Every town has its ghosts, and small Southern towns are no different. One of the most well-known ghost stories in Alabama is the legend of Bill Sketoe--a man who wrongfully lost his life in 1864. Visit the decaying South, in its haunting glory, in this episode.
Every town has its mysteries. Ask anyone about the place they grew up in, and they'll surely have a story to tell. We are a people of stories. Often the lore we create, rooted in truth and seasoned with fiction, lives on and on—long beyond our lifetimes.
It was a Monday. I knew the day before me would be long and chaotic, but I was excited. We—my husband and I--had planned to take this little adventure over the weekend, pushing my deadline almost to its max, but because of a home remodel that will never end, my already stretched deadline bled into the next week. I should have felt stressed because what I would normally do in a week, I was going to attempt to do in a day. Plus some. But I wasn't nervous or stressed at all because I was about to do my favorite thing—go an adventure.
I got up at dawn, took in the beautiful moments of the sun glinting on the lake. I went on about my routine of oatmeal, my favorite morning show, and getting ready for the day. I grabbed my Sak roots bag, my thermos of coffee, and my camera and headed out the door, relying on internet directions to take me right to the location of my exploration—a bridge over the Choctawhatchee River where an infamous hanging took place 155 years ago.
I love these days—when I can get away from my computer and out into the world. Even better, I got to jam to my playlist, one in particular—my selection of Southern Gothic. And despite the rattling of a busted speaker—a consequence of another jam session—the mood was set.
Curiously, an orange slice of a moon hung low in the sky and followed me all the way there. It felt a bit eerie when I'd occasionally look up and notice it on my hour-long drive. Like things were out of place and not how they should be. Or maybe it was just a reminder that darkness was never far from light. I don't know.
The swerving country roads guided me through times past. Countless houses in ruins—metal rooves peeled back, walls caving in, and lonely chimneys speckled the surroundings.
It wasn't until I passed my great grandmother's house—slowly being swallowed up by the earth—that I realized this story hits closer to home than I'd like.
Suddenly, a large white truck sped around me even though I was going slightly over the speed limit. It had a sticker on its back windshield of three crosses on a hill. Just like the South, I thought. Drive and live like hell but praise Jesus on Sundays.
I passed a road sign that read "Slow Church." And a sign beside a house—built in the 30s or 40s that read "Free House to be Moved." Not to mention, the many, many chicken houses that are the spreading cancer of the Southern landscape. It was sad. All of it. The slow death of something beautiful. I hated to see my beloved roots fade to this.
But I drove on, focused. Committed to uncovering the story of Bill Sketoe. One I'd heard since I was a girl.
When the GPS alerted that I'd arrived, I don't know what I was expecting. A sign? Some type of memorial? Maybe even the name of the bridge to be in memory of the man who died there? But, no. Nothing. I pulled into a nearby park that looked nearly abandoned and more than a little spooky even in broad daylight. After driving around for a few minutes and not seeing much, I decided to brave walking around a bit. Of course, I had my pepper spray, but a lot of good that does someone who's chasing a ghost.
That's when I found it. A small plaque that read, "THE HANGING OF BILL SKETOE" and went on to tell the story that I will soon tell you.
You see, one cold December night in 1864, Mrs. Sarah Sketoe, sick and waiting for her husband to return home, would face a brutal, icy truth. Her husband was dead, and the people who swore to protect the counties' citizens were to blame.
William Sketoe Sr., better known as Bill, was a Methodist preacher from the small town of Newton, AL. The story surrounding his death has become one of the most well-known ghost stories in Alabama.
Why, you ask?
It turns out that the minister was charged for desertion of the Confederate Army. During the civil war, Dale County became lawless and the people ruthless. Though hard to imagine now, the nearby forests contained many deserters and Unionists. The citizens created their own guard to protect themselves from these invaders. The Home Guard was led by Captain Joseph Breare, a lawyer from the area. He had served in the 15th Alabama Infantry and even was captured at Gettysburg. After being returned home, he continued his service as the commander of the Home Guard—or the Buttermilk Rangers as locals called them.
Their mission was simple—capture and punish all deserters for treason.
There are two versions of Sketoe's run-in with the Guard. One of them suggests that Sketoe offered papers saying that he hired someone to serve in his place, but they didn't believe him, of course. After all, he was a minister. Not a wealthy member of society. Besides, the Confederacy had already repealed its substitution laws in early 1864.
To muddy things even more, some argue that no records have ever surfaced that Bill Sketoe served in the Confederate or state military. But the memorial sign that's there now says he served for three years.
The other version of the story by historian David Williams in his book Rich Man's War: Caste, Class, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley, suggests that Sketoe was aiding a man by the name of John Ward who was the leader of a group of deserters and pro-Unionists.
Ward was a wanted man. He'd killed a Confederate officer and shot a member of the Home Guard. Breare—the Guard leader—was hell-bent on retribution—to stomp out all traitors amongst the great people of Newton.
And even though no hard evidence ever connected Sketoe to the riot, he was destined to meet the wrath of the Home Guard.
The legend goes, Bill was detained on December 3rd, 1864 as he crossed the bridge over the Choctawhatchee River in North Newton rumored to have been on the way to purchase medicine for his long-sick wife. He was dragged by the Home Guard to the nearby woods. Beaten. The men then threw a rope over a post oak limb and slowly shimmied the noose around Bill Sketoe's neck. A friend of his pleaded for the minister's life but to no avail. Breare asked Sketoe for his last words, and the minister asked to pray. Instead of praying for himself, though, he prayed for the people who were killing him. You may be familiar with the passage in Luke chapter 23 verse 34 in which Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
It's been said that he warned the men that if they killed him, they'd never forget this day or this spot.
This only further ignited Breare's rage, and he tightened the noose, sending Sketoe's body into the air. But Sketoe was a large man—both in statue and weight. The tree limb bent, and his feet still reached the ground. The men hurriedly dug a hole around his feet. And Sketoe eventually succumbed to the strangulation.
Since that fateful day, the hole has become the real mystery. I first heard the story of the hole that wouldn't stay covered when I was probably around eight. While traveling through the sites, I decided to have lunch with my parents and asked my mom, who is a Dale County native, when she first heard the story. She said she was young, really young. I've heard several renditions of the tale over the years, but the gist is always the same – the hole that the Home Guard dug to account for Bill Sketoe's height was still there. For years, this thirty inches wide and eight inches deep hole never went away. Locals have covered it with everything—ranging from trash, dirt, and debris, and everything in-between. But the hole refused to be covered. It was as if a member of the Home Guard was sentenced to re-dig it over and over again. Sometimes being completely re-dug within hours of being covered up.
There was a natural explanation, though. Mary Fleming, a Newton local, knew all the about the hole, having seen in on numerous occasions. She said that after the war, one of Sketoe's friends by the name of Wash Reynolds secretly kept the hole cleared but blamed a supernatural force. Possibly in an effort to put fear in the still-living men who had killed Bill or maybe to just keep Bill's memory alive. But Reynolds denied this claim.
In 1979 a bridge was constructed over the site of Bill's lynching, and later in 1990, after flooding concerns, Bill's hole was finally covered with tons of rock.
Now, this site is gone, and no one can see the infamous hole. But the site is still talked about amongst curious youngsters. Sketoe family members and Newton officials have erected a monument there.
People are still wondering about the truth behind the legend. In fact, it's still a popular place for visitors and paranormal investigators. Ask the locals about the story, and they'll tell you about the Methodist preacher. They'll tell you how he came home from the war to take care of his beloved wife, and ended up paying the ultimate price.
The most haunting thing is…
According to legend, Captain Breare was out riding his horse and was struck by a fallen limb. Another member of the Guard, the one who supposedly dug the hole, was found dead in a swamp. And one died after being thrown off of his mule. In short, all the men on the Home Guard reportedly died pre-mature, mysterious deaths.
And I've even heard that people have reported seeing a man walking alongside the road in that area.
It's all a little unnerving, right?
But it's sad too.
After I left the site, I traveled about 15 minutes to visit Bill Sketoe's grave. It felt only right to pay my respects after spending the past week or so researching him. I was surprised to pass my Aunt's home while traveling there, I haven't been by there in a long while, and suddenly memories and ghosts of my own past emerged. My grandfather restored that house to its original condition all by himself when he was in his 70s. My great uncle had lived there before they owned it and loved to collect old things, things that held memories and secrets of the past. A vague recollection—a photo in my mind—of a tiny set of overalls—that belonged to some toddler long ago—still hung on the clothesline. And the memory of writing my grandfather's death notice… a product of being the writer in the family.
My mood had shifted from adventure to melancholy. It was hitting too close.
I turned on the long narrow road way out in the country. I drove until the pavement ended at a small white church. I pulled in, half nervous half somber, and went looking for Bill's grave. There, in the middle of the cemetery, stood a tall and weathered headstone that read:
William Sketoe, SR.
Son of John and Anna Sketoe
Born June 8th, 1818
Died Dec. 3rd 1864
Our dear father,
Gone but not forgotten.
I couldn't help but smile a little because of how true those words have been all these 155 years. Even now, now that the legend can no longer be seen, people are still talking about the Methodist preacher who left this world too soon.
Driving home, I switched my music and listened to "Storyteller" by Haunted Like Human, and it fit. What had started as a ghost hunt had uncovered some old wounds and some poignant truths.
All of our stories are both beautiful and haunting.
May none of them ever be forgotten.