10/13/2014 08:01 am ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

Amber Waves of Strange: A Small Sampling of Uncanny Americana

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Textbooks give the impression that the disappearance of Roanoke colony or the Salem witch trials are the weirdest events in American history, and that once the Puritans got the witch-bee out their steeple-crowned bonnets, the country settled into its normal round of wars, tariffs, and treaties. Bizarre things kept happening, of course, but serious historians stopped paying attention, and oddities were metaphorically consigned to dusty, mouse-smelling, corners of the historical society basement. The book, Mrs. Wakeman vs. the Antichrist (Tarcher, $16.95), is a collection of just such rejects.

Unlike women's history, colleges don't offer "strange history" courses, yet this ill-defined and unofficial sub-genre reveals a lost America. It's a place the Enlightenment forgot, with magic and madness too fantastic for convincing fiction.

Here are four unforgettably spooky incidents from America's uncanny history:

The Town of "Wizard Clip"

Now called Middleway, West Virginia, the old name of "Wizard Clip" was inspired by a poltergeist that haunted a family named Livingston. The "Wizard" moniker reflects traditional beliefs about poltergeist being created by sorcerers, and "clip" refers to its signature trick of making metallic snipping sounds while cutting everything made of cloth or leather into crescent shaped scraps. There was the usual preternatural vandalism, such as smashing crockery, and pulling the heads off the Livingston's ducks, and the usual failure of magicians and ministers to stop it, but a priest finally expelled the Wizard, and the family converted to Roman Catholicism. It was standard poltergeist business till "the Voice" arrived.

This was a disembodied voice that taught church doctrine and quickly established itself as the family's spiritual guide. Unlike the Wizard, when the Voice smashed, burned, or stole something, produced terrifying shrieks, or kept the family praying all night long, these actions received a pious interpretation. It harassed Mrs. Livingstone into leaving home and most of the children grew up wanting nothing more to do with religion.

Mr. Livingston died in 1820 and left his farm to the church. It is now Priest Field Pastoral Center and a wooden memorial shows the donor squashing crescents triumphantly underfoot.

While unexplained phenomena are fascinating, they are only one aspect of American oddity; people like Rhoda Wakeman scale the dizzying heights of strangeness without them.

Rhoda Wakeman's Cult

Many believe that America's first cult was Charles Manson's "Family" and that they committed the country's first cult killings. In fact, the 19th century was a hothouse for eccentric religions, and some turned violent; Arkansas' Cobbites decapitated a skeptic then impaled his head on a fence post, while the Wakemanites claimed three victims in Connecticut.

Their leader, the prophetess Mrs. Wakeman, was a crazy old woman who believed that her drunken husband murdered her sometime around 1825. She went to Heaven, became God's Messenger, and was resurrected; the continued existence of the universe depended on Mrs. Wakeman's survival, so the Antichrist kept trying to kill her. The evil spirit first appeared in Mr. Wakeman, then jumped to a trusted disciple who nearly did her in with a slice of magically poisoned pie. From there it moved into an inoffensive Wakemanite named Matthews, whose presence caused little creatures to wriggle painfully inside her body.

The cult met to expel the Antichrist on December 23, 1855, but Mrs. Wakeman's suffering became unbearable, and her half-brother Samuel had to drive out the demon by beating Matthews with a stick, slitting his throat, and driving a fork into his chest. The corpse was discovered the next day and the group arrested.

Eight days later, on New Year's Day, 1856, a woodcutter who attended Mrs. Wakeman's meetings, chopped the heads off two old men with an axe. Despite the woodcutter's obvious insanity, he would have hanged had a fever not killed him first. Rhoda Wakeman and Samuel were tried, committed to asylums, and forgotten, but for almost a century Americans referred to dangerous religious zealots as "Wakemanites."

Another, more recent, example is remarkable for its lack of fanaticism.

Cloretta Robertson's Stigmata

In March 1972, 10-year-old Cloretta Robertson's left hand began bleeding. She was sent to the nurse at Santa Fe Elementary School in Oakland, with what turned out to be a case of stigmata.

It's a rare phenomenon, in which the wounds suffered by Jesus appear spontaneously, usually on a white, Roman Catholic woman. Cloretta was black, Protestant, and prepubescent, yet doctors found no evidence of physical illness or self-wounding, nor was she hysterical, histrionic, or even unhappy. The evidence suggests that a perfectly normal, and very religious, girl can do the impossible and bleed through unbroken skin.

The Robertson family's pastor was excited about the phenomenon, which returned most years around Easter, and made Cloretta the main attraction at the Youth Supernatural End-Time Revival from 1975 to 1977.There is no mention of her making public appearances after that, but for every Cloretta Robertson who avoids publicity there's a James Moon seeking it out.

James Moon's "Kari Kari"

Moon was a farmer who yearned to be famous. On the morning of June 10, 1876, he checked into the Lahr Hotel in downtown Lafayette, Indiana, then ran errands. He visited a hardware store, chemist, and foundry, had his beard shaved off, and helped the porter carry a heavy trunk up to his room. Moon retired after dinner and did not get up the next day, which exasperated the chambermaid. She waited until late in the afternoon before entering the room and discovering Moon's body with the blade of a gigantic axe buried in the neck; then she started shrieking.

The axe was built in the room. Moon's heavy trunk had contained measured lengths of wood, hardware, and tools, and his errands had included purchasing the head of a broadaxe and having iron plates bolted to it. He bolted the lumber together into a beam seven feet long, attached the blade to one end, and screwed one wing of a hinge to the other. The other wing was screwed to the floor, turning the axe into a big lever.

Moon lifted the free end of the axe-lever until it was at approximately a 45-degree angle, then secured it with a cord. He tied one end of the cord to a metal bracket on the wall, passed the other end through a metal ring screwed into the beam, then tied it to the bracket. A candle was placed on the bracket in such a way that it would burn through the cord, and Moon lit the wick. He lay down on the floor with his neck in the path of the blade, put his head in a box of chloroform soaked cotton, and inhaled stupefying fumes till the axe dropped.

Word spread fast and hundreds gathered to see the device that Moon dubbed the "Kari kari" (he probably meant "hari-kari"). While the inventor's widow buried him, "Moon's Guillotine" was photographed, displayed throughout the Midwest, and earned him a measure of fame; Britain's Illustrated Police News reported his death as "An Extraordinary Suicide", and he has a permanent place in local folklore. But why chronicle the acts of a self-decapitating farmer?

"In her abnormalities," Goethe wrote, "nature reveals her secrets." The same principle applies to strange history, where "abnormalities" like obsessive-compulsive ghosts, homicidal cultists, and juvenile stigmatics, reveal aspects of America's past that respectable history cannot.

Robert Damon Schneck can be reached at his Facebook/blog. More: Mrs. Wakeman vs The Antichrist and Other Strange-but-True Tales from Americn History.


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