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Murder by Darkness: Does Mammoth Cave’s Specter Harbor a Secret?

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.4, July/August 2017

If reported encounters are to be believed, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave—the longest cave system in the world—holds an almost lost secret. Supposedly revealed “to those who have witnessed her spirit” (“Ghost Stories” 2016), a murderer’s ghost haunts the cave’s winding passageways—especially “the area known as Echo River” (Hauck 1996, 188).


The Dark Side

To understand the following ghost story, it is important to appreciate what it’s like to be in the deep recesses of any great cavern such as Mammoth Cave and have the lights turned off. The result is darkness so absolute it impresses all who have experienced it. I can attest to this not only in Mammoth and Carter caves of Kentucky but also in Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico and many other commercial caves where this brief entertainment has become a mainstay of tours.


It once happened to me accidentally in southern Kentucky’s Sloans Valley Cave System—a “wild” (i.e., noncommercial) cave I often explored with fellow spelunkers during my undergraduate years of university. I was climbing down a well-like shaft when the carbide lamp mounted on my hard hat suddenly went out. By then an experienced cave explorer, I knew what to do and did it—without panic. (I stuck a penlight in my mouth and, nestling into the rock wall, proceeded to ream out the lamp’s brass tip and—I’m leaving out a few steps here—restored the light [Nickell 2016].)


I mention all this to prompt readers to imagine what it would be like to be left alone deep in a cave’s profound, deadly dark. Reportedly, that was the means of effecting a homicide in the great cavern in 1843, and the killer—who before her own death published a confession—has become a ghost.


‘Melissa’

This particular spirit (among a few others alleged to haunt the cave) is known only as Melissa—a young woman whose love for her tutor was not reciprocated. She sought revenge and found an opportunity to abandon him in the cave without a lamp. He was never seen again.


“Some say” that Melissa’s ghost still searches for his. “Rangers have reportedly heard a woman’s voice calling from deep within the cave’s labyrinthine passageways, as well as screams and garbled voices” (“Is Kentucky’s” 2012). However, a more experienced source insists that most of the park rangers tend to laugh away the ghost tales (“Haunted” 2016).


But again, “some say” Melissa contracted consumption. “So it is that to this day,” asserts raconteur Christopher K. Coleman (2011, 81), “visitors may still hear Melissa calling out for her lost love, her doleful refrain and her coughing telltale signs that her restless spirit roams the caverns still.” Yet again, “Others report hearing a woman whispering or weeping in the cave that they believe to be Melissa’s ghost” (“Mammoth Cave” 2016).


But how can Melissa’s ghost do any of these things—if Melissa herself never existed? Certainly, she cannot be proved real. Neither can any record be found of her tutor, said to have been a “William Beverleigh”—or indeed of anyone else who disappeared in Mammoth Cave during the 1840s period (“Mammoth Cave” 2016). And yet I did refer to the alleged female killer’s published “confession.”


Truth Unveiled


Melissa’s story, “A Tragedy of the Mammoth Cave” appeared in The Knickerbocker in February 1858. Its having been published anonymously enhanced the believability of what purported to be a woman’s first-person admission of murder. She begins:


For fifteen long years I have carried a dark secret buried in my heart, until it has worn away my life; but now that I am tottering on the brink of the grave, I am impelled to make a confession, which, tardy as it is, I hope may render more tranquil my last sad hours. The tenacious care with which I have ever guarded the knowledge of my crime is no longer necessary, for no injury can now be wrought by a disclosure which, if earlier made, would have held up my name to eternal infamy as the blackest of my sex, and brought disgrace on one of the proudest families in the land. (Blake 1858)


She goes on to tell—at some length—the story sketched earlier. End­ing her narrative, she resolves:


I am going to reenter that dark Cave, the threshold of which I have not crossed for fifteen years, and there I will patiently await the coming of that death, which I hope to me will be a blessed release. The gloom and horror to which, years ago, I doomed my victim, shall be around me when I die: for I think that perhaps from amid the silent rocks which witnessed my crime, my last prayer for forgiveness will find acceptance. (Blake 1858)


Sophisticated readers of The Knicker­­bocker narrative will recognize the anonymous confession as an obvious work of fiction. It is written at a high level of vocabulary and sentence structure. (Application of a standard readability scale [Bovee and Thill 1989] shows the writing to be at today’s college senior level.1) It is replete with poetic phrases (“Tottering on the brink of the grave,” and so on [Blake 1858, 111]), and it offers sophisticated philosophical musings: “Perhaps some of the most wholesome lessons I had ever yet learned were in the wonder and awe and knowledge of my own insignificance, which I felt in contemplating those sublime arches and mysterious caverns” (Blake 1858, 113).


Its form is narrative with plot, in this case one that begins with a situation, shifts back in time to launch the story, and, continuing apace, transforms the chronology into a causal arrangement—finally returning to the beginning situation. It uses such devices as characterization, description, foreshadowing, suspense, and verisimilitude.2

In fact, it was created by fiction writer Lillie Devereux Blake (1833–1913) who penned the fanciful piece after she and her husband Frank Umsted (whom she married in 1855) visited Mammoth Cave, traveling by train, steamer, and stagecoach (Farrell 2002, 40, 44–46).


Phenomena Explained

But if Melissa was unreal—and so likewise her surviving spirit—then how is it that people nevertheless report encountering her? Unfortunately, most such claims, along with reports of other ghosts—like that of famed cave explorer Floyd Collins, who in 1925 was trapped in nearby Sand Cave for fourteen days until he died pitiably—come to us without source or documentation. The few apparitions may be attributed to shadows from flickering lamps or spectral images that well up from the subconscious and are superimposed on the visual scene (Nickell 2012, 345). Some incidents may be made up.

Still there are frequent reports of 
“weird noises” that “are usually at­tributed to” Melissa’s ghost. What are we to make of the previously mentioned whisperings and weepings and other sounds, even “the plaintive sound of a woman calling out, as if she is searching for someone” (Coleman 2011, 80)? Can multiple ear-witnesses be mistaken? 


The fact is, hearing such expressions is common to being in caverns, as most spelunkers soon learn. Many have played the game of sitting in the dark and listening to water dripping, trickling, and murmuring. In such random background noise, we may perceive the sounds of people talking, whispering, crying, or the like. The effect is due to the neurological-psychological phenomenon known as “pareidolia”, by which the brain interprets vague images or sounds as specific ones—such as seeing pictures in clouds, finding Jesus’s face in the skillet burns on a tortilla, or hearing spoken spirit words or phrases in a ghost hunter’s recorded white noise (Nickell 2012, 351; Novella 2009).


Lessons Learned


Lillie Devereux Blake did not create the ghost of Melissa, which is not part of her narrative. However, she unwittingly provided the seeds of that very creation. At the end of her tale, when she has the murderess say that, since her crime, “I have been a constant wanderer in search of health and happiness, always in vain,” Blake helped spark the idea of Melissa’s ghost’s eternal wandering. And when the author has Melissa state, “I shall have buried myself in a living tomb,” she has helped set the stage for a perpetually grieving, searching spirit.


Credulous believers in ghosts—unable to discern that “Melissa’s” story was fiction—were quick to find, in her apparent confession, confirmation of their superstitious beliefs. They have therefore told and retold the story, thus creating differing versions, what folklorists call “variants.” (In one, for instance, after Melissa left Beverleigh to his doom she allegedly “went back to find him” [“Mammoth Cave Ghosts” 2016]—an act which never occurred in the original [Blake 1858]. Again, although in the original story in The Knickerbocker the murderess says only that she is dying of a “deadly disease” [Blake 1858, 121], some later writers assert she “died of tuberculosis”—hence her ghost’s reported cough [O’Malley and Sawyer 2014, 175–176].) Ironically, an allegedly “true” folktale has thus been created out of pure fiction.


For the rest of us, Blake has also created—no doubt again unintentionally—a cautionary tale about critical thinking. It might begin, “Once upon a time, there was a story that—on reflection—might’ve seemed too good to be true . . .”



Notes


References


Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.