Appalachia Ghosts - Haints - Spooky

A Mother’s Love Defies Death


Why there are so many ghost stories in appalachia

Today wraps up my October series of spooky posts. It seems appropriate to end with my favorite mountain ghost story. The tale comes to us by way of Blind Pig Reader Ethelene Dyer Jones.



(A Mountain Story)

by Ethelene Dyer Jones

This morning is cloudy and dark. The overcast sky puts me in mind of days in the mountains in my childhood when the clouds hung low and fog rose like a giant shroud hiding the majestic peaks that stood like sentinels over Choestoe Valley.

Then I thought of the tradition of mountain storytelling, and how we were entertained as children by hearing stories that had been passed from generation to generation by our Scots-Irish forebears. My favorite storytellers from my childhood were my first cousin, much older than I, my mother’s nephew, Earl Hood and his wife Allie Winn Hood. This delightful couple had no children of their own, but they seemed to be very pleased when Earl’s nephew and nieces and his young cousins went to spend the night. With no electricity then in that mountain home and the only heat being from an open fireplace, we settled down to a wonderful night of entertainment provided by master storytellers, Earl and Allie Hood.

The recipients of this rich legacy of mountain tales, many of them about ghosts and haints, were Little Ed and Bertha Hood Dyer’s children, our cousins Wilma, Genelle, Harold and Sarah Ruth, and my younger brother, Bluford Dyer and I, Ethelene. We all got permission in advance to go to Allie’s and Earl’s to spend the night on certain Friday nights, and walked the distance from Choestoe Elementary School to their house. It must have been more than three miles, but the anticipation of what we would enjoy once we arrived made us skip along, laughing and talking all the while, with the boys, Harold and Bluford, outstripping the girls and arriving first, boasting that they were stronger than we girls.

After the evening chores of milking and feeding and getting in the wood were finished, Allie served us a wonderful meal of hot cornbread, vegetables and country-cured ham, topped off by dried apple stack cake. We quickly washed the dishes and then settled down for an evening’s entertainment, the likes of which has never been surpassed, even with the advent of television years later.

One ghost tale I remember them telling—and they had a way of making us “see” the scene they laid out before us with their words—was one about a mother’s love for her baby. Allie would warn us that we should not try to match the names in the stories to people, living or dead. This had happened so long ago it would be hard to remember them exactly. The story went something like this:

Years ago, when sawmillers first came to our mountains to cut down the virgin trees and saw them into lumber, there lived far up near Round Top Mountain, a couple named Sexton, Eliza and John. They loved each other dearly. And in the course of time, Eliza had a beautiful baby girl whom they named after her mother but called her Liza. The midwife or “Granny Woman” named Mary had attended little Liza’s birth. Things were going along well until two days after Liza’s birth her mother came down with a raging fever. Granny Woman Mary administered her herbal remedies, but none had any effect on the fever. Eliza grew worse.

John told Granny Mary that he was going to Blairsville, some fourteen miles from his home, to get the doctor. He took off down the rutted mountain road, made worse by the snaking out of the saw logs and the rough treatment from big trucks, just then coming into the mountains, hauling out the sawed lumber. John finally arrived in town in his buggy drawn by his horse. But the doctor was out on a call delivering a baby and was not expected back until the next day. John decided to stay in town and wait for the doctor, because he would have to take the doctor in his buggy back up to his cabin on Round Top. John didn’t get much sleep that night, trying to rest in his buggy. Fortunately, he had brought along a blanket to protect himself from the night’s cold. All he could think about was how sick Eliza was, and even how still the newborn baby seemed in the large basket that was her crib.

About daybreak the doctor came back from his all-night call, tired and sleepy. But he agreed to go with John to examine Eliza and little Liza. After a hot breakfast and coffee which the good doctor’s wife prepared for her husband and for John, the two men got into John’s buggy and took off at a lope, as John urged the horse to a trot.

Finally they arrived at the John Sexton home. Granny Woman Mary met them on the porch. “I’m afraid you’re too late,” she said. “Both Eliza and little Liza died during the night.” John, gripped with deep grief, went inside his cabin where he saw his beautiful Eliza and the little baby laid out for burying. How could this have happened? If only the doctor had been at home, maybe his wife and child could have been saved.

The doctor and Granny Woman Mary tried to console John. Neighbors came, and made a casket. They placed the bodies together in the homemade casket, the baby in Eliza’s arms.  They were buried in the cemetery near the little log church called Salem. John, so devastated, did not want his neighbors’ sympathy or their food which they always took with loving concern to the household that had experienced death. John latched his cabin door and told his neighbors he would have to bear his burden of grief alone.

The next morning John’s neighbor, James Collins, went to his barn before daylight to milk his cows. Times were hard in those days, and there were always people on the road dropping by farmhouses and barns to beg for food. James realized someone was in the barn with him. He turned and saw a woman, dressed in black, the sort of finer dress like the women in the community wore to church. She sat a tin cup down on a bale of hay. James knew she wanted it full of milk, so he took the cup and soon filled it with warm rich milk. The woman nodded her thanks but did not say a word. The next morning and the next, the same woman visited James as he was milking, begging with her cup. On the fourth morning, James decided he would follow the woman who would not give him her name. Maybe he could find out where she lived.

He saw her dark form disappear into the woods, but, running, he was able to follow her to the cemetery. Then it was just as though she disappeared into one of the newly heaped graves. This frightened James, but he knew he must do something.

James quickly returned home, got his shovel and ran to his nearest neighbor’s house. He told Lish Hunter what he had seen. “Get your shovel,” James said, “and come with me.” Lish wondered what had come over his neighbor James Collins, but he grabbed his shovel and the two men went in that early, foggy morning to Old Salem Church Cemetery. There they began to dig into the newly-formed grave. Getting down to the casket, they gingerly removed the lid, and there was the woman James had seen four mornings in a row at his barn, rigid and cold in death. There was the cup in her hand. And lying on her breast, gurgling but weak, was a beautiful baby girl, still alive, still breathing.

Then they removed the baby, and covered the grave. They went to John Sexton’s home. The door was still barred with the grieving husband and father inside. “Open  up,” James ordered. “We have a gift for you. Here is little Liza, alive and well.”

John could not believe his eyes or the story James told him about the baby’s rescue. What rejoicing he had as the baby, safe in his arms, began to cry. “Come down to my barn and I’ll give you some milk for the baby,” Jim Collins told John. And he did. Nevermore did James Collins see the woman in a black dress with the tin cup come to his barn begging milk. But you can be assured that he remembered it the rest of his life, and told the story again and again.

Little Liza grew up to be a beautiful young lady. Her daddy, John, married again and had more children. But Liza always held a special place in his heart because she was the miracle baby, his first-born rescued from the grave by his neighbors James and Lish.

“Is that true?” we kids asked Allie and Earl. They only smiled and told us it was time for bed. But every time we climbed the hill to Old Salem Cemetery, we looked at the grave marked with a fieldstone, with no names readable on it. We always remembered the story told to us by Allie and Earl, and wondered about the mother who loved her baby so much she would return from the grave to get warm milk to keep little Liza alive. And as we milked our own cows early on foggy mornings, we were always aware that if a woman with a cup appeared, we were to fill it promptly with warm milk. I think we were a little disappointed that no woman ever came to our barn for us to do this service of love and mercy.


I hope you enjoyed Ethelene’s story as much as I did!


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  • Reply
    Mary Lou McKillip
    November 6, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    I re-read that wonderfully writing and story telling by EtheleneDryer Jones.Ethelen I wish I could go back to a supper once more of country cured ham, vegetable and hot cornbred along with that apple stack cake. That really brought back Miss Julie cookin to me. Ethlene your are a jewel to these ole mountains folks who thrive on such good storytelling and writing to Applachians folks and there about. Tipper you are our beloved ole mountains ways reporting or posting them on Blind Pig and Acorn. Thanks again to two greats.
    Mary Lou McKillip

  • Reply
    Mary Lou McKillip
    November 1, 2016 at 9:11 am

    what a geat story, I can tell you one similar. Way back they had no funeral home and had to lay the dead out themselves. this lady died and was buried in the Hanging Dog cementarty. They buried her with her pearl necklace on and rings on her fingers. That night some boys dug her up for the jewels and when the air hit the body she was just in a coma and she came too. She spoke to the boys and they ran. She call back to them to come back she was not dead to take her home that they could have the jewels . They conquered there fears and got her out and took her home and mother said she lived 25 years after that. This was a true story. When they moved some of the dead to build the dam and lake near Murphy. Some of the relative wanted the graves opened and some saw clawed marks inside their coffins where they had been burried alive. One girl got her mother’s wedding ring off her mothers finger.
    Mary Lou McKillip

  • Reply
    Ethelene Jones
    October 31, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    Thanks so much, Tipper, for sharing my story again this Halloween. And thanks, all you readers and comment-leavers for your wonderful accolades! I must admit you almost gave me what we call in the mountains, “the big head” with your exuberant compliments.
    Know that it was my pleasure to remember, to write, and to share the story. The tradition of storytelling is rich among our mountain folks, passed down with a passion from one generation to another! Let’s not let this custom fade away! And Tipper, you’re so faithfully helping us keep it alive!
    Have a spooky Halloween, but come back on November 1 without any lingering traumas!

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    October 31, 2016 at 5:37 pm

    How is it that some storytellers have the gift of writing in such a way that the reader is taken right into the moment, floating along with the mind pictures conjured by the teller. Would that I could come to that ability. Ethelene surely becomes an essential part of her students’ memory. Clearly important to Blind Pig and the Acorn and to us who get to enjoy her.
    Thank you, Ethelene.

  • Reply
    October 31, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    Riveting and heart-wrenching!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 31, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    I saw this on today. I know everybody is about tired of Halloween already but I would find it interesting any time of the year. I have an uncle who spent most of his adult life there. He is dead now. He died in a nursing facility in Waynesville but I would not be surprised if his spirit has found its way back here.

  • Reply
    October 31, 2016 at 2:06 pm

    I don’t think anyone can tell a story as good as Ethelene, maybe it’s because she was a School-teacher all those years, knowing just how to do it. But I still wished I had sat in one of her classes. Tipper, you saved the Best for last. Thank you…Ken

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    October 31, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Tipper: Your posts are always great! But when that Ethelene gives us a post we enter another realm! LOL,EVA NELL

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    October 31, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    Great story telling and writing by Ethelene. This is a very old Appalachian tale as told and put in writing
    by Ethelene. I have heard variations of it before for many years. However, Ethelene puts her excellent skills as a writer to the narrative and as she put it in her own words “…a way of making us “see” the scene…!
    WBIR television station shows the Bill Landry Heartland Series. Every year around Halloween they show this old ghost story in a short skit. I never get tired of watching the cast of characters. From the time is appears in the barn for the small pail of milk every day. Then hiding in the barn, watching for the mother and following her as she is carrying the little milk pail. When she disappears after arriving at the grave, they ultimately gather themselves together taking their shovels and digging up the grave and find the baby very much alive.
    However, sad and “skeery” this story is today, back in the day, many women died during or after childbirth as did their baby. Or they thought, many times the baby being entombed with the mother.
    This is one of the stories I was privy to hear when I eve dropped on my grandparents conversations and storytelling when I was a child. I never tire of it. There is something about hearing or reading the different variations of the story that make you want to keep up a search for the real truth. Then to decide for your own self was the true reality of the story!
    Thanks Tipper,
    and Ethelene for writing this story!
    PS…There are three names on one stone in the cemetery where my son is buried. The birth/death of each one placed on the stone notes their age separation by years. The date also indicates that they died at the same time and cremated. In years to come folks might wonder why they were held in one grave. They were killed in a car accident together.

  • Reply
    Garland Davis
    October 31, 2016 at 11:59 am

    I can only echo, “wonderful story.” Tipper you chose the perfect story to highlight this Halloween!

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    October 31, 2016 at 10:17 am

    Wonderful story!

  • Reply
    October 31, 2016 at 9:41 am

    Thanks to Ethelene for such a wonderful story. This story is so interesting because I always heard as a youngster that folks were sometimes buried alive before all the modern safety measures were put into effect.
    Many women of bygone days died in childbirth, and I have been so surprised in my study of genealogy. Many times when a young woman died, a further search will show death of a baby on the same day. We were told eerie tales of scratch marks on the tops of caskets. It is refreshing to read of survival fact or fiction.
    Thanks again to Ethelene Dyer Jones who seems to have a bit of magic in her pen/keyboard.

  • Reply
    Rooney Floyd
    October 31, 2016 at 9:27 am

    Delightful story and very well written.

  • Reply
    October 31, 2016 at 9:16 am

    Ethelene, you sure know how to tell a story you remember from years gone by. That same kind of scary storytelling entertainment was something I looked forward to as a child. When it was bedtime, I was glad I had to share the bed with my two sisters.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    October 31, 2016 at 8:18 am

    Sadly, a common grave and even a common casket for mother and child was probably not so rare back in the day. It is hard to imagine that kind of grief. I think that grief is somehow cumulative over a lifetime as partings multiple. Each one has a lasting effect in a way that cannot be described.
    Ethelene’s story reminds me of my wife’s great-grandpa’s first wife and one of their sons. His wife, Emerine, and son, Willie, died within a day of each other and were buried in one grave marked with a single stone having each of their names. Willie was twelve but ever since the single stone has caused confusion because people have thought they were husband and wife instead of mother and son. Most recently, some one had new stones placed that has Emerine’s birth and death dates followed by the simple inscription “Willie”. The original stone seems to have been moved to become a footstone.

  • Reply
    Karen Larsen
    October 31, 2016 at 8:11 am

    What a wonderful story. It seems very real. Thank you for sharing it!

  • Reply
    October 31, 2016 at 8:02 am

    Excellent story. One that will stay on my mind. Thank you.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    October 31, 2016 at 7:59 am

    That’s a wonderful story and it’s true, every mother will go to any length to save her children!

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