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I often tell a story about my daughter that goes back to a time when she was only three years old. It was a few weeks before Christmas and every night she would toddle over and grab ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas’ off the bookshelf and ask me to read it to her.
This went on for about a week. Then one night she gets the book from her room and as I start to read the book to her – she stops me, “No daddy, I’ll read it to you.”
I sat in amazement as she recited the complete poem – verbatim – while turning the pages in all the correct places. It was like an ethereal – otherworldly – experience. Was I dreaming? She was only three years old!
Now, I find myself in Clanton, Alabama this weekend to see my daughter, Caitlin, married off to a young man I barely know. As I’ve met his family this weekend, I’m pleasantly surprised to find them to be close-knit with values I admire. A family I am happy to see my daughter become a part of.
But, on this day, the day before the wedding, I find myself with nothing to do for the better part of the day. I’m not due to be anywhere until rehearsal later tonight. My mood is somewhat melancholy. And, much like 20 years before as she read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ to me, the world is becoming very surreal.
Not wanting to sit around the hotel all day watching television, I head out to do some ghost hunting. That seems to fit the mood I’m in. And, I know just where I want to go.
A little over an hour south of Clanton and ten miles west of Selma, lies Cahawba, Alabama in Dallas County. It is now referred to as ‘Old Cahawba’ and you will find an alternative spelling in various texts as Cahaba.
As you leave Selma headed west on Hwy 22, you find yourself quickly in the rural countryside. Soon you will cross the Cahaba River which stretches northward all the way to Birmingham before joining the Alabama River at Cahawba on the southern end. As you approach Dallas County 9 you’ll find a sign pointing the way to ‘Old Cahawba.’
This place may be a ghost town now, but in 1819 Cahawba was Alabama’s state capitol and was a thriving and bustling place to be. It was the epicenter of Alabama high society.
In my melancholy state, I have to wonder, had Cahawba survived as Alabama’s state capitol, how might history have changed. Without the failure of Cahawba, Selma and Montgomery certainly would not have developed as they have. As you know, these places are forever etched in our minds and history by Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others from the Civil Rights Movement.
Long before those historic events, in February of 1818, another historic event took place. A territorial commission selected Cahawba, out of the wilderness of Alabama, as its future capitol. In October of 1819, Governor William Wyatt Bibb reported that the town had been laid out and that lots would soon be auctioned off to the highest bidder. By 1820, Cahawba was functioning as Alabama’s state capitol.
Unfortunately, Cahawba was located where two great rivers merge which made the area vulnerable to flooding. And a few short years later, in 1825, that is exactly what happened. The flooding was used as an argument to move the state capitol to Tuscaloosa in 1826. Later, in 1846, the capitol was moved for the last time to Montgomery.
Cahawba was also the county seat for Dallas County and remained so for several more decades. However, Cahawba could never fully overcome its earlier reputation for flooding and having an unhealthy environment. The county seat was moved to Selma in 1866 with most of the remaining businesses and townspeople following.
The impetus for moving the county seat might well have been the flooding of Cahawba, once again, in February of 1865. The flooding occurred toward the end of the Civil War. Because of the war, a large cotton warehouse had been converted into a stockade to hold captured Union soldiers. The compound was devastated by the flooding causing much hardship for the 3,000 Union soldiers imprisoned there. The Civil War ended a few months later, in April of 1865.
After the Civil War, the vacant courthouse became a meeting place for freedmen during reconstruction. Later, just prior to the turn of the century, a former slave purchased most of the old town sites for $500 and demolished the buildings for their lumber and shipped them to Mobile via the Alabama River.
Cahawba’s storied and tormented history, while short, has produced its share of ghostly encounters. One of the most well-known ghost at Cahawba is that of a negro slave named Pleas. He was at the center of the most famous event to take place in the former capitol, a wild west shootout rivaling that of the “O.K. Corral.” Only, this shootout happened in south Alabama in 1856 some 25 years before the ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.’
According to eyewitness accounts, most of whom “huddled behind closed shutters,” the shootout took place on Vine Street between First North Street and Second North Street on a Friday evening near sundown. The shootout involved two doctors, a judge, a colonel, and the colonel’s two sons. All were prominent citizens of the community.
To understand the quarrel, you have to understand the decorum of the times. And, you have to understand the customs as it pertained to the ownership of slaves.
The book, ‘Memories of old Cahaba,’ published in 1905, provides a frame of reference for the conventions of society in 1856, and describes the shootings as follows:
“……… the celebrated encounter took place between the Bells, Judge Bird, Dr. Troy, and Dr. Thomas Hunter, marriage connections of Judge Bird. It was a fight to the death, in which Col. John Bell and his son, John Bell, Jr., both lost their lives.
The difficulty grew out of a number of robberies that had but recently occurred in Cahaba and the burning of several houses which the most dispassionate could but believe was the work of an incendiary. Suspicion rested on a notoriously bad negro by the name of Pleas, who at one time belonged to Mr. E. M. Perine, and who sold him to young John Bell because of his uncontrollable conduct.
Pleas was a bright, smart negro, and so efficient a servant that, despite his bad reputation, he became a great favorite with the Bells, from whom he completely succeeded in concealing his faults. In those days, to accuse a gentleman’s servant of crime, especially a favorite servant, was regarded almost as great an insult as to accuse the gentleman himself, and a master would fight in defense of his slaves as quickly as he would in defense of his children — hence no one dared make public the accusation against the negro; but when Dr. Troy’s residence fell a victim to flames, followed in quick succession by the destruction of Judge Bird’s house in the same way, then Judge Bird became so exasperated that he openly charged this negro with arson, and denounced the Bells as accessories to the crime. Accusation followed accusation, recrimination followed recrimination, until it ended in the fatal meeting. The parties involved were all prominent in social life. Feeling ran high on both sides, everybody in the town in a measure became involved in the feud, and it is impossible to describe the excitement and grief that prevailed when the difficulty terminated and the tragedy became known.”
According to a newspaper article at the time, Dr. Troy’s house was burned to the ground. A few days later, someone set fire to Judge Bird’s house. No clues could be found as to who the culprit could be. However, Dr. Troy became convinced that John A. Bell had been instrumental in the burning of his dwelling and filed suit in Circuit Court for damages against Bell.
Inflamed from the filing of the suit, John A. Bell went to the Doctor’s office on Friday evening (May 30th) and commenced an assault upon Dr. Troy using a hickory stick and a drawn pistol. Charles A. Bell, John’s brother, came running up firing a pistol. Dr. Hunter, Judge Bird, (both related by marriage to Dr. Troy) and John R. Bell (father of the brothers) arrived at about the same time with a general firing of shotguns and pistols by all. Judge Bird shot John A. Bell. Dr. Hunter shot John R. Bell. Both father and son died instantly.
The newspaper article goes on to state, “it was miraculous how CHARLES A. BELL escaped, and in fact, it is most miraculous how DRS. TROY, HUNTER, and JUDGE BIRD escaped being shot.”
Dr. Hunter, Judge Bird, and Charles A. Bell were all arrested. The survivors were eventually exonerated in a court of law. But judging from the inscription on John A. Bell’s headstone, “No murder hath eternal life abiding in him,” the Bell family believed Dr. Hunter and Judge Bird got away with murder.
It’s from this story that Alabama derives one of its most famous ghost stories. And, Alabama has many. Ghost stories have a special place in Southern lore. All the more so when associated with real events. In a New York Times article, Linda Derry, a historical archaeologist and the site manager of ‘Old Cahawba’ said, “It’s part of our identity. It’s that tension between loss and resurrection. It’s part of being Southern.”
Derry has her own story to tell about the ghosts of Cahawba. About 25 years ago, a group of ghost hunters came to investigate the historic town. The Selma Times Journal tells the following story:
The Bells’ deaths were the ultimate conclusion of a long feud, which accused the family of making their slave (Pleas) steal keys from people, or was it?
The article goes on — A group of ghost hunters came in to investigate the historic and haunted town. Derry was out in the graveyard with them when the hunters became very excited. They called her over to the Bell’s monument and said they had a very clear EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena), which is a recording that plays an unexplained voice.
“It said as clear as a bell ‘Don key,’” Derry said. “I wasn’t surprised it said Don because he is our maintenance supervisor here and he hears voices all the time, but the other word key was interesting.”
Derry went on her day and then went home, but she still wondered what Don key could mean. That following morning, she found out.
Don came in that day and told Derry he couldn’t find his keys. She relayed to him about the “Don key” episode so they decided to look at the Bell’s monument. However, the keys were not there. Later that day they were found — in the slave cemetery by the Bells’ slave (Pleas) who was accused of taking keys for the family.
As I left Old Cahawba on that Saturday afternoon, I mused over these old ghost stories. I also wondered at the people who braved the wilderness of Alabama at ‘Old Cahawba’ in 1819. People willing to chase a dream while risking all. These individuals literally looked at map and said, we are going to make this place the center of our world. You have to admire that kind of moxie.
Maybe some of them just couldn’t give up those ‘Old Cahawba’ dreams. In life or in death.
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