by Margaret Mendel
Here is the last of our Halloween stories–this one has a different twist of being true!
Once a year during the summer I go camping in upstate New York, on property my daughter and her husband purchased with a friend. The area is known as Dunbar Hollow. It is a quiet place surrounded by rolling hills, wildflower meadows, acres of rambling blackberry bushes and it’s hard to imagine that a horrific crime once took place here.
As the story is told, Reuben Dunbar and his new wife were expecting their first child when his widowed mother remarried a man named David Lester, who was raising two orphaned nephews, Stephen age 7 and David age 9. Back then a married woman could not hold the right to property and Reuben was fearful that his new stepfather’s nephews would inherit property that he thought was rightfully his.
One day David Lester went on a business trip and left Reuben in charge of his nephews. During his absence, the two brothers went missing. Reuben first said they had gone picking butternuts. He then changed his story and said they went fishing. He altered his story once more when he admitted that he did not know where the boys were.
In the morning when the brothers did not return, a search was organized. It was during the hunt for the boys that Reuben initiated talk of foul play when he said:
“If they were men, people might think they had money, and had been murdered for money; but any one might know that they had no money, and what man under heaven would murder those innocent children?”
When one of the men in the search party suggested looking for the boys, “in the trees as well as on the ground,” Rueben responded: “There is no use looking in the trees; such boys as them won’t be found there.”
The boys were however found exactly where Rueben had told the search party not to look; one child lying under a tree beneath a blanket of leaves, clubbed to death, and the other boy was found near his brother hanging by the neck from a tree limb.
It was Reuben’s conflicting stories, his suspicious behavior and his known animosity towards the two little boys that made him the prime suspect and he was arrested for the murders. His trial lasted twelve days, with Rueben declaring his innocence all the while, but it took the jury only two hours of deliberation to return a verdict: guilty.
Reuben Dunbar protested his innocence until the day of his execution when he realized that there would be no clemency and he confessed to a Baptist minister that he did murder both boys. Reuben was hanged on January 31, 1851.
My daughter and her husband knew this story when they bought the land ten years ago and they weren’t frightened by what they heard. It gave the place character was how they looked at it. They wanted to use the area as a camping site on weekends and for summer vacations and planned to build a shed to sleep in at night and it would be a place for their son, Devon, to grow up knowing about the wilderness.
The area is lovely. The wildflowers, moths and butterflies make the land come alive with color and energy and the only sound that can be heard for miles–besides the laughter of my grandson–are the birds and insects that click and snap all day and long into the night. During the daylight everything feels normal, the trees, the insect life, the clouds crawling slowly over the distant hills. At night, though, I sense the change.
There is a cemetery on the property and this is where the Dunbar family was buried. Everyone that is, except for Reuben Dunbar. He was banned from the cemetery and was buried several miles away.
Even the Dunbar Cemetery looks normal during the day nestled on a woodland knoll, an old rot iron fence encircling the graveyard with an elaborate gate, its’ hinges long frozen shut with rust, the corroded metal posts now the color of dried blood. In the daylight I’m not bothered much by the metal that over the years has grown thick and plump with pits and bubbles making it look as though the fence had once been boiling hot. It all seems ordinary in a macabre kind of way, even with several fence posts protrude from an old oak trunk looking as if the tree was swallowing them.
My grandson and I stroll through the property, Devon carrying a stick, me with a camera. We often hike up the hill to the cemetery. The trees that tower above us were most likely sapling all those years ago when the first grave was dug.
Standing on the edge of the cemetery, Devon and I watch the sunlight playing like it does nowhere else on the land. Large droplets of light dart across our feet as the wind overhead tosses the limbs back and forth. Devon runs, trying to catch the light as if it were butterflies that he could stuff into a jar.
Most of the tombstones have been heaved up from the earth, dislodged by time. Leaning against each other helter-skelter, they no longer resemble headstones. The names, dates of birth and death are worn away by the weather as though time could erase sorrowful memories and the dead now lay namelessly in the land.
Small moss covered grave markers lay flat against the earth outside of the fenced in cemetery, tangled in amongst the groundcover of vines and broken twigs making it difficult to tell where the graves actually were. A thick blanket of ivy creeps across the hillside eating these small headstones underfoot, etching trails across the marble’s pitted surface looking like varicose veins on old dried skin. Devon tries to pick one up, but the marble slabs are too heavy and they fall back onto the land as though the earth will not let them go.
I never venture into the cemetery at night. The snapping of fallen dead tree limbs underfoot is enough of a creepy feeling in the dappled sunlight and I cannot help but imagine that in the dark it might sound like I was treading on someone’s old dried bones.
As the evening shadows grow long and the evening air cools, I move closer to the campfire. A glass of wine, the smoky flavor of hotdogs and roasted potatoes cooked in the outdoors lighten the mood as the darkness closes in around my little family.
My grandson sits next to me and displays the treasures he’s found during the day, leaves, rocks and even a dead crawly thing. Soon he’s slipped into his sleeping bag while the adults finish the wine and clear away the dinner debris. The fire slowly burns out and we hear only the clicking of embers cooling in the evening air. The conversation slows too, and we crawl into our sleeping bags, with stars hanging above us in clusters and smoky ribbons of light.
There is music in the night sounds. Insects call to each other, strange animal cries, the rustling of dried leaves brush against each other as the wind hurries up and down a hillside. It is easy to imagine, laying in the dark, that spirits and ghosts are part of the night sounds. And I think about the murdered little boys. I wonder if they once played in the very spot where I was now tucked away in my sleeping bag. I do not imagine them so much as haunting us, but revisiting their play area. Are they curious about my grandson? Did they also find rocks and leaves and dried up old dead bugs?
I know that I will eventually fall asleep but before I do, I listen for any sign that what I am imagining is true. Are there little ghosts tiptoeing around our campsite? I watch the light of a full moon slowly creep over a distant hill and I wonder if those little ghosts have forgotten the terror of that night when Reuben took them into the woods.
No, I will not stand at the fence of the cemetery in the night but I promise those little spirits that I will visit them in the morning before we head back to the city.
You can check out all of our Halloween stories in our Terrific Tales section.