By: Alan Brown
Reviewed by: Danny Gamble
The History Press, 2009
Alan Brown’s title Haunted Birmingham is a bit of a misnomer since his book visits haunts not only in the Magic City, but also in Bessemer, Columbiana, Jasper, and Montevallo. A long-time resident of the latter, a former tenant of a haunted cabin there, and an ear-witness to the mischief caused by the spirit of Captain Henry Clay Reynolds on the University campus, I immediately flipped to this section.
All of the University’s well-known spooks are here—Edmund King, who settled his plantation on Wilson’s Hill in 1815 and counts his gold coins to this day in the bedroom of his 1823 manor house; Dr. Walter H. “Trummy” Trumbauer, the ghost of Palmer Hall, who can’t get enough of spooking participants in the annual College Night celebration; the deceased, strict housemother in Hanson Hall, whose spirit chastises residents who have men in their rooms after hours; and perhaps the most famous specter on campus, Condie Cunningham, who caught fire in her Main Hall room on February 4, 1908, and ran screaming through the hall, her body ablaze. She’s still running and screaming today. And her face is permanently emblazed on her dorm room’s door. Just ask any freshman coed who’s lived in the old dormitory.
Despite his ethereal side trips to the city’s bedroom communities, Brown does spend much of his time documenting Birmingham’s hauntings. He devotes a great deal of space to Sloss Furnaces, “one of the most haunted places in the United States.” Here, Brown introduces readers to Theophilus Calvin Jowers, an assistant foundryman who fell into a furnace on September 10, 1887. Shortly before his plunge, Jowers declared, “As long as there’s a furnace standing in this country, I’ll be there.” He is. According to various ghostbusters, Sloss is “peopled” with other workers who succumbed to the brutal working conditions of pre-labor union foundries, a fallen woman who leapt into a furnace rather than face her shame, and a little girl who brings her father lunch. Sloss even boasts a spectral dog. Scooby Doo would be proud.
A folklorist at the University of West Alabama, Brown begins each haunting in his book with a history of the place and a biography of the phantom. He writes in a journalistic, almost informal style. Brown depends primarily on anecdotal evidence. However, despite the advances in paranormal “research” broadcast almost nightly on cable TV, who documents ghostly encounters better than those who live to tell the tale or those who hand down such tales through the generations? And who doesn’t like a good ghost story?
The book does have some editorial flaws. For example, Brown identifies UM’s Bloch Hall as “Brock” Hall, one of the two photos of the front of King House as a rear view, and the men of General James Harrison Wilson—Wilson’s Raiders—anecdotally as “General [William Tecumseh]Sherman’s troops.” This critique may seem picky from a Montevallo graduate and resident, but Brown is, after all, a scholar. He does, however, offer an extensive bibliography, so I suppose readers can let him off the hook, especially since he includes a disclaimer on the book’s copyright page.
Haunted Birmingham fairly drips ectoplasm. All the wonders of the invisible world are here—the orbs, the shadows, the footsteps, even a haunted mummy. And some of these specters remind us that the metaphysical is not so far from the physical. The ghost of George Vines in Jasper, for example, raises the toilet seat and flushes. He’s a notorious flirt, too. Jasper also boasts a haunting by not any old spirit, but by THE Holy Spirit.
Part of the Haunted America series, Alan Brown’s Haunted Birmingham may not be great literature, but it is a whole lot of fun. Jan 2010
Danny Gamble is managing editor of First Draft Reviews Online.