The most well known legends in the world today started as a family story to pass the time, around the fire, back when there was no radio and television. Almost all legends have some basis in fact, though many are greatly exaggerated. Other legends from the remote past barely resemble the reality they were born from.
It all starts at home. My family was all big on storytelling. Especially my father’s side of the family. But my mother’s grandfather was a prankster! John Miller was quite the character, who loved to walk up beside someone walking down the street, and go into a handstand and walk beside them on his hands to see how far they would walk before realizing he was upside down. Not very far, I’d say, as people were more alert to their surroundings in those days.
Back in the 1920s, the local legends started amongst the younger generations here in Barren County that you shouldn’t walk the country lanes alone at night, especially near the cemeteries. There had been several sightings of what would come to be known to the youngsters as the “Dead Wagon.”
The Dead Wagon would catch you up and take you to the local cemetery to be buried amongst the dead. This sounds curious, and kinda silly to those of us today, but I can remember the tales told late at night as a teenager about the Dead Wagon that travelled the New Salem Road, with its final destination being Salem Cemetery. My mother’s parents, and family, and now my own father are buried there.
In studying this phenomenon, I was perplexed where the idea originated. Alot of urban legends are borrowed from other places, migrating to an area with the settlers. As most everyone buried in New Salem Cemetery are related to each other by blood or marriage, I spent a couple of years studying the origins. Then quite by accident, I found out why they believed firmly in the Dead Wagon.
As I mentioned in my Mother’s Day post, tragedy struck my family in the 1918- 19 Spanish Influenza epidemic. John Miller and Mallie Dugard were a happy couple who had been married 18 years, and had 7 children, the youngest being born in December of 1917. In October of 1918, the Spanish Influenza struck the family, taking one son on one day, and Mallie the next.
The influenza was so bad, they wore scarves over their faces, set up windowsills for callers to leave food, and visitors would sit in chairs out in the yard and talk to the healthy members quarantined with their families through opened windows. My Daddy’s father, Arthur Dugard, was John Miller’s brother, and he and my grandmother would go by John Miller’s everyday and take food, and anything else the family needed, and would sit out in the yard and talk to John Miller through the window and give him the latest news.
When family members died, it was customary to go to the cemetery and dig the grave, and sometimes even prepare the body for burial. In the cases of mass epidemics, like the 1918 Influenza, or the 1840s local Cholera epidemic, in the town of Glasgow proper, the bodies were either buried in the residential lot, or they were laid by the front stoop, and a wagon came along to take them to the local cemeteries for burial. The sooner they went in the ground, the better where sanitation was concerned. Died and buried on the same day was not uncommon in that time.
There were several good citizens who offered their services, usually at no cost, to remove the deceased, and take them to a proper burial location. If several were going to one cemetery, they would go around town and collect the bodies before removing them to the proper spot. This continued until the epidemic had run its course.
Thus was the legend of the Dead Wagon born! Stay tuned for Part 2 of the family legends coming soon!