Tag Archives: north carolina

The Ghosts of Hannah’s Creek Swamp

History is a tricky thing. Like the old adage, “can’t see the forest for the trees”, there’s a lot of different ways to look at large events depending on the motivations and beliefs of the people not just telling the story, but also the ones researching them.

Take the American Civil War, for instance. It’s a topic that we circle often on this site and on our podcast, mostly because it’s a lynchpin of American culture. The Civil War is one of the primary influences on the history of the United States. If the Revolutionary War is this country’s id, then World War II was our ego and the Civil War is its superego, and while we tend to deal with spirits of a more-or-less physical kind on this site, the ghosts and specters of the Civil War haunt us all in a very morally underpinning way.

I don’t want to get into ethical judgment or debate here, but in general, we look at the Civil War through a scope of ‘the South was performing human rights atrocities, and the North set out to stop them.’ That’s the broad “forest” view. But as anyone who has spent any time of social media will tell you, it is all too easy for a person, having ascribed themselves the virtue of “fighting evil”, to easily excuse themselves of horrific acts so long as they are against someone who represents that evil.

Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

In the Civil War, the North was very much the “invading force”–Northern soldiers pushed into the South much more than the other way around, and the citizens of the South, we’ve found while digging up ghost stories and histories, have many horrific tales of Northern soldiers acting in less than gentlemanly ways as they marched southward. Those tales comprise a portion of “the trees” in our ongoing metaphor.

One such story we’ve come across involved the fact that Union soldiers marching across the South were given leave to raid and plunder the homes and farms they came across as they continued to push. They were given orders not to harm unarmed civilians, and to make sure that they left each family with enough food and supplies to survive, but beyond those meager boundaries they were free to ransack and steal as they desired.

In fairness, most soldiers only took liberties up to what their orders would allow, but this particular ghost story involves one group that decided to play by their own rules. This unit, under the command of one Colonel David Fanning, pillaged and plundered at will, leaving bodies, ashes, and destruction in their wake. The group quickly became known as Fanning’s Marauders.

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

One of the homes Fanning and his Marauders assaulted was that belonging to Confederate Colonel John Saunders and his wife, near Smithfield, North Carolina. Bloodthirsty Fanning looted everthing of value from the home, then killed the Saunders and razed their homestead to the ground, unknowingly sealing his own fate.

Col. Saunder’s son, Lieutenant John Saunders Jr., learned of the destruction of his home and the death of his parents and vowed revenge on the men who were responsible. The Confederate Army, knowing that Saunders was properly motivated to seek out such brigands, assigned him and his unit to the area near Smithfield and tasked them with the job of ferreting out guerilla fighters, bandits, and other individuals that chose to shy away from the front in lieu of taking advantage of the wartime chaos. The unit did their job as well as any group, but the operation’s time was running out and, to his chagrin, Saunders still hadn’t found his parents’ killer.

Finally, Saunders caught wind of a group of Union soldiers hiding out on an island in Hannah’s Creek Swamp in Johnston County. To scout it out, the Confederates borrowed some civilian clothes and rowed out to the small island under cover of night, hoping not to alert any lookouts the Yankees might have.

Photo by Krystian Piątek on Unsplash

Before Fanning and his Marauders could realize what was happening, they found themselves surrounded by Confederates. Lt. Saunders ordered the camp and all the men be searched and took the liberty of searching Fanning himself. Saunders found a small gold crucifix around Fanning’s neck, a crucifix that he immediately recognized as belonging to his murdered mother. Rage instantly took over.

Holding Fanning at gunpoint, Saunders ordered all the Marauders hung right then and there on the island. Fanning was forced to sit and watch as his men had their necks stretched one-by-one. Then, rather than turning Fanning in as a captured soldier, Saunders marched him back to Smithfield, to the Saunders familial home. Saunders took Fanning to the large oak tree overlooking his parents’ newly lain headstones and hung Fanning there, his last moments spent looking upon those graves, the fruits of his hubris being burned into his eyes as the last image he carried to the great hereafter.

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Today, visitors to Hannah’s Creek Swamp report random cold spots in the area and unexplained feelings of dread. Some have reported hearing the voices of men begging for their lives, while other hear the creak of branches, heavy with the weight of hanging bodies. Some witnesses even say they’ve seen the bodies themselves, as many as 50 hanging from the trees on a moonlit night.

Now, I’m not telling you this story to pass judgement on men who died over 100 years ago. But what I am interested in is how these stories affect people. We all know someone who will have a knee-jerk reaction to any mention of the Civil War, whichever slant to the congressional house that reaction might elicit. This is a reaction to what they have chose to see as the most poignant summary of the war. But that summary is always going to be a personal thing, and like all personal things, they are going to differ person-to-person, at bare minimum in the details, even if the broad strokes are a shared perspective.

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

For instance, the above story, near as my research can pull up, is completely fictitious. Research didn’t turn up any David Fannings from the Civil War. Likewise, research turns up John C.C. Saunders, John L. Saunders, John Sherman Saunders, and John Saunders Gooch, but none of them from Smithfield, North Carolina and none of them an obvious choice for the Saunders in the story.

So why would such a story take root and continue to be told over 150 years later, far outliving the men it purportedly is about? Perhaps the answer can be found in the interesting fact that there IS a David Fanning in military records, but a Fanning that fought in the Revolutionary War.

This David Fanning was an infamous Tory and British loyalist, siding with the Redcoats when war was declared. Given the rank of Colonel in the British Army, Fanning was well-known for his blood thirst and regularly killed men off the battlefield, and act soldiers on both sides largely considered dishonorable. When the war ended, Fanning’s atrocities were so numerous that he was one of only a handful of men that the state of North Carolina refused to pardon for their wartime activities. Now a wanted fugitive, Fanning was forced to evacuate to England with the rest of the British forces that departed Charlotte. Fanning stayed in England until he died, decades before the American Civil War even began.

Photo by Marie Bellando-Mitjans on Unsplash

So what happened here? Is this a case of bad record keeping? Was it a flat out lie? Something the locals in Smithfield and Johnston County use to excuse themselves from history’s judgment? Or something more?

Ignoring the haunting for a moment, I like to think that the story of Saunders extracting revenge on Fanning is a way for a state and its people to heal through the power of folklore. Redcoat David Fanning reeked serious damage on the people of North Carolina, both physically and mentally. He slaughtered people like a movie monster and then in the end, just…got away.

When we started The Booze + Spirits Podcast, a big belief guiding our ship was that stories are just as important and the truth, and in some cases more so. The tale of Saunders and Fanning, in my eyes, is a wonderful example of that ideal. People left wanting for justice and retribution, in this case the North Carolinians, created a fictionalized hero to defeat the fictionalized version of their villain. They created their own mythology, their own superhero, to put right things that were left unavenged, just as thousands of small communities had over human history.

By rewriting this legend, they determined their poignant summary. A myth of a hero defeating a villain, and a promise that justice still exists in the world and the fragile hope that keeps humanity from devolving into monsters raging against a cold uncaring universe gets to continue just a little bit longer.

Featured photo by Scott Umstattd on Unsplash

Photo by Dom Fou on Unsplash

Episode 007 – Voodoo YASS Queen!

Episode Notes

It’s getting murky in here! In this episode of The Booze + Spirits Podcast, Nick takes us on a quest for bloody Confederate vengeance, Cait introduces us to a Voodoo priestess who refused to die alone, and Theo the dog gets his butt in everything. All this, plus a lemony tequila drink that’s sure to thrill your taste buds!

Find the recipe for the Voodoo Yass Queen here!

Like the podcast? Want more? Tell a friend! And please consider subscribing to our Patreon! Your Patreon support allows us the freedom to create more, bigger, and better content!

And be sure to rate, review, and subscribe through Anchor, Apple, Spotify, Google, YouTube, or the podcast delivery system of your choice!

Theme music is “Come Back Down” by The Lonely Wild, licensed through audiio.

Remember to drink responsibly and in accordance with your local laws. Don’t be our next ghost!

The CORA Tree

This tale was originally featured in Episode 006 – Macomb Smokeshow. Featured image by Tobi from Pexels

In the 1700’s a slight woman and her baby, whom she was never seen without, arrived in the community of Frisco on Hatteras Island, North Carolina. The woman, known as Cora, built a crude hut outside of town in the woods and mostly kept to herself. Her distance, both physically and socially, from the other villagers served as a catalyst for rumors to quickly form and circulate about her possibly bastard child. The Salem Witch Trials still on the mind of the American settlers, it didn’t take long for gossip about Cora to turn towards sorcery and witchcraft.

Stories persisted that a cow she touched dried up and quit producing milk days later. A child that taunted and made faces at her suddenly became ill and died. And Cora always seemed to have an abundance of fish, even as the local fishermen were unable to catch any themselves.

The rumors might have stayed just that were it not for the arrival of the ship Susan G. and her captain, Eli Blood. Hailing from Salem, Massachusetts, Blood considered himself a student of New England tradition, a defender of the people, and, of course, a witch hunter. He immediately set himself to ingratiating himself to the townspeople and working his way in with the local hobnobbers and gossip hounds.

Photo by Rachel Claire from Pexels

Of course, after hearing of the town’s troubles and of the suspicious Cora outside of town, Blood determined that she had to be the witch responsible for it all. The deal became particularly sealed when the body of a local man was found washed up on shore. His face was frozen in an expression of terror, his hands were clasped together as if he were praying, and the number 666 was carved into his forehead. Most damning of all was a collection of small footprints around the body that headed off into the woods towards Cora’s hut.

This development emboldened Captain Blood. He became sure that Cora was a witch and set out to prove it. He gathered an angry mob and marched to Cora’s hut, smashing their way inside and taking Cora and her baby prisoner. Out to prove her guilt, Blood pulled out his knife and performed the first test. As he suspected, her hair would not cut, announcing, “her hair was stronger than wire rope”. Next, Cora’s hands and feet were bound, but she floated in water regardless. In his final test, Blood filled a ceremonial witch hunter bowl with water, and placed a drop of blood each from himself and three other men into the water. He then, “stirred the water and blood vigorously, mixing it into a froth” and had the other men confirm what he saw in the bowl: the faces of Cora and the devil.

Blood and his men tied Cora and her baby to an old oak tree and began gathering firewood to place around the base. It was about this time that some of the townspeople, led by local captain Thomas Smith began to protest that Cora should be taken to the mainland and tried in a proper court of law.

An argument ensued. Blood tried to light the fire himself, but Smith grabbed his arm, keeping his torch from the pyre. Blood shook loose from Smith’s grasp, determined to burn his witch, when suddenly a bolt of lightning struck the tree. 

As the smoke cleared and the ringing of ears subsided, the people found that Cora and her baby had vanished. The ropes still hung wrapped around the tree and the kindling sat at the base completely untouched. The trunk of the tree had been ripped open by the lightning, leaving a large, smoldering, heart-shaped hole. And where Cora and her baby had been tied to the tree were left letters burnt into the wood: C-O-R-A.

The Cora Tree still exists even to this day, and the word CORA is still visible on the trunk of the great tree. The tree stands on Hatteras Island in the middle of Snug Harbor Drive in Frisco, quite literally as the road splits in two to go around it on either side.

Regarding the tree itself, it has been attributed as being both a Southern Live Oak and a Water Oak. Southern Live Oaks generally reach maturity around 70 years old, and so long as a carving on the tree is done after maturity the carving will remain for the tree’s lifespan. There are examples of Southern Live Oaks in America over 900 years old,. Water Oaks, on the other hand generally only live 100-150 years, and usually start to decay before the century mark. No known core sample has ever been taken of the tree, but in 2009 LG Research reportedly estimated the Cora Tree at around 500 years old based on its circumference.

Interestingly, the CORA carving has a lot of similarities to the CRO carving on Roanoke Island and the CROATOAN carving from Fort Raleigh. All three carvings sit about 5 feet off the ground, all are about 4 inches tall, and all share a similar lettering design. Also, artifacts discovered near Frisco matched artifacts in the other locations, suggesting the items were even cast from the same die.

Photo by Dmitry Demidov from Pexels

Neither the captains nor the Susan G. show up in any historical record, and the name Cora wasn’t common in America until the mid-1800’s, after the publishing of The Last of The Mohicans. Kora-with-a-K was a common name in 1700’s Germany, so the prospect of Cora being an immigrant, unfamiliar with the common language if the nearby village would easily explain much of her behavior.

In fact, the details of the event change wildly depending on the attitude of the storyteller. Those looking to condemn Cora tend to embellish the witchy aspects of the story. It’s not uncommon for the story to mention the baby transforming into a black, green-eyed car and running away into the woods before the lightning strike.

Retellings by more sympathetic orators tend to make note of Blood having a boastful and egotistical personality, and the suspiciousness of his crew as they stayed away from town and placed themselves in positions to help sell the more sordid details of Blood’s story. It’s also of note that this North Carolinian tale has the hot-headed Massachusetts man be the one thirsty for blood while the cooler-headed, hospitality focused Southerners were trying to push for civility and proper legal procedure.

Whatever the case, the tree still exists, and the CORA carving is visible to this day, even in photographs, a living reminder that mystery and wonder still exist in our world.

Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels

Episode 006 – Macomb Smokeshow

Episode Notes

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and where there’s fire, there’s the McDonald siblings. In this episode, Nick and Cait have turned their eyes to stories of supernatural smoke and fire this week, as we visit a fiery poltergeist (feuergeist?) in Illinois and a witch’s tree in North Carolina that refused to burn down. All this, plus smokey beverages and feet discussions!

You can find the recipe for the Macomb Smokeshow here.

A photo of Macomb Firestarter Wonet McNeil is found here. You can find some good photos of the Cora Tree here.

Like the podcast? Want more? Tell a friend! And please consider subscribing to our Patreon! Your Patreon support allows us the freedom to create more, bigger, and better content!

And be sure to rate, review, and subscribe through Anchor, Apple, Spotify, Google, YouTube, or the podcast delivery system of your choice!

Opening song is “Come Back Down” by The Lonely Wild, licensed through audiio.

Featured image photo by Berend de Kort from Pexels

Remember to drink responsibly and in accordance to your local laws. Don’t be our next ghost!