Shaffer: NC Man buried with horse, sword & dog to hunt devil

October 14, 2012 

— As a little girl, Rebecca Dickerson tried and failed to heed this warning from her mother: Stay out of Wise’s Graveyard.

It lay hidden in thick woods, out past a stream she wasn’t allowed to cross, surrounded by an iron fence with witch’s hats on all four corners – powerful temptation to any thrill-seeking 10-year-old.

But one peculiarity made a mother’s words impossible to obey: the grave of William Wise, 19th-century oddball and aspiring devil-slayer.

When he died in 1860, the old storekeeper had himself buried with his horse, his dog and his sword. Every child in Murfreesboro knew why.

“If he went to Hades,” said Dickerson, “he was going to find Satan, chase him down and kill him.”

At age 83, Dickerson offered to lead me through this strange burial patch for installment three of my October ghoul series – a follow-up to last week’s encounter with the Beaufort girl entombed in a rum barrel.

After a century and a half, no one knows whether old man Wise managed to skewer Lucifer on the end of his sword. If he had, you’d expect his ghost to burst back through the Hertford County earth waving the devil’s horny head, a swatch of Old Scratch’s trousers in his hound dog’s teeth.

Instead, only about a half-dozen people in town remember this duel in the afterlife. A leafy subdivision has replaced the woods of Dickerson’s youth, the witch-hat fence is torn down, and Wise’s grave is sandwiched between a pair of brick houses. To walk it is to cover oneself in hitchhiker weeds.

“No wonder my mother didn’t want me coming out here,” Dickerson said, brushing off her ankles.

A swordsman’s epitaph

From a distance, the demon-fighter’s grave looks like an old pile of bricks, waiting to be useful. You wouldn’t bother with William Wise unless your basketball rolled into the weeds, tossed wide of the backboard in somebody’s driveway.

But once you stand over the slab, the ranch houses and minivans disappear. You can almost hear Old Man Wise, screeching the epitaph chiseled on his stone, wild-eyed and white-bearded, sword raised in fury:

“Hark, heard you not footsteps dread, that shook the Earth with thundering tread? It was Death; eternity!”

Wise’s grave is quite possibly the only tombstone in North Carolina with a semicolon, not to mention an approximated death date: “1860 or thereabout.”

It’s also one of a few stones that’s cracked in half and patched together with a pair of rusty bolts – the scars left over from an attempted grave robbery. Somebody wanted Wise’s terrible swift sword.

His horse and hound

Only six graves poke out of the ground Dickerson walked as a misbehaving child, and none of them belong to a horse. There’s not even any telling if Old Man Wise’s hell-steed died at the same time, of natural causes.

“Probably not,” Dickerson said. “They probably just knocked him on the head.”

We circled the grounds, visiting Wise’s son, a Confederate major who reportedly raised 17 children of his own. You would see them rolling into town together, clinging to the outside of the family car.

But there’s nothing about modern Murfreesboro, even its colonial house scarred by cannonballs, that would send anyone into eternity hell-bent on the devil’s demise. There’s no thundering tread in 2012, no footsteps dread.

We left Wise to his hunt, hoofbeats pounding under him, dog galloping at his side, sword jabbing at the devil’s tail on a ride through the fiery dungeons.

Our mothers would approve.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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