With Halloween right around the corner, I thought I’d have fun and share a ghost story with you today. Those of you who have my book, Views from an Empty Nest, will recognize this short story. It’s fiction, but it sprang from a newspaper article I spotted several years ago. I hope you will enjoy this!
Madelyn F. Young
From a first floor window, Deputy Jasper Franklin watched the crowd gathering on the courthouse lawn. At straight-up nine, he unlocked the front entrance and moved to one side as visitors poured into the lobby and wound their way up the creaky wooden staircase to the second floor.
He stood erect, in full uniform, but there’d be no need to swipe anyone with the metal detector today. Young and old streamed by his station to hand him their tickets, and he greeted each one with a smile. The tale these folks came to hear would curl their toes. People loved a mystery, especially a good ghost story like this one.
When all were inside, he closed the door, made his way up the stairs, and took his seat in the back of the courtroom.
Up front, his friend called for everyone’s attention. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Cloward County. This is the tenth year we have hosted storytelling sessions at our historic courthouse, and the mystery is still as fresh as ever. My name is Sam Lawton, and I’m the founder and manager of a company called Paranormal Investigators. We look into reports of unusual occurrences—spirit sightings, voices from the dead, all kinds of psychic phenomena—to verify their authenticity.”
Sam paused and surveyed the crowd. His listeners sat motionless, ready.
“As of today, P-I has investigated at least a dozen cases here in Cloward County—people claiming they’ve encountered the ghost of a man named Joshua Jacob Clark. Most of the sightings have been right here on these premises. We’ve brought in our cameras, infrared lights and other recording devices to collect evidence. And ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you, it’s absolutely true. The spirit of Joshua Jacob Clark is alive and well.”
A murmur passed through the audience, and an elderly couple in front of Jasper nodded to each other and smiled.
Deputy Franklin knew the story by heart, but he still loved to hear Sam tell it. His friend had been entertaining crowds like this every fourth Saturday for years, and no question about it, all the folks in Cloward County reaped the rewards. People came from all around, even from out of state. Restaurants and motels did a booming business, not to mention Jasper himself. Each month he collected a nice little paycheck from the P-I group for helping out. Yes, sir, as far as he was concerned, Joshua Jacob Clark could haunt this place as long as he liked.
Storyteller Sam smiled at the crowd’s reaction. He moved away from the lectern, took a sip of water from a glass on the table, and then began his narrative.
“Joshua Jacob Clark was a black man who lived in this county back in the 1930s. He was a strong young fellow, a hard worker, and he and his folks sharecropped out on the Benson place. But Clark made a big mistake one day. He stepped out of line and spoke to a young lady by the name of Genevieve Parsons when they passed each other on the street. In those days, no black man would dare to approach a white woman in such a bold manner. That was considered an affront to gentility and social custom. Miss Genevieve was the daughter of Mayor Andrew Parsons, and she came home and told her daddy that Clark frightened her.”
Some in the audience began to squirm. Jasper smiled. There were always a few who seemed to foresee what was coming.
“The next night, Miss Genevieve spotted someone lurking outside her window—watching her undress, she said. She pointed the finger at young Clark. The mayor called the sheriff, and it wasn’t long till a posse rounded up Clark and brought him in for questioning. He denied being near the Parsons’ house—swore he’d been in a honky-tonk ten miles from there and witnesses could vouch for him. But a black man’s word didn’t count for much in those days. They arrested him for trespassing and slapped him in jail.”
Sam paused, cleared his throat and took another sip of water—mostly to heighten the suspense, Jasper thought.
“The KKK was an active group back then, and a few days later, a mob broke into the Cloward County Jail and dragged Clark out to that big oak in front of the courthouse. They strung him up and hanged him right there on the spot. Next day, the newspaper account, dated May 24, 1937, seemed to condone the lynching—‘a potential rapist getting his just reward,’ it said. Today, some people claim the ghost of Joshua Jacob Clark still haunts these premises because he’s angry—angry at the injustice and angry that he, an innocent man, was killed.”
A tall, bald fellow in the second row raised his hand. “Mr. Lawton, you said sightings of Clark’s spirit have been verified. Explain what you’ve got.”
“You bet.” Sam stepped to one side, picked up a screen, placed it in front of the judge’s bench, and pointed to Jasper in the back. “Deputy Franklin, how about cutting those lights now, and we’ll show these good folks some slides.”
While Jasper flipped switches, Sam moved to a projector in the middle of the room and clicked it on. A blurry black and white image flickered in the dark room.
“Here is one picture of what we believe is Clark’s spirit,” Sam said, adjusting the lens. “This was taken in the courthouse attic last year. Marlena Kirkpatrick, one of our most experienced investigators, spent the night to check out disturbances reported by a secretary in the county clerk’s office. Miss Kirkpatrick verified the noises—low groaning sounds, like someone in pain—and she noted a cool breeze swept through the room two times, although there are no outside openings in the attic. Using her infrared camera, she captured a hazy apparition moving beneath the rafters.”
Sam stepped closer to the picture and pointed a lighted arrow at the photo. “You can see a shadowy figure there on the right side.”
People leaned forward, moving left and right to get a better view.
“Excuse me, Mr. Lawton.” A woman’s voice rang out in the darkness. “My name is Gloria Wilson. That young lady in your story, Genevieve Parsons, was my grandmother. May I speak to the group?”
Framed in the dusty beam, Sam looked startled. “Of course. Jasper, let’s have some lights again.”
Sam moved to shut off the projector, the room brightened, and all eyes focused on an attractive woman in a red sweater standing near the front.
“All right, miss. Please go ahead,” Sam said.
“Thank you. I drove down from Springfield to attend today’s presentation. Recently, my mother, Amanda Wilson, passed away. In her lock box we discovered a journal that belonged to her mother, my grandmother Genevieve Parsons Brown. What is in this diary will be of interest to all of you, I’m sure.” She lifted a small leather-bound book for all to see.
“Absolutely, Ms. Wilson. What did you find?” Sam appeared to be a bit nervous now as he frowned and took another sip of water from the glass on the table.
“After Joshua Clark was hanged, my grandmother must have suffered tremendous guilt. She knew she couldn’t be sure the man looking in her window was Clark, and the sorrow she felt after his death was overwhelming. I don’t know if young Joshua Jacob Clark is still haunting this courthouse or not, but his spirit certainly haunted my Grandmother Genevieve until the day she died.”
Silence fell over the crowd, and Jasper shifted in his seat.
The speaker continued. “Here, let me read you an entry posted the day after Clark’s death. It’s dated May 24, 1937, the same date you gave for the newspaper clipping.”
Gloria Wilson slipped on her reading glasses, opened the book to a marked page and began.
Today has been the most horrible day of my life. Joshua Jacob Clark, a Negro who worked for James Benson, was hanged on the courthouse square last night. Daddy says he got what he deserved. Now I’m afraid Daddy and some of his friends may have done the killing. I can not bear to think of it. A man is dead because of me. I told Daddy it might have been Joshua at my window, but I didn’t say I knew for sure. Dear God, forgive me.”
Ms. Wilson paused, removed her glasses, folded them, and looked around at the crowd. “In a later entry, Genevieve mentioned that one of the Benson boys—Howard—had a crush on her. She wondered if it could have been him who visited her that night. Of course, my grandmother never revealed any of these thoughts to her family, and when my mother inherited the journal from her, she never told any of us children about it, either. But I do think it’s time for the truth to come out, don’t you?”
For a moment, Sam seemed at a loss for words. When he regained his composure, he smiled. “Thank you, Ms. Wilson. Your grandmother’s diary seems to corroborate what many people have been thinking for a long time.”
From the front, a scattering of applause began and spread across the room until all were standing, clapping, and cheering.
Jasper rose and joined in the celebration. But a nagging thought entered his mind. What if this new evidence caused their resident Cloward County ghost to leave? Without his regular moans and appearances, these monthly money-making sessions might very well come to an end.
On the other hand, Clark’s family could finally rejoice if all doubts about his innocence were put to rest. Surely that would be a good thing—for everyone.
Behind the last row of chairs, a wispy breeze stirred, brushed the back of Jasper’s neck, and gently ruffled his hair.