Shaffer: Spurned lover haunts Goldsboro graveyard

A Halloween-season visit to a century-old lover's spat between ghosts.

jshaffer@newsobserver.comSeptember 30, 2012 

A close-up of George Deans' grave just north of Goldsboro, showing the ghostly handshake that was his undoing.

JOSH SHAFFER — jshaffer@newsobserver.com

— In 1857, a country gentleman named George Deans was wandering home from a Christmas party, tipsy with drink, when a foggy shape rose out the graveyard wearing the face of his spurned lover.

Deans froze as his jilted sweetheart floated over and took his hand – her grip colder than death – then vanished.

His hand began to wither. For the rest of his life, it dangled uselessly at his side. And when Deans died old and unmarried, he had that ghostly handshake chiseled on the tombstone above his name.

You can see this piece of 19th-century melodrama play out in the cemetery just north of Goldsboro, near the end of a dead-end street called Tommy’s Road. Deans’ stone is cracked in half, held together by a pair of rusty brackets, suggesting that his torment continues underground a century later.

I’m digging him up now that it’s October. I want to rattle the bones of a Tar Heel ghost every Monday until Halloween, just for the sake of celebrating North Carolina’s greatest spooks. Don’t quit reading yet. I spent all day Thursday in Southport looking for the bottom half of a riverboat captain, buried in its own grave marked “His Legs.” I promise this will be good, clean, dead fun.

Deans’ horror story started when he caught the eye of Rachael Vinson, whom most of the squires in pre-Civil War Wayne County considered a lass ripe for the wooing.

Accounts vary here.

Some say Rachael grew tired of waiting and threw herself breathlessly at young Deans, who flatly turned her down and went about his 1850s business.

But I prefer the version told by Daniel W. Barefoot in his excellent “Seaside Spectres.” Barefoot, a three-term member of the N.C. House turned folklorist, describes the Goldsboro pair all set for a harvest-time wedding until Deans’ eye wandered. He broke off the nuptials and condemned poor Rachel to death by rejected-heroine’s disease.

“Within weeks, her almost uncontrollable grief was replaced by sickness and fever,” Barefoot writes. “Her body was robbed of its vigor; her tender heart was broken; her gentle soul was stripped of its raison d’être.”

With death near, Rachael called Deans to her bedside and made a grim promise: “I realize I can never have you in this world, but I shall claim you in the next.”

The next thing Deans knew, his discarded girlfriend transformed herself into a graveyard fog and turned his hand into a prune. He lived another 32 haunted years, never to wed.

The moral: Don’t spurn a girlfriend with supernatural powers.

Just off N.C. 117, Deans Cemetery holds maybe 100 graves altogether, and it’s safe to guess that the pair of would-be lovers knew the majority of souls resting there. Rachael’s spectacular revenge must still be the talk of boneyard.

You get the feeling she’s enjoying the role of ice queen, even in the great beyond. A woman’s hand appears on her stone, too, holding a bouquet of wilted flowers. Thirty feet away, you can almost hear Deans’ remains crying, “Enough, already ...”

But she was just getting started. Forty years later, Deans’ marker started changing color. The whites and blacks bled together to form a blob unseen on any stone, which visitors swore to be an exact likeness of Deans’ face.

To tell you the truth, I don’t see it. There’s a blob there, and nobody else seems to have a tombstone blob, but isn’t this ghost story bizarre enough already without the bonus haunting?

Seriously, though, tell me if you like this idea and I’ll come back next week with a swamp beast or something. The state’s full of them. Back in January, somebody thought they smelled Bigfoot in Madison County.

Either way, keep haunted George Deans in your thoughts, and if you’ve ever dumped a girlfriend, don’t go stumbling past the graveyard.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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