Beware of Women with Red Shawls
I’ve been collecting old newspaper ghost reports long enough to consider where each new one falls between journalism and folklore. I recently found a 1905 article titled “Railroad Men Saw Ghost.” Since it’s about a team of train mechanics in Alabama fleeing from an “old hag with a large red shawl wrapped around her head,” I felt as if I had something leaning hard toward legend instead of fact. I then discovered that, sure enough, books a bit older than the new report mention similarly appareled frights in Celtic folklore, the red shawl being shorthand for RUN AND HIDE!
Once upon a time in Ireland, a person could hire someone to pray for, say, a good crop or a desirable spouse. One lazy, disreputable member of these “professional prayer-men” found himself stalked by “a horrible old hag,” whose “head was wrapped up in an old red shawl.” Things turn out unexpectedly well, however, after this women is revealed to be a magically disguised, benevolent herbologist who loves this jerk for no known reason. Across the Irish Sea, in days of yore, Welsh children were ever on the lookout for witches and hightailed it when spotting any “aged woman, with a red shawl on, for they believed she was a witch, who could, with her evil eye, injure them.” Down in Cornwall, there was a legend of an old woman, “wrapped in a red shawl,” who magically prevented people from drawing water from a well each night. You see, that old woman was actually “the ghost of old Moll, a witch who had been a great terror to the people in her lifetime, and had laid many fearful spells on them.” Of course, in many traditional stories, red is symbolic — a color often signaling danger — and learning about these crimson-draped women has given me a new appreciation for Little Red and her riding-hood.
Did the Alabama Mechanics Have Celtic Roots?
Let’s look at that 1905 article:
This was published on Christmas Eve, and I can’t help but think that some sweet grandma, wearing a seasonal babushka, was graciously offering the men cookies. And those bumbling idiots wildly misinterpreted her intensions. I haven’t found anything beyond the article itself to explain what made the mechanics react so strongly to what they had seen, but — if there’s any truth at all to the report — they might have been raised on folktales of witchy women in red scarves.
Now, let’s assume there was something truly paranormal wandering the grounds…
Finding Where the Railroad Shops Once Were
While I couldn’t find out anything more about the otherworldly encounter, there’s good information available to locate the grounds where it allegedly happened. The Alabama town of New Decatur, as it’s identified in the article, is now simply called Decatur. A map published in 1903 clearly marks the grounds of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad shops. They were on the blue section of the map, which I spotlight below. Well over a century later, the streets remain almost exactly the same, but the old map is at a particular angle. A helpful spot for orientation is the meeting of Third Avenue and Sixth Street, southwest of Delano Park. You can find it on the Google map.
The area remains mostly industrial. Exactly where those skittish men had worked long ago is probably impossible to specify today, but ghost hunters might have some fun wandering that “blued” stretch of north-south Fourth Avenue (between east-west Sixth and Eighth Streets) in search of a ghostly crone in a red scarf. If you’re especially lucky, she might share some Christmas cookies with you!
If that doesn’t happen, Decatur seems like a lovely place to visit. Train buffs will be especially drawn to its beautiful historic depot, which now serves as a railroad museum. This depot was built in 1905, the same year the article was published. Hmm.