Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Devil’s Tramping Ground and Other North Carolina Mystery Stories by John Harden

Originally published in 1949 as the spawn of a popular radio series the author hosted about mysteries of the Tar Heel State, this book includes a number of unsolved crimes, mysterious disappearances, ghost lore, and legends.

Highlights include the “Ghost Ship of the Diamond Shoals,” a 1921 case reminiscent of the Mary Celeste and her missing crew, when the Carroll A. Deering ran aground with not a soul on board except the ship’s cat. There is also the mysterious demise of the beautiful Nell Cropsey, who in 1901 stepped outside the family home to say goodnight to her sweetheart then vanished only to be found floating dead in the river some weeks later. That staple of unsolved mystery books, the Lost Colony of Roanoke, also makes an appearance, as do the Brown Mountain Lights, and Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia, who vanished at sea, though the mysterious Nag’s Head Portrait that later surfaced may provide a clue to her fate, the murder of the racehorse Polly Williams, the pretty red mare was shot dead on the eve of a big race, the disappearance of the Wasp, a warship, in 1814, and, one of my favorite mysteries, Peter Stuart Ney, the schoolmaster of Rowan County who just may have been Napoleon’s “Bravest of the Brave” Marshal Ney. There are also some intriguing lesser known cases like Major Robert Clark who in 1944 left his car in Raleigh then vanished without a trace, and Reverend W. T. Hawkins an elderly minister who went out into the hills one day in search of the family cow was never seen again, and the Devil’s Tramping Ground, a barren patch of land forming a perfect circle in Chatham County where no vegetation, not even weeds, will grow, where, legend says, the Devil goes at night to do his pacing as he plots new mischief to inflict upon the world.

If you are fascinated by unsolved mysteries, like I am, then this is a worthwhile little book, but be forewarned, the stories take the tone of folktales, and some factual errors do creep in. Also, since it is a reprint of a book published in 1949, you may find yourself googling any of the mysteries that particularly intrigue you to see if any additional facts have come to light in the decades since its publication.

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