Thursday, June 16, 2016

Daddy Long Legs (From The Dark Recesses Of Appalachian Folklore) Part 3

     The weeks leading up to the events of September 9th, 1938 were marred by an unusual streak of summer heat that seemed to bear down on the already volatile atmosphere that had taken hold of the townsfolk of Ashmore. A series of strange events began to unfold that slowly added to the dark cloud that seemed to loom over the town. Noticeably several weeks before September 9th many of the pets and local livestock owned by the the citizens of Ashmore disappeared without a trace.  Several citizens reported visible agitation and other unusual activity from their animals that indicated some sort of disturbance had began to affect them before the animals vanished. As many at 56 reports of missing pets and livestock were filed to the police department from a period of two weeks prior to September 9th.  Suspicions as to who may be involved quickly spiraled out of control.  Strangely though many of the animals returned within days after September 9th. No suspects were found or reasons given as to why the animals had disappeared so suddenly in unison only to appear back weeks later. An eerie quietness seemed to have taken a hold of the forest as well with many of the citizens remarking about the disappearances of much of the fauna. An article appeared in the Ashmore Gazette on September 2nd, 1938 mentions that local hunters were finding little in terms of game in the nearby woods in which were normally covered with deer and other sources of game. The only animals that remained were the local birds that largely seemed to have lost their voices in the midst of the heat wave.  Large groups of bird had begun to settle in the trees that lined main street without uttering a noise. Adding to the disturbing events were reports from local farmers that most of their reserve grains were being overtaken by some sort of fungus that were quickly ravaging their supplies. It seemed as if the land itself was becoming polluted by something seeping in from the outside. The devil or something similar had made it's way to Ashmore.  Whispers of eerily similar correlations between the unusual events around the town and those stories involving "Daddy Long Legs" were made in jest by the townsfolk, but a fear lingered in the back of their minds as to what ungodly force had turned its gaze towards the town. The strange events that were slowly consuming Ashmore would come to a terrible end on the evening of September 9th, 1938.

Ashmore, South Carolina 1938. Courtesy of the Ashmore Gazette Archives
     Travis Grady, a 92-year-old retired mill worker and part-time town historian of Ashmore was 14 at the time during the events leading up to September 9th,1938. Mr. Grady can still recall how the town of Ashmore was during the days leading up to the tragedy that claimed the lives of Sheriff Julian Redford and Rev. Garon Talley.  Mr. Grady had been a youth in Rev. Talley’s congregation and had become close to the reverend and his family before his death. Garon Talley was at the time the reverend of the only African American church in the town of Ashmore, the Bells Branch Heritage Baptist Church. What made Garon Talley unusual among many of those in his congregation was the fact that he had gained a formal education in his youth and was one of the first graduates from The "American Baptist Theological Seminary", a now historical black college located in Nashville, Tennessee. "Reverend Talley and his wife taught many of us in his congregation the importance of education. We had never made it through basic grade school before we were called to the local mills and fields to work for our family.  We really were blessed to have him. I'm not sure though the Mayor and the others that controlled the town liked that fact.  I think they wanted to keep us ignorant. It kept us from wanting more than what the mill owners and those that were on the town council thought we should want."  Mr. Grady's recollections paint a southern town that at the time was deep in the throes of bigotry and interracial hostility. “Back then everything was divided by the Carolina and Northwestern Railway line that cut through the town.  It was expected that we kept our business on the western side of the tracks while the white folks kept theirs on the eastern side.  Save for us coming in to buy groceries or goin' to work.  I remember how cruel some of the white folks were to us. How we weren’t allowed in some stores while they had white customers in or the fact that we had to eat outside even if it were raining if we came in to grab a bite at the local diner. There were a lot of good white folks though. Same as us.  Just poor folk tryin' to make it through the way so they could come home to their families with a little food on the table. It kind of seemed that we had traded chains in the fields to chains on the mill floors. Many of the whites were right beside us though.  For us poor folk color didn't matter much."  In many ways Ashmore was no different than many of the towns that dotted South Carolina. The citizens were largely united by their poverty. A glimmer of hope had come to the citizens of Ashmore from the southwest in the form of a new sheriff.
Reverend Garon Talley with his daughters Elizabeth & Georgia Talley. 1935
     Those that still remember Sheriff Redford recall a man who was unusual in his straight shooting, no nonsense attitude. He was known by many in the town for his evenhanded treatment of all citizens no matter the color of their skin or their class. A transplant from the southwest, 52 year old Julian Redford had come from a long line of peacekeepers.  His daughter Grace Redford revealed that his move to Ashmore was partially motivated by seeking something less violent and dangerous than his work had been for the past 27 years on the United States/Mexico border. Ultimately Sheriff Redford was seeking a quieter life away from the rough world of law enforcement he knew for 27 years prior. With his wife and daughter in tow Sheriff Redford traded his dusty home in the southwest for one in an Appalachian mountain town. Unfortunately he would find no peace in his decision.

   From his arrival Sheriff Redford found himself in an uphill battle against a system of elitism that has kept many of those in the town lingering just above and on the poverty line. Worse yet there was a distinct distrust of the police in Ashmore by many of the citizens of the town, particularly among the poorer whites and blacks that were often neglected by the town's law enforcement.  It was well known that many of the crimes committed against the poorer citizens were often ignored by the police. Sheriff Redford began his house cleaning of the police department's more corrupt officers and began his outreach to those that represented the interests of the town's citizens. In this outreach Sheriff Redford made the acquaintance of Reverend Talley. 98 year old Rebecca Pennington recalls the type of relationship shared between Sheriff Redford and Rev. Talley.  "I remember Sheriff Redford and how he tried to bring change to the town.  Him and Rev. Talley weren’t particularly on friendly terms when they were first introduced, but I think it was because of Rev. Talley’s experiences with the police prior to Sheriff Redford coming into town.  There was a good ol’ boy mentality among the police before the previous sheriff killed himself over the scandal of him having a mixed child with a black woman. Times were rough for all of us but I reckon tough times bred tough people with tough feelins'. We were all tryin' to eek out a livelihood and I think our prejudices were able to take hold of us easier. There was a certain fear that held us before Sheriff Redford took over. A lot of us began to see some changes for the good come over the town when Sheriff Redford and Rev. Talley started working together. I think maybe if both him and Rev. Talley had lived after that night it wouldn’t have taken so long for change to come to this town.”

Sheriff Julian Redford. 1937
     The increasingly volatile and bizarre events that surrounded Ashmore came to a head on the night of September 9th, 1938. Official records state that Sheriff Redford was called out that evening in reports to suspicious activity in the abandoned remains of the the original settlement of Ashmore.  The current town of Ashmore had been built in the mid 1800s after the original location was abandoned in order to grow the town towards the direction of a planned railway line. This left partial remnants of the old settlement now as a ghost town.  Local vagabonds and derelicts from the railway used the place as camping grounds in which were routinely patrolled by police. Rumors of illegal moonshine operations in the area lead the place to eventually gain a negative reputation as well. With tensions between Ashmore's African American and Caucasian citizens at a boiling point due to recent cases of the vandalism of many of the properties owned by Ashmore's black citizens, every potential report to the police were treated with the utmost importance. 
Ashmore's "Old District": 1939. From the Ashmore town archives

     The slew of crimes seemed in response to local ordinances that were pushed by Sheriff Redford to partially desegregate the town and it's citizens. The backlash was loud and immediate with crimes against both groups increasing in severity. There was fear among the police that the violence could turn potentially deadly so any reports of suspicious activity were to be immediately investigated.  For reasons unknown Sheriff Redford made contact with Rev. Talley prior to investigating the suspicious activity at the old side of Ashmore and proceeded with the Reverend in tow to the abandoned settlement.  Around 10:30 p.m. several citizens reported seeing orange lights and smoke from the direction of the settlement ruins. A group composed of local police and volunteer fire fighters rushed to the area in what would be nearly a two day battle of quelling the fires that were spreading beyond the bounds of the abandoned settlement.  What the group found afterwards would haunt many of the citizens for decades.  Within the ruins of the settlement's church were the bodies of Sheriff Redford, Reverend Talley and hundreds of birds nearly burnt to ash with what seemed to be the remnants of some sort of ritual.  Surprisingly a survivor was found in the church's basement; a teenage girl by the name of Madeline Sinclair.  The girl despite suffering from first and second degree burns had miraculously survived the fire. Madeline was quickly taken to a local hospital and treated for her injuries.  
Madeline Sinclair. Photo provided by her sister Lisa Sinclair

     When pressed by investigators, a bizarre story emerged concerning how the girl had been tortured over weeks by the entity known as "Daddy Long Legs" and how the Sheriff and Reverend had managed to somehow subdue it before it could take her away. Madeline's tale became increasingly more bizarre claiming that somehow the local legend was slowly killing the town and only the sheriff and reverend were able to stop it. While there was no medical history to show that Madeline Sinclair had any history of mental illness, the teenage girl was quickly carted off to the "South Carolina State Hospital for the Insane" at the request of Ashmore's town doctor, Dr. Jacob Fields. Rumors circulated that the doctor and several prominent members of Ashmore had attempted to quickly rid themselves of the girl as well as suppress the true story as to what happened to Sheriff Redford and Reverend Talley.  The official report in the records of the Ashmore Police Department state that Sheriff Redford and Reverend Talley were killed upon investigating rumors of an illegal moonshine still operating out of the old church.  Madeline Sinclair had supposedly stumbled upon the operation and had been held hostage by the moonshiners.  Due to Madeline being a member of Reverend Talley's congregation the good reverend was brought by the sheriff in order to ease the situation in negotiated the girl's release.  While outside investigator took the story for face value many of the citizens of Ashmore quietly held firm that it was a blatant lie to cover up the actual true and terrifying story.  The years have not been kind to the memory of those still alive from those days with many of those citizens refusing to talk about anything from that period save those few mentioned in this post. 

     The Talley family still remain in Ashmore with Garon Talley's grandson Brandon Talley the current Reverend of the "Bells Branch Heritage Baptist Church". Sheriff Redford's widow and daughter moved back to the southwest and severed all contact with anyone from Ashmore.  Madeline Sinclair was released in 1948 and returned to her family in Ashmore where she remained until her death in 2009.  Madeline refused to speak on the events of 1938 up to her death.

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