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Confessions of a Ghost Tour Guide and Skeptic

Philip Howard

December 18, 2006

Two hundred and eighty-eight years ago, about a half mile from where I now sit, a remarkable man had his head lopped off. He had already suffered twenty-five wounds from sword and pistol. This final blow sent the notorious pirate captain tumbling to the blood-washed deck of his shallow-draft sloop, the “Adventure.” In the last naval battle of his eighteen month career Edward Teach (“Blackbeard” to most) was dispatched by Lt. Robert Maynard of the British Royal Navy at Ocracoke Inlet, twenty-five miles off the coast of North Carolina.

Captain Teach was a master of intimidation. With fire in his eyes; a brace of pistols, daggers, and a cutlass at his side; slow burning fuses protruding from under his tri-cornered hat; and his thick black beard plaited and adorned with red ribbons, Teach sent most merchant captains scurrying to hoist the white flag of surrender at the mere sight of him.

In death, his grisly head continued to inspire dread. Hung from the bowsprit of Maynard’s vessel, it was carried to various ports in eastern North Carolina. Ultimately it was impaled on a stake at the entrance to the harbor in Hampton, Virginia as a warning to other “Brethren of the Coast.”

Before sailing from Ocracoke Inlet, Lt. Maynard unceremoniously tossed Blackbeard’s body over the side of his ship. Legend has it that the remainder of the pirate crew, now shackled and bound for trial, watched in awe as the headless body of their captain, in one last act of showmanship, swam three times around the vessel before sinking silently below the surface.

There is a small maritime forest along the shore of Ocracoke Island, adjacent to “Teach’s Hole,” the deep-water anchorage where Blackbeard was killed in 1718. This area, called the “Point,” is lonely and silent. Ancient live oaks and cedars form a protective canopy above the low dunes there. Near the shoreline the trees are sculpted by persistent winds, and bleached shells and bones of shorebirds regularly wash up on the sandy beach.

Not surprisingly, islanders brave enough to venture out to the Point after dark have routinely reported encountering the ghost of Blackbeard himself, pacing along the shoreline, searching for his head.

My family has lived on Ocracoke Island for ten generations. My ancestor, William Howard, was almost surely the same William Howard who served as Blackbeard’s quartermaster. Growing up I heard many tales of pirates, shipwrecks, mad crones, mysterious dreams, unsolved murders, strange lights in the night sky, and lurking ghosts. Three years ago I decided to share some of these stories in a “Ghost & History Walking Tour” in our historic village.

Every Tuesday and Friday evening in the summer months I lead groups of twenty or so people for an hour and a half tour along our narrow streets and sandy lanes. The tiny and isolated village of Ocracoke (750 residents, two and a half hours by ferry from the mainland) boasts over eighty small family cemeteries. They are scattered throughout the town. Tombstones stand in backyards, hide behind brambles and vines on small hillocks, nestle under gnarled old oak trees, peek over moss-covered wooden fences, or lie forlornly along little used footpaths. They are the perfect backdrop for a Ghost Tour.

I do not dress in top hat and black cape. I don’t hire accomplices to hide behind grave markers. My stories speak for themselves. Not infrequently folks tell me the walking tour was one of the highlights of their vacation.

We gather at dusk on Howard Street, a lonely one-lane sand road, across from my own family cemeteries. After a brief introduction I tell about the apparition sighted now and then on this street for over a century. She is young, but dead these many years. Her dress is tattered, her cheeks hollow, her eyes unfocused. She darts furtively down the lane and among the grave markers, always making a hasty retreat when she encounters those of the living.

I add another observation. When I was younger I had a recurring dream, a “tale from the crypt” as it were. I gazed at the ancient burying ground before me and saw an open grave. The casket lid rattled and shook, then slowly rose up. From the widening crack a leathery hand with claw-like fingers emerged and pushed the casket fully open. Out climbed this dreadful dead woman with matted hair and sinister eyes. I awoke in a sweat, heart pounding, unable to return to sleep for an hour or more.

The story and the dream are connected, I explain. I now know who the ghostly woman is.and.I’ll wait until we complete our circuit and walk back down this lane after the inky darkness of full night has descended on our village.and then I’ll tell you the rest of story, I tease.

We walk on. I point out that if we listen carefully we will hear a number of sounds of the night. We might hear the hooting of an owl, or the croaking of numerous tree frogs. Old gate hinges might creak and groan down a path, and the wind might whistle through the overhanging branches. But the most likely sound you’ll hear, I tell my charges, is “Don’t believe a word he tells you!” shouted by an impish neighbor from an open car window.

The main portion of the tour includes a number of ghostly tales. A spectral casket floats along a narrow path. Frightening dreams portend impending death. Shipwrecked sailors, buried in unmarked graves, rise up to haunt late-night beachgoers. A four-masted schooner wrecks nearby and the entire crew mysteriously disappears. The most famous ghost of island legend, Mad Mag Howard, branded by a hot flatiron on her forehead, prowls the graveyards at midnight. Another unfortunate woman, who was buried alive and turned over in her grave, continues to prey on passersby. And long-dead “Old Diver,” the hapless sailor who haunts the lane near the British Cemetery, shuffles unsteadily in his cumbersome diving suit and brass helmet.

There are more stories of eerie appearances at the Point (Blackbeard himself, or a member of his crew, perhaps?), a murdered woman (her throat was slit) who wanders the halls of an historic inn, a lighthouse keeper who paces the upper floor of a vintage bed and breakfast, Fanny Wahab who keeps her casket propped on straightback chairs in her parlor, and the skeleton of my Uncle Evans (sans fingertips) who threatens those who dare walk near his grave at night.

I love the stories. They are part of our heritage. And Howard Street, surrounded as it is by so many of the departed, is creepy after dark. Silent and deserted, it conjures thoughts of the dead and half-dead. Few venture there after nightfall.

The Point is scarier yet. It is full of strange sounds and menacing shadows, especially when the moon is full and “shining like the devil’s eye.” Walking alone down its narrow, winding paths, it’s difficult for even a skeptic not to feel spooked.

And a skeptic I am. I’ve never seen a ghost. I am convinced that spirit sightings and mysterious events can all be explained by natural causes. I live in a 150-year-old house where at least seven children died. Even so, I sleep soundly every night. When opportunity arises I speak out for critical thinking, warn against generalizing from anecdotal evidence, and challenge superstition and blind faith.

So how do I reconcile these tales and my core values? I have asked myself, am I aiding unreason and fostering pseudoscience by leading Ghost Tours? Am I encouraging people to uncritically believe in ghosts and spirits?

Finally I have come to a realization. I can simply tell the stories (they’re good tales, you know, and nothing is quite as refreshing as a good tale) and weave them together with fascinating local history (pirates, shipwrecks, war, geology, and numerous other entertaining legends).

Now and then someone will ask me, “Have you ever seen the ghost of Mad Mag?” or “Do you believe the dead can contact the living?” I’ve even had one man, with a decidedly perverse look in his eye, ask me if I thought demon spirits haunted our world.

Usually I turn the inquiry back on the questioner. “Walk back down this lane, alone, later tonight,” I say, “and let me know tomorrow what you experience.” Or, “It doesn’t really matter what I believe, does it. You need to make up your own mind. I simply relate the stories.”

For a while I toyed with the idea of handing out a disclaimer at the end of the tour. I wondered if it might assuage my conscience. But I soon thought better of that idea. There is no harm in sharing ghost stories, I decided. Anyone who can’t appreciate an Edgar Allen Poe tale, for instance, probably needs to get a life. I’ve realized that the participants in my tours are certainly able to make up their own minds. I maintain my integrity by never claiming that any of the ghost stories are evidence for the supernatural. The folks who listen to them can be the judge of that. I just tell the tales as I’ve heard them, although I agree with one wag who said, “It’s a damn poor piece of cloth that can’t take a little embroidery.”

A listener once asked a popular national storyteller if she believed the ghost stories she related. “I believe they paid for my children’s college educations,” she replied. My tours are not as lucrative as that, but I sometimes share her reply when people ask me about my own views. I suspect that many folks readily appreciate the stories without feeling the need to “really believe” in ghosts. And I don’t think I’d change many minds by announcing that I am a skeptic. It certainly wouldn’t add to the experience.

Mary Roach, in the last paragraph of her book, Spook, summarized her thoughts about the paranormal this way, “The debunkers are probably right, but they’re no fun to visit a graveyard with.”1

So take a trip out to Ocracoke Island sometime, and come along for a Ghost Tour. I’ll do my best to introduce you to some of our colorful island spirits. Perhaps you’ll meet Blackbeard himself out at the Point under a blood red moon.or have a chance encounter with the wandering dead woman from my dream on dark and deserted Howard Street. If not, at least we might have a lively discussion about critical thinking afterwards.

Note:

  1. Roach, Mary, Spook, W.W. Norton & Company, 2005, page 295