Chapter 3: Ghost in the Oak
When people think about the supernatural there’s usually an invisible line drawn between this world and that. The two are not supposed to cross. The afterlife is expected to remain an afterthought and not co-mingle with the present. If this is the case, then why are there so many reports of supernatural behavior or the unexplained, many times connected to the physical realm? I often find it interesting how a supernatural problem is met by a physical solution, such as burning sage, lining salt, or even forging silver. But what happens when that methodology is flipped? What happens when a physical problem manifests from a supernatural entity?
ORIGINS is written and produced by award-winning author Jaimie Engle.
Throughout history, trees have held an important significance to the in-between. They link the temporal world of time and space with the spiritual map of consciousness and concept. Trees are symbolic and hold an almost motherly place in our hearts. Among the Norse, Celt, Egyptian, Sumerian, and Christian traditions, trees are a place of birth and death; a shrine of honor. However, could they be more? Could trees be conductors for otherworldly crossing?
Port St. Lucie, Florida, began as a fishing and farming community. With beautiful waterways, lush acreage, and inland forests, many quickly called the Treasure Coast home. Actually, it’s only two counties south from where I live on the East Coast. But unlike my hometown, there’s a wicked place where an old oak tree spreads thick limbs protectively above the earth. This area is inside Oak Hammock Park, and the oak is better known as The Devil Tree.
In 1971, a heinous crime occurred beneath the silent boughs of this tree. Two teenage girls were molested and mutilated by a serial killer, who hung their tiny frames from the limbs of the oak, an oak with no opinion or conscious related to the crime. The killer, once finished, lowered the girls’ bodies into shallow graves in the shade of The Devil Tree, where this monster of a man was alleged to have returned many times to desecrate the corpses. Still, the silent tree keeps his secrets.
Over time, though, truth can become fiction; and something inanimate can grow to have a life of its own. For example, locals swear that when the wind blows just right and the branches catch, the screams of the two girls ride the breeze. Some have even gone so far as to report late night dancing of hooded specters, worshiping the devil whom they believe resides, at least in part, inside the massive trunk of the centuries’ old tree. As fear has a way of forcing action, residents have attempted on more than one occasion to remove the eye sore from their community. But when two-man, cross-cut saw teeth bit into the bark and flesh of The Devil Tree, it fought back, protecting its own and destroying the equipment. Chainsaws brought in to finish the task stopped working long before they reached the unholy ground, then wouldn’t turn on at all. Is this the result of The Devil Tree coming to life or the overactive and many times inaccurate imaginations of those who truly wish to believe the lines between realms can be blurred…or even crossed?
Another strange oak found in Florida is called Dead Man’s Oak or The Hanging Tree. The location is a bit harder to nail down as this oak is not surrounded by tranquil paths. Near Kissimmee or St. Cloud, which are about an hour west of my home, Dead Man’s Oak is an Osceola County legend. A man on a white horse, captured for committing heinous crimes against the Spanish during the nineteenth century, was beheaded beneath the hanging moss of a single oak. His spirit is said to chase after anyone who dares venture close to the tree. In some reports, the white-horse riding specter is headless, while in others he retains his full form. Whichever the case, this legend has one tiny flaw. The likelihood of any Spaniard entering and especially committing murder in hostile Indian Territory is highly unlikely. But this is what makes story legend; a bit of plausible truth woven among the threads of fiction. Is this tree a host for supernatural activity, a beacon to bring forth destruction and death to anyone who crosses into its unchartered borders? Or is the supernatural an explanation to justify the devil inside us, the monster in human form?
Sometime during the 1600s, a young girl accused of witchcraft fell victim to the numerous witch trials and hunts in the US. She was of course convicted and sentenced to hanging beneath a wild growing oak among the forest of Fernandina, Florida, in the wooded trails behind present day Fernandina High School. Her body may have been laid to rest beneath the sanctity of the oak, perhaps as a way to filter her soul before condemned to hell for her heresy. More likely, the oak was just another among many, in a forest of thick trees of no consequence.
However, the girl must have dabbled in the supernatural, either through the practice of witchcraft or from the power of the tree’s roots feeding her life in the beyond, for she is now known as Wiccademous, a powerful evil that resides in these woods. Brave students enter the dark forest on nights with full moons, flashlight beams spreading out as lighthouse beacons. Each leaf illuminates to show more of the same; animals shriek, shrill screams, and footsteps force their hearts to race from fear. If they disturb the resting place of Wiccademous, her wrath shakes the ground violently and her screams chill bones to the marrow. Her evil swoops as a cold wind biting her victims in a booming warning to leave or pay the consequence.
Many have been said to have wandered down the dark path leading to her grave, never to be heard from again. Still, others swear that they never saw anything, though they swear something happened. The wrath of this spirit can follow trespassers home. It’s said that if Wiccademous chooses to shadow you, she’ll appear in your dreams two nights in a row. If you visit her grave on the third night, you will be lucky enough to see her. If you don’t, perhaps you won’t live to see the third night. No one has come forward to confirm that detail.
One of the largest living oak trees in Florida is known as the Fairchild Oak Tree in Ormond Beach, a short two-hour drive north from my front door. This tree is more than four-hundred years old, and some even date it to be more than 2,000 years old. It’s strange to think that a tree in your backyard will outlive you. Actually, if you were to travel to Israel and enter the Garden of Gethsemane, you would find yourself in the midst of 4,000 year old olive trees. Think about it: these trees witnessed the arrest of Christ before his crucifixion. Imagine the stories they would share if they could speak.
The Fairchild Oak is supposedly haunted by the spirits of two men who died beneath the leaf-shrouded limbs. The most recent was a sugar plantation farmer and Captain of the brig Somerset named James Ormond II. In 1962, the body of Captain Ormond was discovered beneath the oak, having been a victim of violence, either self-inflicted or by the hand of an unfound stranger. Either way, his spirit remains restless and connected in the afterlife by the Fairchild Oak Tree.
The other death was of Norman Harwood, a very wealthy landowner from the north who moved to Florida in 1870. Life took a turn for the worse after Harwood racked up an insurmountable debt, determining that if he died at least his wife could survive on his life insurance policy. Harwood took his own life beneath the comforting limbs of the oak that he’d built his home around; the place that once provided him shade on a hot Florida afternoon now gave him a shadowy resting site for eternity. However, he is seen to this day outside the grave, roaming beneath the tree, wailing to be released from its grasp.
The Fairchild Oak Tree is 30 feet in circumference, stands more than 65 feet high, and spans over 300 feet from one leafy edge to another. Here is another example of which came first, the supernatural or the natural. Is this a mythical tree with magical ties to the lives of the men who were killed beneath her or did the supernatural come to be as a result of the horrific deaths and the active minds of visitors?
In St. Augustine, Florida, a home for ghost sightings and ghost tours, an Indian burial ground is home to more than just the graves. A single oak stands erect in the center as a guard of the spirits housed beneath its grasp. The Tolomato Cemetery. Entering the gates, strange lights buzz past just far enough outside the peripheral to raise question as to their validity. Pockets of cold air stream against your skin raising gooseflesh until you pass through and are met by the humid salt air of Flagler County. Shadows seem to dance to life until you look right at them, and then, they cease to move, making you question your own vision. Most of all, though, apparitions are a regular sighting for the many visitors looking to be haunted; seeking out ghosts to confirm their suspicions.
In its early days, children playing outside the cemetery gate stopped and stared at a little boy skipping circles beneath the shady oak. The children called to the boy who hummed a low tune, but he never seemed to notice them. They told the adults of the strange, lonely boy who wore old fashioned clothing, and they were accused of lying with great criticism. Until one day, the translucent spirit was caught sitting in the crown of the tree, visible to all. He dangled his legs and smiled, and couldn’t have been more than five years old, except his eyes showed he was much, much older. The boy’s name was James P. Morgan, and he is somehow connected to the oak tree in that cemetery. And like the rest, we have to wonder if the tree is the apparition or an innocent bystander of the supernatural.
I’m Jaimie Engle, and you’ve just discovered ORIGINS.
ORIGINS is a bi-weekly podcast that shares the story behind legends and lore, where myth and science meet; written and produced by me, award-winning author Jaimie Engle of The Write Engle. If you like stories with a supernatural slant, I happen to write them. Visit theWRITEengle and check out the BOOKS tab for more information. Subscribing, liking, and sharing this podcast is your greatest compliment. Thank you. And finally, if you’d like to stick around you can hear a sample from The Devil Tree based off the Port St. Lucie legend, written by Keith Rommel, and published by Sunbury Press.
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