Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: A thick soup of Robeson ghouls

Henry Berry Lowrie, hero of the Lumbee, who raided 19th century nobility in Robeson County, resisting efforts to oppress native populations. His ghost is said to emerge from the swamps at night.
Henry Berry Lowrie, hero of the Lumbee, who raided 19th century nobility in Robeson County, resisting efforts to oppress native populations. His ghost is said to emerge from the swamps at night. NC Archives

The scariest stories come slinking out of the swamps, a distinctive brand of horror that carries the smell of decay and leaves a trail of slime and dead leaves. And the cauldron that boils the best swamp tales bubbles in Robeson County – territory famously nicknamed “Hell’s Backyard,” splashed with foot-deep muck.

No less notable a figure than Henry Berry Lowrie haunts that marshy corner of the state, a hero of the Lumbee tribe who emerges from his eternal swampy hiding place to mourn at his wife Rhoda’s tombstone.

Legends run deep enough in Robeson that it’s common to hear matter-of-fact reports of witches borrowing people’s horses at night, returning them by morning with braided manes and tails.

It’s a place marked by omen and superstition, where a cardinal flying into a house can spell unexpected death, where dreaming about fish might mean somebody is pregnant.

So for the third installment of haunted October columns, I’ve pulled together this collection from locales such as Prospect and Saddletree and Red Springs, largely thanks to the Lumbee Ghost Stories page on Facebook, which I recommend for those unfamiliar with this county and its uniquely spooky folklore. Here’s a sample of the otherworldly chatter you can find there.

Tina Barnes: Once again I am dreaming of my dead grandfather, who was a Lumbee Indian of course. Does any one have any recommendations of how I can get in tune with this so that I may contact and “kind of”speak with him?

Chip Cavan: Be careful about trying to contact. If this is indeed an attempt on his part, he will find a way. From where he is, he has everything at his disposal to contact you.

Perhaps the most entertaining of the haunted Robeson stories I’ve encountered concerns a spectre near Lumberton known only “The Fat Ghost,” which comes from a slightly dubious Web site called Still, it’s too good to leave out.

As a living man, this fellow stuffed himself in such a nauseating fashion, smacking his lips, mouth wide-open, that his daughter-in-law pestered him to stop using increasingly violent threats. She hounded him so relentlessly about his gluttony that he quit eating altogether, wasting away to a stick of a man, dying in his bed. Haunted by her cruelty, the daughter-in-law lost her own appetite, growing thin and nervous. Soon, all the food in the house began disappearing. Her cupboards went empty. Her refrigerator stood bare. Dinner vanished from the table.

Finally, she awoke one night to hear a terrible smacking sound, the noise of her father-in-law’s jowls slowly devouring her nagging little world. She fled the Lumberton house, leaving the ghost to its afterlife dessert.

Around Saddletree township, the locals know the story of Holly, the spirit of a poor woman murdered in the graveyard on Saddletree Road. She haunts a gnarled tree there, which she will descend in her ghoulish splendor when anyone screams her name at night.

Here’s an account, from the Lumbee Ghosts page, of what happened when Phoenix TwoFeathers Locklear tried to make contact:

“I asked Holly are you here? Leaves started shaking in the tree inside the graveyard where she's supposed to live. I opened the fence of the graveyard, being respectful to the people buried in it, I asked again... Holly? And I heard something in the tree come down and sound like it was running towards me. I approached my vehicle and as I got in I had the window down and I said again Holly are you here? And something was at my window breathing and my lights went out and my door wouldn't close. Was a interesting and scary experience.”

I’ve had my own strange encounters in Robeson. I watched my friend Rob swamp his canoe twice on the same gentle turn of the Lumber River, no doubt harassed by swamp spirits. I’ve seen beavers on those riverbanks the size of grown wolves. And I’ve heard the chilling call of the barred owl at night, asking, hauntingly, “Who cooks for you?”