Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Virginia Witch Trials


    The most famous American witch trials occurred in Salem Massachusetts from 1692-1693, but Virginia had its own witches and witch trials.  All right-minded people in the American colonies took the existence of witches for granted.  The Devil was always a real and present danger.  Despite being on constant alert and ever vigilant, Virginians did not experience the same degree of hysteria with regard to witches that gripped the Puritans of Massachusetts.  For one thing, clerical influence was much a less factor in Virginia, where the clergy rarely participated in witchcraft trials.  Unlike New England’s witch trial courts, where the accused had to prove their innocence, in Virginia, the accuser had to demonstrate the accused was guilty. Nineteen witchcraft trials were held in Virginia during the 17th century.  Most ended in the accused witch being acquitted.  In a 1656 case a man was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to whipping and banishment.  There was no death penalty for witchcraft in Virginia.  The last witchcraft trial in Virginia took place in 1802.

   Virginia’s most famous witch, the so called “Witch of Pungo” was one Grace Sherwood, a forty-six-year old married woman from Princess Anne County.  Grace was married to James Sherwood, a planter. The couple had three sons: John, James, and Richard.  The family lived in Pungo (today part of Virginia Beach).  Grace Sherwood was a strong woman, a healer and herbalist, and someone with an affinity for nature and animals.  She did not suffer fools easily.  Here, at that time, was a sure formula for trouble with the neighbors.  And trouble she got. 

   In early 1697, Richard Capps accused Grace of casting a spell that caused the death of his bull.  The court found insufficient evidence of witchcraft and the charge was dismissed.  The Sherwoods sued Capps for slander.  This case also went nowhere.  The following year, John Gisburne accused Grace of casting a spell on his pigs and cotton crop.  This resulted in another case of insufficient evidence, and another failed defamation suit on the part of the Sherwoods.  The year 1698 was a busy one for Grace Sherwood.  Having beaten back the accusations of John Gisburne, later in the year she was accused by Elizabeth Barnes of having assumed the shape of a black cat.  As a demonic cat, Grace was accused of having entered the Barnes’ home in the night, where she proceeded to jump over the bed and whip Elizabeth Barnes.  The witch then left through the keyhole.  Not surprisingly, this resulted in another case dismissed, and another failed defamation suit on the part of the Sherwoods.

   Things remained quiet for a number of years, until in 1705 Grace Sherwood was involved in a fight with her neighbor Elizabeth Hill.  Sherwood sued Hill and her husband for assault and battery and was awarded monetary compensation in December 1705.  This ruling by the court did nothing to calm tempers.  On January 3, 1706, Elizabeth Hill accused Grace Sherwood of witchcraft, of having used her satanic powers to cause a miscarriage. In March 1706 the court ordered Sherwood’s house to be searched for waxen or baked figures that might indicate she was a witch.  No luck here, the search produced nothing.  The court next authorized a jury of twelve women to look for marks of the devil on Grace Sherwood’s body. The forewoman of this jury was the same Elizabeth Barnes who had previously accused Sherwood of witchcraft.  This group discovered marks of the Devil, oddly enough.

   Despite this overwhelming evidence, authorities remained reluctant to declare Grace Sherwood a witch.  Authorities in Williamsburg, the colonial capital, considered the charge against Sherwood too vague and ordered the local court to examine the case in greater depth.

   By July, Grace Sherwood was worn out with travelling from her farm to court and thus consented when the court offered her a trial by ducking.  The procedure here would involve binding Grace and throwing her into the river; if she sank, she was innocent, but if she floated, she was clearly a witch. 

   Grace Sherwood’s protestation that, “I be not a witch, I be a healer,” fell on deaf ears.  People had come in from all over the colony to watch the spectacle.  The crowd began to chant, “Duck the witch.”  A spot on the Lynnhaven River, now known as Witchduck Point, was chosen for the test.  Grace Sherwood was securely bound, rowed out into the river, and thrown from the boat.  She rose to the surface.  Proof positive that she was a witch.  The court, with an over-abundance of judicial caution, decided to give Grace a second chance to demonstrate her innocence.  The sheriff was ordered to tie a thirteen-pound Bible around her neck. Grace was rowed back to the middle of the river and thrown from the boat.  Weighted down by the Bible, she sank, but somehow managed to untie herself and return to the surface.  She was definitely a witch, if there ever was one.

   Grace Sherwood was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to imprisonment. Freed from prison by 1714, Grace returned to her home and lived peacefully until her death in 1740. Some neighbors said the Devil took her body.  Others pointed to the increase in unnatural storms and loitering black cats after her death.  Locals killed every cat they could find, which then lead to an infestation of rats in 1743. 

   Grace Sherwood lies in an unmarked grave in a field near the intersection of Pungo Ferry Road and Princess Anne Road in Virginia Beach.  To this day, local residents tell of a mysterious moving light that appears each July over the spot where Sherwood was thrown into the water.  Is it possible that this is the restless spirit of Grace Sherwood?  Perhaps, but not everyone is convinced that Grace Sherwood was a witch.  The Governor of Virginia granted her a pardon on July 10, 2006.  Additionally, a statue of Grace Sherwood was erected on Independence Boulevard in Virginia Beach. Grace is shown alongside a raccoon, representing her love of animals, and carrying a basket containing garlic and rosemary, in recognition of her knowledge of herbal healing.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Tombstone Legends


Tombstone owed its creation to the discovery of silver.  The mines sat in the richest productive silver district in Arizona.  The population of Tombstone grew from 100 to around 14,000 in less than seven years.

Tombstone had four churches, a school, two banks, three newspapers, and an ice-cream parlor, which sat amidst 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls, and numerous dance halls and brothels.  The town is best known as the site of the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” At about 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 26, 1881, the Earp brothers, Wyatt, Virgil and James along with Wyatt’s pal Doc Holiday, representing the law, shot it out with an outlaw gang known as “The Cowboys.”  Three of the outlaws were killed. During the next five months, the gang struck back. Virgil Earp was ambushed and maimed, and another of the Earp brothers, Morgan, was murdered. Wyatt, Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, and others formed a posse that killed three more Cowboys whom they thought responsible.

After the shootout in Tombstone, and after leaving Arizona, Wyatt Earp was often the target of negative newspaper stories that disparaged his reputation.  Some regarded him as little better than a murderer.  This all changed with a heroic biography published in 1931, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal by Stuart N. Lake. The book became a bestseller and created Wyatt Earp’s reputation as a fearless lawman. Since then, films, television shows, and works of fiction further added to the fame of Wyatt Earp.

Two months after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, on December 26, 1881, the Birdcage Theatre opened in Tombstone.  The theater was owned by William Hutchinson. Hutchison originally intended to present respectable family shows but found that he could make more money by catering to a rougher crowd. The walls of the Bird Cage were riddled with gunshot holes from the frequent shootouts.  The theater also did extra duty as a saloon and brothel.

Performing under the stage name “Fatima”, Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos, better known to history as “Little Egypt” got her start at the Bird Cage.   Spyropoulos popularized the form of dancing, which came to be referred to as the "Hoochee-Coochee", or the "shimmy and shake.”  We now call this belly dancing.  There is a larger-than-life sized painting in the Bird Cage, which Spyropoulos donated, entitled "Fatima". It bears six patched bullet holes; one can be seen above the belly button and there is a knife gash in the canvas below the knee.

Arizona Legends and Lore

Friday, December 15, 2023

Two Guns: An Arizona Ghost Town


Two Guns, Arizona is a ghost town located on the Canyon Diablo gorge near Flagstaff, Arizona.  The town was originally known as Canyon Lodge and started out as a modest trading post at the beginning of the 19th century.

The area has a colorful history. During the winter of 1879-1880, Billy the Kid and his gang hid out on the west rim of Canyon Diablo across from what is now Two Guns.  In 1880, long before Two Guns was established as a settlement, the Santa Fe Railway was being built across northern Arizona.  At the point where the railroad was set to cross Canyon Diablo, some three miles north of Two Guns, construction halted while a trestle was being built.  The railroad workers established a settlement called Canyon Diablo which quickly became a lawless den of drifters, grifters, gamblers and outlaws. In 1889 outlaws robbed the train at Canyon Diablo making off with $100,000 in currency, 2,500 silver dollars, and $40,000 in gold coins.  A posse caught up with the outlaws, but not before they buried their loot, which is thought to be buried in the canyon rim near Two Guns.

More pioneers staked claims to the area over the years, and by the early 1920s, a road through town, known as the National Trail Highway, became the preferred route across Diablo Canyon.

When Earle and Louise Cundiff arrived in the area they bought 320 acres of land, making the settlement known as Canyon Lodge a busy stop for travelers. By the mid-1920s, what was once the National Trail Highway was transforming into Route 66, and the once-isolated trading post was becoming a busy stopping place for drivers looking for food and gas.

The business potential was not lost on one Harry Miller a flamboyant veteran of the Spanish-American War.  The eccentric Miller was a master of publicity and self-promotion. In 1925, Harry “Two Guns” Miller made a deal with the Cundiffs to lease a site for his business.

Miller renamed the Canyon Lodge trading post, Two Guns, and set about putting the place on the map. Miller grew his hair long and braided it.  Claiming to be a full-blooded Apache, Miller assumed the name of Chief Crazy Thunder. Miller constructed a rag-tag zoo with chicken-wire cages for animals native to Arizona, including mountain lions.  He also started tours down into a canyon cave now called the Apache Death Cave.

In 1878, a group of Apache warriors raided a Navajo camp killing everyone with the exception of three girls they took hostage.  The enraged Navajos from surrounding villages set out after the marauders. The Navajo finally tracked down the wily Apache warriors who had been hiding their camp in an underground cavern.  The Navajo lit a fire at the mouth of the cave.  All forty-two Apache warriors died in the cave.

Although an interesting part of Arizona history, the showman Henry Miller thought the story needed even more sizzle.  Miller built fake ruins and started selling the bones and skulls of the long dead Apache warriors as souvenirs.  He put in electric lights and a soda stand and renamed the death cave the “Mystery Cave.”

It was around this time that the legends of “The Curse of Two Guns” began. The broad wording of Miller’s lease had always been a source of tension between him and Earl Cundiff, and that tension finally came to a head on March 3, 1926, when Miller shot and killed Cundiff (he was later acquitted of murder).  Shortly after his trial Miller was mauled by a mountain lion.  Soon after he was bitten by a Gila monster.

The town was sold in the 1950s and throughout the decade it would be leased and abandoned multiple times, until a man named Dreher revitalized the area. Things were looking good for the town. The I-40 was finally coming through the area and even had a dedicated exit. However, a fire destroyed the town in 1971, sealing its fate.  Today, Two Guns stands as a ghost town, with the remnants of its past still visible. Some structures have collapsed, while others are in a state of disrepair. Efforts have been made to preserve the site's history and prevent further deterioration, but Two Guns remains a poignant reminder of the changing fortunes of towns along historic Route 66. The site has become a destination for those interested in ghost towns and abandoned places.

Gold, Murder and Monsters in the Superstition Mountains

Arizona’s Superstition Mountains are mysterious, forbidding, and dangerous.  The Superstitions are said to have claimed over five hundred lives.  What were these people looking for?  Is it possible that these mountains hide a vast treasure?  Is it possible that UFOs land here?  Is it possible that in these mountains there is a door leading to the great underground city of the Lizard Men?  Join us as we recount a fictional story of the Superstitions and then look at the real history of the legends that haunt these mountains in our new book:  Gold, Murder and Monsters in the Superstition Mountains.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Arizona's "Red Ghost" (A True Story)


Throughout the early 19th century various proposals were made to use camels imported from the Middle East to transport supplies in the deserts of the southwest.  A proposal by then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was finally approved in 1855 which led to the establishment of the U.S. Camel Corps.

While the camels were found useful, their big drawback was that they spooked the horses and mules, creating chaos in the camp.  After a twenty year experiment the Camel Corps was disbanded, and the camels auctioned off.  Well, most of them were auctioned off, but some were let go in the wild.  Producing one of Arizona’s strangest legends, that of the Red Ghost.

The story began in 1883 when two ranchers went to check on their cattle, leaving their wives at home, alone.  One of the women was outside fetching water when the dog started barking furiously.  Then there was a loud scream.  The woman in the house barricaded the door and looked out the window to see a huge red beast being ridden by the devil. When the two ranchers returned, they found one woman trampled to death and the other in shock.

A few days later a group of prospectors reported the apparition riding through their camp.  Red hair was found at the site.  The next sighting reported that the creature was thirty feet tall and had overturned two wagons.  The legend grew.  The monster was said to disappear into thin air when chased.  The monster killed and ate grizzly bears.  A cowboy lassoed the beast, but he and his horse were dragged by the creature before losing it.  The cowboy reported that the mysterious rider was a skeleton.  A few months later five men shot at the beast, missing the camel but shooting the head off the skeleton.  The skull still had traces of skin and hair attached.

Fact and fantasy swirled around the strange phantom until 1893 when a local rancher named Hastings found the giant creature eating grass in his yard. He killed it with one shot from his Winchester rifle.

The beast from Hell was discovered to be a feral red-haired camel left over from the days of the U.S. Camel Corps. Leather straps had bound the skeleton so tightly, and for so long, to the camel that the animal’s back and sides were scarred. No one knows why the animal had a dead man strapped to it, but some speculated that this was the last attempt of a dying prospector to escape the killing desert sun.

Gold, Murder and Monsters in the Superstition Mountains

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Hi Jolly and the U.S. Camel Corps


In 1855 the U.S. government approved an experimental plan to use camels imported from the Middle East for transporting supplies and equipment across the deserts of the American Southwest.  The U.S. Camel Corps, headquartered in Texas, was born.

Two years into the experiment an expedition under the command of Edward F. Beale was ordered to open a wagon road across Arizona to California.  The expedition left San Antonio on June 25, 1857, and 25 pack camels accompanied a train of mule-drawn wagons. Each camel carried a load of 600 pounds. Beale wrote that he would rather have one camel than four mules.

The expedition included a camel drover named Hadji Ali, who was soon dubbed “Hi Jolly” by his American counterparts. Ali was born as Philip Tedro around 1828, to a Greek mother and a Syrian father. As a young man, he converted to Islam and took the name Hadji Ali.

As the camels moved west under Hi Jolly’s guidance, they proved themselves superior to horses in terms of endurance.  There was a major problem however, the sight of the large animals frightened horses and mules, creating general chaos among the animals. 

The U.S. Camel Corps experiment came to an end by 1866.  The camels were auctioned off, and some were set loose in the desert forming small herds.  Rumors of wild camels in Arizona were still prevalent in Arizona during the 1930s and 1940s.

Hi Jolly stayed in Arizona and became a scout for the Army, assisting General Crook with the Geronimo Campaign.  He died in December 1902 at the age of 64 in Quartzsite, Arizona.  Hi Jolly's work in the US Camel Corps earned him a reputation as a living legend until his death.

In 1935, the Governor of Arizona dedicated a monument to Hadji Ali and the Camel Corps in the Quartzsite Cemetery. The monument, located at his gravesite, is a pyramid built from local stones and topped with a copper camel, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


                                                          Legends of the Superstition Mountains

Wars and Invasions (Four alternative history stories)

Saturday, November 11, 2023

The Legend of Hacksaw Tom


Between 1905 and 1915 a bandit nicknamed “Hacksaw Tom” supposedly carried out a series of robberies on wagons and stagecoaches along Arizona’s Apache Trail (the last stagecoach went out of business in Arizona in 1920 when the road to Young, AZ was paved and the commercial stagecoach was replaced by a Ford.)

A steep grade at Fish Creek, which caused vehicles to slow to a crawl was Tom’s ambush site.  He would step out from behind a boulder and level his sawed-off shotgun at the driver.  No one resisted.  Tom never used a horse in his robberies. He appeared on foot, carried out this robbery, and then scampered up and over the boulders of Fish Creek to safety, seldom pursued by anyone. 

Despite his menacing presence, Hacksaw Tom never fired a shot.  He became an anticipated feature for travelers on the Apache Trail.  It is said that some stagecoach drivers invited their friends along just so they could tell people they had been “held up.”

In the mid-1900s a cave was found near Fish Creek which may have been Tom’s hideout.  In any event, a carpetbag was found in the cave which contained, among other things, a sawed-off shotgun and a flour sack mask.

There is not much written documentation to support this tale, which relies heavily on oral tradition.  Several robberies along the Apache Trail that went unsolved are recorded. The exact locations of these robberies have been lost to history.  And yet, we have a very intriguing mask and shotgun.

Gold, Murder and Monsters in the Superstition Mountains

Custer’s Last Stand Re-examined

Friday, November 10, 2023

The Ghosts of Vulture City, Arizona


The Hanging Tree

Legend has it that in 1863 Henry Wickenburg discovered gold when he went to retrieve a vulture he shot.  Wickenburg named his mine, “The Vulture Mine.”  The mine operated from 1863 to 1942 and was one of the richest mines in Arizona, producing some 340,000 ounces of gold and 250,000 ounces of silver.  A town, “Vulture City” grew up around the mine and grew to over 5,000 inhabitants.

By 1880, Vulture City consisted of six boarding houses, a cookhouse and mess hall, a blacksmith shop, a brothel, stores, offices, saloons, and a school.  Crime was a problem in this frontier town.  Theft, murder and rape were commonplace.  There was no regular law. Vigilante law prevailed.  A hanging tree stood next to a makeshift jailhouse. The condemned was put on a mule and when the mule ran out from under him, the prisoner often slowly strangled to death over the course of hours.

When the mine closed in 1942 Vulture City became a ghost town.  And indeed it is a town filled with ghosts.  Eighteen men dangled from the hanging tree.  To this day, their restless spirits are said to harass visitors.  Tourists claimed rocks were thrown at them by an invisible force when they were near the Hanging Tree.  Strange disembodied voices can be heard on the wind, and invisible footsteps creep up from behind.

Custer’s Last Stand Re-examined