Friday the 13th: A Ghost Story

I don’t believe in ghosts because, if there were such a thing, then I think the following would be a true story. As far as I know, it is not. …

It’s not widely discussed. Those who have witnessed it firsthand are, for obvious reasons, reluctant to talk about it. You’ll never see them publicly recounting their tales in front of the cameras and the microphones. These aren’t stories they are eager to tell.

But one hears whispers, rumors, stories told by the friends of friends. And those whispers, rumors and stories are too numerous and too eerily similar to be dismissed.

Something is happening. Something, it seems, happens every Friday the 13th, just before midnight.

The stories begin right around the turn of the 20th century, with the earliest reference I can find coming from August of 1897.

Capt. B.F. Auld of the Baltimore Police Department received a strange and surprising invitation to dinner at the home of Supreme Court Justice Henry Billings Brown. The two men had never met, and Capt. Auld never fully understood the reason for the invitation, but after what he described as their “distressing” conversation, he guessed it was because he had, two years earlier, been present at the funeral of Frederick Douglass.

“You saw him, then?” the justice asked him, with what Auld described as a “fearful” look. “And you are certain, without doubt, that he is, indeed, dead? You are certain?”

Auld never learned what prompted this feverish interrogation, and after firmly assuring Brown of all that he had seen at the great man’s funeral, the justice abruptly dropped the subject and the captain finished his meal in silence.

From later stories we can, I think, guess with some confidence what really lay behind that curious interview.

Consider, for example, the odd tale Charlie Chaplin told photographer Richard Avedon. The great genius (Chaplin), recalled a party at which a drunken D.W. Griffith had held him spellbound with his account of a terrifying “nightmare” he’d had in January of 1917. “‘I hear the mournful wail of millions,’ he told me,” Griffith had said, becoming manic and shaking visibly. “And he made me hear them too!” The next day, Chaplin said, the famed director told him it was just a clumsy, drunken jest, and begged him never to mention it again.

The details of Chaplin’s anecdote echo in another story told by the late Rep. Philip Campbell. As chairman of the House Committee on Rules, Campbell conducted hearings in October of 1921 on the violence of the revived Ku Klux Klan. The terror group’s leader, “Col.” Joe Simmons, was called before Congress. You can read accounts of his testimony, but most of those accounts neglect to mention that he also met with Campbell privately following those hearings and told the congressman of a disturbing “vision” he’d had two months before. Simmons’ vision was remarkably similar to Griffith’s nightmare — including even that exact phrase, “the mournful wail of millions.”

But Simmons was certain it had been more than a bad dream. “He was there,” he told Campbell, “Physically there beside my bed.”

I’ve unearthed dozens of similar stories, and hints of stories, and rumors of hints of stories. Seeking them out began as a hobby of sorts and later grew into an obsession.

My entrance into this strange world began with a friend from seminary whose identity I will protect here out of respect for his privacy. His father had been a prominent white southern preacher and a popular religious author, but he’s remembered today mainly for having been a fierce defender of segregation in the 1960s. I made some awkward joke about the similarity of my friend’s name with that of this notorious figure and only then realized, embarrassed, that this infamous man was his father.

It was then that my friend shared with me his father’s story — his whole story, which included more than just the horrifying headlines the man had earned during the Civil Rights era. I hadn’t realized that the old preacher had later repented of his segregationist views, abruptly resigning from the pulpit of his large church, becoming a teacher and, eventually, spending his last years as the humble pastor of a tiny, multiracial congregation in a small storefront church.

My friend traces that transformation back to a day when he, as a child, was sitting at the kitchen table doing schoolwork. He’d been assigned a book report by his grade-school teacher, an old Quaker who was all too aware of his father’s views. And so when his father came into the kitchen, he saw that book — a children’s adaptation of Douglass’ Narrative — sitting on the table. And there, on the cover, was the same famous portrait of Douglass I’ve included here.

“What is this?” my friend’s father had said, seizing the book before he could respond. “It’s him! How did you …?”

And then, after frantically examining the book for a moment, he just stood there, trembling and staring at the picture on the cover. My friend said it frightened him to realize, for the first time, that his father could be frightened too.

“He’s … he was a real person?” his father was muttering. “He was real. It was … it really …” He fled the house, taking the book with him, and didn’t return for hours. After that, my friend says, his father was a changed man.

My friend’s version of this story, I should note, is much more dramatic — and far more detailed — than his father’s own account. I tracked down a water-damaged copy of his long out-of-print memoir, From Galling Chains Set Free, in which he describes that day, suggesting he was simply angry that his son’s teachers were assigning such reading material. He rushed off to read the book seeking, as he put it, “ammunition for the next school board meeting,” but then, unexpectedly, found it moving and persuasive. He mentions it was the first time he’d ever seen a picture of Douglass, but he never describes that moment of horror-struck recognition after seeing the book’s cover and never explains what it might have meant.

So which account was more accurate? Did it really happen the way my friend remembered it? I’ll just say this: That chapter of his father’s memoir is titled, “An Unexpected Visitor From the Past.”

What I’ve pieced together from all these stories sounds unbelievable, and I certainly cannot prove any of it. But there are more things in heaven and earth than I can prove.

All I can tell you is what I believe. And what I believe is this: Somewhere in America, just before midnight on every Friday the 13th, the ghost of Frederick Douglass appears at the bedside of some racist wretch.

On some occasions, it seems, he stands silently, glowering with blazing eyes. That’s how then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson described him. (Although, once again, the description comes to us only very indirectly, through a confidant of Betty Ford’s. Ford said Lady Bird Johnson told her of an “awful dream” that left her husband shaken and unsettled throughout the final months of 1959. She used those exact words, “blazing eyes,” which we can only assume was a phrase her husband himself had used.)

Sometimes, apparently, Douglass speaks, condemning the one he is visiting with all the famed eloquence and devastating wit of America’s greatest orator and prophet. (In divorce papers, Cornelia Wallace described her husband George as having, the previous spring, spent “three days with his nose in the dictionary,” looking up words “he’d heard in a dream.”)

And sometimes, on rare occasions, it seems that Douglass’ spirit possesses the same great physical strength that the man himself had in life. At least a couple of stories suggest that these visitations have sometimes involved a serious, corporeal ass-kicking. In 1913, Ty Cobb missed several games in late June due to vague injuries he never explained to manager Hughie Jennings. Fifty years later, on Sunday, Sept. 15, Byron de la Beckwith showed up in church with badly bruised ribs and a greenish-yellow shiner nearly closing his left eye. No one quite believed his story about falling down the cellar stairs, and from that day until his death in 2001, it was rumored that the warped old man never slept a wink on the night of any Friday the 13th.

All of this raises many questions for which I have no answer. Why Friday the 13th? Why were these particular people visited rather than others? Why were some of them transformed while others seemed, if anything, even more set in their ways following the visitation?

And who’s next?

All I know is this: Later this month, on Monday the 16th, somewhere in America a man will arrive at work looking clammy and pale. He may be a politician, a preacher, a TV host or radio personality. He may be a famous leader, a celebrity, or someone whose name most of us would never recognize.

“Are you alright?” his friends and colleagues will ask, “You don’t look well.”

And he’ll insist, a bit defensively, that yes, yes, he’s fine, just fine. Just a little tired. Rough weekend. Trouble sleeping.

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  • Fascinating. (O.O)

  • Michael Pullmann

    Maybe it’ll be George Zimmerman.

  • Anonymous

    Ah ghost? Puh-leaze, Fred. What kind of incredulous rubes do you take us for? The man is obviously a time traveler.

  • LL

    I wish. I really do wish there was such a thing as ghosts that could exact some sort of righteous vengeance on the guilty that the guilty did not (because of grave injustice) receive previously (like that movie “What Lies Beneath,” for example). But I don’t think there is. 

  • Never heard of Douglass before, but I just looked him up – and my WORD that man was awesome.

    (And he was pro-women’s suffrage, too! First big anti-slavery guy I’ve found who wanted equal rights for women! Woo!)

  • friendly reader

    Really? Where did you go to school? I guess I thought his inclusion in Civil War history was pretty much standard by now.

  • Anonymous

     Not everyone is from the U.S. I doubt that Australian students spend a lot of time on the U.S. Civil War.

  • Here in Texas, we don’t take kindly to people tryin’ to teach us about the wrong sort of folk.

    We prefer our history to be about civilized people.

  • Like Dash1 says… not from the USA. Never studied the American Civil War. Never studied any civil wars. Certainly never heard about famous Americans.

  • Ursula L

    You know, this story is making me think we ought to organize some sort of meet-up and tour at Mt. Hope cemetery, to visit Fredrick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, etc.   

  • Anonymous

     For what it’s worth, I went to school in a moderately underserved part of the US, and I never got much more than “Frederick Douglass was some important guy in the Civil War.”

  • Also, here in the US teaching is very inconsistent.  It’s hard to underestimate it.

    I do not recall learning about Fredrick Douglass.  I think my first encounter was one of the previous times Fred brought him up.

    I don’t think my education was that bad in terms of the country as a whole.  Indeed some parts of my education were downright brilliant (they tended to be so on account of brilliant teachers) it’s just that other parts weren’t. At all.

  • Socalguy533

    Santorum better lock the doors and get some holy water. Freddie’s comin’!

  •  I recall learning about Frederick Douglass, but I can’t actually recall learning anything *about* Frederick Douglass. Like, I know that he existed, and that he was an abolitionist, and that he was well-spoken and wrote well. Not that we ever studied anything he actually wrote. Just, like, there’s a paragraph in the chapter on the civil war that said that Frederick Douglass was an abolitionist who was well-spoken and well-written, and african-american. Which is about as much as we learned about any particular abolitonist other than Harriet Tubman, and also probably about as much as we ever learned about any famous african-americans, except for Harriet Tubman.

  • It’s possible that I also learned that much and simply didn’t remember because the class was so damn dull.

    I had one good history teacher growing up.  I had him as co-teacher of a combined history and literature class that basically amounted to a philosophy class, and what we looked at tended to be fiction so there wouldn’t have been space for Douglass.  (Plus it went from, at least, the Allegory of the Cave to Apartheid so there wasn’t all that much time spent on any one time period.)

    Every other history class I had was completely forgettable.  The only other one that even comes mind comes to mind specifically for how bad it was.

  • Anonymous

     “fiction so there wouldn’t have been space for Douglass.” That’s probably a function of the belief (sadly common) that literature = fiction + poetry. We’re now getting away from that a bit, which is all to the good. But rhetoric was traditionally a part of the study of literature. And Douglass was a brilliant rhetorician.

  • Anonymous

     Maybe a Time Lord. His TARDIS is a Bible.

  • Anonymous

    On a related note, Abraham Lincoln shot on April 14.  In 1865 that day fell on a Friday.  Good Friday, in fact.  If that was in a work of fiction I would’ve found the symbolism a little too pat.

  • Tricksterson

    Oh, Texas, so you’re not from the United States either.

  • Tricksterson

    I don’t dpn’t think holy water would protect Santorum from Douglass.  If anything it would probably scorch him.

  • I’m an American, and I can’t imagine not knowing about Frederick Douglass. It would be like not knowing about… I dunno, Jesus. I did learn about Douglass in depth in high school, and more in college, but I knew about him before that. We learned about him in elementary school, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know his name. Like Susan B. Anthony, George Washington, Elizabeth I, Julius Caesar. I went to average Michigan public schools, nothing special. 

    I have noticed, though, talking to friends who are a decade or more younger than me, that they often have weird gaps in their education that my contemporaries didn’t have. (And the sex education most of them got at school was worse than non-existent, it’s horrifying.) From All Children Left Behind, I suppose.

  • Anonymous

     Generations do matter. And in case anyone is disposed to talk about how much better things were in the old days, I went to school a very long time ago and we heard nothing that I can recall about Frederick Douglass, although we covered the Civil War era in some depth.

    Presumably this is because I went to school in Virginia, and Douglass was, y’know, a Marylander. (That would be reason #2, of course.)

  • … Like Douglass, I presume >:)

  • Are you allowed multiple likes for one post?

  • Anonymous

    As far as Texan public school system bias goes(esca-err, graduated from it last year), they’re currently leering more at any historical figures that may not have held certain religious beliefs, and Douglass just so happened to dodge that bullet: a thing that happened that may not have been covered by people nationally was a bit where the board of education tried to stop Thomas Jefferson from being taught in school, because he was ‘insignificant’. You should find this alarming because Texan textbook purchases make up such a significant chunk of textbook sales that, had the motion gone through, public school textbooks all over the country would almost certainly have changed to accommodate that tasty morsel of censorship.

    But, speaking personally, in the nice, upper-middle class high school I quietly snuck into, and having taken AP US History, I can confidently say that Frederick Douglass has slid into a bit of historical obscurity; if you’re paying attention in class, you’ll probably at least have read some side snippet detailing his opinion on every big slavery debacle/women’s suffrage push/other major national event that popped up while he was a national presence, and you’ll know what he was and did, but you probably wouldn’t be able to write down a 1 page report on him if put on the spot, unlike for someone as insignificant as, say, Thomas Jefferson.

  • I went to elementary school in Florida, where, as of 1986, the textbook still referred to 1860-1865 as “The War Between the States”, and the only abolitionist covered with any sort of detail was John Brown, because they could portray him as a lunatic and murderer.

  • gocart mozart

    Look up Thomas Paine, also an anti-slavery feminist.

  • How much of this is made up?  It’s a great story and all, but I’m curious now.

  • Anonymous

    One, two, Frederick’s coming for you…

  • Will Hennessy

    Chills. Serious f***ing chills. In a good way.

  • wendy

    I can’t vouch for any of it, but… 

    It is a fact that in 1957, when Lyndon Johnson was Senate Majority Leader, he used every trick in the book to derail a Civil Rights bill put forth by Eisenhower. He ran it through three different committees, each chaired by an extremely conservative southerner. He slow-walked negotiations, he used parliamentary minutiae to amend, revise, water down, amend and dilute further, stall for another month, then to another committee, etc., until finally it was so useless it almost didn’t matter that it was never brought to the floor for a vote. 

    And it is also a fact that in 1964-65, when Lyndon Johnson was President, he was so committed to a Civil Rights Bill that he horse-traded and arm-twisted and bargained away many of his other priorities, including committing to kneecapping his own party’s nominees in some states to get Republican support, in order to force the Bill through a reluctant Senate. Knowing full well, and saying at the time, “our party has just lost the South for a generation.” (two generations as it turns out, maybe three, but I suspect he’d have done it even if he’d known.)

  • a thing that happened that may not have been covered by people nationally was a bit where the board of education tried to stop Thomas Jefferson from being taught in school, because he was ‘insignificant’.

    That’s actually one of the few things about Texas’ education system that I know.  It was definitely in the national news.

  • Mike Timonin

    And he was pro-women’s suffrage, too!

    That’s actually a bit more complicated – Douglass supported women’s rights, but, at times, only in as much as voting women could help the abolitionist cause. Also, one of the prominent women’s suffrage groups after the US Civil War fought against passage of the 15th amendment (which grants the right to vote to black men) on the grounds that good white women should get the right to vote before former slaves. So, there’s stuff there.

  • Anonymous

    He was mentioned in my book, but not in class. History teachers “don’t have time” to talk about race relations, even though they’re the most important aspect of US history.

  • Mike Timonin

    the Texas board of education tried to stop Thomas Jefferson from being taught in school, because he was ‘insignificant’.

    So, yeah, the thing was bad, but it’s not quite THAT bad. The BoE didn’t try to remove Jefferson entirely – teachers can still teach about Jefferson the president. They tried to remove him from the section of the textbook on the Enlightenment – teachers are not supposed to teach about Jefferson the thinker. 

    Jefferson the president is a great ‘murican, just like all presidents up until Ronald Reagan, with the possible exception of FDR and LBJ. Jefferson the thinker was a filthy commie atheist, and probably a pagan – entirely too confusing. /BoE Thinking

    The bit that I liked was the effort to remove discussion of capitalism from the texts – well, the word capitalism – on the grounds that liberals had corrupted the word capitalism so that it’s a bad word now.

  • Lori


    The bit that I liked was the effort to remove discussion of capitalism from the texts – well, the word capitalism – on the grounds that liberals had corrupted the word capitalism so that it’s a bad word now. 

    If only. This is like Obama being the Most Liberal President Ever!—I wish it was half as true and their fantasies say it is.

  • Dragoness Eclectic

    I can attest that Mr. Douglass is sadly neglected in American schools, except as a footnote to the slavery issue. I read his biography and several of his speeches as an adult, downloaded off Project Gutenberg, and they are absolutely searing. I finally understood why so many people find the display of the Confederate Battle Flag, or incorporation of parts of it in state flags, so offensive.  Waving that flag in front of a black person must be like waving the flag of Nazi Germany in front of the descendent of a concentration camp survivor. It’s beyond bad taste, to put it mildly.

    I personally think his “Life and Times” and the very thinly fictional “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” should be required reading in school. (A number of the incidents in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” are either taken from Douglass’s biography, or that sort of thing was horrifyingly wide-spread and notorious).  People need to understand not only how bad slavery was for the slaves, but how pervasive and corrupting it was to every race and class and station of life.  It’s still corrupting our public discourse.

  • Otrame

    Remember when Faux News commented on the talk of Obama and Clinton having a series of debates “similar to the Lincoln/Douglas debates”, with a graphic in the background showing Lincoln and Frederick Douglass?

  • Anonymous

     Oh do I need to have words with your history teachers. He was more than just pro-women’s suffrage. He is one of the men who signed onto the Seneca Falls Declaration, THE first declaration of women’s rights in the United States. And he was one of the few men who wasn’t married to one of the organizers of the convention.
    Douglass was one of the greatest Americans of the mid-nineteenth century. Shame on your teachers.

  • I did read both Douglass’s Narrative and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in high school (a fairly small and liberal private school in the New Orleans area). I’m a bit sad, but not surprised, to hear confirmed that the experience wasn’t universal to the U.S. high school experience.

    In delightedly reading bits of this post to my husband (and wondering aloud how much of the historical detail Fred cites are really true), I ended up having to explain who Douglass was. My husband went to school in Texas, which has already been amply discussed in this thread. What I said was, “He was a former slave who wrote an autobiography during a time when white people both north and south of the Mason Dixon line didn’t listen much to anyone but white people talking about what slavery was like, but also didn’t much believe a black man was smart enough to write a book.”

    I may have been painting with an overly broad brush. But not by much. “Whitesplaining” is a new word, but it’s not a new concept at all.

  • Tonio

    I finally understood why so many people find the display of the
    Confederate Battle Flag, or incorporation of parts of it in state flags,
    so offensive.

    And it was only used by the Army of Northern Virginia – the official flag of the Confederacy was the Stars and Bars. The reason it’s still in use is because segregationists used it as their symbol starting with Thurmond’s breakaway campaign in 1948, and today it still represents a segregated concept of Southern culture. Former Virginia governor George Allen once claimed that he didn’t know the history of the flag and falsely assumed it to be a generic symbol of rebelliousness. The flag is far too drenched in the blood of the civil rights martyrs for his explanation to have any credibility.

  •  The cemetery is beautiful this time of year.

  • Ursula L

    That’s actually a bit more complicated – Douglass supported women’s rights, but, at times, only in as much as voting women could help the abolitionist cause. Also, one of the prominent women’s suffrage groups after the US Civil War fought against passage of the 15th amendment (which grants the right to vote to black men) on the grounds that good white women should get the right to vote before former slaves. So, there’s stuff there. 

    It wasn’t merely about wanting white women to vote first.  

    It was also about understanding that equality has to be for everyone, if it is for anyone.  You can’t break equality into little parts, giving it here and there, so some have rights and others don’t.  By excluding women, the 15th Amendment wasn’t about voting equality, it was about expanding a privilege to another subset of the population.  

    And seeing the political momentum for expanding the vote, knowing that if this chance was missed it would be a generation or more before women would be able to vote. And they were right – after the Reconstruction amendments were passed, there was little political interest in expanding equality further.  

    Women suffrage workers were being told to wait.  To put men first.  To support an amendment that deliberately excluded them.  When the cause you’re fighting for is women’s equality then you can’t support laws that deliberately treat women unequally.  

  • Saffi

    I’m sure that there are some school districts where the curriculum is abominable, but in defense of history teachers generally, I have to protest.  I once went with a friend to a movie that included some interesting information about Native American participation in Revolutionary-era US history.  She turned to me and indignantly complained that this information wasn’t taught in schools.  The only problem is, I went to the same school and sat in the same history classes as she did, and not only did I remember being taught this stuff, I remembered what the picture of one of the battles looked like in the textbook we used.

    Some people like history more than others, so they remember it more easily.

  • Ursula L

     The cemetery is beautiful this time of year.

    I know.  And it’s almost lilac time, with the cemetery right next to Highland Park…  

  • Anonymous

    I have heard about him all my life. He is the reason for Black History Month. It started out as a week in February, because Douglass was allegedly born on (wait for it) February 13th. The records of people born enslaved are sketchy so the exact date gets argued about. Then some time in the 70’s it was expanded to Black History Month. So don’t let anyone tell you that it’s Black History Month because February is the shortest month of the year. It is to honor one of our greatest Americans.

    Anyway, I figured most people had heard of him because of the awesome way Morgan Freeman read his words in the PBS documentary the Civil War.

  • Tonio

    The bit about the shortest month was actually a Dick Gregory joke. To my knowledge, no one has seriously accused white authorities of deliberately choosing the month because it’s the shortest.

  • Lori


      Oh do I need to have words with your history teachers.

    Maybe, but not about this. Deird isn’t American so her history teachers can’t really be faulted for not teaching great mid-19th century Americans. If she had taken a college course on 19th century America or some such and they didn’t teach Douglas that would be different.

  • Lori


    The bit about the shortest month was actually a Dick Gregory joke. To my
    knowledge, no one has seriously accused white authorities of
    deliberately choosing the month because it’s the shortest.

    I would actually assume that someone, somewhere has. There are humor-challenged people everywhere. One of them is bound to have heard the joke, and not realized that it was a joke, the same way some folks can’t tell Onion headlines from actual news.