When the Spirit Fiddler picked up his worn wooden instrument he could make it whisper in your ear like a long lost friend, seduce you like an exciting new lover, or thrill you like the perfect dance partner. In his scarred and calloused hands his ancient fiddle moaned and wailed, it coaxed you, it laughed with you – it filled your heart. And if your mood was blue, it wept a river of tears right alongside you.
He played the fiddle with more fervor then any other man in Western North Carolina. His services were in constant demand, and you had to book him well in advance for a party or a square dance. His passion for fiddling was as legendary as the grand hotels where he performed, and his repertoire of tunes seemed endless. They said his playing could wear out a dozen dancers before his long and nimble fingers had even loosened up. Accompanists tried to keep up, but when they finally gave up and the dancers went home, he would quietly pack his instrument and make his way over to the Greenhill Cemetery in Waynesville, N.C., where it was rumored he had a small but intensely devoted audience.
By the 1950’s, the hotels that had been his bread and butter had either shuttered or burned to the ground – but his need to fiddle overwhelmed him. Although his celebrity had long since faded his playing grew even more fierce, holding his listeners captive to every note, unable to stop dancing to his intoxicatingly fiendish tunes.
The last of the grand hotels to use his services was the Hotel Gordon, located just outside of Waynesville in the heart of Haywood County. Built in 1890, the hotel stood on a bluff overlooking the Richland River, and was famous for its fabulous shade trees and the cool mountain breezes that swept over its spacious veranda. The Spirit Fiddler had entertained the guests there for as long as anyone could remember.
And then one fateful evening, everything changed. The townspeople all agreed that his playing on that unforgettable night was truly inspired. He drove the unsuspecting dancers to feverish heights, but it was the legendary finale that came to haunt them until the end of their days. The Sheriff’s Department’s investigation was never publicly released, but it was rumored that the fiddler had finally “crossed over to the other side.”
A Harrowing Night
The day began with ominous clouds and rolling mountain thunder. The hammering rain started early, and the storm grew in intensity until it felt as if the furies had descended. The downpour drove the boisterous celebrants straight into the majestic old hotel – once inside, the manager led them directly into the fabulous grand-ballroom.
The fiddler warmed up with a few lively tunes as the dancers stumbled in. Then he shifted in his seat, adjusted the bow, and with a quick nod to the band released a musical volley that engulfed them like a tidal wave. The music held his audience in its captive spell, for it came from a true master at the height of his craft.
He finally slowed to a waltz as the mighty storm pounded away. And then the group witnessed a sight few have ever seen – a ghostly couple, floating softly down the main hall staircase. The crowd stopped cold while the couple slowly descended, seemingly reluctant to leave the dim seclusion of their passage. Occasionally, a board creaked under their feet. Step-by-slow-step the lovers drifted down the wooden stairs, always in time with the music. Everyone stood as if stone.
When they reached the bottom, the revelers were shaken from their rapture by a brilliant crack of lightening. The Spirit Fiddler finished the waltz with a flourish and fell to his knees. He raised his fiddle to the sky, a look of ecstasy on his face. When the shocked crowd turned around again, the young couple had disappeared back up the staircase. No footsteps, no creaking boards, no slamming doors. They simply vanished.
The silence fairly rippled…and then someone smelled the smoke. One of the large brocaded curtains had somehow caught fire, and the flames raced through the old hotel. They tried to save the Gordon, but by morning it had burned straight to the ground. The townspeople stared at the smoldering ruins, numb in disbelief.
The Spirit Fiddler never performed again publicly, but the rumor is he still plays his private gig at the Greenhill Cemetery. The performance always begins at midnight when his head drops low, his eyes close, and he becomes oblivious to everything except his ghostly audience of two, still keeping time to the music. And the melody he coaxes from that battered instrument is rapturous, and heavenly, and wonderful for dancing.
–The Hotel Gordon–
–Photographs courtesy of the Haywood County Public Library–
The following is an excerpt from a review by Rob Neufeld for his weekly column “Visiting Our Past,” published in the Asheville Citizen-Times:
“Where There’s Smoke…”
Cliff Davids has been collecting oral histories in the region for many years. He finds that the events that make the most lasting impact on people are ones that rise to the level of an Edgar Allan Poe story, and he posts his amazing tales on his website, http://ashevilleoralhistoryproject.com/, under the heading, “My Haunted American South.”
As in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” fire emblazons its supernatural significance on our psyches. Thus we are drawn, with Davids, to the fire that consumed the Hotel Gordon, outside of Waynesville, in 1957.
In Davids’ retelling, “The Spirit Fiddler’s Ghostly Dancers,” we find that the fire, started by freak lightning, coincided with the frenzied fiddling of an unnamed musician whose intensity and endurance “would exhaust dozens of dancers” and make accompanists fall off “like flies.”
With the “boisterous celebrants” at the Hotel Gordon whom Davids describes, there is only a hint of the decadence of the partyers that Poe had depicted in “Hop-Frog” (death by fire), and in “The Masque of the Red Death” (plague). Also, in Davids’ tale, we learn that the fiddler had a connection to two graveyard ghosts whose eternal aches go unspoken.
I would like to dig up those characters’ compelling histories.
– Rob Neufeld (10/12/2014)
I was five years old in 1957, but I don’t remember my parents saying anything about the Hotel Gordon. But I do have many, many relatives buried in the Green Hill Cemetery.
I dare anyone reading this to spend a night there with me. I would relish hearing the Spirit Fiddler play for his ghostly dancers.