Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: 2 Wilmington men argued about what happens after death; 1 still haunts the town

The graves in St. James Parish in Wilmington date to the 1700s, and they include the resting place of Samuel Jocelyn, who was buried alive in 1810.
The graves in St. James Parish in Wilmington date to the 1700s, and they include the resting place of Samuel Jocelyn, who was buried alive in 1810. jshaffer@newsobserver.com

In 1810 or thereabouts, when Wilmington still teemed with rough sailors, when the city drank more ale than water, a young lawyer named Samuel Jocelyn posed this question to a friend: Could a dead man could return from the grave?

At the time, their discussion amounted to little more than a 19th-century bull session, a pair of chums batting around their notions on the supernatural.

But they made a pact that night:

The man to die first must return and greet the other, if possible, with an answer from the ghostly beyond.

To the terror of generations to come, Jocelyn’s turn came first, and quickly. And when he kept his promise to his friend Alexander Hostler, he delivered these haunted words:

“Dig up my grave.”

The remains of Samuel Jocelyn lie somewhere within the churchyard of St. James Parish, a Colonial burial ground draped in Spanish moss. Half the stones there are illegible, the names rubbed away by time and weather, but those that can be read show strange and ornate figures of the sort you might find in Boston.

Nobody living knows for certain where Jocelyn lies because his stone, if it ever existed, no longer stands. It’s whispered that young boys used to sneak into the graveyard at night and listen for Joceyln’s heartbeat underground, and that one of them must have kicked over the fragile marker while fleeing afraid.

And while history doesn’t agree on what square of sandy soil Jocelyn occupies, or how he came to get there, this chilling detail is certain: He went down alive.

“It is one of those unexplainable things,” wrote John Harden in 1954. “A voice from the grave? Spirit world communication? Mental telepathy? Fulfillment of a vision? Something too supernatural to be pinned down? You may take your choice.”

When he leads ghost tours in Wilmington, John Hirchak tends to tell the traditional version of Jocelyn’s tale, which takes a few dramatic liberties.

In that telling, Jocelyn went riding along the Cape Fear River, where his horse tripped on a stump and threw him, knocking him cold. This misadventure came before either the stethoscope was invented or embalming came into practice, and young Jocelyn was deemed dead.

Jocelyn haunted Hostler for three nights before the grief- and horror-stricken friend persuaded acquaintance Lewis Toomer to help unearth the body. When the pair dug down to the coffin, they found the lid slightly askew. Jocelyn lay upside-down underneath it, looking as if he had tried to push himself free with his back.

Hirchak doesn’t exactly buy this story. Even if Jocelyn had managed to invert himself inside a casket, he couldn’t have budged a lid with 6 feet of dirt sitting on top.

So when he wrote the story for “Ghosts of Old Wilmington,” he stuck to the more historical account.

In it, a lieutenant general stationed near Wilmington writes in his diary that he’d been hunting with both Jocelyn, Hostler and Toomer’s families in swampy lands to the north. Jocelyn got into some kind of spat with his young wife and tore off into the night on horseback, an ill-advised trip for a cold night.

“This is really bad,” Hirchak said, “because you don’t ride off in the swamp.”

When a search party found Jocelyn later, he’d been lying “chilled to death” in 4 inches of water. The story here follows the traditional path – hauntings, disinterment – until Hostler and Toomer flip the casket lid. Inside, they found their friend had torn himself to pieces trying to claw his way to daylight.

The two gravediggers kept mum, telling only a few family members. The story stayed buried with Jocelyn until 1890, when Hostler’s relative James G. Burr told it during a public lecture at the Wilmington Opera House, citing both Hostler and Toomer as sources.

Grim as it is to imagine, I’m guessing that Jocelyn’s ordeal turned to amusement in his final moments. To me, it makes sense that he would stop his frenzied knocking at the coffin lid just before his death and break into a wide grin, making this promise for all the worms to hear: “I’ll see you soon, Alexander. And then you’ll know what I know.”

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