Sometimes on long car rides, I get to telling stories. It helps pass the time, and Bug & Belle have always seemed to enjoy it. On our way up to Asheboro, I told the girls about the haunting of Purgatory Mountain. It’s a tale I’ve heard a few times over the years, and I thought I’d share it with all of you today.
The Haunting of Purgatory Mountain
The Civil War is remembered as a time when Americans were pitted against themselves. Neighbor against neighbor. Brother against brother. Perhaps, North Carolina is the best example of this. The Old North State was the last of the states to secede from the Union in 1861. At the time, the state was split between pro-Unionists and pro-Confederates, making the decision to secede a difficult one for the state legislature. Unfortunately, a call to arms against South Carolina sent NC spiraling into the Confederate war effort.
By the spring of 1864, the Confederacy was stretched thin. There were barely enough rations for Confederate soldiers who marched without shoes in a time when horses were hard to come by. Soldiers died by the thousands, and there weren’t enough abled Confederate men to supplement those lost in battle.
With the Emancipation Proclamation and a sure victory for the Union, the enslaved fled in droves – making their way towards freedom. Some North Carolinian soldiers took note, laid down their arms, and deserted the cause to better protect their families back home.
Other North Carolina groups refused to take up arms at all, like the Religious Society of Friends. Quakers were pacifists who refused to fight, especially in a war effort dedicated to preserving the slavery system. Believing in equality for all and opposing slavery set them at odds with their Confederate neighbors. One by one, the Quaker men of the piedmont were ordered to join the Confederate Army. Many chose prison instead.
To combat the rampant desertion of Confederate soldiers and force pro-Unionists to fight with the Confederacy, North Carolina issued an order stating every able-bodied man must enlist. The state hired men to capture deserters and draft dodgers to enforce the law.
Among these hired men was a blackhearted scoundrel with a black beard. Rumored to have been a violent murderer and feared for his cruelty, he was known only as The Hunter. Paid by the head for every man he captured, he determined Quakers were easy prey. So The Hunter and his men set off to a Quaker settlement on a hill near Asheboro.
On a Sunday morning, The Hunter kicked in the doors of the meeting house. His men followed with rifles raised. With no way to escape, the young men of the congregation were captured. The Hunter tied up twenty-two Quaker boys, some hardly fourteen years old, and marched them out of town at gunpoint.
The Hunter and his men marched the boys toward Wilmington, where the boys would be exchanged for cash. They traveled for days on end. Marching down dirt roads in the hot Carolina sun, the group camped at night in barns or under trees. Of the evening, one man kept guard while his partners drank until they passed out.
One evening after the group made camp on a small farm, The Hunter prepared food as his companions went off in search of more firewood. “Eat and enjoy,” he teased as he cut the boys loose and pushed them toward the old barn. They ate what little they had for supper, the older boys sacrificing so younger ones could fill their bellies. After the boys finished their meal, The Hunter left to join his returned companions, negligently leaving behind his knife. One of the boys spotted it and carefully slid it into his boot.
The Hunter returned briefly to tie the boys up for the night, then joined the other men for a few hands of cards and whiskey. When the campsite fell silent, and he was sure his captors were asleep, the boy with the knife cautiously worked it out of his boot. With hands tied, he cut the rope of another who set about freeing the others. Once the 22 boys were all free, they crept out of the barn. Sneaking through the campsite past the sleeping guards into the woods – taking the rifles with them.
The boys traveled through the night back towards their home in Randolph County. It took a month for them to reach the safety of the Uwharries. Fearing what The Hunter may do to them or their loved ones, the boys decided not to go back to their homes. Instead, they hid out in the forest of a nearby mountain.
The morning after the escape, The Hunter’s men woke to discover the boys and their firearms missing. Terrified of how The Hunter would react, they collected their belongings and fled back to Wilmington as he slept.
When The Hunter awoke, he quickly put together everything that transpired in the night. Furious, he pursued the boys back to Randolph County, vowing to kill every Quaker on the mountain. When he reached earshot of the community, he set up camp in the holler and shouted out to the people that he was coming for them – and he was bringing hell with him.
Facing an impossible choice, the boys held a meeting that evening. Though it went against their core beliefs, they decided The Hunter was too dangerous to live. Straws were drawn, and the three who drew the shortest were chosen. Before dawn, the three boys left their camp, headed down the hill with their Confederate rifles.
Just as the dawn broke over the mountain, three shots rang out. The Hunter was shot dead in his sleep. Raised to avoid violence and to turn the other cheek, the three returned in tears. All 22 boys swore to never reveal the identities of those who pulled the trigger. It was a pledge they kept to their dying day.
None of the boys, who were overcome with guilt and shame, ever returned to their little Quaker community. But some time later, after the war ended, they heard tales of an apparition on the mountain. People claimed to have seen the ghost of a big man with black eyes and a black beard roaming in the hours before dawn. The boys knew it was The Hunter – stalking through the woods, looking for recruits.
According to legend, it was for this figure, a dead man unwelcome in Heaven and Hell, that Purgatory Mountain was named.
You may not be familiar with the haunting of Purgatory Mountain, but you definitely know the place. In 1971, Purgatory Mountain became the home of the NC Zoo.