Montgomery’s Hair-raising History
by Jennifer Kornegay (photos by Heath Stone, Stone Images Photography)
Montgomery is home to many stories — tales of vision and accomplishment and chronicles of courage. But the Capital City also has its fair share of ghost stories; our rich heritage is a productive breeding ground for yarns spun of supernatural substance.
According to beloved Alabama storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham, even the staunchest cynic can enjoy getting caught up in a spooky saga. “You don’t have to believe in ghosts to love a good ghost story,” she said. She should know. Windham collected some of our state’s most famous ghost stories in her book, “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey,” which includes the Capital City’s celebrity haunt, Huntingdon College’s Red Lady.
Late in the evening, if you’re lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you feel about ghosts), you might catch a glimpse of a young woman, dressed head to toe in deep scarlet, roaming the halls and even peering out a window on the fourth floor of Pratt Hall at Huntingdon College. The arresting apparition is said to be the spirit of a former student, a girl name Martha, who met her tragic end in Pratt Hall.
Martha came to Huntingdon from New York at her father’s insistence, and she never really fit in. She was shy, which was mistaken for snobbery, and she had an odd obsession with the color red that she refused to explain to her curious classmates. (Her entire dorm room was outfitted in the hue.) After months of deteriorating into a depression, Martha was discovered in her red dress, in her red room, lying in a pool of her own red blood after slashing her wrists. To this day, students and visitors say they see flashes of red light flooding out of the transom in Martha’s old room, and there have also been sightings of the Martha’s ghost, dressed in red, aimlessly wandering the halls each year on the night of her death.
Windham has visited every site she wrote about in her book, including Pratt Hall, but she’s still never seen a specter herself. “I have given them every opportunity to make themselves known to me, and I think I deserve to see a ghost after all I’ve done to promote them!” she said. “I have felt a presence though.”
She first got interested in otherworldly things when a seemingly benign presence, whom she named Jeffrey, took up residence in her house in Selma. A friend captured Jeffrey in a photo by chance, and Windham decided she wanted to learn more about other Alabama ghosts.
“When whatever Jeffrey is came to our house, I realized it was a pity that no one had collected all the Alabama ghost stories – and we have many – into a book,” she said. “I decided to remedy that.”
In working on the book, Windham became aware of how rapidly our stories, ghostly and otherwise, are disappearing.
“We don’t tell stories anymore,” she said. “We watch TV and let strangers tell us stories. Hundreds of great ghost stories have been lost. It’s become a mission for me to seek out these stories and save them.”
Mary Ann Neeley is a protector of stories in peril too. The Montgomery historian has unearthed and preserved enough events and elements of the city’s past to fill volumes. And she knows more than probably any living person about old Oakwood Cemetery and the many Capital City citizens interred there. She routinely gives cemetery tours and retold a story she often shares with her tour participants.
There is a large mausoleum in the cemetery where two brothers are buried together,” she said. “They were successful merchants and both bachelors. One died in 1889 and one in 1890. For some time, there has been a spider that likes to weave his web around the locks at the mausoleum’s entrance. I like to think that if the spider is there, watching the entrance, the brothers are resting peacefully. But if he’s not, maybe they’re out on the town.”
Despite a large cemetery filled with centuries of history, this is the only mention of anything ghostly you’ll get on Neeley’s tour. She’s not aware of any scary stories associated with the area. Still… “I’ve never seen anything during the day,” she said. “But I’ve never been there at night, so who knows?”
Shannon Fontaine believes there are some untold ghost stories in Montgomery. He’s started Haunted Hearse Tours in the city, which in October began taking folks around in an actual hearse in search of a good scare. The retired police detective spent hours at the Alabama Department of Archives and History researching for his tour and uncovered some darker parts of Montgomery’s past. One of his favorites happened in the capitol building.
“On Halloween night, in 1912, there was a murder in the state capitol building,” he said. “Today, some people say that the faucets in the bathroom across the hall from the governor’s office sometimes turn off and on by themselves as if the murderer is still trying to wash the blood off his hands.” Some who work in the capitol claim the widow of a Confederate soldier haunts the building, too. These two tidbits earned the capitol building a spot on the Haunted Hearse tour.
Hank Williams’ grave, which is in Oakwood Cemetery Annex, is also on the tour. Country music star Alan Jackson sang about old Hank’s ghost showing himself to devoted fans in the song “Midnight in Montgomery.”
“Is that story real?” Fontaine said. “I’m not sure, but we’ll be checking it out.”
Strange sounds and an eerie presence at the old office of a Montgomery doctor are credited to one of his unfortunate patients.
In the early 20th century, Dr. Leonidas Hill treated a young man named Henry who had been stabbed in the heart. With a surgery that was nothing short of miraculous, he saved Henry’s life. Henry grew up, moved to Detroit, got into a fight, and was stabbed again. This time, he died. The story says the ghost of Henry, in the form of the child that Dr. Hill saved, came back to Montgomery looking for help again. The building is still standing downtown, and current employees there report hearing things being moved, and all have an uneasy feeling any time they venture upstairs, where the doctor’s offices were located. Fontaine believes the stories but thinks it’s all in good fun too.
“I love old scary stories and movies,” he said. “I like to give myself goose bumps.”
Most of us do. But why? Windham offered her opinion.
“We are fascinated by things we cannot explain, “ she said. “There are so few things left in this world that don’t have a scientific explanation. Haunts stretch our imagination and make us wonder, and we need to have things making us wonder.”
If you are one of the many who find fun in the frightening, you should be thankful you live in the South. Even with some being lost to time, our region has a multitude of riveting ghost stories. Neeley thinks she knows the reason.
“The idea of haunted places adds to the mystique that we in the South already love about our historic sites,” she said. “It’s the old houses, the old buildings that celebrate our history and at the same time, our Southern-ness. Have you ever heard of a ghost in a strip mall?”
If you want to explore Oakwood Cemetery with Mary Ann Neeley, she’ll be leading a tour on October 31. Call Old Alabama Town at 240-4500 for more information and times.
Haunted Hearse Tours: To take a ride in a hearse you’ll actually remember, let Shannon Fontaine and his Haunted Hearse Tour give you a few thrills and chills this month. The appropriately creepy big, black car takes up to six people at a time on an hour-long tour of sites that are said to be haunted and/or are attached to a murderous mystery. It’s $10 per person, cash, and tours leave on the hour from the entrance to the Alley Way downtown starting around 7 p.m. and running through midnight. Those who put real stock in the existence of ghosts believe many come to be as the result of a violent death. If that’s the case, then Fontaine has found a spot that’s almost sure to be haunted. It’s the site of the “feather duster murder,” a brutal attack that occurred in Montgomery in 1943. For more information, visit www.hauntedhearsemgm.com.