Friday, May 28, 2010

Legend of Big Liz

Image from Foto Search

It seems that Big Liz was quite a woman, so much so that her legend takes on all kinds of twists and turns. It was never exactly the same in any retelling. But here's our version:

Big Liz was a slave woman who was owned by John Rustin, a Confederate fundraiser and owner of a Bucktown tobacco plantation on the Maryland Eastern Shore in southern Dorchester County.

It was obvious why she was called Big Liz - she was a huge, powerful woman, robust and strong from long days of toiling in the fields. And she most certainly did not share the political views of her master.

The boss thought she was a Union spy working with local collaborators, tipping off shipments of gold sent out from the plantation to pay the reb troops and even spilling the beans as to where his treasure trove was, hidden in the barn.

Rustin had to get rid of Big Liz and her big mouth, but he knew he couldn't take her physically mano a mano. Killing two birds with one stone, he had her carry the heavy gold chest to the nearby Greenbriar swamp and bury it. As a weary Big Liz was covering the strong box with a last shovelful of muck, Rustin struck.

He beheaded her with one mighty swipe of a foot-long tobacco knife.

Rustin buried her body in the swamp without her head, which had rolled away in the darkness. Big Liz's vengeance wouldn't wait to be served cold. It's said that he met his fate that same evening, frightened to death in his bedroom by a midnight visit from a zombie-like Liz, head tucked under her arm.

Fitting end, you say? Not quite. It's believed that Big Liz has never left the scene of her murder.

The DeCoursey Bridge crosses the serene Transquaking River as it meanders through the marshes. And if you want to meet the legend, at least in spirit, park on the bridge, turn off your car, honk your horn three times (others say you have to flash your headlights while beeping; apparently it's a pretty ritualized ceremony), and wait.

Big Liz’s presence will manifest itself. Some claim she comes as a glowing orb, or can be heard making a low, moaning sound. But the lore we prefer is that Big Liz will appear holding her head in her hands. If you follow her she will lead you through the trees and mud to where the wealth is hidden.

But no one has had the courage to follow her yet...because another piece of the legend is that Big Liz still haunts the area where the gold was buried. It cost Liz her life, and no one is going to take it from her - ever.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Legend of Hessian Thal

camp security
Camp Security photo by Patrick McIntyre on Preservation Nation

Now partially private property and partially park land in Springettsbury Township, York County, Camp Security was a POW camp during the Revolution. The prisoners were mainly the captured troops of Generals Burgoyne and Cornwallis, taken during the battles of Saratoga and Yorktown.

The camp was loosely guarded by local militiamen, and it's said if you wanted to escape, all you had to do was walk out. But many of the prisoners actually had their families living in the compound in stone huts with them, and several ran cottage industries while imprisoned.

But that doesn't mean life was easy. Although most of the detainees had no desire to escape - they were treated relatively well there and the British Army life wasn't a exactly bed of roses - many perished in camp.

Especially rough was the winter of 1782-83 when fever swept the prison. Many died, and they were buried in a little dale outside Camp Security.

This became the site of its first ghost story, a poem entitled "Hessian Thal" written by Henry L. Fisher that tells of the specters of the dead German and British soldiers arising from the graveyard every Christmas Eve. They come back to mock their commanders for losing the battles that caused them to become prisoners and ultimately meet their death at Camp Security.

The inmates were interned at the camp until the British signed the Treaty of Paris to formally end the war on April 19, 1783. After their release, some of the freed prisoners stayed in America, while the others returned to their former homelands.

But it's said that a select few remained behind - forever. There's a trail that leads through the woods to the small valley graveyard of the soldiers, and several sightings of spook troopers have been reported from there at night, prisoners who can never escape.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Legend of the Spirit Lodge

Lake Hopatcong photo from the Lake Hopatcong Commission

From the time the Lenape (Delaware) first discovered the waters of Lake Hopatcong some 12,000 years ago, it was a special place. A deep spring-fed lake formed by glaciers, it was an idyllic spot for a Native American community. Its wooded shores provided rich soil and ample game while the lake teemed with fish.

In the 1600's, the Nariticon clan of the Lenape lived on the eastern shore of Lake Hopatcong, in a large village on Halsey Island in northern New Jersey. The island was then connected to the mainland before the lake was dammed in 1750 for a forge and in 1831 for a canal.

Quaquahela, the clan's chief, decided to visit another tribe, and rowed his canoe across the lake. He reached shore, when suddenly he heard roaring and thrashing in the woods. A huge bear was charging at him.

The chief was brave, and armed with a war club and knife. But his totem was the bear; it was taboo for him to kill one. Someone should have told the bear!

Despite the tribal sanction, Quaquahela had no option but to engage the beast in combat. The chief finally dispatched the bear in a bloody contest, but lay dying on the forest floor, realizing by his deed that his spirit would never be accepted into the Happy Hunting Ground.

His body was never recovered, claimed by a wolf pack, but a friendly chieftain found the bear's body and Quaquahela's blood-crusted weapons, added two and two together, and after a fruitless search sent a messenger to the Nariticon to tell them the sad news.

About a month later, during a full moon, Quaquahela's clan saw an eerie mist spiraling up the side of a nearby hill, like the smoke from a fire. The haze formed into an unmoving cloud, despite gusty winds, and hovered over the hillside. The clan was mystified by the strange sight, and wondered why it had appeared to them.

That night, Quaquahela appeared in a dream to his medicine man. "It is I," he told him, "who have appeared in the mist on the hillside. I have killed the great bear who took my life, and so am forbidden forever to enter the spirit realm. Rather than roam the earth, I have determined to stay near my clansmen, and so have erected a spirit lodge on the hillside in the place which you saw tonight."

The chief promised the medicine man that he would be with his people on all their travels to watch over them. If they ever doubted his presence, all they had to do was look to the hillside. The mist was the smoke from his spirit lodge, and if they ever called to him, he would answer.

And while the Lenape remained by Lake Hopatcong, a call to Quaquahela was always answered by an echo in response.

Life for the Lenape would change with the arrival of the European settlers. Most of the Delaware people had died from disease or were chased from the area by the time of the American Revolution. But many Lenapes still came to the lake to drink from its waters before their ceremonies.

(The lake is now part of Hopatcong State Park, bordered by four different residential communities and a thriving recreational site.)

The legend goes that to this day, if you hail Quaquahela on the River Styx bridge towards the hillside, he will answer. But many have tried to reach him without success.

Maybe it's because they're not his clansmen. But we like to think it's because he's moved his spirit lodge to wherever the Nariticon call home, and can be found there as long as his clan needs him.

His lore is preserved by Henry Charlton Beck in Tales and Towns of Northern New Jersey and S. E. Schlosser in American Folklore.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Legend of the Ape Boy

Gossamer from Lizzy Marboc's album

Hey, kids can be cruel - and not just today. Back in the pre-revolutionary days, there was a homely boy who lived in Chester. We're talking big-time whipped with an ugly stick here.

He was a tall, gangling, red-headed child, and the other kids ragged him terribly about his looks, or lack thereof, as only rugrats can. One day he had all he could take of their taunts, and fled into the peace and quiet of the swamps around the Delaware River, near where the Commodore Barrie Bridge now connects Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

He never rejoined human society. The swamp rat roamed the mire and woods and foraged for his food. Eventually, he mutated into a half-ape, half-human critter with thick red fur covering an Ichabod Crane physique, sorta like Gossamer of Looney Tunes fame.

Now back in the day, the Chester Swamps covered a huge expanse, but over the centuries it's been drained for homes, businesses, industries, and the Philadelphia International Airport. Civilization may be surrounding our Swamp Boy, but the Tinicum Watershed Wildlife Preserve remains, and should be off limits to developers for quite a while.

It seems like both the swamp and its denizens have survived modern times. It's been said that Delaware River fishermen and folk hiking through what's now called the John Heinz Wildlife Preserve at Tinicum have reported seeing a half-human, half-ape creature loping through the undergrowth, with dirty, matted, red fur. Could it be our boy, still around after 250 years? Hey, who else?

And ya know what? If you look across the swamp, you'll see the Pine Barrens, home of another legendary critter, the Jersey Devil. Maybe Swamp Boy finally found a friend.

The story is featured in Weird Pennsylvania, written by Mark Moran, Matt Lake, and Mark Sceurman.