Commentary

Shaffer: Three chopped-up ghosts haunt the Triangle

jshaffer@newsobserver.comOctober 20, 2013 

The final resting place, in Raleigh's Oakwood Cemetery, of Thomas Devereaux Hogg. Though he does not haunt the city where he died, his death at the hands of a freight train that sliced him in half ranks among Raleigh's all-time grisliest moments.

JOSH SHAFFER — jshaffer@newsobserver.com

— This week, so many souls came screaming from the grave, so many spirits floated out of shadows, so many corpses dragged their bones through the darkness that I granted them each a few grim paragraphs.

One sliced himself in three leaning on a saw blade.

One cut himself in half tripping on a train track.

One got his head stuffed in a bag, disguised as a watermelon.

None of these unfortunates had a thing in common save their gruesome exit from the Earth – all chopped to bits.

But all three raised their hands, asking for a spot in this haunted gallery, looking for a chance to rise out of grisly obscurity. They seemed so lonely. I couldn’t turn them away.

Downtown train

Thomas Devereaux Hogg ranked among Raleigh’s most prominent businessmen, a Princeton-educated doctor worth an estimated $250,000 – multimillionaire territory in 1904.

He’d started Raleigh’s first gas company, served as a bank president, sat on the city commission, helped start Dorothea Dix Hospital, co-owned a vineyard and, thanks to his enthusiasm for trains, invested heavily in railroads.

He strolled down to the Johnston Street Station on the morning before his 81st birthday, keen on watching the freight trains switching around the yard. But he tripped on a rail, landing on his hands just as an engine and its tender were backing down the tracks. Both cars rolled over him at 4 mph, chopping him in two as a crowd watched horrified from the platform, blood spilling over the tracks.

A brakeman jumped from the tender, hollering, too late, for the engineer to hit the brakes. All that remained was to collect the pieces of Dr. Hogg. The News & Observer described the accident as “death in a most horrible form.”

Today Dr. Hogg rests in Oakwood Cemetery, reportedly in a single casket. By all accounts he is a quiet guest, too dignified to resort to haunting. But he must lament the howling of the downtown trains like a banshee’s nighttime wail, still floating over his tombstone after a century, forever disturbing his sleep.

Three easy pieces

Nobody remembers much about D. Cole – not the year he died, not even his first name.

A mill worker in the Durham County woods, he lived a life that mostly vanished with the 19th century.

The most memorable part of his story came in the final few seconds, when he rested his knee on the conveyor belt of the Cole Mill sawmill. That blunder sent him flying face-first into the blade, which shot him out the back end as a three-piece puzzle.

For decades, locals spotted his headless ghost along the banks of the Eno River, trying to gather itself together for a more comfortable afterlife. At age 95, Harry Umstead could still recall the accident from his boyhood, when his father rode off on a horse to find a doctor.

“One night,” he told the N&O in 1989, “a tenant farmer came to my mother, whose name was Elissa, and he said, ‘Miss Lissie, I done seen the bugger again, walking down the (road) without a hat.”

He may walk there still, scouting his limbs, resolving to stand up straight.

In the bag

I poked into at least a dozen graves this week, and the bones that rattled loudest belonged to Asgill, a Chapel Hill slave with no last name.

He turns up in Kemp Plummer Battle’s History of the University of North Carolina, and it describes a gang of medical students in a macabre deed that passed for a gag in the years before the Civil War.

Asgill had been hanged for murder and buried in a plantation plot. These college scoundrels dug him up, stole the body, cut off its head and sent another slave to deliver it to Chapel Hill’s only drug store – an establishment where Abdel Kader Tenny worked as a clerk. Tenny, the object of their twisted humor, thought that the bag contained a watermelon as a gift.

“He walks over and licks his lips,” said Ernest Dollar, director of the City of Raleigh museum, who’s also heard the story, “and there’s this head.”

I don’t know what happened to the rest of Asgill, but I suspect head and body were never reunited, let alone buried in the cold, cold ground.

But I hope all these disassembled ghosts find peace somewhere and manage to haunt the crap out of their tormentors, whether man or machine.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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