Thursday, September 4, 2014

Marrtown: A Quiet Place Where Banshees Haunt

(copyrighted --all rights reserved-- Llewellyn's Magical Almanac)

by Susan A Sheppard

Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
O, well done, I commend your pains.
And now about the cauldron sing,
Like elves and fairies in a ring.
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes...
From “MacBeth” by William Shakespeare

Not all fairy tales have happy endings. Not all fairies bring goodness and light. Among the Irish and Scottish people there is a supernatural creature they call “the Banshee.”
 The Banshee is an attendant death fairy, one that brings an omen of doom to Irish or Scottish clans. It is the Banshee that announces the death of a family member, usually over bodies of water with her keening or caoine, a shrill crying for the dead. But the Banshee doesn’t just stay near bodies of water washing out the grave clothes of her dead as it is told. She also travels to the homes of those about to die, sometimes mounted on a pale (at times black) steed or riding a black funeral coach with two, white headless horses leading the way.

There are various descriptions of the Banshee. The Irish Banshee is called Bean Sidhe in an older tongue. Depending upon what source you use, “Bean” means woman and “Sidhe” (shee) means fairy. But other sources say that Bean Sidhe is translated as “woman of the hills.” Some ancient lore says the Banshee can even be the ghost of a young woman who has died in childbirth, especially if she was not given the last rites of confession.

The Irish Banshee is said to materialize as a beautiful young woman with streaming auburn hair. She wears a green woolen dress with gray cloak clasped about her shoulders. She hangs out at rivers and waterfalls.  Sometimes she is said to have white hair and a silver comb. The only hint that this beautiful Banshee is a messenger of doom comes from the fact that her eyes are blood red from crying for her Irish dead.
 The Scottish Banshee, the “Bean Nighe,” is more menacing. The Scottish Banshee dresses in moldering grave clothes, her face covered by a tattered veil. Often, she rides a prancing steed. Her age and features are difficult to make out but she appears to be a decrepit crone. And yet, the Banshee’s movements are lithe and she rides her pale horse sometimes with a black hearse following behind her. Rarely, the shroud of the Scottish Banshee is crimson, reddened by the gore of blood. 

The Mid-Ohio Valley as well as West Virginia was settled predominantly of people of Irish and Scottish ancestry. Along with the Welsh and French, they shard ancient Celtic ties and are descended from clans. The Celts believed in unique forms of mysticism, such as sorcerers, witches, leprechauns and fairies, and not the least of them — the Banshee.
Stories of Banshee spirits went underground as Irish and Scottish immigrants moved into the verdant hills of the Ohio Valley and West Virginia. But the legend of the Banshee is not entirely forgotten, as you will see by reading the following pages.

Let us travel back to the shores of Scotland on a blustery winter day in the year 1590. A group of women, known later as the Berwick Witches, summoned their powers at the ocean’s edge. Over the icy waters of the North Sea, King James VI and his new bride Anne of Denmark made their way back to Scotland when their boat nearly capsized. Rumors circulated that King James was in great danger from a plot or a curse put upon him by the witches of North Berwick.

This quickly caught King James’s attention, since he had always been fascinated by witchcraft. It wasn’t long until the "witches" were captured and put on trial.
One young woman, called Gilly Duncan, confessed under torture that she and other witches cursed the King, and was intent upon murdering him by chanting spells and evil curses. She also claimed that she and other witches were in cahoots with the Earl of Boswell, first in line to the throne after King James’s death, and they wished him dead.

King James had earlier written a treatise against witchcraft. Wild claims about the Devil being intent upon murdering King James were made and rumors flew. It was reported back to King James that a group of Scottish witches had gathered at night near a castle in Edinburgh where they fashioned a waxen image of the King. In front of a raging bonfire, the witches passed the wax doll amongst themselves, chanting in unison:

“This is King James the VI, ordained to be consumed at the instance of a nobleman, Francis Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell.” The witches’ poppet was tossed into the flames where it melted away instantly.
Were such dubious claims likely? It is highly doubtful. Most of the women charged with witchcraft identified themselves as devout Christians, and would not likely talk ill against such a powerful and paranoid ruler.
But the story fit in perfectly with what the King already believed, making him even more determined to hunt down the “witches” who were “persecuting” him. More “witches” were brought forth and the King himself interrogated them. It was alleged that 200 witches met at a Church in North Berwick on All Hallows Eve to curse King James again. It was then told that the Devil himself presided over the meeting wearing a black mask, preaching obedience to him and bringing great evil against the King. Unable to stay quiet a moment longer, King James interjected and called the witches present liars.    

The witches were later executed at Edinburgh’s Castle Hill. But it did not end there. In later years, Scottish witches were “brought to justice” at MacBeth’s Hill near the town of Nairn. Witchcraft had a strong hold in Scotland. Scottish rule executed 4,400 alleged witches. Only a handful of witches were executed in England and Ireland. Next to Germany, Scotland murdered more people during their witch trials than any other country.

If the names of “Duncan” and “MacBeth” sound familiar, there is a reason. It has long been thought that King James held great influence over William Shakespeare and was even responsible for Shakespeare’s unflattering portrayal of Scottish witches in his play “Macbeth.” James supported the works of Shakespeare, whose famous plays came about later.

King James was certainly one of the most literate of all British Kings and Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written only seventeen years after initial royal paranoia about the Berwick witches, a long enough time for the imagination to fodder and take certain liberties with the actual story.
Most of the scenes for MacBeth took place at Glamis Castle, allegedly the most haunted castle in Scotland. This was even acknowledged in the day of Shakespeare. But Scotland’s influence on public thought having to do with witches and witchcraft did not end there. Many trials and executions were to follow later.

 North of Aberdeen, there is a haunted place called the “Forest of Marr.” It is believed this is the area where some of the Scottish witches escaped. As they went underground, the women’s occult powers grew. It was conjectured that the ghosts of the executed witches eventually became Banshee spirits known as the "Bean Nighe" and continued to roam the countryside bringing death to the Scottish Clans who backed King James or were responsible for their persecution. From that area of Scotland to Wood County, came a family named “Marr.” Some have said that their lives were marred by the earlier witches’ tragedies. And now we begin our first tale moving from the dark reaches of Scotland into the even darker reaches of West Virginia...
Marrtown Banshee

On certain lonely, moonless nights in the Mid-Ohio Valley, under a sky littered with stars, riding over the hills of Marrtown, there appears a shrouded figure on a white horse— one that is known as “the Banshee of Marrtown.”

 Marrtown was once a small farming community southeast of the city of Parkersburg. The family of Scottish immigrant Thomas Marr settled Marrtown in 1836. Thomas later married a local woman named Mary Disosche whose family owned a local brewery. The Marr family brought to America many of the ancient beliefs and superstitions from their native land of Scotland, where a belief in banshees, witches and ghosts remained strong. The daughter of a widow, Mary Marr was an autumn bride, considered to be an ill omen among the Scottish people. In years to come, Mary would lose six of the eight children that she bore. Only two would carry on the Marr name. Times were hard for Thomas and Mary Marr but they did not lose their dream of a better life, pouring their energies into a simple tract of land that is now Marrtown.

Soon, a picturesque white farmhouse stood against shadowy woods thick with sumac, milkweed and blackberry brambles, framed by a sweeping green valley. To the west of the Marr homestead was a steep hill that ran directly into the Ohio River. To the north was Fort Boreman Hill, where Union troops camped during the Civil War, and where a Pest House housed locals and soldiers who had contracted typhoid fever, small pox and other diseases.

The years of the Civil War, as for most, were not happy ones for the Marr Family. They lost two of their children to typhoid fever. From their front window Thomas and Mary witnessed small clashes that turned into bloody battles between Yankee and Confederate soldiers. There were public hangings on nearby Fort Boreman Hill. As the Civil War drew to a close, marauding soldiers from both sides stole freely from the Marr family, making off with what food and stock the family had put away for themselves.

Shortly after the Civil War, the Marr family’s Scottish brew of bad luck appeared to come to an end. Thomas landed a job as night watchman at the toll bridge that crossed over the Little Kanawha River from lower Parkersburg to the road leading into Marrtown. Mary would stay home to tend the farm and children. Still, there were ominous hints of what was about to unfold.

On several occasions as Thomas traveled to and from his work, he mentioned to Mary about seeing a robed figure riding a white horse. Thomas said that he came upon this rider nearly every night in the identical spot not far from his farmhouse. Mr. Marr said he was not able to determine the gender of the person on the horse but it was as if their paths were fated to meet. Some sense told Thomas that the person was a woman but he couldn’t be sure. The face remained covered by a ragged hood. Whenever Thomas tried to approach the shrouded figure, the black mare reared. Horse and rider then disappeared into the mists of morning.

On a cold February night in the year 1876, Mary sat by the front window awaiting Thomas to come home from his job. Earlier, Mary had awakened suddenly and was eager to see her husband. The middle-aged woman heard footsteps coming up the road. She stood up to peer out the window. But instead of Thomas, a white horse loped up to the front gate of the house and then stopped. Sitting atop the horse was a rider whose face was covered by a tattered veil. It looked to be a woman. Alarmed, Mary moved from her chair and walked outside into the frigid night air. The rider, dressed in the threadbare clothing of a beggar, remained silent.

As bitter winds gusted, Mary pulled her woolen shawl close. Mary asked the rider what she wanted. There was no answer. Plumes of icy air billowed from the nostrils of the white horse. As Mary repeated her question, rider and horse inched closer. The aged woman sat stiffly in her saddle. Underneath the gauzy veil, Mary saw that the woman’s eyes radiated an eerie red glow. After a few moments, the woman on the horse spoke. “I am here to tell you, Mary Marr that Thomas Marr has just died. Say your prayers, Lady. I bid you well.” Rider and horse turned abruptly and galloped away.  Mary collapsed onto the front stoop. Through tears, she watched the shrouded woman and her horse vanish entirely just as they reached the bend in the road. Within the hour, a man who worked with Thomas came to deliver the dreaded news.

No one knows for sure what happened to Thomas Marr that fated winter evening. Some say that while working at the toll bridge Thomas was shot by an assailant’s bullet then fell and drowned in the Little Kanawha River. Others claim that it was the cry of the Banshee that startled Thomas into meeting his end in the river below.

Other reports have Thomas Marr found dead along the B&O railroad tracks only a few yards away from the turbulent waters. After all, it is known that the keening of the Banshee is most often heard over bodies of water. The truth is, Thomas Marr did die on February 5th, 1878 when the Marrtown Banshee was to have made her visit, and she had to cross water to do so.
In years to come, the Banshee did not abandon her Marr clan just yet. The ghostly rider continued to make other visits to the family. Mary Marr lived to be ninety years old. Such advanced years were an exception for the time. As Mary lay as a corpse in the parlor of her home many years after her husband’s death, family members heard the rattling of chains in the attic. Others claimed to hear the shrieks of a wild cat near the house around the same time.

A few years after Mary died, one of the Marr descendents had his arm cut off in a tragic accident. As family members sat up with the boy, they heard snarling and growling sounds on the porch. When the women went outside to see what is was, the stoop where Mary met her Banshee was covered with blood as if a terrible struggle had taken place.

What has become of the Banshee of Marrtown? It is said she still rides, giving dreaded omens to those of Scottish Blood. Not Scottish or Irish, you say? You would still be wise to avoid Marrtown on certain still, dark and moonless nights…

 The Banshee of Center Point
 Banshees aside, if you have ever had the opportunity to fly over West Virginia and the Mid-Ohio Valley in a small plane, you may have noticed the foliage below appears as dense and electric-green as that of a rainforest, an excellent place for harboring fugitives but terrible for your sinuses!
In a time where most of the wilderness in the U.S. is vanishing, West Virginia is still “wild and wonderful,” as the slogan says. But what kind of “wildness” may mean something other than what the travel ads claim. Native American tribes were afraid of these lands. The Shawnee Indians were especially spooked by the lands east of the Ohio River and avoided it as much as possible. The Native Americans did not make a habit of settling into what is now West Virginia believing cursed by ghosts and strange beasts.  
 There is a community in a remote part of Doddridge County called Center Point, a place that is now a virtual ghost town. Center Point is typical of small mountain communities reclaimed by the woods. The village used to have a post office and the Ross Country Store, but that is all but gone. A craggy, brown creek courses through lush foliage with leaves as big as mud flaps. Modest white houses cling to the sides of hills with sloping yards made muddy by children at play.
In Center Point, there isn’t much for children to do other than chase each other with sticks or head for the creek in search of the little brown clots with pinchers known so familiar to West Virginians as “crawdads.”
Unless you’re crazy about pleasant green scenery, country areas, like Center Point weren’t exactly a hullabaloo. Nothing that good had happened there. But nothing that bad happened either. That is, until the summer of 1918, when the Black Flu hit. That was the year when the people of Center Point thought the entire world was coming to an end. The rest of the world did, too. Millions had already died.
And…Unless you were a seven-year-old girl named Pearl White who loved to play in the woods, one who dreamed of flapping her arms and flying away like a bird, a place like Center Point could be pretty dull. But there was plenty for Pearl to do. She had drive and imagination. She wasn’t worried about the Black Flu. Sickness happened to people older than she was and Pearl was invincible. Why, she almost knew how to fly already!
It was near dusk in late summer. Pearl was staying with her Grandmother at Center Point on the farm while relatives traveled to Pennsboro to help those already stricken by Black Flu. Like so many of the flu victims, Pearl’s young, unmarried uncle had taken sick but appeared to be doing fine. His flu didn’t seem to be much worse than a chest cold. It was odd how the Black Flu preyed upon those in the full bloom of life. Many victims that succumbed to the Black Flu were young, only in their twenties and thirties. But Pearls’ uncle was in good spirits, sitting up and talking as the day wore on.
One late August evening drew in a bit more somberly than before. The indigo of twilight was soon upon them. The night was clear. There was not one cloud among the stars. Flickering lights studded the evening sky. Pearl counted them as the Big Dipper, the belt of Orion, the North Star and dreamed of flying to all of them. Center Point was small, but the world was still hers.
Pearl’s grandmother was in the process of taking her granddaughter to the outhouse one more time for the night before retiring to bed. As darkness enclosed, the clip-clop sound of horses’ hooves sounded up the road. The trot was slow and measured. Whoever it was didn’t seem to be in a hurry. They looked around to see a rider on a horse. Grandmother thought, perhaps it was the mailman paying a late visit. After all, the Black Flu had taken its toll on Center Point. Many people had died. Mail could arrive at just about any time of day or evening. 
Pearl and her grandmother paused to watch the rider and horse make their way toward the farmhouse. Crickets sang in the shadows. It seemed strange how the figure sat erect on the horse and was enshrouded in pale, fluttering rags almost like a mummy. The horse itself was also pale like a ghost. The gender of the rider could not be made out either although something told them it was a woman.  
Pearl felt an urge to draw near the figure. She was curious and ran toward the front porch, where the horse and rider seemed to be intent upon stopping. Her grandmother followed Pearl. Now they could see that the rider looked more like an old woman and still, the little girl was not sure. The rider’s face was covered by what was a torn, ragged veil Garnet red eyes glittered beneath the gauzy fabric. The hands looked old and waxen, too, like those that had been sealed within a coffin.
Pearl’s grandmother recoiled but still the little girl ran to meet the figure on the horse anyway. They sauntered up the front walk. The sun was entirely gone, the world left in shadows. The rider tugged on the bridle and the horse stopped. In later years, Pearl would say that she was so close to that Banshee’s horse that she could feel its hot breath on her face.
Yes, those of Celtic blood called this creature a Banshee. Pearl and her relatives were of Scottish descent and this is a classic way that the Scottish Banshee appears, always as a shrouded figure.
And yet, on that fated night in Center Point the Banshee spirit issued a warning. She pointed a bony finger at Pearl’s Grandmother and proclaimed in a rasping voice, “One of yours is to die this very night!” A keening cry split the evening’s stillness. Banshee and horse instantly vanished.
Shaken and left in shadows, Pearl and her grandmother hugged each other. But there was no time to think about the terrible thing that had just happened. Already sounds were coming from the house, sounds of someone struggling for air.  It was Pearl’s uncle.
The two ran inside just in time to realize that the young man’s lungs filled with fluid. Blood foamed from his nose and mouth. This was the usual way people with the Black Flu died. Grandmother knew it. There was no saving him. Within moments, Pearl’s uncle had drowned in his own blood. After the death rattle, all became still, except for the sound of horses’ hooves galloping away. It was then something squalled like a wildcat in the distance.
Despite the evening when she witnessed her uncle’s terrible death from the Black Flu, Pearl White grew up and she did learn to fly. She became a pioneer in the field of aviation and was the first woman to parachute out of a plane. Pearl was a member of the famous “Barnstormers,” a name given to pilots who performed dangerous stunts. Pearl performed her stunts all the way from the Pennsboro Fair in 1935 to the movies in Hollywood, California.
In her life, Pearl White feared very little. In fact, as a young woman she was attracted to danger. When she was just at the age of sixteen, men would strap Pearl’s body to the belly of a plane, go up and then swoop down so she could pick up small objects off the ground. She broke her back one time, and that was at Ravenswood, West Virginia in 1935 and yet she came back.
It was strange how in later years, Pearl was often afraid to sit outside on her front porch at her modest home on upper Juliana Street in Parkersburg. There was something that disturbed her... the oncoming of night.
Pearl was not afraid to be strapped to a plane and fly through the air. She was not afraid to jump out of one as a teenager. After meeting up with the Center Point Banshee as a small child the only thing Pearl White was ever afraid of — was the dark.
Variations of these articles were first printed in Llewellyn's Magical Almanac and on the Haunted America website. You can also read these banshees stories and other tales of the paranormal in Susan's book "Cry of the Banshee" which can be ordered through West Virginia Book Company. Here is the link:
Susan A Sheppard

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