Local haunt: The Moon ghost of Albemarle

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Illustration: Brian Hubble Illustration: Brian Hubble

Reports of the ghost’s frequent appearances had everybody buzzing. The fantastical newspaper accounts mesmerized the entire state—no one more so than the students at the University of Virginia. Thoroughly intrigued, a crowd of 40 students tramped the 16 miles to Church Hill, the John Schuyler Moon property in southern Albemarle County where the hauntings were taking place. It was the afternoon of October 30, 1867-—the day before Halloween.

Turning onto Scottsville Stage Road from downtown Charlottesville, the group stopped briefly to salute Monticello Mountain, then continued southward. To them it was a frolic. They were young, strong and intelligent—they were certain, wrote Moon’s granddaughter Mary Barclay Hancock, “to entrap this mysterious creature.” A few brought along their hunting weapons, but none had thought to pack a supper.

Talking incessantly the entire distance, the weary throng arrived at Church Hill five hours later, tongue-tired, footsore and extremely hungry. According to Hancock, they first “ransacked the place for something to satisfy their ravenous appetites,” before announcing that they were ready. They were there to help guard the two-story home—and its numerous occupants—from the poltergeist’s menacing attention. “Some of them,” wrote Hancock, “were bragging quite a bit about what they could do, as they were not afraid.” Then the homeowner mentioned the bravest sentinels were always posted in the adjacent graveyard. The bragging immediately ceased.

Evening turned to night as the jittery UVA students—along with a few other well-armed volunteers—stood guard among the property’s trees, shrubs and outbuildings. Before long someone cried out that the ghost was inside the home. Completely terrorized, the lady of the house and her seven children, along with the family’s many servants, huddled together in the parlor while the guards encircled the cottage. Then they saw it: a dark, hulking figure standing on the roof. At least 15 guns were discharged in its direction—as if flying lead could harm a ghost—but the cunning apparition vanished into the evening mist.

The Moon Ghost had struck again.

Albemarle County’s notorious Moon Ghost is one of Virginia’s most famous spooks. Walking the night for two years during the state’s turbulent Reconstruction period, its nocturnal visitations centered on Church Hill, the summer residence of the Moon family. Between 1866 and 1868 dozens of people saw its wraith-like form, but no one was able to explain its strange and frightening behavior.

When the Scottsville Register printed a long account of the haunting on November 11, 1867, the edition sold out in Richmond 70 miles away. The tale soon appeared in newspapers all across the country, and even as far away as London. Hundreds of people traveled to Church Hill hoping to catch a glimpse of the phantom, maybe even solve the mystery. What was the Moon Ghost? And why had it chosen to torment the Moon family of southern Albemarle?

Reconstruction in Virginia was a stormy period of massive social, economic and political change. (It ran from the end of the Civil War in 1865 until 1870, when the state was readmitted to the Union.) Devastated by the war’s losses—in men, as well as in homes, farms and infrastructure—the Old Dominion was eventually placed under military rule, commanded by a succession of general officers. In Albemarle County, as elsewhere in Virginia, the old way of life—the “status quo antebellum”—had faded into a distant and quixotic dream. According to Moon’s niece, Frances Moon Butts: “Property owners were tax-ridden, untrained to hard labor and without cash to buy supplies or employ help.” Petty thievery was rampant. A detachment of Federal troops headquartered in Charlottesville presented a stabilizing force, but one of its officers reported the local presence of the Ku Klux Klan. Fortunately there were no major disturbances, no race riots in Albemarle County, but, according to Princeton historian Rufus Barringer, gangs of Confederate deserters who had taken refuge in the Blue Ridge Mountains and groups of free black men who had not settled anywhere after being emancipated kept the local jail full.

To this troubled mix add the Moon Ghost of Albemarle.

Church Hill, located five miles north of Scottsville between Glendower and Keene, was so-named because of its proximity to Christ Church Episcopal, and was the property of Moon. Born in 1823 to a well-to-do family, Moon earned his law degree from the College of William & Mary then hung out his shingle (i.e. went into business) in the prosperous river town of Scottsville. After starting his law practice, Moon married Elizabeth Thompkins in 1847, and the couple first set up housekeeping at nearby Stony Point, a home he’d purchased earlier. (Between 1852 and 1870, Elizabeth gave birth to 14 children, four of whom died in infancy.) Years later, Moon bought Church Hill, which became the large family’s summer home.

Church Hill was a two-story, nine-room frame cottage sitting on a several-hundred-acre farm flanked by two cemeteries. Attached to the home were a one-story wing and two porches. “There were many oddly shaped closets,” wrote Hancock, “one of which had an entrance from the roof of the wing and later became known as the ‘ghost closet.’” In the yard sat several small outbuildings, and a one-story brick building containing Moon’s law office and oldest son Edward’s bedroom.

In August 1866, Moon began noticing strange and unaccountable noises during the normally quiet nighttime hours. In the house, utensils and knickknacks started disappearing, only to be discovered later in the most ridiculous places such as on the roof or inside locked outbuildings. Elizabeth found spilt flour, sugar and salt inside the pantry, which was always locked. A few days later, on a hot summer night, Moon was pacing his office, deep in thought over a particularly intricate case, when he glanced outside and saw, wrote Hancock, “a figure glide from the porch and scuttle away into the shrubbery.” When he saw the same specter several nights later, he decided to keep it a secret from the other occupants of Church Hill, which included Elizabeth and their brood of seven children, numerous servants and several of Elizabeth’s nervous sisters.

Later that same month, Moon and 14-year-old Edward, posted on either side of the house, kept a quiet vigil into the long hours of the night. At midnight Edward watched in amazement as a ghostly figure swiftly and noiselessly climbed onto the roof of the wing and entered the home via the “ghost closet.” Racing inside, he saw the dark shape enter the pantry. The ghost was so quick, however, that Edward was unable to intercept its escape.    

After this unnerving episode the Moon Ghost—or “Jack Ghost,” as the family called it—was seen by all of Church Hill’s terrified residents. One evening a servant was startled to see a motionless black figure standing directly in front of the house. Another night it was spied crouching at the front gate. On another occasion the family butler, returning home late from an errand, left the groceries on the dining room table. That night “Jack Ghost” poured everything—sugar, coffee, flour, meal, salt and blackstrap molasses—onto the tablecloth, then, according to Butts, “deposited its ‘witches brew’ and a family Bible on the roof…”

Doors carefully locked prior to bedtime, including several inside the house, were often found flung wide open in the morning. Church Hill’s windows were favorite targets: Panes of glass high above the reach of an average person were frequently busted out, awakening the sleeping Moon family. Hoping to discover how the ghost accomplished this feat, one night Edward hid in the icehouse (the outbuilding containing a deep pit for storing ice). “About dusk,” wrote Hancock, “he saw a creature crawl across the yard dragging a rail behind him. He loped along like some hideous animal, but when he got to the dining room window he stood erect, and in the twinkling of an eye, raised the rail and thrashed out a number of panes…”

In January 1867, the Scottsville Register—under the headline “The Mysterious Affair at the Residence of Mr. J.S. Moon”—reported that “a candle-box, filled with rags saturated with whiskey was placed against the side of [Church Hill] and ignited. About 1 o’clock at night the fire was discovered and extinguished; and the unburnt rags discovered to be fragments of garments missing from Mr. Moon’s house…” Despite this attempted torching, Moon refused to move his family to a new home, “lest the ghost,” noted Hancock, “would have the satisfaction of feeling that he had chased him away.”

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the Moon Ghost’s haunting was its ability to cast a light into the house. Sometimes small, no larger than a quarter, but often much bigger, the “ghost eye,” as family called it, navigated Church Hill’s interior walls, dancing across the family’s bookcases and picture frames. This phenomenon was witnessed, according to Moon descendant Cary Coleman Moon, “even when the blinds were closed and extra bed covers hung over the curtains…” On November 11, 1867, the Register recorded that the men on guard in Church Hill’s parlor the previous night “say that light was thrown in there…at least 50 times. Apparently an effort was made to throw the shadow of men on the walls.” Superstitious neighbors started saying that for some ungodly reason the spirit was watching the Moon family: watching and waiting.

Relatives, friends and even strangers rushed to the defense of the Moon household. They came armed with pistols, shotguns and muskets. Two of Moon’s brothers, James Nelson Moon and Jacob Luther Moon, often stood watch. The men had gained fame during the Civil War as the Daredevil Moons of Mosby’s Rangers, the war’s most famous guerrilla command. All of these volunteer vigilantes now became additional witnesses to the Moon Ghost’s numerous escapades.

Naturally, the phantom only appeared at night. It hid its features under a mask, witnesses said, and often wore a military-style overcoat. According to the Register, it “apparently wore armor, for chains were heard to rattle at times, especially when he raced around the cottage, shaking windows and doors as he went…” It “was frequently shot at by trained marksmen, but only hit a few times when he was seen limping away,” Hancock wrote.

Perhaps intimidated by Church Hill’s armed guards, the Moon Ghost sometimes brought along accomplices. One night, when eight pickets stood watch—and Moon, pistol in hand, sat alone in the dark parlor—the ghost was detected within 20 paces of the front porch. Fired upon it fell flat to the ground and crept off. At the same moment another figure ran between two of the guards on the opposite side of the house. “The next morning tracks made by a coarse boot, or shoe, were found coursing down the hill from that point,” reported the Register. Opening the locked storeroom door, the guards found a bag “left on the flour barrel and about a double handful of coffee spilt in with the flour.”

Two nights later, 14 sentries surrounded the cottage, nervously clutching their weapons. Late that night—after two of the volunteers had left their posts—a guard in front of the house heard someone step onto the porch, unlock the front door and walk inside the house. He supposed it was a family member. But when one of Elizabeth’s sisters heard weird noises inside, and from upstairs witnessed the ghost exit the front door and crouch nearby, she alerted Edward. The teenager, according to the Register, “went to the window and fired down at the spot. …The guards rushed to the house and found as they supposed that night, a large blood stain on the steps, over which they exulted very much. Fruitless pursuit was made.” Later that same night, said the Moon family butler, four men ferried over the James River at Scottsville carrying on a litter (stretcher) what looked like a blanket-covered body.

On another noteworthy occasion—when the volunteer sentries were exiting the rear of the home after enjoying a hot meal—a great commotion was heard in the front yard. Through one of the glass panes edging the front door Edward saw six or seven strange men rushing the front porch. One of them yelled, “Surround the house, boys!” Ex-guerrilla Jacob Luther Moon fired at them from the side of the building, but the banshees veered in the other direction and quickly disappeared. A family member wrote the attackers were all masked and clad in overcoats and Confederate capes.

Unlike other non-corporeal entities, the Moon Ghost proved adept at throwing objects and firing weapons. Hancock wrote that a pile of bricks was once carried off and hurled onto the roof, “making a terrific noise and startling the whole household…” Twice an entire set of the family’s dinner plates were taken onto the roof and twirled into the yard. One evening, one of Mrs. Moon’s sisters saw a man on the roof. When she heard the scraping of matches, she screamed, upon which the man rushed by her window and fired a pistol at her head. Luckily she only suffered singed eyebrows, but the discharge, according to the Register, “blackened the side of the house, and the ball struck [the house] and glanced off. The man ran over Mr. Moon’s chamber, and jumping down on the other side escaped.”   

“Why should a man,” asked the Charlottesville Chronicle March 7, 1868, “night after night, [in] the coldest weather imaginable…expose himself, sometimes to the pelting storm—sometimes in snow six inches deep? Can it be gratifying to him to alarm the ladies by rapping, throwing lights, knocking out glass and walking over the house occasionally?”

Moon hired two Richmond detectives to investigate the bizarre incidents. “Of course,” wrote Hancock, “there were no signs of the mystery during their stay” in the neighborhood, “and they left declaring it was caused by members of the household, probably servants.” Moon agreed. He believed that his least trustworthy domestics were communicating with the assailants, passing along information about the family, the goings-on in the house and, of course, the guards.

The final act in the Moon Ghost drama was just as strange as the ones that preceded it. Awakened one night by the sound of pebbles striking the front door, Moon, gripping a revolver, scrambled downstairs. When he slowly opened the door, a long reed with a note attached fell to the porch floor. Scribbled in pencil on cheap paper, the note read: “Master Jack…I will not pester you eny [sic] more…Jack Ghost.” That promise was kept.

During his lifetime, Moon desperately attempted to squelch the overwhelming tide of Moon Ghost-related stories. “My uncle, a man of dignity and reserve,” noted Francis Moon Butts, Moon’s niece, “seems to have been more resentful of the exaggerated publicity the ghost brought than of its almost nightly depredations. He finally refused to let anything be published that he did not write.”

Moon died in 1876 without writing a word about possible perpetrators. His relatives, however, were not afraid to speculate. Butts noted her uncle had successfully prosecuted Lucien Beard, the ruthless leader of a horse-thief gang with hideouts near North Garden, not far from Church Hill. Perhaps Beard’s associates staged the two-year haunting to exact revenge. From the state penitentiary in Richmond, Beard wrote a letter offering “to explain the Moon Ghost if [Moon] would secure his pardon.”

The letter went unanswered and the question remains: Who was behind the mysterious hauntings of one of the area’s well-known families?

–Rick Britton