Virginia Real magazine
The real  Virginia, old and new
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An Illiterate Ghost

  An Illiterate Ghost

                                                     by Harry Henson

        Unlike the family of Dr. Clarke, whose article on “Virginia Ghosts” also appears in Virginia Real, my family is dismayingly short on spooks.  I can come up with only one story, an experience of my grandmother's uncle during the Civil War.

       Once, after a battle, he helped himself to the boots of a dead Yankee. A little later, while mounting his horse, he felt a furious tugging at his anklesthe unfortunate dead Federal evidently not yet realizing he no longer needed footwear.

       But perhaps I do have another ghost storyand out of more recent family experience.

     My brother-in-law, while living in our old house, claimed a number of sightings and maintained the building was haunted by several ghosts. In 17 years  residence there I never saw a single one.

       His description of one of those ghosts, though, set me aback. It was unmistakably the elderly man who lived across the field from us when I was a child. He was illiterate, and he often would bring his mail to my parents to read for him.

       There was no way my brother-in-law could have known anything about this man or what he looked like. He died in the mid-1960s, when my sister was too young to have remembered him.

       His name was Mr. Burns, a tall burly man who always wore overalls. He lived in a house that looked something like a barn and supported himself by growing vegetables and flowers on his tiny plot of land and selling them in a roadside stand.

       Mr. Burns was in his 80s but still a hellion. One Saturday night in the late 1950s, he and some of his cronies were boozing, and an altercation took place.

        Mr. Burns produced a knife and sliced up one young man. The wounded man fled bleeding across the field and came to our house, where he banged on the door screaming for help.

       My mother and grandmother were alone at home with me; I was three.

       My mother told him to get away. He kept banging and screaming and hurling himself against the door.  My grandmother, a mountain woman from North Carolina, loaded the shotgun, and my mother blasted him through the window.

       Having first been knifed, and now shot, the man collapsed on the porch, apparently dead.

       My father was in Montross playing poker with his own cronies, including Sam Hall, the legendary town constable. Receiving my mother's call for help, they leaped into Sam's police car and sped to the scene.

       They found the unfortunate young man in a pool of blood but still living.

      My father, a World War II combat veteran and a tough customer when circumstances warranted, decided to finish the man off so he could face the consequences himself instead of my mother.

       Luckily, Sam Hall wouldn't let him. The man’s  wounds, despite all the blood, were only superficial.       My mother had shot the porch rail, missing him entirely.

       This poor man's misfortunes continued. Sam Hall took him to Dr. Ames, who sewed him up, and Sam then lodged him in the town jail.     A couple of weeks later, despite my father's request to the judge to dismiss the charges, he got six months for attempted breaking and entering.

       Since Mr. Burns apparently was still hanging around that house 30 years later, it seems he had not learned to read in the other world either.

       I wonder though: Who was sending him mail?


Harry Henson is a writer in Richmond County.

barn photo by Grace E. Pedalino


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