My uncle’s collected scraps, hints of outside knowledge of our family’s plight, were, for the most part, much like the song Tanya knew—specific enough to be tantalizing, too vague to be useful. There was little in the way of direct lore from the people enslaved on the land. One woman, identified only as S.A. by the W.P.A. worker who took her testimony, told him that there was something bad in the cellar, a demon recognizable by its smell and by the shape it made on the floor. This was interesting, matching as it did what I had seen as a boy in the cellar myself.
But the other mention was by a man who claimed that George Allen had brought with him the Wampus Cat when he crossed the Appalachians to settle in the area and then buried it in the basement. Later servants and tenants claimed that the Bell Witch haunted the place and the additions of bits of borrowed local legends obscured what, if anything, might be useful in these accounts.
The most useful bit of story came from the account of Ann White, a maid in the house who was married to one of the Allens’ post-War sharecroppers. Whether this Ann White has any familial ties to Dr. White at the archives, I must admit, I have never asked. Mrs. White, with her inherent superstitions, told the wildest and at the same time most consistent tale about the house. She alleged that there must be something buried beneath the house, perhaps one of those things who retain their bodily form and live on the blood and breath of the living. She called it an Old Hag, but in reading her description, I immediately thought of a vampire. And it’s apparent that the two legends are linked for one destroys an Old Hag much like one destroys a vampire. You must dig it up and drive a stake through its heart, at the least. Preferably, you would drag the thing out into the sunlight and burn it. Mrs. White’s dogged insistence on digging in the cellar for such a creature had featured prominently in her dismissal.
Her tales, however, spread through the black community, and were all the more readily accepted because the house stood so near an ancient cemetery the hallowing of which no one could attest to. I was certain that they’d already heard other rumors. Mrs. Smith, who had preceded Mrs. White, complained that something “sucked her breath” when she slept in the house. And I’m sure the slaves had more tales that have been lost to us. I’m also sure that it quickly passed around town that, when Eliza died after her bout of madness, the physician who tended to her claimed that she was unaccountably lacking in blood.