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Unexplained South: Interview with author Alan Brown
In the South, mystery comes heaped with added richness. And in this collection of comfort food for the curious mind, author Alan Brown guides readers into the most delightful medley of mystery the South has on offer. Witches in Tennessee. The devil’s hoofprints in North Carolina. Voodoo in New Orleans. In this South, meat rains from the sky in Bath, Kentucky. A professor’s thigh makes the case for spontaneous combustion in Nashville. UFO-induced radiation sickness befalls Huffman, Texas. From bluesman Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil in Arkansas to the oak tree that defends the innocence of a man executed in Mobile, sometimes the inexplicable is truly the most satisfying.
Alan Brown was born in Alton, Illinois, on January 12, 1950. After earning digress from Millikin University, Southern Illinois University, Illinois State University and the University of Illinois, he taught high school English in Flora and Springfield, Illinois. In 1986, he joined the English faculty at the University of West Alabama. When he is not teaching, Alan enjoys watching old movies, traveling with his wife, Marilyn, and spending time with his grandsons, Cade and Owen. Since publishing his first book, Dim Roads and Dark Nights, in 1993, he has explored his interest in folklore, especially ghost tales, in more than thirty publications, including Stories from the Haunted South (2004), Haunted Georgia (2006), Ghost Hunters of the South (2006), Ghost Hunters of New England (2008), Haunted Birmingham (2009), The Big Book of Texas Ghost Stories (2010), Haunted Meridian (2011), Ghosts Along the Mississippi River (2012), Ghosts of Florida’s Gulf Coast (2014), The Haunted South (2014), Ghosts of Mississippi’s Golden Triangle (2016), The Haunted Southwest (2016) and The Haunting of Alabama (2017).
Oh, we're delighted to have you. Now, we have had a number of experts here over the years, experts on respective topics. I dare say that you might be the most expertee of all the experts on your topic.
Because as I see it, you have published over 30 books over the course of your career, and your career has lasted, I guess around 30 years. So, we're talking something like almost a book a year as far as your output. I mean, that's incredible.
It is, it is. You can just about say what you want in an adult book, but not with kids. Now, you got to be really careful. And you got to kind of put yourself in the mind of a child, which is not easy for a 73 old male.
Well, rare talent, rare talent indeed. Let me ask you this. You are from the Midwest originally, but you moved to the South. What first brought you down here, and then what sparked your interest in these stories of the ghostly, the spooky, the cryptographic, the paranormal, all the good stuff?
Okay. Alright. Well, I came down to the deep South in 1986. I was in need of a college teaching job. I'd been teaching high school for 12 years, and I'd had enough of it. And I had just gotten my PhD, and I thought it was time for me to move on to bigger and better things.
Well, I had two job offers. One was at the Livingston University, as it was called back then in 1986. And the other one was a university in Helena, Montana, which has an average of six feet of snow a year.
And so, I decided the South would be better. So, I guess that was the weather that took me down here. And living in Illinois, I was just sick and tired of shoveling snow anyway, and sliding off the road into the ditch. And so, I guess that's what brought me down here.
But once I moved down here, I discovered, first of all, the southerners love to talk. I can recall going to the gas station and trying to get directions. And after a couple of minutes, the gas station attended, finally got around to telling me the directions.
Yeah. Our connection to our history down here is very, very strong. And I think that when you start traveling those backwoods and those country roads and so forth, you realize that every little patch of dirt, every little twist, and bend, and turn in the road has a story about it somewhere, somehow. And all you got to do is just find the right person who knows it and they'll share it with you.
That is a very good way of putting it. I got to know a lady named Captain Tucker Windham, who called herself a folklore writer, not a folklorist. But she was very good at digging up folk tales and rewriting them for a general audience. It's basically what she did.
And oh, she wrote a book called 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. Jeffrey was the ghost that lived in her house. And so, that was the first one. And she wrote 13 Mississippi Ghosts and Jeffrey, 13 Tennessee Ghosts. Oh, I think she wrote about five of these.
And that's really the first thing that got me interested in this. But I can recall picking her up in Selma and bringing her down to Livingston for our Sucarnochee Folklife Festival every year. She would tell stories.
And as we were driving Highway 80, she would point out old graveyards, or old cemeteries, or old abandoned buildings and tell me the stories. I thought, “This is wonderful. This takes the ordinary and adds a new dimension to it.”
And I think that's what writers like me try to do. We try to uncover these fascinating legends and narratives that you can find just about in every town, every small town, every setting. They're everywhere.
Well, actually, the first book I wrote was a collection of WPA narratives collected by a woman named Ruby Pickens Tartt in Levinson in 1937 and 1938. And there were basically stories that were told by elderly African Americans who lived out in the Red Clay hills of Sumter County, Alabama.
And these were fascinating. Some of these were ex-slave narratives. Some of them were life histories and they all had folk tales embedded in them. Even the ex-slave narratives had ghost stories in them.
For our listeners who may not be aware of the WPA Writers Project that took place in this sort of '20s and '30s when the federal government paid folklorists and sort of regular people just to go and collect these stories.
Those are an invaluable resource, and you really get the kind of unfiltered, unvarnished accounts of what people knew about their local counties in ways that you just never find today. I mean, it's an extraordinary collection.
In fact, I had to go to Washington, DC back in, oh, that was about 1992 when I started doing this to get to access these things. Now, you don't have to go that far. But you're right, these are wonderful.
I do it intermittently. Occasionally, I will teach a folklore course. I have taught teacher seminars to help them incorporate folklore into their literature classes. In fact, next fall, I'll be teaching a course on ... oh, let's see. It's the King Arthur in legend and folklore-
Absolutely. Well, there's so much of it, it's hard to resist. Now, let me ask you, this is about your 30th or so book, and I kind of reckon after 10 or 12, we can more or less stop counting, but how did this particular volume, how did Unexplained South come about?
But then I travel to as many as I can. Fortunately, my wife loves to travel. And so, we go to haunted bed and breakfast for example. We go to haunted restaurants and I call her my ghost magnet because I really think she's a sensitive.
She has experiences in these old antebellum homes and I don't, I just record it. She has them, and she tells me what happened during the night, and I grab a piece of paper and write it down. And some of those are in my books, too.
But whenever I travel, I always pick up ghost books or legends books always. In fact, last week, I was in Virginia, went to Williamsburg, and all went to Virginia Beach. And I picked up all these books that I put in my library down in my man cave, down in my basement.
Yes. In fact, I've got to figure out what I'm going to do with them after I expire because I don't want them to end up in a book. I think I'll donate them to a library. I think that's the proper thing to do.
Well, let's dive into some of these cases. I've got a little list of ones. I thought what we could do is maybe take one or two from each section of your book. You have them very neatly categorized into types of appearances or mysterious deaths and so forth. And I just wanted to run through it, a couple of ones that stood out for me.
First of all, in your section on unearthly images, you have some great cases in there. So, ones that's right up front is the Devil's Hoof Prints of Bath, North Carolina. What on Earth happens with the Devil's Hoof Prints?
Well, a lot of times when there would be some kind of geological or natural anomaly, people would try to ... their scientific knowledge was limited, so they would try to come up with what sounded like a logical explanation.
The devil's footprint. This is from Bath, North Carolina. And these are basically, depressions in the ground. Now, today, scientists say that these depressions are formed by salt veins. But of course, the folk of Bath, North Carolina didn't know about that.
So, they come up with this story of a young man named Jesse Elliot. We don't know where that name came from. But anyway, Jesse Elliot loved to race his horse, loved to bet, and he could outrun any horse in the county.
And then he talked to a stranger who again, said, “I'll bet my horse can beat yours.” They wagered a hundred dollars. And he had this sense that there was something wrong with this guy. And he informed his wife and told her about this race. And she tried talk him out of it. And he wouldn't, said, "No, I've got to do this."
So, they fired a shot, and the stranger and the rider took off, and Elliot explained, “Take me in a winner or take me to hell.” And all at once, his horse stopped dead in his tracks. Elliot flew over the horse's head, and he was smashed against the pine tree.
I have not. I did not. And I was in North Carolina. Well, we drove through it last week, and I was hoping we would stop there, but we didn't. Now, I have gone to some of these other places, like I don't know if you were going to talk about the face in the courthouse window of Carrollton, Alabama.
One is that there was an old man who owned property there. And he made his family swear that when he died, they wouldn't sell it. Well, after he died, they sold it to the University of Texas, and his face suddenly appeared I guess it's the south wall of the building.
Well, the other story, there was a man named Bigfoot Wallace. Bigfoot Wallace appears in a lot of Texas legends. He was a character, he was a Texas ranger, fought in the Mexican War. And as he aged, he wanted some kinds of compensation for his service. I guess, Sam Houston had promised to do this for him.
He wanted land, and I guess he wanted this particular spot of land here in Galveston. He didn't get it. And so, they say his face appears as a I guess it's a kind of a vengeful sign. He did not want the memory of this injustice done to him to fade. And that's why the face appeared on the wall.
It's very strange when you look at it because you have this sort of brick exterior, which in every other respect, is totally uniform. I mean, you write that they've cleaned it in pain, and sandblasted, and pressure washed and all this kind of stuff.
And you look at every other section of the wall, and then weirdly, there's this one little portion where the pattern just changes totally abruptly. And it does resemble somebody's face. I mean, regardless of who's it is, you can't deny that it's just totally out of keeping with the rest of the facade.
Well, now, I've done some research into this phenomenon, and psychologists say that there's something called pareidolia, P-A-R-E-I-D-O-L-I-A. It's the tendency of the human mind to want to instill order in chaos.
And this is why when you're a little kid and you lie on the ground, you look up in the sky, you'll see Mickey Mouse's face in the clouds, or a puppy dog, or why people see the face of Jesus in the potato chip.
And sell those things for thousands of dollars. But that could be what's happening here. I'm looking at the picture right now, but I mean, there are two eyes, there's a nose, there's a face. This is just, I don't know-
In 1865, union General John T. Croxton, he had just burned down University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He burned down the courthouse in Carrollton, Alabama. Well, the people of Alabama pulled together their money and resources and had it rebuilt as a fine wooden structure.
Well, it burned down again on April 5th, 1876 and the people were angry. They wanted justice served here. Sheriff was under a great deal of pressure to apprehend a culprit. So, he placed the blame on a mirrored mean-spirited black man named Henry. Well, so Henry was no fool, he took off.
And he received word that his grandmother was ill. So, he returned to Carrollton, and the sheriff was waiting for him by his grandmother's house and arrested him. And they took him to the garrett, the attic of the courthouse.
And story goes that later that night, he was looking out the window. He saw a crowd begin to form around the trees. And after about a half hour, somebody produced a jug of whiskey. They're passing that around. And then somebody got a rope, and he knew he was in trouble.
So, legend has it that as he gazed down to the crowd, he said, "If you hang me, I will be with you always." So, of course, they couldn't hear him. So, they broke into the courthouse, dragged him down, took him out to the slam, and lynched him in form of a contrary.
Well, the next day, a couple of members of the lynch mob were walking by the courthouse, and they looked up and they saw this face. And guy pointed his buddy and said, "That's the guy we hanged, isn't it? Guy who lynched him says, "It sure is." They ran upstairs. There's nobody up there.
Well, over the years, they have tried to remove the image. They used soap and water, they used salt water. And one legend has it, in 1920, a hailstone broke every window in the courthouse, except that one. And it's still there.
And people inside the courthouse, they got tired of people coming in and saying, "Where's the face in the window?" So, if you look at the picture of my book, you'll see an arrow pointing down to this particular pane where you can see it now. I think it looks like a happy face, a smiley face, but it's definitely there. And it's been there for, what, over 140 years, 145 years.
Yeah. You can see something kind of smooshed up against the pane there. It wasn't quite as sort of jarring or alarming as the one in Galveston when I was looking at it. But you can definitely make something out. I mean, there's something there.
But let's turn over to a case in your disappearances section, which we're going to travel sort of right split in the middle between Texas and Alabama, where we just were, to St. Landry Parish in Louisiana.
And I've lived here in Louisiana for a number of years. I will confess, this is the first I'd ever heard of this particular story. But as soon as you have the sort of the twist at the end, or the reveal, I started asking like, "How have we not talked about this before? How have I not come across it?"
Anyway, Bobby Dunbar. Oh, Bobby Dunbar. And this is a really curious one, because all of this here actually does dwell fairly comfortably within the realm of fact. This is much less about legend and myth and folklore than it is about just what the hell happened, Alan?
But it begins with a little boy who was four years old. He lived in Opelousas, Louisiana, and he and his parents and his brother were going on a trip to Swayze Lake in St. Landry Parish. And he wandered off and they couldn't find him.
And the police at first thought that an alligator had gotten him. So, they opened up several of the reptiles, and he wasn't there. And they finally said, "Well, maybe he was kidnapped. That's a possibility."
Well, Walters explained that his name was Charles Bruce Anderson, that he was the son of a woman named Julia Anderson, who worked for him. And that she had basically given him custody of the boy. Well, the police didn't believe this story.
And so, the Dunbars traveled to Hub, Mississippi to retrieve their son. And his mother, she bathed him and recognized several identifying scars and moles. And so, they returned to Louisiana with this boy.
Yes. I guess it was 1913. So, yeah, they did ... well, I guess they had fingerprints back then, but that was about as advanced as forensic crime science went. But anyway, Julia found out that her son was gone.
And so, Walters was tried for kidnapping, and he spent two years in jail. But finally, the county just let him go. And so, nothing happened until he died. Bobby Dunbar died in 1966. In 2004, the Dunbar children said, "Let's see if he really is a Dunbar."
You'd think they would have tried to do this early. But anyway, so they did. And they had his DNA sample compared with that of a cousin, and the samples didn't match. So, we still don't know what happened to little Bobby Dunbar.
Right. Well, what we're assuming that the faux Bobby Dunbar had a good life with the Dunbars, at least we hope he did. But that doesn't make up for all the injustice that was done here.
It is, it is. And occasionally, I have always found ... all of my legends books have that category in them, because people disappear all the time. And sometimes they're found and sometimes they're not. And they make really good stories.
Well, let's stay on the same wavelength of weird here, because I mean, there are things that we can easily categorize as drunk redneck out in the field, see something, and comes back and tells us about it, and we're just not really sure.
And then there are those ones where you have some documentation, you have like a formal investigation. You have evidence and procedures that are followed, and we're still kind of left scratching our heads.
And I wanted to ask you, in the strange, mysterious deaths section, you have a very unusual case, which is even a bit more recent than the Bobby Dunbar case coming out of St. Petersburg, Florida. There's a lady named Mary Reeser.
And I read this and you have a number of different types of cases in the mysterious deaths, some of which seem to be criminal, some of which seem to just be bizarre. And this one struck me as kind of the apex of the bizarre cases.
And I just had to ask you about it because my grandfather was a chemist in Florida. I wish he were still with us to ask him about these sorts of things. Because I wonder if he would've had some insight into what might have happened in this particular incidence. But tell us about Mary Reeser.
And turns out that about three hours later, a telegraph boy came to Mrs. Reeser's house. And she didn't answer the phone, so he went to Mrs. Carpenter. Mrs. Carpenter signed for it, and then went to Mary's apartment, put her hand on the doorknob, and it burned her fingers.
And so, she asked a couple of house painters to go down the street and help open it up. They opened the door, and what they found was I don't know, a 10 pound glob or charred mass. This woman weighed 170 pounds, and that's all that was left of her.
Her liver was fused to her vertebrae. And the corner where her chair had sat, it was basically unscathed by the flames. But there were two candles on a table that were just totally melted. Now, the light switches were melted. Her skull seemed to have shrunk to the size of a teacup.
And for lack of a better explanation of fire chief said, "Well, maybe she just fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand and set herself a fire. But that didn't explain everything that happened. Well, this is a classic example of spontaneous combustion. [Crosstalk 00:35:09].
Yeah. I use that term as if everybody knows about it. But people like me who explored the weird and strange are very familiar with it. Charles Dickens wrote about it in his book, Bleak House back in the 1860s. And so, it's been around a while.
But the flame grows and grows and grows. And it basically sort of leads to this almost like a sort of part cremation, but strictly within the confines of the apartment. And that when the investigators opened the door, it released this sort of fireball of pent up heat that had never escaped the room. I mean, that's just remarkable.
The way you described it is much more detailed than a coroner's report. I have read that and it's very sketchy. Because they just didn't know, the coroner didn't know, nobody knew very much about this phenomenon. And there have been other cases reported since then.
It's something. I mean, I'm not trying to sort of delve into the macabre aspect of it. It's just sort of like an engineering physics and chemistry mystery as to kind of what might have happened to leave this grizzly scene behind of just how does that even take place? You got me.
It is a mystery. Well, like Shakespeare said, "There's much in heaven and earth as it is outside of our philosophy." And that is true. We don't know everything about ... we pride ourselves on our scientific knowledge, but there's some gaps there that have not been filled. And this is one of them.
Let's take a look at some of your legendary graves. There is a really intriguing section here where of course you write that grave sites have always been magnets for people who are seeking certain kinds of experiences or thrills, and the sort of cemeteries as a destination sites. That's been with us for a long time. We know that.
But here you have a case out of Harrisburg, Kentucky, which was very evocative. I mean, there's a sort of a whiff of romance, there's a whiff of elegy. There's sort of a whiff of a lot of different elements in this particular story.
And it goes back to the 1840s in Harrisburg, which was a resort town. They had a spring there that supposedly had curative waters. And actually, the Livingston, Alabama, where I teach, it was a resort town, and it has what they call bode well, and people would spend lots of money to drink these curative waters from the mineral springs.
And they had a big dance hall in their ballroom. And people would come there on the weekends and hopefully, get better from drinking this water in the spring houses. But they would also, dance and socialize.
Well, very pretty girl. And she said, of course, everybody wanted to talk to her. Well, she explained to the Grahams, the hotel owners that her parents were coming, but that she wanted to have some fun while she was there.
So, she changed into an evening gown. And danced with just about all the eligible bachelors there. And by the end of the evening, she had danced with so many people that she collapsed in the arms of the last young man and died. So, I guess she danced herself to death.
Right on the spot. Yeah. Well, the hotel manager did an investigation of her personal belongings, couldn't find any ID. And so, the hotel management paid for the funeral and arranged it. And the young men she had danced with became her pall-bearers.
And there are a number of ghost stories connected with this tragic event. In the 1960s, a nurse was walking by the Spring house. And this girl in a white dress, came up near the Spring house and said, "Please help me. I was attending a ball at the hotel, but now, I can't find my way back."
I have been there, yes. And it's really there. It's unsettling. Again, I hate to keep using that word, but if somebody's stories just make your flesh crawl, it's just, oh my. Could these things really have happened?
And we really are searching for that even years later in that just the romance involved leaves us in a different place than if it was just somebody who fell down a well and we never saw them again. That sort of thing.
You're right, you're right. But it's still a cold case. And that also, intrigues people. That's why a lot of these television shows like Dateline deal with murders that are unsolved, and we want to know why.
Well, let me ask you a little about a slightly happier grave site that you have. One which there's a little bit more to not just to go on in terms of fact, but in which the story itself just brings a little bit more sort of pride and joy and admiration into what the resident of this particular grave site was able to achieve in their lives.
Very famous resident of Huntsville, Alabama, Miss Baker. And of course, I was so charmed to see you include Miss Baker in this particular compendium, because we know a lot about some of Miss Baker's esteemed animal colleagues, her fellow animal astronauts, but maybe not everybody knows about her. So, tell us about Miss Baker.
Well, I had never heard of Miss Baker until my son-in-law told me this story. He and my daughter live in Huntsville, and he works at Redstone Arsenal. And he had seen her tombstone. This has to do with the space race of the late '50s.
And oh, geez, I was seven years old when this happened in 1957. And I remember the space race though, and I remember how nervous people were that those commies are going to pass us up in space and take over in the United States eventually and that sort of thing.
And so, she was chosen from 14 suitable candidates, and they outfitted her little jacket and a helmet, and it was lined with rubber. And she had a respiration meter and was placed in a small shoebox-size capsule. And she had an oxygen bottle and a pressure valve.
And so, they were launched from a Jupiter rocket from Cape Canaveral to a height of 300 miles. Flight was 16 minutes long. And they landed near Puerto Rico. And they were fine. Both monkeys withstood the force of 38 times the pull of gravity, but they didn't exhibit any kind of physical injuries.
But Miss Baker lived a long time and eventually she became a celebrity at the U.S. Rocket & Space Center in Huntsville. And school children loved to see her and they celebrated her birthday every year. And she finally died of kidney failure at Auburn University in 1984. But she is married in Huntsville.
I was first thinking of course, of Laika, who has served as the inspiration for character in some recent films that have come out in the sort of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But, yes, for human space flight as well.
My favorite part of this story, Alan, it's not a throwaway comment, but it's just this one little side detail that you offer. Which is that after the completion of her mission, several years after she back from her flight, she got married, this little monkey got married.
That's wonderful. And of course, in the grand tradition of Grave Sights, you say that people are still bringing her little gifts and presents and leaving little tributes at her headstone. Which is just absolutely delightful. Lots of bananas placed on top of the marker. It's great, just great.