Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up: That Time The Guy Who Wrote Sleepy Hollow Saved Christmas

Written By: Tracy - Dec• 11•17

Some ideas are simply timely ideas. Which might explain all the competing patents for things like airplanes and radio. Saving Christmas was another timely idea.

I wrote two weeks ago about how Dickens’s A Christmas Carol created a popular movement that brought back Christmas as a family holiday. It was a little like Harry Potter had everyone dressing in old graduation gowns and calling themselves Gryffindors, only with more Christmas Turkey.

Another writer contemporary to Dickens who also helped to revive Christmas traditions- or in some cases invent them whole cloth – was Washington Irving. That’s right, the guy who wrote the Headless Horseman story helped to save Christmas.

Prior to the 19th century, Christmas was either forgotten, or treated as a holiday for adults (A drinking holiday). In Protestant areas, the holiday had been abandoned because it was Catholic, or something the early Catholic Church had co-opted from the Roman Pagans.

This is the landscape into which Irving started writing about Christmas. In 1809, Irving wrote the satyrical “Knickerbocker’s History Of New York,” in which he included several tall tales about the founding of the city. In one, “Good St. Nicholas” helps out a shipwrecked Dutch scouting party and points them to the Island of Manhattan as a good place to settle.

In 1819, he collected some of his essays and short stories into “The Sketch Book Of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” The book contained both “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow,” which are the two stories that Irving is known for today. But the book also contained a number of stories and essays about or set during Christmastime.

while this was going on, Irving was living in England. He took note of some of the disappearing English Christmas traditions. Irving wrote about mistletoe, carols, holiday parties, the Christmas feast and the generosity of the host toward his guests.

Irving believed that these traditions should be preserved as a way to get us through the long, dark winter season.

In his essay “Christmas,” he wrote: “At other times we derive . . . Our pleasures from the mere beauties of nature. But in the depths of winter . . . We turn for our gratifications to moral sources.”

When people read Irving’s stories about Christmas, they warmed up to the idea of gathering as a family to mark the day. Manhattan had just experienced a Christmas riot, so rebranding Christmas as a quiet, family holiday seemed like a great idea.

Coming out of the era when children were treated like miniature adults and “seen and not heard,” parents liked the idea of having a day to give gifts and candy without looking like they were spoiling their children.

While Irving can’t be credited alone with saving Christmas, his work laid the foundation for later writers like Dickens and Clement Moore (who wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” A.k.a. “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.”)

If you want to read The Sketchbook Of Geoffrey Crayon, it’s available on Project Gutenberg.

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 30 Catch Me If You Can, Gingerbread Man

Written By: admin - Dec• 04•17

Queenly cookies? Maybe!

Gingerbread men are practically synonymous with Christmas.  But, at the risk of sounding click-bait-y, you won’t believe the surprising origins of this cookie.

Spoiler it’s Queen Elizabeth. Maybe.
Martha Stewart has the gingerbread house recipe that I use each year.
Emily Dickenson was a fan of Gingerbread loaves.
My husband’s favorite ginger snap cookie recipe comes from Silver Dollar City’s culinary school.

I Am Not Making This Up: Having The Dickens Scared Out Of Christmas

Written By: Tracy - Nov• 27•17

Unless you are a fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas, you probably leave the ghosts and other creepy stuff firmly behind in Halloween.

But this hasn’t always been the case. Prior to the Victorian era, Christmas was a darker holiday, one in which ghosts and ghost stories were a big part.

In Europe prior to Dickens, Christmas was a holiday with pagan roots. The days were short, and many believed that the darkest day of the year was a day when the dead could return.

At least in part, celebrations around the winter solstice meet a human need. The days are short and dreary. In seasonal agrarian societies, there is a season of forced inactivity. Humans need something to break up the monotony. The Norse had Yule. Pagan Rome observed the death and rebirth of Sol Invictus.

In England, Oliver Cromwell suppressed Christmas celebrations in the mid-seventeenth century. Cromwell was a Puritan. (The same guys who came to America on the Mayflower and had the debatably first Thanksgiving.) Cromwell and the other puritans objected to celebrating a Catholic holiday that had pagan origins.

In the American colonies, the puritans banned Christmas (though it was celebrated in New York and Virginia). Post Revolutionary War, the newly-minted Americans threw the holiday out, along with other English traditions (though the Dutch and Germans held onto their traditions).

By Dickens’s time, the holiday was just another day to many. Dickens often gets credit with single-handedly saving Christmas. (Although Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert reintroduced some traditions from Germany, like the Christmas tree, and popular writer Washington Irving had written quite a bit about Christmas.)

Dickens’s smash book emphasized charity, family and goodwill (as opposed to carousing). It started a resurgence of Christmas traditions the way Harry Potter started collegiate Quidditch leagues.

Dickens drew on old traditions, such as telling ghost stories. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by his late business partner Jacob Marley and is able to see more formerly-human spirits out his window.

During Christmas gatherings, people would gather around a fire, tongues would loosen under the influence of a different kind of spirit and then the ghost stories would also flow.

Party games might have included some form of divination. For example, some girls would peel an apple and throw the peels on the ground. The peel was supposed to curl into the shape of their future husband’s initial.

But sometime between Dickens and now, ghost stories at Christmas have fallen by the wayside. Unless your name is Tim Burton, (or you work at the Haunted Mansion) chances are good that your skeletons don’t wear Santa hats, and your ghosts don’t hang out under the mistletoe.

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 29 What Was On The Table That First Thanksgiving?

Written By: admin - Nov• 20•17

When we gather around the table this Thanksgiving, we’ll probably have turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing and mashed potatoes.  

Turkey wrapped in bacon. Because? ‘Murica, I guess.

Turkey is such an iconic part of Thanksgiving that there is even a giant turkey float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade.  

But the first Thanksgiving may not have even had turkey. 

I Am Not Making This Up: The Multiple “First” Thanksgivings

Written By: Tracy - Nov• 13•17

We all know the story of the first American Thanksgiving, when in 1598, the Spanish under Juan de Oñate reached the Rio Grande and held a party because: Yay! We survived crossing a desert with no water!


Or maybe on December 4, 1619, when settlers arrived along the James River in Virginia and hit their knees to thank God they were finally off that boat.

That’s not what you learned in school, either?

The fact is, the calendar is littered with “First Thanksgivings.” In the early days of settlement, there were a lot of private companies forming colonial settlements in North America.

So why is our cultural memory one of Puritan pilgrims and a turkey? Probably because that particular Thanksgiving narrative fit the needs of the people who created it.

Throughout the world, there has been a longstanding practice of setting aside a day to give thanks. “It’s been a good harvest. Let’s take tomorrow off to give thanks.”

This is the tradition the Puritans were following when they held their day of thanksgiving.

Even during the American Revolution, the Continental Congress set aside a day of thanksgiving. And in 1777, George Washington observed a day of thanksgiving to celebrate his victory at the battle of Saratoga. These days were probably more about prayer than pudding.

In 1863, prompted by a campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale (who also wrote Mary Had A Little Lamb), Abraham Lincolon made Thanksgiving a national holiday.

So how did Puritans and turkeys come to dominate the Thanksgiving narrative?

My research was inconclusive, but my theory is that we can thank the same people who gave us the “Washington could not tell a lie about chopping down his father’s cherry tree,” story.

These are simple, moralistic stories that are easy to teach to kids. The story of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving has people coming to America for a better life, seeking freedom to worship as they please. They are taught to survive by welcoming, friendly locals and they all come together as family to celebrate.

Compare this to the story of the Jamestown Settlement, which has people seeking gold, starvation and cannibalism. Even sanitized, it has fewer “American” morals.

And while the Pilgrim Thanksgiving narrative is more fairy tale than facts, that hardly matters when your kid is six. This is the same age when we still tell kids that Santa and the Easter Bunny are real.

We can probably wait until they are too old for Santa to teach them that the Europeans were douchy land-grabbers. They’re ready to believe it by then, anyway.

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 28 John Smith Is The Wrong John

Written By: Tracy - Nov• 06•17

This Thanksgiving, remember that long before the founding of the United States, some of the first colonists didn’t have much to be thankful for. Including food. They called that season the starving time.

I Am Not Making This Up: Monster, Hollywood Star.

Written By: Tracy - Oct• 30•17

When most people move into a new home, they expect to contend with vermin. Maybe a rat or two, or some roaches. They don’t expect to have a maybe-bear come at them through a window.

But that’s what happened to Elizabeth Ford in 1971. And her story would go on to chill and thrill millions when it was made into a movie – The Legend Of Boggy Creek.

Fouke, Arkansas is in the same general area as Texarkana. (Which I wrote about last Monday in connection with a series of murders that may have inspired the hookman urban legend). It’s a quiet, mostly rural area where you might expect to see wildlife. (Even today, a few people will get into car accidents by hitting a deer.)

So when Bobby and Elizabeth Ford heard a large animal around their new home at night, they assumed it was a bear.

They weren’t thinking of The Jonesville Monster, a large, ape-like creature that locals had occasionally seen in the woods around Southwest Arkansas over the past century.

Unlike Grizzly bears, the Black Bears that are native to Arkansas are not an aggressive species. If you leave them alone, (the saying goes) they will leave you alone.

But this creature didn’t leave the Fords alone. On The night of May 1, 1971, while Elizabeth slept on her couch, some kind of large animal reached at her through her screen window.

Elizabeth’s husband Bobby and her brother Don scared the creature away by shooting at it. They claimed that throughout the night, the creature kept coming back. When they called police, a constable responded by bringing them a strong light and a shotgun.

At one point in the night, Bobby said that something with a hairy arm tried to grab him. He would be treated for scratches at a local clinic.

The inhabitants of the house described the creature as being seven foot tall, three foot wide, hairy with red eyes the size of half-dollars.

They said that they shot at the animal seven times throughout the night, and believed that they hit it. But no blood was found on the property. A daylight search revealed three-toed tracks and scratches made with something that had three claws.

In an interview with the Texarkana Gazette, Bobby Ford said that he planned to move out of his new home immediately.

In the days following the attack, authorities speculated that the creature might be a large cat, such as a mountain lion. As sightings continued to plague the area, some wondered if the “Fouke Monster,” might be an escaped circus ape. A Little Rock radio station even offered a $1,000 bounty on the monster.

Then in 1973, filmmaker and Texarkana resident Charles B. Pierce made The Legend Of Boggy Creek, a movie about the monster and his attack on the Ford family. Pierce would go on to make The Town That Dreaded Sundown about the Texarkana murders three years later.

Sightings and other signs of the creature have appeared sporadically around Arkansas (even as far north as Russellville) ever since.

Is The Jonesville/Fouke/Boggy Creek monster real? Experts say no. One month after the attacks on the Ford family, an archaeologists at Southern Arkansas University said that there was a 99 percent chance that the footprints were a hoax.

The uptick in sightings of the beast also coincided with an uptick on Bigfoot sightings across the country. In the early 1970’s, Bigfoot and similar cryptids were a trend in the same way that chupacabras were in the mid-1990’s, and scary clowns have become in the mid 2010’s.

It’s possible that someone could have played a trick on the Ford family, or an encounter with a wild animal got blown out of proportion. The story could have fed local pranksters, leading to strange footprints found in later sightings.

Author and skeptic Brian Dunning has noted that all evidence related to the Fouke Monster is anecdotal (therefore not testable).” The implication being that the monster is probably, like the movie it’s based on, more fiction than fact.

But, as the box office returns for The Legend Of Boggy Creek can attest to, it makes for a really good story.

I Am Not Making This Up: The Hookman Didn’t Really Have A Hook

Written By: Tracy - Oct• 23•17

Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, because it’s based on a true story.  

The Hookman was even a monster-of-the-week on season one of Supernatural.

A young couple went parking on Lover’s Lane.  The radio is on to set the mood.  In between songs, there is a bulletin: lock your doors.  A mental patient escaped from the local asylum.  He’s known for killing his family with his prosthetic hook. 

The girl gets scared and demands her boyfriend take her home.  But the boy is reluctant.  After all, he’s parked in Lover’s Lane, so he’s not thinking with the right head. And people in horror stories don’t know they are in horror stories.  

In some versions, the girl insists.  With the mood broken, the boy takes the girl home in a huff.  When he goes to open the door for her, they find a bloody hook hanging from her door handle. 

In other versions, the boy gets angry that the girl wants to go home instead of putting out (because all horror stories are really morality plays).  So he taunts her, then gets out of the car and runs off to teach her a lesson.  She sits in the car, terrified.  Then she starts to hear a scratching on the roof.  She musters up her courage and gets out, only to find that her boyfriend has been killed and strung up over the car.  The scratching she heard was his fingers brushing the car’s roof. 

The hookman story is an old standard at slumber parties and around campfires.  It was even an episode of Supernatural back during season 1, when the show was less about biblical drama and more about two guys hunting folklore monsters. 

But like some old favorites, the hookman story might be rooted in actual events: a series of murders called the Texarkana Moonlight Murders.  As the name implies, the murders took place in Texarkana in 1946.

In an article on the murders for Texas Monthly, journalist Prudence Mackintosh remembers Texarkana at this time as a Norman Rockwellesque town. The city straddles a state line, with two of everything.  Two post offices and courtrooms in one building that the state line bisects. Two high schools with an intense football rivalry. 

That same folksy quality was what Walt Disney remembered about Kansas City of the same era, and would try to reproduce in his Main Street USA at Disneyland.

Now imagine a horror movie dropped into Main Street USA.

February 22, 1946 would have been a chilly night.  So when Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey parked on a lover’s lane near the outskirts of town (on the Texas side), their activities would have fogged up the windows of their car.  So neither of them were too alarmed when a man came up and shined a light in their window. 

“You’ve got me mixed up with someone else,” Hollis told the man with the light.  But the guy demanded they get out of the car.  Both Hollis and Larey started to get scared when they realized that the man with the light had a bag over his head to hide his identity.  The masked man demanded Hollis’s pants. Then hit Hollis over the head and chased Larey.  Larey was eventually able to escape, and summoned the police. 

Other young couples wouldn’t be as fortunate.  Four weeks later, on March 23, someone would kill Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore.  Then again on April 14, Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker were killed.  Then the press gave the killer a scary nickname: the Phantom. 

The final attack occurred May 3.  A farmer named Virgil Starks was shot through a window at close range.  His wife Kate was shot in the face while trying to phone the police.  She ran to a neighbor’s house and was taken to a hospital.  

There would be no more murders, but the city-wide hysteria was just beginning.  Before, one could avoid the killer by coming home before dark.  Now he was attacking people in their homes.

The city put a curfew in place. Residents began locking doors and pulling their shades at night. Gun and ammunition sales skyrocketed. 

And though both Arkansas State Police and Texas Rangers joined the investigation, they had their hands full dealing with rumors, false alarms and stupidity that was caused by panic.  People booby trapped their homes, a few even accidentally shot their neighbors. Some young adults armed themselves and parked in lover’s lanes in the hopes of getting the drop on the killer. 

Cops had to turn on their sirens and announce themselves, so they didn’t get shot.  Liquor stores refused to sell alcohol to anyone who didn’t seem to have a sound mind, so as not to double the police’s workload. 

Though police never officially caught the Phantom killer, their prime suspect was a local counterfeiter and car thief named Youell Swinney.  Their belief was so strong, they never looked into another suspect.  And while circumstantial evidence linked him to the crimes, it was not enough to make an arrest.  Police were able to gain a conviction against Swinney for car theft. 

A sensationalized account of an already sensational story.

Was Swinney guilty?  No one can say for certain.  His wife believed him to be the killer.  But in 1946 she couldn’t be made to testify against him.  The discription Hollis and Larey gave was contradictory.  Hollis believed their attacker was a dark skinned caucasian, while Larey said he was a light-skinned African American. 

In his book, The Cases That Haunt Us, FBI profiler John Douglas states that a serial killer will usually continue to murder unless he mentally deteriorates, or an outside force (such as being incarcerated) stops him. I think it’s telling that after Swinney was arrested, there were no new murders.  The Phantom seems to have vanished.

Is the Phantom the basis for the hookman story?  The timeline fits.  Accounts of the hookman story began spreading in the 1950’s.  The first printed account was in Dear Abby in 1960.

The Phantom’s story has been immortalized in more than just the hookman campfire tale.  In 1976, Texarkana native Charles B. Pierce (of The Legend Of Boggy Creek fame) made a movie based on the murders called The Town that Dreaded Sundown.  

In Texarkana today, The Town that Dreaded Sundown is by tradition the last film shown during the city’s annual “movies in the park” series that screens each year from May through October.

The Phantom killer may have left one more unfortunate legacy.  His method of killing (murdering couples in lovers lanes while concealing his face with a bag) might have been copied by the more famous and also never identified Zodiac killer nearly twenty years later. 

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 27 Dude! Where’s My Poe

Written By: Tracy - Oct• 16•17

Author Edgar Allan Poe is known for some of the best horror fiction around.  He’s also a bit of a sad sack for whom things never seemed to go right.  In the days leading up to his death, he vanished.  He was found in clothes that didn’t belong to him, unconscious.  Though he did wake, no one could make sense of his ravings before he died.

Join author Melanie Miller Fletcher and I as we discuss our favorite theories about what might have happened to Poe.

I Am Not Making This Up: When is a Ghost Not a Ghost? When It’s a Boat.

Written By: Tracy - Oct• 09•17

It seems odd that there are still places where large numbers of people can vanish without a trace. But as recently as early this year, ghost ships have washed up on the shore of Japan.

And while there is an easy explanation for these ghost ships – fishing vessels from North Korea – what happened to some ghost ships remains shrouded in mystery.

Such is the case with the Mary Celeste, possibly the world’s most famous ghost ship.

On December 5, 1872, a Canadian two-masted sailing ship named the Dei Gratia sighted a ship off the shores of the Azores islands. But something seemed wrong.

The ship moved toward them in an erratic line, with it’s sails in dissarray. As the strange ship drew closer, the crew of the Dei Gratia couldn’t see anyone aboard. Attempts to hail the strange ship went unanswered.

So Captain David Moorehouse sent his first and second mates, Oliver Deveau and John Wright in a ship’s boat to investigate. The two men reported back that the ship was the Mary Celeste.

This may have caused some concern for Captain David Moorehouse. As a Captain who sailed the same general shipping route as the Mary Celeste, he would have been a colleague of the Mary Celeste’s Captain Benjamin Briggs — Sort of the nautical equivalent of a water cooler friend. Moorehouse might have known that Briggs sailed with his wife and two year old daughter aboard the ship.

The two man expedition to the Mary Celeste reported that the ship was completely abandoned. Yet they could find nothing wrong with the ship. The cargo of crude alcohol remained intact. There was a single lifeboat missing, and the ship’s log was last updated nine days previously. It was as if the ship’s crew had simply abandoned in a great hurry.

To this day, what happened to the Mary Celeste’s crew remains a mystery. Theories range from the outlandish — UFOs and Sea Monsters, to practical — the captain may have feared that the cargo of alcohol would explode, and abandoned ship. Suspicion even fell onto the crew of the Dei Gratia, who stood to benefit from salvage of the Mary Celeste.

Even Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the world’s most famous detective novels, weighed in with a sensationalized fictional account that blamed a murderous crew member.

As recently as 2007, a documentary claimed that Briggs ordered an abandon ship due to fear of sinking after a combination of rough seas, a broken pump and a broken chronometer.

Whatever the real story might be, we may never know. But the mystery is what keeps the story alive in our minds.

It could be that some of us would prefer the mystery to remain a mystery.