Asheville Archives: Ghost stories from our city’s past

HAUNTINGS: Local papers embraced the mysterious and supernatural at the start of the 20th century. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville; photo embellishment by Scott Southwick

In the spirit of Halloween, this week’s Asheville Archives looks at a pair of ghost stories that appeared in print around the start of the 20th century. Though our aim is to celebrate the holiday, it should be noted that one of the articles promotes a common stereotype held during the Jim Crow era: the assumption that all African Americans were gullible and superstitious. Historically, such stereotypes reinforced ideas of white supremacy, a prominent movement during this period (see “Asheville Archives: ‘White supremacy made permanent,’ 1900,” Feb. 6, 2018, Xpress).

The (not so) mysterious case of the bright light

On Aug. 11, 1898, The Asheville Gazette reported the discovery of a haunt on the northern edge of downtown. The location, the paper wrote, was a vacant “little frame shanty,” known previously for harboring “the first cases of malignant disease found in the city.”

According to the article, an African American resident “noticed a bright light in one of the windows.” Aware that the home was empty, the man ran to Pack Square to report his finding.

“One or two incredulous ones sought to verify his tale,” the paper continued. “They approached the house with mingled feelings of fear and disbelief. In one of the windows on the north side of the house a brilliant light blazed forth with a steady glare.”

Quickly thereafter, “the news of the ‘haunt’ spread like wild fires,” the paper proclaimed. The following evening, a dozen residents gathered to witness the spectacle. “When darkness commenced to settle on the city, the watchers were rewarded with a bright flash, and the light took up its station at the window,” the paper reported.

Meanwhile, nearby residents claimed “every night doleful moans issued from the building and occasionally loud knocks could be distinctly heard.”

The article continued:

“People pass it in daytime without a question, but when the shades of nights descended, those aware of its ghastly nature, cautiously crossed the street to avoid passing it. The superstition was not entirely the possession of the negroes, many ignorant white people [are] sharing it with unction.”

An investigation ensued; the conclusion was anticlimactic.

“The ‘haunt’ was nothing more than an incandescent light which some one had carelessly failed to turn off,” the paper reported. “At dusk every night the current at the power house is turned on, and consequently the open incandescent lamp would light. The peculiar extinguishing of the light at midnight happens to every light in the city every night.”

Following the discovery, the Asheville Street Railway company shut off the site’s electric current, putting an end to the supposed haunt. “Everyone will pass the building now without the slightest fear,” the paper read, “even those who a few days ago could not be tempted to wander past at a slow gait for all the riches in Araby.”

Homeowners guide to tricking ghosts

A few years later, on Nov. 30, 1905, The Asheville Citizen investigated another unusual sight. “In the West End is a house which was finished several months ago, but which has still at the rear a part of the scaffolding used in its construction,” the paper declared. “The house is an attractive one and the neighbors wondered why the owner did not take down the disfigured scaffold.”

To satisfy residents’ curiosities, the paper sought out the homeowner. Initially elusive, the resident gradually addressed the reporter’s questions.

“If a man builds a new house and moves in it when it is finished some of the family is likely to die,” the unnamed homeowner claimed.

“But what has that got to do with the scaffold?” the reporter demanded.

Impatient, the man exclaimed: “The house ain’t finished until all the scaffold is down, is it? Spirits and haunts come along and see the scaffold and figure that there ain’t anybody living there, because the scaffold is up — and nobody dies.”

The paper characterized the man’s explanation as “entirely reasonable; that is, if there are such spirits with dispositions to knock a man that builds a new house.”

Naturally, the paper wanted to know if such dangers extended to renters. According to the man, renters were immune to the wrath of ghosts.

“This shows that the haunts investigate the ownership of new homes and take a look at the deed books,” the paper pointed out.

Finally, the reporter asked the man if he ever intended to take the scaffold down. The man replied:

“Oh yes. I’ll take it down when the house gets a little old. You see, the haunts notice a new house, but after a while, when the paint gets dingy they forget and say to themselves, ‘Oh, that’s an old house; no use bothering there.’”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original text. 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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