation on the Ashburn house, John Berry. He was a local builder who designed and built the County Courthouse. Lynch probably bought it from Berry.” He stopped a minute and thought. “The Ashburn renovations took place in 1848, so that’s when the interior rooms would have been hauled to their final resting place — your lot.”

I was impressed. “Right, at least as far as I have been able to find. I wonder how I could dig up more information, in particular references to slavery of the period, both in the Ashburn family and the Lynch family. And maybe the Berry family as well.” I thought briefly about my use of the term ‘dig up.’

He looked toward the ceiling for a minute. “I’d try the census materials, sometimes they listed slaves as part of the property of the household. The library carries family genealogy material, but slaves are almost never mentioned. It’s not something modern folks want remembered or brought to the notice of others. The Orange County tax records might list them as declared property of the family you’re interested in. I know John Berry had slaves. He used them in his building business, trained them and when they reached a certain proficiency he gave them their freedom and hired them. At least some of them.”

“He sounds like he must have been one of the good guys.”

Aiden’s eyes narrowed. “There was nothing good about slavery. Nothing. If you meant he had slightly more enlightened ideas than most of the people of the day, you would probably be correct. But I wouldn’t go much further than that. Why are you interested in slavery?”

Now what was I going to tell him? Well, Mister Historian, there’s the ghost of a young slave girl living under my house.

“I’m interested in history in general. I wrote a series of time travel books that were set in different historical periods, the Civil War being one of them. I like to get a feel for what life was like in whatever period I’m researching. Since I’m interested in this town fifteen or twenty years before the Civil War, that would have to include slavery.”

I could see he was weighing my words. I hadn’t meant to piss him off, but it appeared from his expression that I had done so.

“What are going to do with this research?”

“I’m not sure. I have I blog I write about Hillsborough and my house. Slavery was a part of that history. Am I doing something wrong?” I gave him one of the cards I had printed up. They list the blog site, and read, Sit back; Have a drink; Start from the beginning. I have trouble getting people who aren’t keeping up with the posts or who have fallen behind from just skipping to the current post. Aiden glanced at the card and tucked it into the small notebook he was writing in.

“Are you doing something wrong? Not that I know of. I’m a bit touchy on the subject because I’ve seen so many people romanticize that part of the history of the South. There was nothing romantic about it as far as the enslaved were concerned. Every day was a reminder of their condition, of the burden they suffered under.” He looked away for a minute then went on. “I taught history at the University for 30 years and I watched as most professors got it wrong. They taught the good parts: Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, Elizabeth Keckley, Frederick Douglass, all the success stories of people of color rising above their servitude. Elementary school stuff. Meanwhile they mostly left out the hard parts, the daily life of 99% of the rest of enslaved humanity. The part that no one wants to hear or even think about now.” He stopped and took a breath.

I had really set him off.

“Sorry,” he said. “As you can see, this is something of a sore subject for me. Actually I’m not really sorry. I tell you what, here’s a homework assignment. Go on the website of the Library of Congress and look up the Hillsborough Record. That was the newspaper here during the period you’re interested in. Read it and see if you can find articles that include the men you’re asking about, Lynch and Berry, the Ashford School, anything that might have to do with your house. Pay attention to the advertisements on the back page, that’s a good place to get a feel for how the regular people lived. Come back in a week and we’ll talk.” He picked up his notebook and wrote a few words.

Dismissed, I thought.

“Rafe said I should be reading the old Hillsborough newspaper as well.” Aiden nodded.

As I turned to leave he said, “Just a minute, when you see Rafe tell him to come see me, I have a job for him.”

I stopped. “I have no idea when or even if I’m going to see Rafe. I don’t know how to get in touch with him. He was extremely vague on the details of his life. He just kind of shows up.”

Aiden laughed. “Yeah, well, that’s our Rafe.”


I walked over to the Penny and ordered a catfish sandwich, which came with jalapenos, pickled green tomatoes and lettuce on a toasted roll. I love catfish sandwiches. I studied my list of drinks and ordered a Woodford Reserve. It’s a medium-to-expensive Kentucky Bourbon that I have had before. There’s a realtor in Hillsborough who’s named Woodford and he uses little airline bottles of the bourbon as kind of a calling card. He invited me over to his house one night, and I drank so many of those little bottles I should have been ashamed. I wasn’t. He hasn’t invited me back.

I looked the distillery up on my cell phone while I was sitting there and found it was/is one of the oldest in the US having been founded in 1780. The distillery building still in use was built in 1838, so this whiskey was probably pretty much like what they were drinking back when they were dragging my house onto the lot and covering up graves. I added to my research chores trying to find out how whiskeys differ today from back then. While I ate my catfish and French fries I thought about my meeting with historian Aiden Mann and how I was now headed down a road that was beginning to feel like I was working on a dissertation.

Besides the homework, I had a couple of unfinished tasks, or maybe I should call them opportunities. I still hadn’t done anything about putting a camera under the house, and I hadn’t really thought about the old bottle the crawlspace guy had found jammed in one of the pillars. Cleaned up it sure as hell looked like an old whiskey bottle that was three-quarters full of old whiskey. Definitely an opportunity. I wanted to find out how whiskey then differed from whiskey now? All I had to do was pull the cork, carefully, and take a taste. Now, if this was a story by some dope on the Internet, the next words would be… “After all, what could go wrong?”





Smoked Pulled Pork w/Loaded Mashed Yukon Potatoes, Sautéed Green Beans, Texas Toast

I’m not sure what I think about my evening yesterday with Rafe. I guess I know far more than I knew before, but the question remains, as it has all along: do I believe what I now “know?” Talking to Rafe was, at times, like talking to a man from another time. Or another something. It could just as easily be that he’s the crazy one, not me.

I spent the morning today surfing around on the Internet, primarily on the site Rafe told me about that has the photocopies of the old local newspaper of the period, the Hillsborough Record. Here’s the Library of Congress website for one of the pages if you’re interested.

Those of you who do a lot of historical research will understand when I say combing through these old newspapers will lead to insanity and blindness because of the visual difficulty of trying to read the old newsprint, but there is a certain thrill to be in touch so intimately with the past. One starts out a session vowing to only spend X amount of time looking at the newspapers, and then hours go by and you find yourself thinking, Just one more, Just one more. I think of it as History Porn.

I didn’t find anything that referred directly to my house or to the Ashburns or any incidents concerning them or their slaves, but it was fascinating to read contemporary accounts of life at the time, especially the local stuff, but also what was going on in Congress in Washington and the world in general. For instance, the newspaper ran many articles as early as 1850 saying that those politicians who kept bringing up succession from the Union as a tactic were obviously lunatics, that nothing like that would ever happen in America, that the South loved the Union and would never leave it. Knowing what was going to happen in 14 years made that definitive an opinion seem ludicrous. The advertisements were also interesting: many were for various remedies to cure the ills of the time, particularly Piles (hemorrhoids) and Female Problems, but pretty much any known disease was curable with one nostrum or another.

The most disturbing advertisements to me were those placed by people selling slaves, which are shocking to see through modern eyes. I understand that this is a cliché, but it’s one thing to know something intellectually and another to see it in stark black and white. The slaves were often sold in portions – ½, 1/3, ¼, and whole – men, women, and children. This selling by portion was something that I didn’t know happened; learning a detail like this is like seeing the actual ads, an oddity that makes something terrible even more so.

But there’s a lot I don’t know about what happened back then. I remember the look in Rafe’s eyes as he leaned toward me and spoke about the terrible truths of slavery. And I remember his last words to me, “Hell to pay.”

I was at the Penny and, for once, the room was only half full. I was at the bar and Big Guy was tending. I was drinking a Baker’s bourbon, which BG informed me (the man is a font of whiskey wisdom) was a higher proof offering from Jim Beam. Also that it was named for Jim Beam’s grandnephew, Baker Beam. That’s a hell of a moniker to drag around your whole life. I liked the bourbon; it’s not sweet and it’s got a high alcohol burn.

BG leaned on the sink and dried his hands on a white bar towel. He put his initials on my paper list of drinks. “So, you a friend of Raphael’s?” he asked.

“Not exactly a friend, I only met him recently. He told me he has a room upstairs?”

“That’s right. He came in about a year ago and offered to help out in the kitchen if we had a place for him to stay. Everyone likes him, a really nice guy. He doesn’t work in the kitchen much anymore, but he’s here most nights when he’s in town.”

“Why have I never seen him in here before?”

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” He nodded at the corner of the bar. “He usually sits over there. He kind of blends in or something; you don’t notice him unless he hails you and then all of a sudden there he is.”

“You must see a lot of him if he lives upstairs.”

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him up there. Most of the rooms are used for storage except the one he stays in. He goes away for long periods, and then all of a sudden he turns up again. He has some sort of a strange job, but he’s never told me what it is. I don’t think it pays much.”

His job is digging up graves underneath my house, I thought. This is not something I would share with BG. He wouldn’t understand; I barely understand it myself. I’ve never told BG or any of the Penny personnel about this blog. I’ve learned that people can get pissed off about the strangest things, or at least they’re strange to me. This is the reason I’ve changed the name of the bar, as I’ve said elsewhere, to the Lead Penny.

“I’ve never seen him sit with anyone as long as he sat at the table with you last night. He’s friendly, he’ll talk to people around him, but mostly he keeps to himself.”

BG didn’t exactly ask a question, but you could tell he wanted to know how I knew Rafe. “He and I are working on a project,” I said. “It has to do with the Ashburn School.” BG nodded and moved off to snag a Budweiser out of the cooler and put it on the bar in front of a customer. I’ve never understood why someone would drink a Bud, especially when they’re in a classic barroom that features a revolving list of excellent draft craft beers, carefully chosen for their interest. The only reason I can think of is that Bud is cheap. One can drink a couple of them for the cost of one draft. But the alcohol content is half that of the higher priced, more interesting brews. So what’s the point?

“What’s that he drinks?” I asked. “You served it to him in an iced shot glass. Is it on my list?”

BG laughed. “I have no idea what it is. He brought in a really ancient bottle early on and had me put it on the shelf. Here, I’ll show you.” He went back to a corner of the bar over the cash register, or rather the computer screen that functions as a cash register in these modern times. He brought back a bottle and held it up for me to see. It was an exact duplicate of the one Jason Longwell the foundation inspector found underneath my house jammed into one of the pillars. Except the liquid in this one was perfectly clear, unlike the dark amber in my bottle.

“The weird thing, “ BG said, “is that when you pour it into a shot glass it turns ice cold. The glass gets misty with condensation. I’m the only one who’s allowed to touch the bottle.”

“Has anyone ever tasted it?” I asked. BG appeared shocked at the suggestion and shook his head. “Nope. Rafe’s never offered.” He looked at me and leaned closer. “The dude’s not the sort you’d want to cross. I don’t think it would be smart to poach his liquor. He’s not that big, but there’s something about him. You know what I mean?”

I knew what he meant. Not the sort of dude you’d want to cross. I remembered the feeling when he dragged me out from under the house. As if I weighed next to nothing.

I paid my tab and walked home. It was just getting dark. The house was lonely with Sherry gone. I thought about all the entities that were knocking around, or might be knocking around underneath. I wondered if Rafe would be down there tonight, digging away, collecting bones, trying to put to rest one spirit and prevent another from arising. Hell to pay, I thought.

I went upstairs to type this entry, which I’m doing right now. Then I’ll go to the Library of Congress website and pull up more of the Hillsborough Record, looking for any clues to why the house is where it is and why there are graves underneath.

Hell to pay. I watched as the words appear on the screen, unaware that I had typed them. I stared at them for a minute and deleted them. Now the screen was the way you see it. Blank from here on down. What words will I fill it with in the future? I have no idea.

I must have typed the words Hell To Pay. Didn’t I? Then I deleted them. Right. If so, why has this just appeared on my screen?