I ran across a reference to this story while doing some research on Brown Mountain Lights legends.
Just recently got a copy of the original cited material and thought I might make it available here, since it is apparently not readily in digital format elsewhere.
After reading this essay I took up the author's 40-year-old challenge to sleuths and attempted to find some substance to these events, at least some record of the characters as real life people.
I soon found Mrs. Ira Vance, nee Clark, of Pineola, NC long dead but picked up the trail with her in an attempt to find out who was Granny Clark and who were Jim and Belinda.
In my reply I will start with my own creative narrative in an attempt to weave together the details of just who I suspect these people were, with more specific names and dates.
And now the jumping off place...
What Caused the Brown Mountain Lights
Narrated by Mrs. Ira Vance of Pineola, c. 1941, as told by Granny Clark.
(The following unpublished legend is, in my opinion, the gem of the collection. In this murder mystery with its supernatural resolution, the action centers on North Carolina’s most famous phenomenon, the Brown Mountain Lights [Small balls of red or orange light that have appeared at irregular intervals since about 1913 moving about on Brown Mountain]. As if these elements were not titillating enough for the folklorist, the story is told in the first person, and, according to a note by Brown, within earshot of the villain’s sister.
(Such a curiosity-rousing narrative naturally brought out the detective in me: What is fact, and what is fancy in this tale? Who are the characters, and where are the landmarks? So I wrote Mrs. Vance, the narrator, and learned sadly that ill health has rendered her unable to recall any of the facts. At the same time, editor Stith Thompson cannot recall why the tale was not published. Obviously, though, Professor White had expected the inclusion of some Brown Mountain material, as evinced by his authoritative notes on the Lights, The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, vol. I, 628-630.
(So I present the mystery of “What Caused the Brown Mountain Lights,” and trusting that time has not completely concealed the answers, I call on my fellow sleuths and folklorists to investigate and report until all of the facts are known and the case is closed.—C.B.)
Well, I’ll tell you now what caused the Brown Mountain Lights. There’s a lot of folks thinks they are caused by minerals—different kinds of minerals or something like that, but I know that it wasn’t caused by that. I know why it is caused, because there wasn’t any lights there before this tragedy happened.
Now Jim was a mean and cruel man and he had the most lovely little wife you ever saw. She was just as good and clever as she could be. Her name was Belinda, and Belinda was expecting to have a baby and Jim was just as mean to her as he could be, and he was kind of sparking another old woman that was around there in the country. Her name was Susie. He was crazy about her, and so one day Belinda was not feeling so good, and folks missed her out of the community, and some folks went over to her house one day and asked Jim where Belinda was and he says, “Oh, Linda, she just put on her old bonnet and left the other day and she hasn’t come back yet.”
Folks got to looking around and found blood on the door steps and blood on the gate and down the road where there was wagon tracks. And so folks got to hunting for Belinda, and, way about ten or twelve miles away from where they lived, they found Belinda’s bonnet. And immediately after they found the bonnet, they got to searching all through the woods for Belinda, and all of a sudden fire got out and swept the whole country out. And so of course if there was any more clues as to Belinda’s whereabouts, it was destroyed when the fire passed through; and immediately after that they Brown Mountain Lights came.
And so I watched and I watched the Brown Mountain Lights and I decided there was something quare about it, and I was going to find out what it was. So one night I kept seeing the lights go up and come down and go out, and there would be two or three lights that would come up and go down, up and down and out, and up and down, so I decided I would get the position of those lights located on Brown Mountain and in the daytime I would go and search it out and see what caused it.
So I went over there with a couple of my friends and we came to the face of a big cliff, and I climbed around and got on top of the cliff and looked down at the bottom, and I saw a pile of stones laying down there at the foot of the cliff. And I says, says I to myself, “The Lord didn’t put them stones there. That’s been put there by the hand of man.”
I climbed down off the cliff and went down there and unpiled those stones and what do you suppose I found? I found the skull of a grown person and the skull of a baby. You know folks say the skulls of murdered people never decay, and I have heard all my life that if you ever took the skull of a murdered person and got it over the head of the person who murdered the one who was murdered, and asked them about it they couldn’t tell a lie; they would have to tell the truth.
So we picked up those skulls and took them back to Jim’s house and put them in the loft and we kept watching and watching until one day we found him sitting right under those skulls and I just popped right up and asked, “Did you kill Belinda?” And he raised up and turned just as white as a sheet and trembled, and the sweat just poured off him and he didn’t say a word.
It passed off that he was just about as mean to Susie as he was to Belinda, and Susie was afraid to say anything, afraid he would beat her and maybe kill her. So it passed off till his health began to fail and he got sick, and oh he had the awfulest timein the world. He was all the time a-screaming and hollering and had a stick in his hand beating it in the air and saying, “Oh Belinda, get away, get away, get away, take that crying baby away!” And he just screamed and screamed and did that way for weeks and weeks.
The folks at that time let their cattle all run in the range, and they had their calves penned up so the cows would come so they could get the milk, and hogs and everything run out in the woods then; and the evening that Jim was about to die he was worse than usual. He had been screaming all day and fighting Belinda away from him all day long, and it looked like he was completely exhausted. He had gotten to where he couldn’t raise his voice and he had just about passed fighting with his stick, and all of a sudden all the chickens began to cackle and the roosters began to crow, and the ducks began to quack, and the geese began to holler, pigs began to squeal, cows began to bawl, and horses began to neigh, and the gate flew open and we looked out and saw a black cart backed right up to the door. It started pulling out and when he started to leave the door, there was a big black ball laying in the black cart, and Jim was dead.
(Note by Brown: After Mrs. Vance finished dictating, she said: “I should have been more careful about relating this story because Granny—Jim’s sister—may still be out in the kitchen.” The daughter went to look and reported that Granny was still there.)
-from the article “Unpublished Folklore in the Brown Collection” by Charles Bond. North Carolina Folklore 20 (1972).
Leota's Visit with Granny Clark; A Creative Supplement to her Brown Mountain story.
"Wash Lay weren't no father to me," Granny Clark said, "He mighta been blood, but he never lifted one finger toward raisin' us.
"Had youngins with at least two women besides momma and I suspect more over in Gaston County. I don't know that he ever paid a dime on any of us.
"Jim Lay's momma was Mattie Greene and she married Hoyt Hughes when he was a baby, so he took the Hughes name, though everybody know'd Wash Lay was his daddy. Most folks still called him Jim Lay when he got grow'd up, cause he was sorry and trifling like his daddy and uncle Hoyt didn't deserve his good name drug around through the mud by the likes of no Jim Lay."
We called her Granny Clark because she was daddy's momma and we were all Clarks. The cousins were all Buckanons on account of granddaddy Clark had died and she married Avery Buckanon.
"Troy Clark was a good man, handsome, hard-working, a lot like your daddy. If you want to know what Troy Clark looked like, just look at a picture of your daddy.
"We got married with a war going on. And he figured he might be called to fight. Most of our folks would just as soon stay out of it. Weren't no cowardice in just raising a family. But if the army demand he go and fight, he'd go and fight. It did and he did and luckily he came through alright.
"Then when your daddy was getting up to be a pretty good sized boy and I had lost the two little ones, Troy was working at his brother's mill on Roaring Fork. It was early spring, I think 1872, and there was still frost over night. Well, there had come a hard rain and the footlog washed away from the creek down here. Troy would just get a run-a-go and jump across. I never done it, but your daddy has, a dozen times if he'd done it once.
"The bank on that side is probably six foot lower, so you just have to jump far enough out to get over the creek and you'll land on the other side.
"Chase McCoury was with him and Troy jumped first. He landed with his feet apart so he could bend his knees good. Well, the bank broke away only under one foot, so one leg stayed up when he started to fall and pitched him backwards into the creek.
"So, I'm up at the house and hear someone yelling, 'Perline! Help! Perline! Come Quick!' and it was Chase McCoury and I know'd something bad had happened to Troy."
-to be continued-
Welsir, I'll tell you the truth! I hered this "Brown Mountain Lights" story from my Daddy. He was borned in 1900ad and he had a good memorey! This story alls skerd me and my brothers and sisters! We diden't have electricity so we could not leave the storeytelling til Daddy took the lamp and led us to the sleeping room!
Oh my! I don't care much fer this story! Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD