Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

Living

February 7, 2012

Bob Bowman’s East Texas

JACKSONVILLE — To paraphrase a quote by the Marquise de Deffand in 1774, I don't believe in ghosts, but I have a healthy respect for them.

You would, too, if you've ever stood on the banks of Bouton Lake when the fog rolls in from the Neches River bottomlands. Looking across the still, tree-shaded waters, you can almost see the outlines of a young girl wearing a long flowing gown.

The ghost of Bouton Lake is one of several with whom I have developed close friendships over the last 30 or so years. I don't necessarily believe in them, but they've become as much a part of East Texas as the pine forests they haunt, so I accept them in the same way that I accept the fact that gravity works.

Bouton Lake's ghost is as old as the lake itself. The story goes that a man and his daughter were hauling cotton to town when the earth collapsed beneath them. He and his daughter disappeared forever.

Bouton Lake's ghost is mild compared to Oonie Andrews, the ghost who lives in Lady Bird Johnson's family home at Karnack. She is as much a part of the old mansion that Jett Jones, who grew up with Oonie, simply considers her "a lady who lives in the house that nobody else can see."

In 1843, Milt Andrews built a splendid plantation-style mansion near Karnack. Sometime in the l880s, Andrews' 19-year-old daughter, Eunice, sat alone in an upstairs bedroom when bolt of lightning from a storm struck the chimney, raced down a fireplace, and hit Oonie. She was burned to death.

Over the years, stories arose that the ghost of Miss Andrews never left the bedroom. Eerie noises, odd happenings, and ghostly apparitions soon became common. When the Andrews family sold the house to T.J. Taylor--Lady Bird Johnson's father--in 1902, the ghost went along with the sale. While Lady Bird said she never saw or heard the ghost, she admitted feeling a sense of apprehension and unease in the house as a child.

A more contemporary ghost--an East Texas phantom of the opera nicknamed Chester--haunts the Turner Fine Arts Auditorium on the campus of Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches.

No one has ever actually seen Chester, but dozens of students and instructors swear they've felt his presence with signs like rustling stage curtains, footsteps on the scaffolding, dust sifting down on the shoulders of actors, and cold fingers on the back of the neck.

Chester apparently tried to make himself visible in a 1987 production of Macbeth. In a scene where eight ghosts were projected on a stage screen, a ninth face somehow appeared.

East Texas' most beautiful ghost may be Diamond Bessie, who was murdered at Jefferson in 1877, supposedly by Abe Rothschild, although he was acquitted after two controversial trials. For years, there have been reports of Diamond Bessie's ghost rattling around the Excelsior House, but it certainly hasn't hurt business at the old hotel. When Bessie isn't haunting people at the Excelsior, she can usually be found at Oakwood Cemetery.

Other cemeteries in East Texas also have their special ghosts.

At Dabb's Cemetery, near Frankston, there's the story of "the cage," where legends claim that a man was buried twice, once alive and the second time dead.

Locals claim the man was buried the first time because he was thought to be dead, but dug his way out of his earthen tomb and crawled to a nearby home, where he died. To assure he would not be able to crawl out again, a cage of wooden stakes was built around his grave. It apparently served its purpose, but there are still stories of a ghost roaming the graveyard late at night.

East Texas' best-known "ghost light," belongs to Bragg Road in Hardin County. There, Big Thicket residents have consistently reported sightings of a strange red light in the forest, supposedly the lantern of a railroad switchman who was killed by a freight train more than 50 years ago.

Another Angelina County ghost haunts the banks of Popher Creek. The story goes that an old Indian chief named Popher had a son who killed a white man in an argument and was scheduled to be hanged. Popher went to the white men and pleaded, "I am an old man, and my son is still young with his life still before him. Please let me take my son's place." The old chief was hung along the creek which bears his name.

(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 50 books about East Texas history and folklore. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)

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