Editor's note: This is the first part in a series of stories based on the history of haunted locations in Coffee and Dale County.
Most residents of Alabama will know the name of Newton because of the legend of Bill Sketoe, told in the classic “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey” book by Kathryn Tucker-Windham, but Newton residents would likely point you towards the historic Oates-Reynolds Memorial Building if a ghost is what you’re searching for.
The Oates-Reynolds Memorial Building is now home to the town’s library and museum, but also once served as one of the oldest educational institutions in the Wiregrass as the girls’ dormitory of the Baptist Collegiate Institute.
The building was built in 1922 after the original BCI was burned and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
When a building has been standing for so long, ghost stories and haunted tales are bound to follow, but especially in Newton. Newton is home to the tale of Bill Sketoe and the “hole that won’t stay filled.”
In the 1800s Sketoe, a Newton pastor, was lynched in a spot under the bridge on Alabama Highway 134 outside of Newton. The reason why he was lynched has been a source of debate for decades.
As legend originally told Sketoe – while fighting for the Confederate Army – hired a substitute to fight in his stead as he went back home to take care of his ill wife. The Newton Home Guard had taken upon itself to lynch those that were guilty of treason or desertion. According to legend, the home guard suspected Sketoe of desertion and even though he showed papers proving that he had hired a substitute, he was lynched anyway.
Other historians have taken issue with that version of the story as there is no evidence to support that Sketoe was ever even in the military and by 1864, the military had already stopped allowing substitutions for soldiers.
According to the “Rich Man’s War” by David Williams, Sketoe was suspected of helping a local Union guerilla unit and its leader, the notorious John Ward. While Williams points out that there was no actual evidence that Sketoe ever assisted Ward, he was lynched anyway.
Sketoe was a tall man and thus as he was lynched the branch of the tree sagged so much that his feet touched the ground, so Ward’s men dug a hole underneath him. For decades following his death, the legend said that no matter how many times the hole had been filled, the next morning it would be dug out again. Campers even claimed to have filled the hole and then camped on top of it only for the hole to reemerge in the morning.
If Sketoe’s ghost was the one keeping the hole dug out, big rocks seemed to be the recipe in stopping it. In the 1990s the state was forced to place giant rip-rap, or big rocks, underneath the bridge completely covering the area where the hole was.
In 2006, the town constructed a monument in honor of Sketoe and the hole at a park next to the bridge.
While Sketoe’s tale is the most known ghost story in the area, one of the more active sites may actually be the Oates-Reynolds Building. Everything from full-bodied apparitions – or ghosts – to voices to foot steps have been reported on the second floor of the building.
The town’s librarian and museum director, Ashley Phelan, and a number of others have witnessed the ghost locals have referred to as the “lady in blue.”
“A few years ago they had to remodel this part of the building and the guys that were working saw (the lady in the blue dress) all the time,” Phelan said. “I’ve seen her once but I feel her a lot. She’s not out to get anybody but wants you to know she’s here. A lot of people have seen her.”
Phelan said that many mornings she will come to the door of the building and hear a voice calling out, “Hello, can someone help me?” Phelan attributes the voice to the spirit referred to as “Annabelle,” who is believed to be a former student of BCI that possibly committed suicide.
“She just likes for people to know that she is here, too,” Phelan said.
Phelan said that a former librarian reported that a book had been thrown at her at one point and Phelan said that footsteps could be heard coming from upstairs at all hours.
The only spirit that Phelan said has been of the scary nature is the spirit that is believed to be an African-American man that she believes to be angry.
“He seems to be very angry and no one knows why,” Phelan said. “We have had paranormal investigators here and one of them caught a video clip of a man just screaming. You’ll hear him a lot of just stomping around. He seems to just be angry.”
On Oct. 3, Coffee County based RIP Investigations made the trip to Newton to investigate the sightings. RIP Investigations is made up of Enterprise native Jerry Tyms, Tim York, James Burch and Amber Burch. The group takes a scientific approach to each investigation, using a number of electronic devices, and tries to find every possible explanation for claims.
The entire second floor of the Oates-Reynolds Memorial Building serves as a museum with hundreds of artifacts – ranging from equipment and supplies from the old BCI to Native American artifacts and everything in between – and Tyms said that he believes that there could be a residual haunting going on in the building. The theory behind residual hauntings is that certain events – whether positive or negative – can leave behind energy and then over the years that energy replays the events over and over almost like a recording.
“With all the artifacts that are in there something could be attached to something,” Tyms said. “I think right now, without having gone over everything yet, that it could be a residual haunting. That’s where a spirit or energy is playing on a loop.”
The team did find an odd electronic voice phenomenon (EVP), which is recorded with a very sensitive recorder, of what sounds like a cat or a child when neither were around the building. Also, half of those in the building, upstairs, that night heard the very distinct sound of a loud whistle, while the other half, downstairs, didn’t hear it.
Also, a number of times the team’s electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors detected odd spikes when there shouldn’t have been any. The theory behind EMFs is that spirits drain energy and when a big EMF spike is detected it could mean a spirit is attempting to manifest. Also, high EMF levels can lead to feelings of paranoia and even hallucinations, but the entire building had very low base levels of EMF throughout the night except for the spikes.
At one point, Phelan – who was along for the investigation – believed she heard an antique doctor’s bag opening. Immediately following this incident Tyms recorded several EMF spikes directly over the bag.
After a nearly 10-hour long investigation, the blue lady was not witnessed but Newton residents should keep an eye out every time they enter the library and the museum. You never know when she – or another spirit – might make their presence felt.