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October 28, 2013

A ghost story: Cullman’s Ben Johnson recalls his time in an unsettling house

Note: This story was told to me by Ben Johnson, of Cullman. It is the true story of what happened to him during his college years at the University of North Alabama (UNA) in the early 1970s. He attributes this experience to having life changing effects regarding his religious beliefs.

We leave it up to you, dear reader, to judge for yourself the existence of ghosts. The names of the homeowner and the neighbor have been changed to protect their privacy.

It was the closing days of the ‘60s when Ben Johnson left Cullman High School for the University of North Alabama. Nineteen Sixty-Nine was a tumultuous time in the history of America. On July 20th of that year, just as Ben was enrolling in college, astronaut Neil Armstrong was on the moon, taking that first giant leap for mankind. Anti-war demonstrations were in every news broadcast.

The music from that era was amazing, and still captivates young people to this day. Groups like the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, the Beatles and Credence Clearwater Revival were heard on every college campus. Perhaps the most famous music festival of all time took place in a normally placid field on a Woodstock, N.Y., farm, Aug. 15-17, with more than 400,000 avid music fans attending to see The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby Stills Nash and Young , Joan Baez, Sly and the Family Stone, and others perform live.  

Fashions reflected the times, with anti-war sentiment military jackets emblazoned with peace signs, and other trends including long, wild hair and headbands which showed the feelings of anti-establishment felt by America’s youth.

Most Volkswagen vans sported flowers in response to the ‘Flower Power’ movement in California. Gasoline rose to an astonishing $.35 per gallon!

In Chappaquiddick, Mass. U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy was driving a car that plunged into a pond on July 25th, and a body of a woman passenger was later found in the car. Members of a cult led by Charles Manson murdered five people on August 9th. Hurricane Camille hit the Mississippi coast killing 248 people.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was established, and the U.S. instituted the draft lottery to determine draft eligibility into US Forces for the Vietnam War.

All Ben Johnson was concerned about was getting settled into a small apartment in Florence. He lived there for a short while, but then heard about a really cool house near the campus in a wonderful, old part of town.

He was amazed to find out from the guys who were moving out that the place could be rented for the unheard of price of $150 per month. Split three ways with friends that meant he could live in a grand old Southern house, filled with museum quality antiques, for $50 a month. It was an incredible deal.

But there were stipulations that came along with the rental. “We were not allowed to move even one piece of furniture,” Ben recalled. “And there were two bedrooms upstairs that were locked. We were forbidden to ever go in them.”

The guys also had to maintain the lawn.

“We paid our rent to a kindly, courtly gentleman by the name of Mr. Windom, who lived in the small white-framed cottage next door,” explained Ben. “He taught English at UNA and reminded me of Mr. Chips. He was always dapper, often wearing a hat and a long formal overcoat, thrown over his shoulders like a cape.”

Mr. Windom had lived next door to the manor house when the original owners resided there. Now, there was only one family member left. That lady resided in Washington, D.C.

A single lady, she came home sometimes and one of those locked bedrooms was hers, which explained one of the little mysteries associated with the house.

The three friends moved into the house on Jan. 1, 1970. After a day of packing and installing their belongings in their new digs, the guys were tired and it was late …

Turning out all the lights along the hall and in the foyer, Ben headed to his bedroom, furnished with period antiques like the rest of the house. The bed, with a regal ‘Lincolnesque’ style headboard, looked inviting. He washed up in the adjacent master bath. Planning on doing some reading before falling asleep, Ben was just settling in when he heard footsteps on the grand staircase just outside his bedroom door.

Step….step….step…the footfalls echoed through the quiet house. They made contact with the main floor and turned in the direction of the kitchen.

“I thought it was one of the other guys going for a beer in the kitchen so I decided to join him and went into the hall,” Ben said. “It was pitch dark and there was no one in the kitchen.”

He put it down to the settling sounds of the old house and exhausted, fell back into bed and slept undisturbed for the remainder of the night.  

The next day Ben questioned the others regarding the footsteps, but they had heard nothing.

A month or so later, just about the time the sun slipped below the horizon, dusk settling on the little college town, Ben and his friend Sally were sitting on the grand stair case inside the house. On their left was the formal living room; on the right was an informal parlor.

Sally had her back turned to the front door, looking up at Ben, when his eyes opened wide as he caught sight of someone moving silently across the foyer from the living room toward the parlor. “The figure was dressed in an olive green overcoat, with a black hat pulled low over his forehead,” Ben said. “He moved slowly, without making a sound.”

Ben describes the figure as looking solid, not diaphanous, but just like any other person, although ... strange.

Again, Ben rationalized the apparition away. “I told myself that the headlights of a passing car must have reflected someone walking along the sidewalk in the mirrored china cabinet in the foyer and cast the reflection that I saw,” he said.

But when Ben saw the same figure moving the opposite direction a couple of months later, he began to have his suspicions as to what he was experiencing. “This time the figure had on a chalk-striped suit and another hat,” he described.

Later in the spring, maybe in March, when the weather had warmed just enough for the bulbs along the fence to break ground, Ben was doing a little yard work and happened to notice Mr. Windom strolling in his direction. Ben spoke and the elderly gentleman stopped to pass the time of day with his young neighbor. “Well, Mr. Johnson, have you noticed anything unusual about the house?” inquired Windom.

“I was reluctant to say anything about a ghost, so I asked if he meant the plumbing or some electrical malfunction,” said Ben, but then he bravely added, “No, nothing really other than maybe a ghost here.”

Ben went into detail, describing the various wardrobes that the ghost had changed into during the sightings.

“Oh, yes, that’s Hiram!” exclaimed Windom, as if he knew just exactly to whom Johnson was referring.

“So you know that there’s a ghost here?” asked Ben, incredulously.

And Windom agreed that there was indeed a ghost in residence in the house, supposedly a member of the original family.

It came to Ben that he’d heard the previous tenants mention something about a ghost in passing as they were moving out, but he just thought it was a joke.

He was rethinking that assumption now.

“I wasn’t fearful, just a little uneasy,” Ben admitted. “I probably would have freaked out if the ghost had attempted to talk to me, though.”

At one point Ben heard the cadence of fingers drumming on the headboard of his bed. It seemed as if the ghost were impatient about something…

By June of the following year UNA was hosting their annual theatre production. That year Jack Kelly of Maverick fame came to town as the leading actor in the production. One of the local student actors rented a room in the house from the occupants for the duration of the play so that he could be closer to school during the hours of rehearsal in preparation for the actual opening. The fellow was often out until late at night during this time.

“I heard something in the bedroom above me, someone walking around and moving wire hangers along a metal rod,” remembered Ben, who was home alone at the time, or so he thought.

Then came the sound of the doors to the veranda opening. Ben was so startled by this time that he grabbed up a pair of fringed cut-off jeans and staggered out into the quiet residential street, one leg in the shorts the other on view to anyone who might have passed by. “When I finally got them on I realized that I couldn’t zip them up because they were inside out,” he laughed. “So there I was, stepping out in my underwear in the middle of a city street, and it finally dawned on me that whatever this was I had to learn to face it.”

He marched back up the steps and into the house, his dignity intact, and for the rest of the evening all was quiet.

At one point during the worst of the ‘haunting’ Ben decided to find out what was in that other upstairs bedroom. Having promised not to unlock the door, he devised an ingenious plan to inch his way along the second-story ledge. He reached the window and peered in at the   interior of the long abandoned room.

There, in the dim light he could make out shreds of wallpaper, torn or peeling from the walls. A wooden wheelchair, reminiscent of FDR’s famous conveyance, lay turned on its side. It all looked like a scene from some Hitchcock movie. Ben hurriedly left his precarious perch on the ledge.

Without a doubt, the scariest thing that occurred during Ben’s residence in the house took place in the dining room.

“There was a full swinging door between the kitchen and the formal dining room, which was furnished with a beautiful mahogany empire dining table with seating for at least eight people,” said Ben.

Sally and Ben were playing cards there on the dining table when Ben noticed something near the door, which was always propped open because it stuck if left to close. “There in mid-air was a man’s disembodied arm,” he said. “It gives me chills to talk about it to this day.”

The partial arm was clothed in a blue long-sleeved shirt. “It wasn’t bloody or anything like that,” he stressed. “It was just moving through the air as if it were pushing the space where the door would have been if it had been closed.”

Ben screamed…

Epilog;

After graduation Ben left Florence and moved to Birmingham and later, married.

He told his new wife about Hiram the ghost, but she was skeptical.

“My parents (Ben and Ruby Johnson) were academics,” Ben explained. “My father taught at a Catholic college and my mother at Wallace State. I guess I thought that I was spiritual, but not religious. I felt that being religious was not seen as being intellectual, or at least believing in an afterlife didn’t seem to be intellectual.”

“At one point in my life I would have proudly said that I was an atheist,” he said. “But after all that happened in that house, and even now, forty years later, I consider myself to be a Christian and I am comfortable with the mystery of the afterlife.”

One morning Ben and his wife drove up to Florence. He had called Mr. Windom in advance and arranged to have tea at the cottage with the old caretaker and his wife, a Mamie Eisenhower-type lady who painted china and seemed as if she were meant for a different era.

As the two couples sat on the wisteria covered porch of the charming cottage, Ben, who was seated facing the imposing house where he spent a strange part of his youth, asked of his host, “Mr. Windom, I’ve told my wife about the house,” he eased the subject into the conversation.

“Can you confirm that there is a ghost there?” Ben asked candidly.

“Yes, there is,” said Mr. Windom, solemnly.

“Oh, please, we don’t want to talk about it!” said Mrs. Windom, quickly bring the conversation back to more pleasant things.

There you have the story of the strange experience of Ben Johnson. What do you think?

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