MT. VERNON, INDIANA IS A RIVER TOWN. Set on the Ohio river near the place where it is fed by the Big Wabash River, its past and present depends heavily on river traffic. It’s a warm autumn night, but the breeze from the river puts a chill in the air as I get out of the pickup truck and start up the darkened hill towards the courthouse and town square.
There’s a chemical smell to the air, logical since the river around here is dotted with refineries, power plants, agriculture facilities and factories.
I’m here trying to trace Black Annie. I wrote about her once before, but in case you’re new to the story, Black Annie was one of the tales my Granny Bert told me as a child. If you wander the alleys at night, Annie, dressed all in black would rush out, clutching at you screaming “my children, my children.” For according to the legends, she was responsible for the death of her own children, and was looking for replacements. The more sinister versions of the story had her skinning the children and lining the walls of her shack with their skins.
At the time we didn’t realize why we were being told stories like this. Precautionary tales were often told to children to scare them away from places or situations deemed dangerous. Then again, it’s quite possible Granny Bert just liked scaring the pants out of us, as did her mother before her.
Only kids who grew up on the north side of Carmi, Illinois seems to have heard the tale locally, and even those are few and far between. A bit of research turned up stories of a witch, hag or some say demon named Black Annis, Agnes or Black Annie from across England and Scotland. The tale was essentially the same, albeit with her shack changed to a cave, and her stories were thought to be told even in the old country to keep children, pesky creatures that they are, in line.
Even J.K. Rowling got into the act with a letter to the editor written for the Potter newspaper, The Daily Prophet, in which she complained about the treatment of hags by the newspaper, then going on to offer babysitting services in her cave.
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It’s a short hike up the hill to the town square, I’m aiming for the dome of the courthouse, built in 1878, rising 119 feet above the ground. Towering over the buildings that still line the riverfront area. Most are rather rundown, there are gaping holes in the blocks where others are gone entirely. People never realized the value of preserving areas like this, and aside from some nice residential areas leftover from the golden age of river trade, Mt. Vernon looks rather ill used by progress.
This particular trip was inspired by another Mt. Vernon, in Illinois, a little over an hour from here. Writing on the website Mysterious Heartland, author and historian Michael Kleen wrote “Between the late 1860s and the early 1930s, Mount Vernon was plagued by the appearance of a female spirit known variously as “Black Annie,” “Lady of Sorrow,” or “Cyclone Annie.” According to Michael Norman, “sightings of Annie began when the citizens of Mount Vernon ran off a witch who was threatening their cattle. They thought they were rid of her, until February 9, 1888 when a tornado touched down in Mount Vernon and destroyed a half-mile wide swath of homes and businesses, killing 37 and injuring as many as 800 people. After the disaster, several eyewitnesses reported seeing a woman dressed in black—wailing and screaming—wandering among the debris. In 1918, residents of Mt. Vernon were terrified by the appearance of a woman dressed in black who chased pedestrians. Finally, “Black Annie” was blamed for a series of strange attacks in 1936 involving sleeping powder thrown through open windows. She has not been seen since, but parents sometimes use “Black Annie” to scare their children into behaving properly.”
There are other Black Annie sightings in that area, including Lebanon, IL in 1921, where a woman decked out all in black was seen peeping in windows at night. A similar figure was spotted frequently in Carlisle, IL, in the early 1930s, once again all decked out in black with veil, only she would follow certain families, stepping out of the darkness and following far enough behind that she could never be seen clearly. It was because of her reticence that many in the community thought it might actually be a man, disguised in women’s clothing.
I wondered if these stories might somehow have been the source for my Granny Bert’s tale, but of all the places she mentioned when talking about her past and her family, I didn’t recall her even mentioning Mt. Vernon, Illinois.
By then I had given up on finding the same stories, but was following the line of the name, Black Annie. Quite often in folklore, certain names pop up, and stories seem to flow based on the name, rather than on any actual occurrences. Mary Hatchet becomes an axe murderer, when in reality she was an old woman using her hatchet to shatter whiskey barrels in the fight that led to prohibition. I might not find my Granny Bert’s tales, but might find the source of the name.
Then I picked up a book titled More Haunted Hoosier Tales by Wanda Lou Willis. In it I found the story of the Mt. Vernon, Indiana Black Annie. This was important, as my Granny Bert’s family came from a small village named Emma, halfway between Carmi and Mt. Vernon. To get to Mt. Vernon meant crossing the Big Wabash river to the Indiana side.
The residents of Emma, or Concord as it later came to be known quite often think of Mt. Vernon now when talking of “going to town.” I knew there was a ferry in the early 19th century which crossed the river, but I wasn’t sure if my ancestors would have made regular trips there, when Carmi lay an almost equal distance away and didn’t require river crossings.
Emma never was a big town, and some would even argue against its description as that rather than a village. It’s the type of place you think of when you hear about isolated towns in the Bible Belt being places where nearly anything goes, and people are free to live as they choose without government interference. Trump country.
Some thirty years ago a friend of mine introduced me to a pot dealer there. His house was old, ran down and falling apart. In fact, when we pulled up to the house for the first time, neither of us could believe that people lived there still.
But we spotted a light in one of the windows, knocked at the door and was shown in. Inside it was nearly completely dark, all the windows being covered with black plastic. His father was in bed in what must have once been a dining room, so we went upstairs where we were shown the fellow’s wares and partook in them, liberally. Later, much later we descended the stairs to leave and he introduced us to his dad. He told us his dad, who looked to be in his seventies mixed marijuana with half and half – a noxious combination of pipe and cigarette tobacco. His dad was still in and bed, and it was then we noticed he wasn’t alone, but had a young lady in bed with him. Very young it appeared, no more than sixteen or seventeen years old. “Don’t mind her,” her dad said, unless you want to take a crack at her. She’s just a whore I brought over from Mt. Vernon. “It’s my birthday,” he said, offering us a swig from a bottle of Kessler’s whiskey, which we declined politely. “I’m celebrating.”
Now I’m all for living and let live, bet even I was appalled by this, and we never again made the journey to visit the man in Emma.
Thirty years later I’m walking away from the riverfront in Mt. Vernon, looking at relics of a wild town’s past. River towns were tough places in the nineteenth century, and Mt. Vernon was known as much for its brothels, as it was for being a good place to get drunk, rowdy and get in a fight. To be certain, Mt. Vernon then and now was filled with good people. But when it comes to making money, even good people have a tough time turning away bad people when they’re flush with cash and looking to spend it.
The night before I had stayed up till the wee hours of the morning reading the history of Emma township which isn’t exactly the most riveting of reading material.
I learned though that by the last half of that century, building supplies in quantity were being purchased in Mt. Vernon and brought to Emma, or Concord as it came to be known, where my ancestors came from. So if the story of Black Annie in Mt. Vernon resembled the one told by my Granny Bert, I had my answer. Travel to and from Mt. Vernon in my ancestor’s day was quite commonplace.
Unfortunately, at first I was disappointed, as Mt. Vernon’s Black Annie dated from 1907, after my family had moved from Mt. Vernon by a generation or two. That story involved a woman in a black dress with black veil which walked the streets of Mt. Vernon at night. People cowered behind closed doors for a few nights, until some well armed citizens got brave and accosted the woman. Annie turned out to be a man, much like people believed about the Carlisle, Illinois version, having fun scaring the townspeople. It was nothing like the story I had heard.
But the story of the lady in black in Mt. Vernon, Indiana wasn’t finished yet.
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The courthouse dominates Mt. Vernon’s riverfront. I’d been in that courthouse before, appearing before Judge James Redwine some thirty years ago I believe. He was a fair man and let us off rather easily. We shan’t go into details.
A few years back he wrote a book titled “Judge Lynch,” about a lynching which took place on the courthouse lawn in 1878, beneath the windows of the office he now occupied.
In October of that year, three prostitutes accused seven black men of raping them at knife point. Four of the men were quickly rounded up and incarcerated. Before the night was over, all four were hanging from locust trees on the courthouse property, with a fifth chopped into pieces and thrown into the toilet of an outhouse. A sixth victim was killed from being stuffed into a hollow tree, and a seventh was thrown alive into the steam engine of a train.
Victims they were, as they were framed for the crime, if a crime had even been committed. This wasn’t justice, or even vengeance. It was sadism practiced by a mob. Blood lust.
These acts were carried out by two or three hundred of Mt. Vernon’s finest citizens – even the newspaper editor was an eyewitness, being in the jail when the men were taken out. Rather than report the names of those taking part, he instead called for the ”dark pall of oblivion”, to cover the crimes.”
When Judge Redwine gave his first presentation about the crime, to a local civic group, it wasn’t even met with polite applause at the end. It was a nasty century, full of horrors and even in our own time, it seemed the city didn’t want to revisit the past.
It’s the ugly secret of racism in our country. It’s still there and likely nearly as healthy as ever. It just isn’t talked about now, except amongst like minded friends. It’s not limited to the Bible Belt, or the south either. My voice has a twang to it, growing up so close to Kentucky. When living in New York, it caused some people to let their guard down, and being from someplace obviously southern, they felt safe in letting their true colors fly. There are as many racists in proportion to population in New York as there is in the backwoods and hollows of the middle of our country. Y’all just don’t talk about it.
Shame on us all.
And then I was standing on the lawn where these atrocities occurred over a hundred years ago. I had the square to myself, with no other souls in site. Cars still flew along the main road through town, but in the square all was silent. There is a massive monument to the men who died for their country in front of the courthouse, built for Mt. Vernon’s Civil War veterans just thirty years after the lynchings. These people memorialized here fought for the freedom which was denied those seven black men just a few years earlier. They will be remembered as long as the tall stone pillar and statues stand, while the unfortunate black men were covered with the dark pall of oblivion.
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Nature was rampaging in the early part of the nineteenth century, and few places suffered the brunt of it like the midwest. Writing in Travels in Illinois in 1819, Ferdinand Ernst speaks of storm damage, likely caused by a tornado “Here is the strip where, in the year 1813, a fearful hurricane produced terrible devastation. The road leads through a forest in which all trees have, from seven to ten feet above the ground, been twisted like willows, and their tops often cast to the ground in the opposite direction. Upon the Ohio this hurricane picked up a boat and threw it on land far from the bank. It traversed almost the entire continent of America, in width about one English mile and in direction from west to east.”
November 12-13, 1833 was the night the stars fell from the sky. It was the Leonid meteor shower, which that year boggled the mind. Over the course of that night, it’s estimated that a quarter million were spotted, so thick that the celestial streaks would have equated half the number of snowflakes visible in a snowstorm. It scared the living shit out of people, convinced the end was nigh.
In 1815 Mt. Tambour in Indonesia exploded, following three years of four other major volcanic eruptions. The result was the year without a summer, where there was frost in June. Crops failed and hunger was rampant. The food that was available was incredibly expensive.
Keep in mind that on the frontier, people had no idea why these things were happening. It could be months before they learned if these events were global, or confined to their own little piece of the wilderness. They’d already risked everything to move to a place populated only by native Americans, where the climate was hard and the landscape harder. There were more ways to die here than anyplace in the United States at the time. Now it seemed that nature was against them as well.
But the worst had happened a few years earlier. At the time, white folks were just moving into the area. What settlements there were, were spaced far apart and still quite primitive. There were no street lights, barely any streets.
New Madrid, Missouri is just south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, not far at all from Mt. Vernon, Indiana. Just a little over two hours drive now, and when you’re talking earthquakes, it’s too close for comfort.
Between 1811 and 1812, as settlers began pouring into the area, there were a few thousand small earthquakes in the region. As there was little in the way of settlements, damage was light. Then the earth fell from beneath their feet.
On December 16, 1811, a quake struck the New Madrid region, one of the strongest earthquakes to ever hit the United States, including modern times. Another hit a little over a month later, on January 23, 1812. It was a bit smaller than the first, but the space between the two had been filled with aftershocks numbering in the hundreds, many quite strong. Then on the night of February 7, 1812, the New Madrid line was hit with an earthquake somewhere between a 7 and 8.8 on the Richter Scale. It was about ten times as strong as the one that hit San Francisco in 1906.
It’s hard to imagine what these quakes must have been like. Eliza Bryant, wrote in the book, Territory of Missouri, “On the 16th of December, 1811, about two o’clock, a.m., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere, with sulphurious vapor, causing total darkness. The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do—the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species—the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi— the current of which was retrograde for a few minutes, owing as is supposed, to an irruption in its bed— formed a scene truly horrible.”
The Mississippi River ran backwards for several hours. Large swatches of land sunk into the earth, water poured up through crevices, creating lakes. The river banks along the Ohio collapsed, sending waves which swamped some boats and drove others far ashore, Thousands of acres of forest fell. Countless cracks appeared in the earth and nobody knows the number of people who were simply swallowed up. The skies turned so dark that lanterns couldn’t breech the darkness. Caused by warm water erupting from the earth and into the cold winter air, it produced an impenetrable smog. The only light came from the earth, where the squeezing of crystalized quartz in the ground caused light to flash from the ground, like lightening rising. Prior to the quakes animals became nervous and agitated. Domestic animals went wild and wild animals become docile. Snakes came out of hibernation. Many people spoke of the deafening noise, both from the rumble of the earth and thunder which accompanied the quake. In some places the ground itself boiled as though made of liquid.
Further up the Ohio, someplace between Louisville, Kentucky and Mt. Vernon the first steamship was making its way down river. It was suddenly like being on a storm on the ocean, the waves threatening to swamp the ship. They watched in horror as the riverbanks collapsed, the falling of dirt into the river causing huge wakes.
Then in its infancy, Mt. Vernon was hit hard by the quakes.
Mt. Vernon is the county seat of Posey County, named after General Thomas Posey. Posey was George Washington’s neighbor growing up, and was rumored to be Washington’s bastard son. Originally called McFadden’s Bluff, the early days of the settlement were wild. Bears were a problem, one man was killed by a panther. There was occasional Indian violence, another fellow was scalped but lived, and one native American was shot trying to steal a horse. McFadden’s Bluff was laid out as a town in 1816, and a year later there were fifteen families in the town, now named Mt. Vernon after Washington’s home in Virginia.
The town was likely much smaller during the New Madrid earthquakes. Below the hill upon which the courthouse stands today the earliest settlers built their cabins. At the top of Mulberry Hill lived a woman who had lost her children and husband after coming west. She wore all black in mourning.
Perhaps it was the loss of her husband which drove her to insanity, for it is thought that in a fit she had tossed her children into the Ohio river where they drowned. Afterwards she would wander the streets crying out, weeping and wailing, “where are my children?” She was known as the Weeping Woman of Old Hoop Pole Township.
The night of the first quake, residents reported the weeping woman on Mulberry Hill, crying and shrieking for her children for nearly an hour. Then the earthquake struck.
Candles and lanterns fell over, causing fires and amidst the roar of the quake, pandemonium ensued. A full moon illuminated the snow swept scene, as people rushed from their cabins, Witnesses reported that the road was deafening, accompanied by rolling thunder and that all you could hear over it was the screams of the people and cries of animals, both man and beast terrified at the upheaval of the earth beneath their feet.
The weeping woman was spotted at the top of Mulberry Hill, where now stands some of Mt. Vernon’s most prestigious old homes. Another cabin burst into flames, trapping two children inside. In the madness of the night, nobody paid much attention as the woman came racing down the hill and into the cabin to rescue the two children. She brought the two to the top of the hill, and for a moment the trio was seen illuminated against the forest beyond, then they disappeared, never to be seen again.
And like the unfortunate black men, killed in hatred on the courthouse lawn, Black Annie disappeared into the oblivion of history, her memory living on only in the tales told to children, warning them to be good and be safe.