Welcome to Freaky Friday. This topic showcases a paranormal folktale that has roots in both Europe and America. I’m going to look at the way one story can have come from many places and how each person who tells the story flavors it in their own special way.
Some time ago, I read Lisey’s Story by Stephen King. As always, when I finished the book, I read Stephen King’s author’s notes. The first sentence of the first paragraph reads:
“There really is a pool where we—and in this case by we I mean the vast company of readers and writers—go down to drink and cast our nets.” – Stephen King
Folklore interests me for this very reason. Seeing bits and pieces of the same tales from all over the world fascinates me. The universality of our existence makes us have similar fears and similar hopes. All we do is put little touches and little splashes of color over the same themes and ideas. The idea of it is humbling.
For an example, let’s look at “The Phantom Coach of East Texas” and talk about how it connects to the rest of the world. This is a paranormal folktale, and that is why it qualifies for Freaky Friday.
The following is a summary of the story. If you’d like to read the original, check my sources at the end of this post.
The Phantom Coach of East Texas
The legend of the phantom coach in East Texas was collected from a former slave named Ben Smiley. It takes place in pre-civil war East Texas on the Ayish Bayou.
In this era, people came from miles around to gather in one another’s homes for socials. These gatherings provided a chance for young people to court. At one such gathering, the daughter of a local planter fell in love with a young man from one of the visiting families. Soon afterward, on the night of the harvest moon, the girl’s father held a social at their home to announce her engagement to the boy.
The young couple slipped away from the social to take a moonlight ride in one of the coaches. As was customary during the era, the slaves whose job it was to drive their owners to the social stood around the fire outside swapping tales. Ben Smiley, from whom this story was collected, was among these men.
The sound of hoofbeats and the rattle of a carriage moving interrupted the mens’ swapping tales. One of them ran to stop the carriage. He spoke to the newly engaged couple who told him they would be back soon. He let them go, and the couple was never seen again.
No one could explain why the couple would have eloped. Both sets of parents were happy about the engagement. The community was excited for the couple. The slaves speculated the couple was spirited away by demons.
Years passed and the incident was forgotten by everybody except the missing couples’ parents. The father of the young woman who had disappeared had a social on the night of the harvest moon. Once again, the slaves stood around the fire outside swapping stories.
The coachman who had tried to stop the couple years before was in the middle of telling a story, but he stopped to stare down the dark pine tree lined drive in front of the house. His face grew slack with alarm. The other slaves turned to see what had upset him.
All of the slaves saw a gold, shapeless glow emerge from the pine trees and move noiselessly toward them. In the glow, they saw the shape of a carriage—which was being drawn by a force other than horses. The figure of a woman sat inside coach. The coach passed the horrified slaves slowly and without sound and faded into the fall night.
Ben Smiley, the teller of this tale, was convinced the ghost of the girl who had disappeared so many years before sat in the coach. As the legend goes, the phantom coach and its ghostly passenger came up her parents drive each harvest moon until they died.
Great story, right?
Versions of this story are known in Italy, Spain, England and Ireland.
In England, the most famous occupant of a phantom coach is none other than Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VII. After her failure to produce a male heir, Anne’s relationship with the king deteriorated. He had her charged with treason and sentenced her to death.
Anne Boleyn’s ghost has been been seen in the grounds of Blickling Hall. She is dressed in white and sits in a ghostly carriage. Anne, the carriage’s horses, and the coachman are all headless. Anne holds her severed head in her lap.
Sir Thomas Boleyn, Anne’s father, stated his belief of Anne’s guilt at her trial. Sir Thomas, too, roams the night roads in a phantom coach crossing each of the twelve bridges that lie between Wroxham and Blickling. Traveling this route is said to be Sir Thomas Boleyn’s punishment for betraying his daughter.
Both the Anne Boelyn tale and The East Texas Phantom Coach can be connected to the Dullahan of Irish mythology.
The Dullahan is a headless rider on a black carriage pulled by six headless horses or he is a solo headless rider on a black horse. Like the East Texas phantom coach, the Dullahan’s approach is silent. Like Anne Boleyn, The Dullahan carries his head with him.
The Irish Dullahan is an omen of death. He stops before the door of one who is about to die and shouts the person’s name. His call draws forth the soul of the soon-to-be-deceased. Unlike the Banshee (or Bean Sidhe), the Dullahan’s call is not a warning. He draws the soul out of the person whose time it is to die.
We All Add Our Own Twist
The Legend of the East Texas Phantom Coach was told by a slave named Ben Smiley. His telling added certain elements that drew from what he knew.
The gold of the East Texas phantom coach could be attributed to imagery used in African American folk music, including spirituals. According to the source material by John Q. Anderson, this gold imagery in spirituals came from the Bible story of Elijah and the descriptions in the Book of Revelation.
The silent, golden coach is also similar to “will-o’-the-wisp” folklore. This phenomenon is also known as ghost-lights and swamp gas.
According to European folklore, the mysterious lights are faeries intent on leading travelers astray. The American version of this folklore explains the lights as spirits of railroad workers killed on the job.
The way all these stories intersect fascinates me. Connecting all the dots is like a game. It makes the world around me feel very, very large.
“The Legend of the Phantom Coach in East Texas” by John Q. Anderson. Western Folklore, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Oct., 1963), pp. 259-262.