The following is a true southern ghost story, as related to me by my grandmother.
Two things that my sweet grandma could serve up best were a good meal and a great story. My grandma was known far and wide for her delicious home cooking and southern hospitality. She definitely loved to cook as much as she loved to talk - and when she shared a story, it was as delicious as her food. People from all walks of life would stop by my grandparents home in rural Colbert County, Alabama, to enjoy a good meal and good company...traveling salesmen, pastors, relatives, old friends, and even the occasional hobo passing through on the nearby railroad. Everyone was welcome there and no one ever left hungry. After the meal, guests enjoyed a slice of my grandma's "secret recipe" coconut cake....and as the feast slowed down, the conversation geared up. Back then, everyone lingered at the dinner table to talk long after the meal was over. That was the best part - when the stories of the "old days" of growing up in the country or the hard times of surviving the Great Depression were spun like golden yarns. As a child, I loved to listen to the grown-ups tell their tales. During the occasional pause in the conversation, I never missed the opportunity to jump right in and make a request for my favorite tale: a spooky ghost story. After a few laughs, someone would usually humor me - and out of all the ghost stories they shared, this one told by my grandma herself was my favorite. Stick with me till the end - there's a big surprise you'll never expect!
The Old Mansion
My grandparents were married in the 1920's just before the Great Depression. Money was tight in those days - so when they found a place to live that was affordable, they jumped at the opportunity and rented a place near Spring Valley in rural Colbert County. It was a huge old house - a mansion, actually. Although the house was in a sad state of disrepair when they moved in, my grandma said that at one time it was a grand estate owned and built by a very wealthy man and prominent citizen of the area. Time and nature had taken it's toll on the estate, however, as it sat empty for many years. After the old man who owned the house passed away, his family tried renting the house to several families over the years - but each time they did, the new tenants would break their lease and leave in a hurried rush. After a while, rumors spread that nobody could stay there very long because the house was haunted. The resident spirit at this old mansion, however, was not the usual ghost. It wasn't the typical spectre of an old woman or misty phantom soldier from the civil war. This haunting was very different than any you've probably ever heard of. The ghost at this house....was an infant.
It was said that years ago, the rich old man who built the house lost his wife suddenly and found himself a very lonely widower. His kids were grown, moved off and married, and he was left there all alone. Then, his daughter and her husband returned to the area to start a family. Within a few months, the old man became the grandpa of a beautiful baby boy. Suddenly, the lonely man had hope and a reason to live again. Nothing brought him more joy than spending time with his new baby grandson. There was laughter in his house and he had a spring in his step. Then, when the old man had finally found happiness again, tragedy struck suddenly. One day, as the old man who was getting up in years was jostling and playing with his grandson, he tried to pitch him up in the air just a little - but he lost his grip and balance. The poor baby fell to the floor and then soon died from his injuries.
The Grieving Old Man
In the weeks and months following the death of his grandson, locals say that the old man slowly fell into a state of sorrowful despair and madness, blaming himself for the tragedy and missing his grandson horribly. Although the community reached out to him, he rejected their efforts and became fully reclusive - often seen wandering his house in the dead of night by the light of a kerosene lamp - calling out and searching for his deceased grandbaby. He would swear to visitors that the baby was in the house and tell them that he could hear his grandson playing with a toy - a baby's rattle. He would interrupt their pleas with him to stop his searching and say,
"Don't you hear that? Don't you hear his rattle? He's playing with his rattle. I hear it all night. He's here, I tell you! Help me find my grandbaby or leave me alone!"
Although they tried to talk some sense into the old man, he persisted to say that he could hear the baby all night playing with his rattle. Soon the visits stopped and the neighbors left the man alone as he requested. One day, after noticing no activity at the house for quite some time, the nearest neighbors gathered to go check on the old man. Upon entering his home, they found a dreadful sight. There, on the floor lay the body of the old man. He had passed away while clutching a baby doll that he had dressed in the clothes of his grandson. All over the house, they found small shrines and effigies the old man had created for the baby. The old man, it seemed had grieved himself to death. The old man was laid to rest in the family graveyard....next to his beloved grandson.
After the old man had passed away, rather than let the house sit empty, his children made the decision to rent it out. By this time, the legends of the crazy old man who stayed up all night searching for his dead grandbaby were very well known throughout the community. Everyone felt sorry for what became of the old man - but never considered that the old man could possibly be telling the truth. No one entertained the thought that he might have actually been hearing a baby's rattle. No one, that is, until the first tenants moved into the house. It wasn't long at all until the renters were awakened one night...to a faint but present "chk chk chk"...the unmistakable sound of a baby's rattle. When those tenants fled the house and told everyone the story of what they had heard, people thought they were crazy. However, the next tenants confirmed the story...and eventually, the next tenants did, too. Pretty soon, there were dozens of people who had attempted to live in the mansion...and each one would swear the house was haunted. They said the grandson of the old man must haunt the house because they could hear the baby playing with his rattle in the still of the night. Thus, the legend of the infant ghost was born.
When my grandma and grandpa were newlyweds and looking for a place to live, the family of the old man offered to rent the old mansion to them at an unbelievably low price. With the rural economy slowing and money tight, they couldn't believe their good fortune. Although they had heard the legend about the infant ghost, they shrugged off the story as just another exaggerated southern folktale...and not being afraid of such tales, they signed the lease and moved in promptly. For a while, life was wonderful and normal. They had wed in the very late summer and were ecstatic to begin married life in their new place and hopefully start a family soon. Fall and winter came and left - and although the drafty old house had been freezing cold that winter, things had been quiet with no signs of anything out of the ordinary. That spring, however, everything would change. That was the first time they heard it. In the middle of a warm spring night, clear as a bell, they were awakened to the distinct sound of "chk chk chk"....the sound of a baby's rattle. All that spring and into summer, on any given warm quiet night, my grandma said that it was not uncommon to hear the infant ghost...ever playing with his rattle. Hearing my grandmother tell her story, in such a matter-of-factly way, always amazed me. I asked her many times, "Grandma, weren't you scared when you heard it?" She would just smile, as always, and say with her southern country drawl, "Naw. Ain't skeered."
Demolition and Discovery
So, after close to a year of living in the old raggedy mansion, fall was approaching and my grandma became pregnant with her first baby. She and my grandpa decided they would try to find a place to live for the coming winter that wasn't so cold and drafty as that old house. They found a nicer place they could afford just down the road. Knowing that everyone else was probably afraid to live in the old haunted mansion after my grandparents moved out, and given that it was in such a bad state of disrepair, the family decided that the farmland the house sat upon was worth more than the house itself and decided to have the whole place demolished. Back in those days, there weren't many bulldozers and other heavy demolition equipment available, so most houses were dismantled by hand with a crew of men. My grandfather was actually hired to help dismantle the old mansion. While on the job, two of the men on the work crew became so frightened at the thought that the house was haunted, that they left and refused to return to work. The rest of the crew, undaunted, began the arduous task of taking down the house - board by board and wall by wall. Now, here's where the story takes a sharp left hand curve. While knocking down the main walls in the house, my grandfather and the other workmen discovered the secret of the infant ghost and the baby rattle. It seems that inside the walls, aided by lots of holes and drafty cracks in the dilapidated old house, there was an infestation of RATTLE SNAKES! That's right, big southern Timber Rattlers! Several were actually living inside the walls of the old house - and by the huge size of some of the snakes, they had been living there for quite some time. The house was in the middle of several farming fields, so there was an abundance of rodents and other small animals that sought shelter in the house that made a convenient meal for the snakes. In the winter, the snakes had a warm place to hibernate - and in the spring when they woke up, that's when you could hear the "chk chi chk" of their rattlers. So, it wasn't a baby's rattle that the poor old man and all those tenants had heard. It was, instead, the tail of the rattlesnakes shaking as they slithered in the walls.
Thus ended the tale of the infant ghost of Colbert County. My grandpa and the men killed all the rattlesnakes they could find in the walls of the old house. People from all over the community came to see the snakes they had killed - one was said to be as tall as any of the men there when it was held up. My grandparents were able to build their own house in later years near the place where the old mansion had stood - and they told the story of the infant ghost the rest of their lives. Come to think of it, my grandma was always afraid of snakes. I wonder if that's why? She was definitely more afraid of snakes than ghosts - but the experience made for a great story! I can still hear my grandma telling her tales like it was yesterday. I guess I inherited my grandma's love of a good story....and her love to cook. Oh, and best of all, I inherited her "secret recipe" for coconut cake! Now, there's a story I'll never share!
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