Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bill Sketoe’s Hole

This ghost story takes place in the Wiregrass area of Alabama near the town of Newton.  It has endured for 150 years because many believe it is true.

No one has ever seen the ghost of William “Bill” Sketoe but the locals are firmly convinced he haunts the area where he was hanged.

Bill Sketoe was a Methodist minister whose family was originally from Spain. He grew up in the town of Newton.

In 1864 he was fighting in his 3rd year for the Confederacy when he received word his wife Sarah, who was home taking care of their eight children, had taken ill.

He hired a “substitute” to take his place at the front so he could return home and tend to his wife. After he returned, it is said Sarah significantly improved.

As Sketoe’s visit turned from weeks into months it is said the Captain of the Dale County Home Guard -- a man by the name of Joseph Breare became convinced Sketoe was a deserter.

He and five of his men ambushed Sketoe on December 3, 1864, in an isolated area outside Newton near the old Choctawhatchee River bridge. 

What is left of the original wooden
bridge can be seen in the center front of this photo.
Click to enlarge.
They beat him up--made him crawl through the sand-- and then placed him in a buggy with a noose around his neck that was attached to the limb of a Post Oak tree.

Breare asked if he had any last words, and Sketoe asked if he could pray. But when he began to pray for the men in front of him, the captain became infuriated and whipped the buggy’s horse.

What these militiamen did not take into account was Sketoe was a tall, large man. The branch of the tree bent under his weight, and he was able to touch the ground with his toes.

George Echols, one of Breare’s men home because he was wounded, took his crutch, and dug a hole beneath Sketoe’s feet. Sketoe then strangled, and the deed was done.

Click to enlarge

After the hanging the hole that Echol’s dug remained. It was dug out of the soft sand near the riverbank, but it didn’t fill in.

It kept its original dimensions--30 inches wide and 8 inches deep. People felt a simple gust of wind should have filled it in, but the hole remained.

For the next 125 years, people tried to fill this hole in. Dirt, trash, and sand were placed in it, but when people returned, sometimes within the hour, the hole was empty.
In 1979 a new highway
bridge was built over the spot
where the hanging took place. 

Two men while a new highway bridge was being built even camped over the spot. They filled it with dirt, one also placed his bedroll over it only to find the next morning the hole was empty.

It always kept its original dimensions--30 inches wide, 8 inches deep.

So who or what was keeping this hole cleared out? The locals immediately came to believe it was the ghost of Bill Sketoe. They felt he haunted the area where he died because he was hanged unjustly.

For years, people came to see this hole, and paranormal groups investigated the area. The citizens of Newton erected a monument to Bill Sketoe by the hole.

Local historians reported that the 6 men of the Home Guard responsible for the hanging of Sketoe all met mysterious deaths.

Captain Breare while riding his horse, on a clear day, struck the limb of a Post Oak tree--the same kind that Sketoe was hanged from--and fell off his horse and died.

Another man was struck by lightning and died. George Echols who had dug the hole with his crutch died in the swamp from an unknown cause.

Another man while riding his mule was thrown off and died. Witnesses to this event reported the mule ran off as if terrified by something. The last two men also died of mysterious causes.

People began to believe Sketoe’s ghost played a hand in these deaths.

Most of the legend shared above was first published in Kathryn Tucker Windham's book, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. I share another story from her book here.

The legend of why Bill Sketoe was hanged has several gaping holes. 

Historian David Williams in his book entitled, Rich Man’s War: Castle, Class, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley presents another reason Sketoe was hanged.

First, there is no record that William Sketoe ever served in any Confederate or state military unit.

The legend's claim that he arranged a substitute to take his place at the front is highly unlikely because the Confederates repealed the Substitution Laws in early 1864.

Williams’s book indicates the reason for Sketoe’s hanging is more complicated.

During the Civil War Dale County was a wild place. The surrounding forests harbored numerous deserters and Unionists. They frequently emerged to terrorize the locals.

The residents in the area formed Home Guards to defend themselves.

Newton Home Guard
Joseph Breare, a Newton lawyer,  had served in the Alabama infantry and was captured at Gettysburg. He later formed the Newton Home Guard known locally as the Buttermilk Rangers. 

He and his men resolved to hunt down and punish all deserters.

Breare became convinced that Sketoe was helping John Ward, the leader of a local band of deserters and pro-Union guerillas.

Even though Sketoe was never charged or tried and there was no hard evidence of his
Sketoe's grave.
connection with Ward, Breare hanged him anyway.

It seems Sketoe’s life was still taken unjustly. So the reason for the haunting stands firm.

In 1990, flooding covered the area where Sketoe was hanged with tons of rocks. The hole is no longer visible.

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