Shaffer: The day it rained blood in Chatham County

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.comOctober 6, 2013 

  • Calling all shivery Tar Heel tales

    Some of the more dogged readers of this column may recall that I printed a series of ghost stories last year. A few of you may even have enjoyed them before slipping them under your parakeets. For the sake of that loyal bunch that I’m going to reprise the series, appearing every Monday until Halloween, starting with today’s offering. I’ve already visited the girl buried in a rum keg in Beaufort, and I’ve spent part of a night in the very unimpressive Devil’s Tramping Ground. So I’m hoping that you’ll tell me some new ones, hopefully those nobody else has heard. I prefer stories that have some kind of a picture I can take: a headstone, a creepy old sign, etc. Reach me at 919-829-4818 or jshaffer@newsobserver.com.

— On a cloudless day in 1884, a sharecropper named Bass Lasater noticed a bead of red liquid splash on the ground near her feet – the first drop in a blood-colored downpour.

She turned and watched red rain fall for almost a minute, spattering the field outside her cabin with splotches as big as a man’s finger. By the time the storm stopped, it had soaked a rectangle 50 feet wide and 70 feet across – nearly a tenth of an acre.

To Lasater, it seemed the sky had opened up and forecast her doom. Even in a superstitious age, it’s an uncommonly bad omen when the gods send a blood deluge to your front door. Word of the cataclysm reached her neighbors in rural Chatham County, including a local doctor, who arrived to take take measurements and collect specimens. Enough of a hubbub built up that the Chatham Record made a detailed but skeptical note of the spectacle.

“We do not ask our readers to believe the following wonderful statement,” it read, “but merely publish it as it is told us.”

Had the story stopped there, the blood rain of 1884 might have vanished from local memory – the ravings of a poor farm girl. Or it might have taken its place alongside North Carolina’s most famous scary legends: the Devil’s Tramping Ground and other absurd inventions of old-time imagination.

But this 19th-century horror story stands out for the interest it aroused in academic circles, for the collision between the supernatural and the cold machinery of science. The story of Chatham County’s blood rain starts to get really interesting at the entrance of Professor Francis P. Venable, chemist. For his sake, we revisit that bloody field.

As far as I can tell, nobody knows more about this curious event than Tom Maxwell, the guitarist and songwriter most of you know from his days with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Last year, he wrote a lengthy and detailed essay in the quarterly Southern Cultures tracing the history of blood showers back to “The Iliad,” noting that 24 of them got reported in the South by the late 19th century. He admits to something of an obsession with the topic, especially the unlikely meeting between sharecropper and professor.

“Even by 1884,” he wrote in Southern Cultures, “the only thing that would bring two such disparate people as Bass Lasater and Frank Venable together was blood, falling from a clear blue sky.”

Venable’s visit

Three weeks had passed by the time Venable got involved, and the blood had more than dried around poor Lasater. At first, he and his colleagues at UNC-Chapel Hill had joked about the bloody downpour out in the sticks. But for reasons that aren’t entirely clear – Venable simply wrote “There seemed to be sufficient interest attaching to it to warrant paying a visit” – he saddled up his horse and rode south.

Lasater and her husband, Cite, worked on Silas Beckwith’s farm, which by modern reckoning, stood near the community of Bells, underneath what is now Jordan Lake. This was rural farm country, where hardly a professor ever poked his nose, let alone conversed with sharecropper’s wives.

“She was a good deal frightened and affected,” Venable wrote in a scientific journal of the day, “taking it as a portent of death or evil of some kind.”

Venable took two samples of stained sand collected after the event, lamenting that enough time had passed that he couldn’t take his own. He subjected these samples to microscope and spectroscope, tinkering in the laboratory and making careful notes, concluding that the substance on the sand had to be partially decomposed blood.

But he couldn’t explain it. Had someone once slaughtered pigs on the same ground? Maybe a bird of prey passed over carrying a dead animal, he suggested, but that would have required a lot of bleeding to cover 70 feet. Maybe somebody had pulled some kind of hoax. But why? Venable asked. To what end?

Venable’s conclusion

Science rode out into the country and came back guessing.

“As to theories accounting for so singular a material falling from a cloudless sky, I have no plausible ones to offer,” Venable wrote. “I have deemed this strange matter worthy of being placed on record.”

Venable went on to be president of UNC until 1914. A professorship still exists in his name. His accomplishments are lauded everywhere, but you don’t see mention of his Bass Lasater experience listed among them.

The feeling I get, and I think Tom Maxwell agrees with me, is that people wanted this story to go away. It’s one thing to suspect the skies rained blood on Chatham County, and it’s another when a lauded chemist can’t explain the facts away. Cover it over with a lake, and hope the rains don’t come again.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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