Late Shenandoah Valley Historian and Author John Heatwole, much missed and a family friend, recorded a number of strange occurrences recounted by valley and mountain people in his fascinating book, Shenandoah Voices. He says, “The beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is fertile and healthy ground for the sustenance of folktales…when they (the early settlers) filtered into the Valley from Pennsylvania and Maryland, they brought with them age-old traditions and superstitions. While the German-Swiss were considered to be greatly influenced by folk beliefs and superstitions, the Scot-Irish were not far behind.” Amen to that, but what if not all of these accounts are just stories? Some of them sound chillingly true and the valley and surrounding mountains are a hotspot of paranormal activity. Not every tale is imaginary, as I can attest.
“In 1852, when Dr. John McChesney, his wife, family and their servants lived in pastoral tranquility near the village of Newport in southwestern Augusta County (***where my Scots-Irish ancestors settled–the McChesney’s among them.)
Dr. McChesney was esteemed and respected in the upper valley, and his reputation for honesty was beyond question. While deep in the winter months, the McChesneys were having supper one night, when a young slave girl named Maria burst into the house from the direction of the detached kitchen (our Augusta family home place, circa 1816, also had a detached kitchen). She was frightened and said an old woman had chased her in a threatening manner. The woman was described as having “her head tied up” which must have meant that she had her head bound with a scarf or cloth. The description did not fit anyone on the place, and the family passed off the incident as fancy.
In the next few days, however, Maria was seen to be fearful and easily startled. Dr. McChesney and the rest of the family began to take an intense interest in matters concerning the girl when stones started to fall from the roof from out of nowhere. This happened both day and night, and at times the stones were observed to be hot, as they scorched the dry grass when they fell from above.
The story of the strange happenings at the McChesneys’ became common knowledge in the surrounding countryside. It was said that hundreds of people would surround the house in the hope of witnessing a stone fall. It is not clear if they saw anything, for on some days nothing out of the ordinary occurred. Maria continued to be frightened and said that she was being chased by the old woman who remained unseen to others.
Dr. McChesney thought the girl might be tied to everything that was happening, so one day he sent her over to the home of his brother-in-law, Thomas Steele. Mrs. Steele and her children, a young white woman and a black washer woman were out in the yard doing chores that day, and Mr. Steele was away from home. Suddenly loud noises were heard from the house. It sounded like frightened horses were loose in the structure. The young woman ran to the door and called for Mrs. Steele to come look—all of the furniture was piled in a jumble in the center of the room. As if they weren’t startled enough already, stones then began to fall on the roof of the dwelling.
At that moment Maria was spotted coming toward them from over the hills. They ran to meet her and found the girl in terror of being pursued, although no one was to be seen behind her. Mrs. Steele immediately sent Maria back to the McChesneys.
Even after the girl was sent away, stones continued to fall at the Steele home. Some even entered the house and broke glass in the doors of a cupboard. Many plates and other dishes were broken, and some shards saved for many years as relics of the terrible incident.
Back at the McChesneys, strange things continued to occur as the weeks passed into early spring. One of the most singular episodes took place on a cool day as Dr. and Mrs. McChesney. Mrs. Mary Steele, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Steele and their young son, William, were sitting around a fireplace. All of the doors and windows were securely shut, when suddenly a stone seemed to fly from the upper corner of the room, hitting Mrs. Thomas Steele on the head. She was the only person struck. The wound was deep and bled profusely, and a lock of hair was cut cleanly off as if someone had used scissors. Her husband was enraged and took the invisible assailant to task by shouting that its spite should have been directed at him instead of a defenseless woman. He then sat in a chair near the door and was showered with missiles of sod and earth from within the room. His mother, Mary Steele, shouted that he would be killed and urged him to leave the room. He did so and was not followed by ‘the thing.’
Soon Mary Steele’s home was in turmoil with stones flying about and the furniture in the kitchen being moved by unseen hands. One day a bench in the kitchen bucked like a playful colt. Only the children were present, and they were at first amused. Young John Steele decided to ride the bench, but the effort was more than he bargained for. He fainted and was taken from the room by the rest of the children who had become scared of the out-of-control object.
During the time the children were with their grandmother, her farmhands complained that tools and food they had taken with them to the fields were stolen—but the missing goods turned up later back at the house.
The little slave girl, Maria, complained to Mrs. Steele that she was being beaten. The kind old lady drew the child toward her and wrapped her skirts around her while she struck out at the air with her cane. Marie still cried that she was being hit and stabbed with pins. Young William Steele remembered when he was an old man that the slaps could be heard by all who were present. The child was tormented for many weeks.
Dr. McChesney, at his wit’s end, finally sold Maria south. When the child left, everything returned to normal, and Maria was not tormented in her new home. William Steele related in later years that an old black woman who lived in their neighborhood was rumored to be a witch. He described her by saying that, “She walked with a stick and chewed tobacco,” and whenever he met her on the road, he always yielded to her the right of way. William said that Maria had once spoken to the old woman in an insulting manner and was told that she would be punished for her disrespectful tongue.”
I add, apparently this punishment went on without ceasing and encompassed all those associated with Maria and any who tried to protect her. Now this is an example of a very bad witch. Exorcist, anybody?
***Royalty free images
***If you enjoyed this post you might also like these posts I’ve done: The Poltergeist in Our Old Farm House, Staunton, Virginia History and Ghosts, Supernatural Tales from Brock’s Gap, Rockingham County, Virginia, and One of Virginia’s Famous Ghosts (We have a lot)