By: Amy Clark(Won 2nd prize in the Emma Belle Miles essay contest at the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival, presented by Silas House at Lincoln Memorial University, June 10, 2010.)This essay is based on the oral histories of four sisters, recorded in the mid-1980's.
Violence crawled into the hollers of Appalachia in the early twentieth century and perched on the tallest hills. If it took form it might have looked like gargoyles with wide, evil grins and pointed wings. It slithered in the creeks and hovered in the air to poison the melody of church choirs. It floated in a man's moonshine and covered his brain in cobwebs. Sometimes, it got to the women.
Maybe it was the hard living that made people mean, or the homemade liquor that flowed from those moonshine stills. My great-great grandfather, Elkanah Stanley, hunted in the thickets of rhododendron and the mouths of caves. When he found a still, he took the whole thing home and stored it in the attic along with the rest of them, heaped like dead spiders.
"If I'm gone and a man comes by looking for his still," he told his girls, "let him in to get it." No still was worth his family getting hurt, but if they had been hurt, he would have tracked and killed those responsible, law man or not.
He would have killed his sister-in-law, if not for two days that gave him time to come to his senses.
Known as "Aunt Pop," Polly Ann Ramsey was born in 1849 in Russell County, the oldest of thirteen children. In a picture of her taken in the 1920's or early 30's, she stands with one hand on her hip in front of a ramshackle cabin, a bonnet pulled low over her eyes. No one knows why she turned so mean, as her nieces and nephews describe her. By all accounts, she was a big woman with strong hands that itched for a blade and a block of wood.
Though times were hard, children of the Depression knew how to build castles and make money. They fashioned playhouses from logs and lined the ground and walls with thick green moss that they gathered in the hems of dresses for wall-to-wall carpet. They counted out their money in leaves and left no bills unpaid even with the Depression bearing down. They made their fun because there was none to be bought. They would not have had the money for it, anyway.
Which is why they were so fascinated with old Aunt Pop's wooden dolls.
The family lore has cast Pop as a spinster who spent her days carving what the children thought were "witchy" looking dolls that she kept away from tiny hands. The nieces and nephews stole glances at those dolls through dirty windows of a crowded room where she slept. Those dolls glared from their place on a shelf. No one knows what Pop did with them. Maybe she was creating her own kind of strange companionship.
Pop was reclusive and paranoid, and rumored to keep her money hidden in a gallon bucket under the floorboards of her room. Sometimes, she carried her money in rolls, bound up in the folds of her heavy skirts. Word spread that there was easy money to be found around that old woman, attracting robbers like wild dogs lured to a carcass by its odor. Two men hid and waited for her one day as she was walking, overpowered her and cut the money rolls from her skirts before running away. The law caught up with them and sent one to jail for a year.
Had she been carrying her knife that day, it wouldn't have mattered that the young robbers were her nephews. She would have carved them up like the wooden dolls she kept hidden from the children, who were right to be scared of her. Those two boys were just plain lucky fools.
Because not long after that, she lost what was left of her mind and tried to kill her own sister.
"That will stay with me as long as I live," said Emma, who was ten years old when she saw her mother nearly stabbed to death.
Of all their memories, the most vivid for Emma and her sister, Eva was that of their mother's blood pooling on the porch.
The men were logging that day, and Nancy Jane and her daughter, Emma, had gotten up early to walk to the logging site to cook for them. They met Pop at the bend of the road.
Tensions were high in the family since the two boys had stolen Pop's money and one had actually been sent to jail. Fathers quarreled about which boy put the other one up to it and mothers took sides. Pop--with no husband and no children--was likely blamed for telling it to the law instead of to the family, who would have dealt with those boys themselves. She shouldn't have been carrying all that money on her, crazy old woman,
it might have been said as hands reached for seconds around the dinner table. Young men get ideas in their heads. They were wrong for stealing from family but we'd of gotten it all back and made them wish they was in jail.
Nancy Jane, well aware of her sister's strange turn, didn't like for Pop to be around the children when she wasn't there. So when Pop told her she was heading toward her house to fetch a pig that had gone astray, Nancy Jane planted herself between her sister and the house.
"You turn around and go home," she said sharply. "Your old sow ain't out here."
Maybe Pop heard a tone in her sister's voice that she didn't like, or maybe she just heard "You old sow." What's for certain is that Pop's knife was strapped to her wrist that day, hidden beneath her sleeve, and came out before her sister knew what was happening.
The first cut nearly killed Nancy Jane, missing her heart by inches.
Pop pounced on her sister like a rabid cat, slicing at her back with muscled hands. Emma sprinted back to the house, screaming for her older sisters and brothers. Nancy Jane's sons heard the commotion and saw the two women struggling up the lane. They wrangled Pop from their mother and chased her straight into thick, untamed woods, which swallowed her up.
Before it ended, Pop had stabbed Nancy Jane seventeen times, with two wounds in her chest and the rest on her back.
The children carried their mother to the front porch, where it seemed that she would bleed to death. Blood soaked her dress, snaked down her arms and dripped from her fingers. It trickled down her legs and filled her shoes, spilling on to the planks of the porch where it forever stained the wood and darkened the dust in the yard. It found a ditch and ran like water through the yard.
One of the boys rode a horse straight to Clintwood for the nearest doctor as his mother lay pale and clinging to life. Another went for his daddy, who rode harder than he ever had back to the farm, and stared helplessly at his wife while the older daughters struggled to plug the wounds, their hands fluttering over her body. He must have stood there for some time, watching her tremble from the chill that took hold. He set his jaw hard and in a low voice told somebody to get him his hog rifle.
Then, he set a determined path into the woods.
Pop had disappeared to a place where she thought she'd never be found, but he would track her down. He knew all the hiding places from his work as a revenuer, the thickets, hollow trees, and caves that would cloak a man and his still long enough for one good run. After a couple of days he and his men found her, hiding in a cave like a wild animal. Elkanah raised his rifle, closed one eye, aimed between her wild eyes and bid her good riddance.
The men who rode with him moved in close, reminded him in low voices that he was the county revenuer, he still had young'uns to feed, and how in the hell would Nannie and the kids live with her old man in the state penitentiary?
Their words and Elkanah's good sense bought Pop another twenty years.
They hauled her off to jail where they declared her "in-sane," Emma said in disbelief, and set her free because there was not much else to do with crazy people then except leave them to family. She lived until 1934 in a one room log house, down the hill from the Ramsey homeplace, and walked a wide circle around Elkanah Stanley and his brood. As strange as it seems now, family was family back then, which is why they didn't run her off like a stray dog. If you decided to let them live, you had to provide.
Miraculously, Nancy Jane survived the stabbing, but she would lose a bout with cancer a few years later. Her children must have had a few questions for the Almighty over that, over a mother leaving her children so early while a would-be murderer who was touched in the head could live to be an old woman.
Sometimes, justice is measured in long, lonely days with nothing but the frozen, witchy faces of dolls and an ugly legacy to keep you company.
The sisters recalled a lot of suicides during their childhood, even before the fingers of the Depression found their way into the crevices of their hollers. Hard living like the kind they knew can lead to hopelessness and fear. If ten year old children could witness a stabbing in the full light of day, imagine what grown men were seeing in their dreams.
A family of Smiths lived near the Stanleys on Ramsey Ridge. A Smith boy made his way to their farm to use the phone. Breathless, the boy told Nancy Jane that there had been a killing at his place.
Nancy Jane jumped on a horse and swung Emma up behind her. With the girl clinging to her waist, they rode hard. Mrs. Smith had been sitting on the porch swing, taking in the day, when her husband leveled his rifle and shot her between the eyes.
"She pitched right off the porch and landed in the yard," Emma remembered, "where she was dying, and kickin' like a chicken. Mother turned her over but she was good as dead."
They went in search of Josh Smith, her husband, and found him leaning against an apple tree where he had propped up his rifle and killed himself.
It wasn't so much the why but the fact that Emma saw the darkest side of life with a child's eyes: stabbing, a shooting, and a suicide all by the age of 10. Yet, in 1912 she wouldn't be referred to counseling or be given a prescription for three kinds of anti-depressants.
She'd just get up in the morning and start another day on Ramsey Ridge, and live well in her eighties to sit at her sister's kitchen table and recall it all.