Saturday, October 21, 2017

"An occurrence, partaking of the marvelous": The legendary rocking cradle of Lynchburg, Va.

In the first volume of L.B. Taylor Jr.'s long-running series The Ghosts of Virginia (1993), one chapter is titled "The Extraordinary Rocking Cradle." It begins:
From the beginnings of my research for this book, every time I had talked about the Lynchburg area, people would mention the "Rocking Cradle House." They would say that I had to include a story on this, because it was the most famous haunted house in the city. Everyone, it seemed, had heard about the house, but seemingly no one could provide any details on where it was, or when the phenomena occurred. (275)
Taylor finally learns the address -- 1104 Jackson St., which you can see here, thanks to Google --  and finds a 1937 version of the story, told to Works Progress Administrator researcher Susan R. Beardsworth by a local architect with the lovely name of Trueheart Poston. His family had bought the house in 1902, and Trueheart lived there as a boy. Here is his version of the legend, as transcribed by Beardsworth and transcribed again by Taylor more than a half-century later.
The house at that time (1839) was occupied by a Rev. Smith, who was a cousin of Bishop Early. I do not know whether this cradle belonged to the Smiths or was loaned them by the Earlys, but the tale has it that the Rev. Smith, upon returning home from his duties, found the Negro nanny in a state of hysteria and was told that the cradle had been rocking with the baby in it for some hours and would not stop.
Upon hearing this, Rev. Smith went into the room and found that the cradle was indeed rocking. Being a very religious man, he commanded the cradle to stop rocking in the name of Beelzebub, whereupon the cradle immediately stopped. Rev. Smith then suggested that Beelzebub start rocking the cradle again, whereupon he apparently did so. This constant rocking under orders continued for a period of some days, during which, as the rumors spread, most of the town folk dropped by and witnessed this sight for themselves. … Apparently, after just so long, the cradle ceased rocking and would rock only by human efforts from then on.
Poston also cites an earlier source: "Mr. Asbury Christian in his book, 'Lynchburg and Its People,' gives the account of the rocking cradle." Taylor does not mention the Christian book further, but today I found it online. Here is the entirety of the already 60-year-old rocking-cradle story, as Christian tells it in 1900:
An occurrence, partaking of the marvelous, created a good deal of excitement in the town. It took place in the spring of 1839, in the one-story brick house on Jackson street, between Eleventh and Twelfth, the residence of the Rev. Dr. William A. Smith. Dr. Smith had borrowed a cradle from Rev. John Early, in which to put his new-born baby. One morning, as he was at breakfast, his wife, who was in bed in the next room, called to him and said: “Dr. Smith, come here and look at this cradle, how it rocks.” He arose and came to the door, and, to his amazement, the cradle was rocking vigorously, and there was no one near it. Dr. Smith moved the cradle from near the fire-place into the middle of the floor, and said: “Now Geoffrey (he called the Devil by that name), rock!” and he did.
The news of it spread through town like wildfire, and hundreds closed their places of business and went to see the “rocking cradle.” Various explanations were given, but none seemed satisfactory to the people. (126-27)
The differences between the 1900 and 1937 stories are striking.
  • The story acquires a new character, a stereotyped hysterical African-American servant -- as if a supernatural anecdote from antebellum Virginia needed some racist eye-rolling, just for legitimacy.
  • The story becomes vague on where the cradle came from, whereas the earlier story is quite clear that it was borrowed from another pastor, John Early. Early would be promoted to bishop later, but he was already in his fifties, a founder of Randolph Macon College, and one of the most prominent pro-slavery Methodists. The great man lent out a haunted cradle!
  • Rather than rocking for only a few moments, empty, while Smith is in an adjacent room, the cradle now rocks for hours, with his child in it, while he's out of the house entirely. The implication is that in his absence, the negligent nanny has failed spectacularly to protect the baby.
  • The baby's mother, who formerly sounded the alarm from her bed -- was she ill? not yet recovered from childbirth? -- now is stricken from the record entirely.
  • No longer does Smith take the eminently sensible, practical step of moving the cradle, to see whether it still rocks at another spot on the floor. Instead he leaves it where it is, perhaps afraid to touch it.
  • The most charming detail of the original is gone: No longer does Smith address a "Geoffrey." In 1839, would that have been a common nickname for the Devil? Or would this have been part of Smith's private discourse, a semi-playful way of addressing his old adversary? In either case, Christian feels the need, in 1900, to explain the reference with an intrusive parenthetical. In 1937, Poston substitutes "Beelzebub" -- which, like all cliches, is predictable, recognizable, and safe, with no thought required.
  • The most interesting detail is also gone: No longer does Smith command the cradle to keep rocking. Instead he commands it to stop, then to resume -- as a sign, presumably, of his mastery over Beelzebub. That, again, seems much safer than the older version, in which Smith says only, "Now Geoffrey, rock!" and only after he moves it. I take this to mean he's playfully daring Geoffrey to keep the cradle rocking, and of course Geoffrey obliges. One gets the sense that Smith and Geoffrey have been at these games for a long time.
  • In the 1937 version, the townsfolk come to marvel at Smith's supernatural ability to make the rocking start and stop. (In what sense, then, is Beelzebub to blame?) In the 1900 version, the spectacle is a cradle that just keeps rocking, without interruption or intervention from Smith.
  • In the 1937 version, the cradle eventually just winds down like a pocketwatch. Nothing more to see here, folks. In the earlier version, the rocking cradle never stops.
I have a guess about that last point. Before moving on to the other ghost stories associated with the Jackson Street house, Taylor quotes one more detail from Poston:
The cradle itself is a very beautiful Sheraton mahogany high poster affair with turned spindle sides and a field bed canopy. It gives the effect of being a miniature Sheraton field bed on rockers.
This seems fussy and anticlimactic, since the cradle's architectural virtues are surely eclipsed by its supernatural history, if any -- but it also sounds like a proud collector of antiques describing furniture still in his possession, a century after the celebrated episode. And after all, if that rocker is not now rocking, that must somehow be acknowledged; hence "after just so long, the cradle ceased rocking and would rock only by human efforts from then on." (I am reminded of Peter Cook's old bit about John Stitch, self-described "non-stop dancer," who is forced to explain why, in that moment, he is not dancing.)

I much prefer the 1900 story to the 1937 story, but the 1937 story makes me wonder whether the old cradle is still around.


Christian, W. Asbury. Lynchburg and Its People (Lynchburg, Va.: J.P. Bell Co., Printers, 1900). Digitized by Google from a copy in the Northwestern University Library, Evanston, Ill.

Taylor, L.B. Jr. The Ghosts of Virginia, Vol. 1. 1993. Lynchburg, Va.: Progress Printing, 2009. 6th printing.

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