Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Dead Souls at Windover Bog
by Robert A. Waters

It’s five thousand years before the birth of Christ.  A small band of men, women, and children subsist in a hard land of scrub pines, saw palmettoes, and hickory trees.  Each year, the group arrives in the Fall and moves on in the Spring.  While here, they breed and live and die.

They bury their dead in a small peat-filled pond.

The forests and swamps surrounding the pond are unforgiving.  It's sizzling hot, humid, and crawling with killer insects, bugs, and spiders.  Poisonous snakes, alligators, panthers, and bobcats hunt in these forests, feeding on prey such as deer, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, and turtles—or humans.

Fast-forward seven thousand years.  In 1982, a Titusville, Florida backhoe operator named Steve Vanderjagt digs a trench through the mucky soil of Windover Bog.  After a few scoops, he notices what he thinks is a stone in the bucket.  Inspecting it, he sees two hollow eyes staring back at him.  A few more scoops, and he unearths more human skulls.  Could this be the graveyard of a serial killer?  Vanderjagt knows he needs help.  He contacts his employer, developer Jim Swann.

Thus begins a saga unlike any known in Florida.

Archaeologists called to the scene are stunned when they learn that the Windover Bog contains 167 skeletons from the Archaic Age.  Many are in excellent condition, even their brains are preserved.  This is unheard of in Florida, or for that matter, in most of the world.  With financial backing from Swann and the state of Florida, archaeologists begin to peel layer after layer from the mystery of the Bog People, offering intriguing glimpses into the state’s past.

According to archeologist and author Rachel K. Wentz, the group had no metal tools or weapons, no modern medicine, no transportation (except their feet), yet the group and their descendants survived for about a thousand years.  They were peaceful, with almost no deaths from interpersonal violence.  They died of illnesses not unlike those we face today.  Most adults suffered from arthritis.  Some had broken bones, tooth abscesses and gumline erosion, internal parasites, and other maladies.  At least one had cancer.  They had a life-span of about 40 years.

They valued each member of their group, even infants who died shortly after childbirth.  We know this because they buried their dead in the bog facing west toward the setting sun.

Wentz writes that “bodies were carried into the shallow margins of the pond, beyond the thick tangle of tree roots.  Once the body was pushed into the soft soils of the pond, a small tipi-like construction of branches was erected over the body.  The wood used for these shelters was primarily ash.  Ash does not naturally occur near the pond and appears to have been chosen specifically for this purpose.  Perhaps this type of wood held ceremonial significance.  Singular wooden stakes possibly marked the location of individual graves or family units.”

Tools, weapons, toys, fabric, ropes, food, and other items were often buried with a corpse.

As in life, care was taken in death.  A teenage boy with spina bifida had been buried in a loving manner.  The boy couldn’t have cared for himself.  With one deformed ankle and another missing foot, he couldn’t walk, much less work.  Yet someone carried him from place to place for 14-18 years, providing food and water.  The group, or at least someone in the group, loved this crippled child enough to help him through his challenging life.  Like the others, he was buried facing west.

In another instance, a middle-aged woman was afflicted with fused spinal disks and severe arthritis, making it unlikely that she could work.  But she lived for a decade or more with these conditions, meaning that the group must have helped her.

In yet another case, a two-year-old girl was buried with a bone toy in her hand and a tortoise shell bowl beside her.

Seven thousand years ago, in the hard wilderness of Florida, the human species developed compassion, empathy, kindness, and mercy.  When the group died off, did those traits die with them?

NOTE: Much of this information came from the excellent book, Life and Death at Windover: Excavations of a 7,000-Year-Old Pond Cemetery, by Rachel K. Wentz.  If you’re interested in this subject, I recommend this book.  I also recommend that you purchase books directly from the author, cutting out the profiteers at Amazon and eBay.  You can contact Wentz at

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Hanging at Four Pole Creek

The First (and Last) Execution in Cabell County, West Virginia 
by Robert A. Waters 

For several days before the scheduled hanging of Allen Harrison, overloaded trains chugged into Huntington, West Virginia.  Hotel rooms sold out, and restaurants stayed open late to feed the crowds.  On November 17, 1892, Harrison, a 26-year-old ne’er-do-well and convicted killer, would walk up the gallows to meet his fate.

Newspapers of the day described Harrison as handsome, but odd, having “peculiar habits and strong likes and dislikes.”  According to legal reports, he couldn’t get along with his father, so he left home while still a teen.  Wandering about, Harrison wound up homeless before Frank Adams, a prosperous farmer living near Big Cabell Creek, fifteen miles from Huntington, took pity on him and let the wayward stranger live in his home.

Adams’s beautiful daughter, Bettie, was 16-years-old and Harrison quickly fell in love. 

Although Frank Adams and his wife treated Harrison kindly, he did little to reciprocate those good deeds.  He rarely worked, and never contributed much to the arrangement. 

Bettie ignored Harrison’s constant advances, which grew more passionate as time passed.  After a year, Frank Adams asked his nuisance boarder to leave.  Adams explained to Harrison that he made life uncomfortable for his family by constantly pressing Bettie to become his paramour and that Harrison’s jealousy and continued quarreling with Bettie made life in the family untenable. 

Harrison moved out and into a neighbor’s home.  For the next few weeks, he stalked Bettie.  Hiding in bushes outside her home day and night, he spied on her.  When she left her residence, he followed her, sometimes approaching her with passionate protestations of love.  Each time he was rejected, his anger boiled higher.  In addition to his constant stalking, Harrison wrote hundreds of letters to her, professing his continuing adoration.

Finally, his “love” turned to hate.

A day before the murder, he stole a pistol from the neighbor he was staying with, then purchased two two-ounce vials of laudanum, an opioid sold by prescription at the turn of the century.

On April 20, 1892, Harrison went to the Adams home, walked through the front door, and found Bettie Adams removing ashes from the fireplace.  He fired, hitting Bettie in the chest.  She collapsed onto the floor and screamed, “Oh Ma, Allen has shot me.”  Her mother ran into the room and held Bettie in her arms, attempting to shield her daughter from the murderous madman.  Harrison tried to shoot her again, but the pistol misfired.  Finally, he got it working.  Placing the barrel against the unfortunate girl’s back, he fired again.  Bettie’s sister also witnessed the shooting. 

Bettie bled out before help could arrive. 

Harrison ran into some nearby woods and hid the gun.  He then swallowed the laudanum and lay down, using his coat for a pillow.  Searchers quickly located the killer.  Still in a stupor, he was transported to the Cabell County Jail.  While there, he vomited several times, likely because of the drug he had taken. 

Later, when asked by reporters if he would do it again, Harrison replied, “Yes, I would.” 

At trial, Harrison’s lawyer declared he was insane.  However, because of the obvious planning of the murder, his insanity defense fell apart.  Harrison was convicted and sentenced to death. 

On November 17, men, women, and children began gathering in the field near Four Pole Creek.  By nine o’clock, nearly 5,000 people surrounded the “hanging tree.”  Unlike many hangings, the crowd seemed solemn.

At eleven, Harrison issued a statement claiming to have no knowledge of the crime.  He did, however, admit he may have done it.     

At two-fifteen, Harrison walked up the gallows.  Within minutes, he was dead. 

Seven years later, West Virginia abolished public executions.