It was like fate that the Blood Moon happened to fall on a night when Natalie and I were both free of kids and had just heard of an odd little legend playing itself out not too far from us. As has been the rule since the beginning of Tripping on Legends, when the signs point to to something, we throw ourselves at it, and as the tumblers fell into place on this one, I became more convinced something important was going to happen if we followed up on this legend.
The Peace River runs mostly along Route 17, which had slowly become a type of backbone for our travels for the past year. More and more we had found ourselves driving this road trying to avoid the dreaded 75 and trying to get a feel for the smaller towns in Southwest Florida. What we didn’t know was that there is a stretch of the Peace River that flows blood red on certain nights of the year, and as soon as we read the first reference to it, it became our goal to dip our buckets into one of the most elaborate bits of folklore, around for more than a hundred years, we had heard in a while.
The river is connected, even if not physically, to several of the legends in the area focusing on the power of springs and potential Fountain of Youth stories, but this was anything but that. It is said there is a stretch of the Peace River in Wauchula, Florida, that runs blood red under any full moon. Folklore logic tells you that must be even more so for a Blood Full Moon. The story also goes on to say that on those nights you can hear phantom splashing, babies cries, and on some occasions see empty buckets laid on the banks of the water fill with the tainted water.
It all is the fault of Ludmilla Clark, although she usually is not named in the story. There have also been references to her as Mary. She was a freed slave who came down from Georgia shortly after the Civil War and set up shop as a midwife for the growing town of Wauchula. She was good at her job and well respected for her work in the community, but somewhere along the line something changed. Some say she became obsessed with the overpopulation of the area, others that she saw it as her only way to strike at the heart of a people who had once enslaved her. The most convincing stories tell how delivering so many babies eventually drove her mad because she had lost children of her own, either to early death or being sold off. Either way, she began to suffer from a suspicious and growing number of stillborn children. More and more the women under her care lost their children and Ludmilla was forced to remove their remains and any evidence that a child had been born.
Ludmilla had started killing the children, and the more she got away with it, the more careless she became until the people of the town became suspicious. Child mortality was not unusual in those days, and sentimentality for the dead was dulled. Rather than burying the dead children in family or town graves, they allowed her to bury the bodies down by the river while she was disposing of the afterbirth and other indications of the tragedy. That was when the river started to become red at times, although back then only Ludmilla could see it.
She was eventually found out and lost her position in the town. This caused her to become more detached from reality. She still made her trips to the same spot, but this time she dumped empty buckets into the water. Try as she could to get it all out, the pails would fill again with bloody water and the crying voices of the children she had killed drowned out the voice of her husband telling her there was nothing in the water or in the buckets. She became obsessed, traveling to the bridge more and more often and trying to comfort the cries. It became too much and eventually she either committed suicide in the water or lost her balance, fell in the water, and died.
A few years later people began to hear her falling into the water every full moon, and the water in that part of the river would appear red on only those nights. Unlike her husband, other people heard the cries of unseen babies. It was around then people in the town renamed the stretch of road they knew as Rhinehart Road to Bloody Bucket Bridge and the crude bridge that ran into Main Street Bloody Bucket Bridge.
Red flags should be raised as soon as you hear this story, but it has become one of the more published stories coming out of this area of Florida. Why had she not been killed or at least thrown in jail for her crimes, especially as a black woman living in the South? Why had it taken so long to find her out? Why did the people turn her crimes into a tribute?
In Weird Florida, Charlie Carlson presents several witness to some of the cries from the woods near Bloody Bucket Bridge on nights of the full moon. It would seem several media outlets picked up the tale, including the backstory of a midwife killing children and making the water crimson with their blood.
When we went there during the Blood Moon we were hoping to see if any element of the story could be true. We were equipped with every reference we could find to the story, several buckets to get the best results, and a mindset nothing would probably happen because we already knew where the story had been born from. The street is now officially known as Griffin Road, the bridge Griffin Road Bridge, and the area which was once her dumping ground is a boat launch into the Peace River. The surrounding bank drops off quick with only large stones in the water to balance yourself to get under the bridge. The spot is anything but quiet with the continued traffic, slow but steady during our time there, and local animal life making itself known.
There were no cries from the darkness and no blood red water. There was no filling of buckets with blood or shadows of a woman falling into the river. The water traveling under the bridge did sometimes take on the sound of voices, like most Cry Baby Bridges, and you could see the how some of build up of mineral in the dirt and water could be confused for blood stains. The closest thing we came to ghost lights were the police lights as they pulled up on us wondering why we had left our car on the side of the road and were wandering around the boat launch at night.
One had never heard of the story before, although he listened intently as we told it. The other offered us an explanation for why the road had become known as Bloody Bucket Road, one which we had already connected to the story. “It was a tough bar. Every night there were fights…people being hauled off. People hated to work there, because every night when it closed they had to clean the floors and the wash bucket was filled with all the blood.”
It was the rough and tumble bar named the Big Apple at the end of the street, now just a slab of concrete overgrown with grass and covered with trucking equipment, that gave the street its sinister nickname. In fact, the more we looked at the research the more we noticed there were no witnesses to the bloody water part of the legend. The bar was eventually closed and the road went back to being Griffin Road to the locals, although a few still passed around the old name as a reminder of the good old days before the town was dry. By the turn of this century, enough people still remembered the nickname to give the stories a ring of truth.
Of course, this doesn’t account for midwife or the dead children written about by Carlson and other modern accounts.
We were able to track that down, and it’s a great example of how you should always read the fineprint. On Halloween 2003 a poster known as Cindi published a ghost story on the Web site Country Living, Country Skills entitled The Legend of Bloody Bucket Road. This is six years before the next published reference to it in Weird Florida. She explains how an old, disabled black man sitting outside the 7/11 nearby told her the story. She is brought to task in the comments of the story about how many of the physical details of the story are off until she eventually comes back with how the story is fiction and her version of how the story got its name.
The majority of people who respond to her seem to be fans of her work and understand this without being told, but enough don’t that the story takes on a life of its own. It’s unclear whether Carlson, the man who really solidifies the story, was working from Cindi’s blog or whether he was a victim of hearing someone repeat the story they had heard from someone else. Unfortunately he is no longer with us, but everyone I spoke to, including his son, say he was an honest reporter of the unknown and a respected researcher.
With a story like this it’s to understand why the backstory survives and what purpose it serves. The idea of a natural phenomenon needing to be explained, like singing rivers or ghost lights, can take part of the blame and a fear of retribution, especially on our children, for our sins is always in play. What it is instead is an example of how folklore transforms in our modern times. An old story, a blog post, a published account and a rumor becomes a haunting. Once the story is out there, the paste is not getting back in the tube, and no matter how many people point out the obvious inconsistencies in the story, someone will always be there to back it up and point out every legend has a shred of truth.