Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Ghost of Mathias

This story is elusive--the names, several of the places etc. cannot be traced. But it is interesting so I place it here...

In the fall of 1958 a black freeman by the name of Mathias presented a letter from an abolitionist group to a Quaker minister, Reilly Daniels who lived in Rochester, New York. This letter informed Reilly that Mathias could be trusted. He gave Mathias a place to stay and made him the church handyman. 

The two men worked together for the next two years helping escaped slaves from the south travel to Canada on the Underground Railroad.

Not much is know about Mathias before he approached Reilly--there is no written history or photograph of him. The information that is known today about this unusual man is because for years after these two men worked together his story was passed down from one generation to the next in Rochester. 

The fact that Mathias and Daniels even worked together is surprising because Daniels was a Christian and Mathias was known to practice hoodoo.

From the 1830’s on, every southern plantation had at least one slave who practiced hoodoo--which had been passed down. Hoodoo rituals evolved from a mixture of West African, Native American and European spiritual rituals. 

A misconception is that hoodoo is the worship of Satan--this is not true. People who practice hoodoo are sometimes called conjurers because the practice involves casting spells and curses or as they are called “tricks”--with fetish rituals such as mojo bags filled with herbs and dried bones. 

On the flip side a Hoodoo doctor, which Mathias was, also called upon supernatural or spiritual powers in order to help people.*

Because of this difference in beliefs it is said that Mathias clashed with Daniels on more than one occasion. In March of 1860, Mathias left Rochester to continue his work in the south. 

His plan was to pass himself off as a slave on a Savannah, Georgia plantation so that he could help slaves escape and then lead them north to the Underground Railroad. 

Another Abolitionist, Abigail Potterson encountered Mathias as he made his way south. She arranged a safe cellar for Mathias to stay in for the day while she found a carriage that could take him to the next underground “station”.

Here is what Potterson wrote in her dairy in March of 1860-- it is paraphrased to shorten her entry:

“When I brought him lunch he was sitting on the cellar’s dirt floor. His back was to me as I approached him. He was tossing something that looked like white twigs on the ground before him and I heard him muttering something in a low tone. I walked up to him and tapped him on his shoulder. He turned and looked at me with hatred in his eyes. I felt dizzy and faint.

The next thing I knew I woke up next to him lying on the dirt floor. He apologized for scaring the soul away from my body. He explained he had meant no harm. She then saw on the ground one of the white twigs he had forgotten to pick up. It wasn’t a twig, though, but an animal bone.”

After this Mathias made it as far as Earl Lander’s plantation near Savannah. He planned to help 12 slaves escape. Samantha Devon shared the following account of this escape in a book entitled, Unchaining Freedom. Her grandfather was one of the slaves that escaped with Mathias’ help. Again, her account is paraphrased in order to shorten it:

The man who helped my grandpa was a Hoodoo doctor. My grandpa could tell he was because who else could show up out of nowhere in a Georgia slave cabin and announce he was from New York and was there to help everyone get free. They were all actually afraid of him--knowing what he was. Grandpa Toby said that one night he gathered everyone in one cabin and told them it was time. He gave them all mojo bags to wear under their clothing and said it would make them invisible to the white people.

One boy, Silias refused to go along with it and instead went to tell the foreman what was going on. Grandpa said Mathias killed Silias even before he was halfway across the yard. But the dogs must have smelled something because they started howling and everybody had to get out quick. The Hoodoo man stayed behind and made a spell to stop the men from chasing after but something happened and he got caught.

Grandpa saw his freedom because of that man. He was grateful but he never wanted to see him again. Said if he wasn’t the devil then he was a close cousin.”

What happened next was published in a local Savannah newspaper under the April 3rd headline, COLORED RASCAL CAUGHT, SLAVES ESCAPE.

“The farm of Earl Landers was the scene of an escape last night. Mr. Landers shot and caught an unknown negroe that is suspected of being a northern abolitionist agitator but 12 negroes are still missing. Mr. Landers' brother, Andrew Landers was killed when his horse fell upon him during the chase. Following is a list of the escaped slaves and their particulars…”

After Mathias was captured he was taken to the county Courthouse by Sheriff Gil Smithson and placed in a cell. No medical attention was provided for his wound and the official record at the time mentions that Mathias died while trying to escape that same day.

In 190l the truth came out when former Deputy Sheriff Wayne Haskins admitted that he watched as Earl Landers and the sheriff hung the captured man in his jail cell. 

Haskins stated that these two men were surprised when the prisoner stopped struggling and instead used his last breathe of life to snatch a black flannel bag underneath his belt. He then sprinkled the contents on the sheriff and Landers. 

Locals say it was this “trick” by Mathias that caused both men to be cursed with very bad luck up until they were both killed in the bloody Civil War battle of Bull Run.

As long as this courthouse stood it seems Mathias’ ghost haunted the cell where he was hanged. 

As the years passed and more courthouse workers heard the story of the murder-- they became convinced that the unusual things they were seeing and hearing were caused by Mathias’ ghost. 

Several prisoners that were kept in the same cell over the years stated it was always unnaturally cold. Workers reported smelling herbs in the area. 

There also were reports that people actually heard the sound of Mathias rasping breath as the noose tightened around his neck.

By the time the courthouse was torn down in 1948 most had forgotten about this murder. But in 1973 a local man, Terrance Mallory discovered an old photograph at an estate sale. 

It shows a woman holding a baby in a turn of the century dress standing in front of the window that once was Mathias’ cell. By the 1900s this cell was being used as a supply room. Malloy feels the blurry image on the windowpane is actually the ghost of Mathias.

*  Hoodoo is practiced not only by blacks but by some Anglos. It was considered by many during the Civil War to be a kind of folk magic. It was a country cousin to the Voodoo that was practiced in the Caribbean and New Orleans. Although it consisted of mostly benign folk medicine, many practitioners seemed to have other powers, such as, psychic ability. 

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