A headline in the April 27, 1839, Columbus Democrat read, “Daring and Atrocious Murder.” The news account began, “One of the most daring and outrageous acts of villainy in the annals of crime was perpetuated a few miles from our town.”
A traveler on the Military road had been “waylaid and shot dead” at Black Creek.
If the story sounds familiar, it may be because I have written several times about a ghost story, “Legend of Black Creek,” which was published in 1852. In the story, Joseph Cobb told how the Military Road crossing of Black Creek is haunted by victims of a tragic past.
Cobb tells of two soldiers who arrived at a flooded Black Creek while traveling on the Military Road. There they “were rashly ordered … to try the depth of the ford, and how both of them were swept away by the swift current, and never seen more.” Cobb also told of persons who drowned there attempting to cross the creek when flooded. And then there was the horrible story he told of a savage murder.
“At this place, in the spring of 183-, was inhumanly and savagely murdered an old traveler who was supposed to be on his way to Columbus for the purpose of buying and entering government lands. He was riding calmly along, some hour after night, not dreaming of any danger, but whistling to make up for thought, when a savage assassin flew on him from the adjoining thicket, and mercilessly shot him through the heart.”
According to Cobb, all these tragic figures haunted this spot only four miles from downtown Columbus. But did any of these sad events really happen? Not far north of Black Creek, on a hill overlooking Howard Creek, there is the grave of a U.S. soldier who died there during the construction of Andrew Jackson’s Military Road around 1818. The Columbus Argus reported in May 1840 the “Melancholy Death by Drowning” of 19-year-old Daniel B. Hendrick. He was traveling on the Military Road and drowned when thrown from his horse while attempting to cross a flooded Black Creek.
Of all the stories of Black Creek it is that of the horrible murder that left a vivid record in the form of newspaper coverage. The Columbus Democrat reported on April 24,1839:
“One of the most daring and outrageous acts of villainy in the annals of crime was perpetrated a few miles from our town on Wednesday last. Mr. C. White, of Russellville, Ala., who had visited our State on business, and was almost an entire stranger here, left town on the day mentioned soon after dinner. He was journeying homewards, and when he had got about four miles on his way, on the Military road, was waylaid and shot dead instantly — two bullets being put through his head. It would seem, from all the circumstances, that the fiend incarnate — the monster in human shape, who perpetrated this daring and damning act, in the open face of day, must have been riding by the side of his unsuspecting victim, at the time, and that he took the opportunity, when his attention was turned from him, to shoot him down. This is rendered not only probable, but almost certain by the wounds inflicted on the murdered man. The right side of his head was pierced by a bullet, immediately below the ear, and so near was the pistol when it was fired that the marks of the powder were distinctly visible over the whole of that side of his face. The wound did not produce immediate death; the unfortunate man fell from his horse, and the murderer dismounted, drew another pistol, and shot him through the head, just above the forehead, extinguishing life instantly.”
As soon as this daring and atrocious murder was made known in town, one general burst of indignant feeling was produced. The citizens immediately assembled at Bell & Conner’s tavern, in order to devise means for arresting the murderer. The sum of $1,210 was subscribed in a few minutes as a reward for his arrest and conviction. Two companies started off in pursuit.
The Lowndes County Coroner, A. Thatcher, conducted an inquest and investigated the case reporting, “It is my opinion, from the evidence that I received, that the perpetuator of the deed, a man riding a chestnut sorrel horse, white hat, blue coat, light pantaloons and jeans leggings, that the person described stopped and stayed all night at one Mr. Williams’ on the Military Road, 22 miles from Columbus, and that he left there on the morning for Columbus, and was seen near where the murder was committed, coming down the road, and that the same person was seen by Mr. Williams a very short time after the report of the gun or pistol near the place of the murder, and evidently in great haste and confusion, having left the main road and was seen by Mr. Hayden tearing down fences to get a pass through a back wheat field, and is supposed to reside in the neighborhood of Russellville, Alabama.”
By July, the suspect was identified as James McCaleb, of Russellville, but he still had not been apprehended. In response to public concern Mississippi Gov. Alexander McNutt on July 1 added $300 to the reward and directed in a proclamation that “all officers, both civil and military, to aid and assist in bringing said offender to answer the charge made against him.” After the governor’s July proclamation, the story disappears from surviving newspapers.
Joseph Cobb took a good bit of literary license with events that happened where the Military Road crossed Black Creek. History, however, shows us several tragic and horrible things did happen at that place. There may not actually be any ghost at Black Creek, but it is truly a place of many tragedies and is a fitting place to be haunted.
Thanks to Carolyn Kaye for again transcribing the old newspaper articles I used.