It started as a filler legend, one thrown into an episode to create that symmetry that makes things nice and neat. We had two strong legends taking place far away but close enough to be done on a possible road trip to different parts of the state. Two legends well developed and covered by books and on the Internet with some appeal and plenty of background story to make for interesting trips. The third was closer but more obscure and with almost nothing to back it up.
It became one of the most compelling ghostly legends we covered in 2018.
There are four tenants that drive Tripping on Legends.
1. (And maybe most important) Follow the signs.
2. As said by my old English teacher, copied by me and my classroom, and with a little editing; All ghost stories are a representation of the life and times during which they are created and told.
3. Ghost stories are often a reflection of the living and not the dead.4. Lastly, sometimes you can’t understand a story until you’re standing in the place it was created. If you travel to Dudley Road in Massachusetts or look at the Gothic etchings in the façade of the Charlesgate Hotel in Boston, you can understand why stories are told about them. If you stand in the shadows of asylums and prisons like Waverly Hills, you feel them begging to have a story told about them. It’s what I call the “Supposta be haunted” factor.
The Swamp Witch of Hog Islands dips into all four of these factors.
Listen to the original episode where we discuss the witches.
Hog Island suffers from a bit of an identity crisis and has a foot in two worlds. While you can find it on a map and with your GPS, from an outsider’s perspective there is confusion over just who owns it. Located at the merging of Hernando County and Sumter County some people refer to the area as Pemberton Ferry and some still remember the old name of Croom. In fact, when we got there and spoke to people, there was even confusion with what the name of the town originally was. Most often it’s associated with the surrounding town of Brooksville, which is how we have always labelled it, and the fact they would want to be linked to the controversial history and the dark present of that town might say something about the town.
It might just be easy to say it this way. In the old ghost town of Croon, today called Hog Island, lies Withlacoochee State Forest. In Withlacoochee State Forest lies a campground and a swamp. In that swamp lies a legend of a witch who likes to visit the campground and play with anyone silly enough to come into her swamp.
The legend did not have much meat to it. Originally seen in a BackpackerVerse post and then explained a bit more on another site, some time in the 1700s, a woman was found to be a witch living in the area. She was tried and convicted and sentenced to death. Some of the stories say she was burned at the stake while others, more in line with the how witches were handled at that time in America, was hung for her crimes. She continues to haunt the forest she was murdered in, appearing to hikers and visitors today and wreaking havoc on people in the campground nearby by scratching on tents and cackling in the dark.
The story didn’t seem to make much sense when we first heard it. Was that area of Florida populated enough in the 1700s? Croon seemed to be a boon town born of the railroad a hundred years later. In fact, the community seemed to be established in the 1840s as Fort DeSoto, not the one near Tampa, and failed shortly after due to a water shortage because it was built on lime rock.
There was another connection as well, brought up by the blog Florida is a Verb. The legend did not appear to be that old, and the connection to witches and witchcraft might be born of Hollywood and not Hernando history. In 1996, a movie version of The Crucible was made. The classic play centers around the Salem Witch Trials but was shot on Hog Island in Massachusetts.
Our expectations for the legend were not high.
As soon as we got off the exit in Bushnell, the trip took an odd turn. Most of the small towns in Florida were born of travel. People needed to get from one big place to another big place by traversing a swamp, so railways and sketchy roadways were created, and these towns lived and died on the success of those roads. The state prison and the National Cemetery were proof of one thing in the area; the Federal Government had swept in during the New Deal days and taken over. They own most of the square footage we saw on our way to Hog Island.
After taking a quick tour of the National Cemetery, we made our way past the a few battlefield reenactment areas to the campground. We got out to take our traditional “We’re Here” picture when Natalie was struck by something odd in the woods. Most of the swamp forest looked like it had been scorched by wild fire or controlled burns, but one area off in the distance was blacker with creepy branches facing to the side. She was immediately drawn to it, and we started to walk towards it. Follow the signs.
We hadn’t gotten too far when a ranger pulled up beside the car, forcing us to go back to the road where we had parked. As we talked, he told us he knew nothing about the legend or anything else paranormal in the state forest. He did tell us two things as he got more comfortable with us: his grandmother had long been known in the area as a white witch who people had turned to and who had told him weird stories growing up and that there might be something ghostly lurking in some of the places in the area because they were known for the Hanging Trees. More on that later.
He also told us there was a better way to get around the swamp if we just followed the path that ran through it starting at the parking lot a little ways up. We followed his advice and made our way up to the dried up swamp of Hog Island. It was pretty standard, and nowhere really near the tree we had been looking for, but we followed the path looking for signs of the witch or people willing to tell stories about here.
Then something intervened.
We heard an odd knocking on the wood, like that we had heard in the Myakka River State Park. We noticed something odd off the path and ahead of us. Despite it being a clear day with virtually no wind, a single branch, although it appeared more like a thick vine, was swinging back and forth. All the noise of the campground and the swamp disappeared as we stood there and watched it move, like someone was swaying it to get our attention. We immediately left the path.
As we approached it, we saw what Natalie had been so drawn to when we first arrived, although it looked slightly different. Those burnt and bent branches had a mirrored set on the other side, also creeping towards a center. Together, they looked like a set of hands or a gate.
Follow the signs. It was easy to see how someone seeing this somewhat natural formation could make up a story about why the swamp would have such an odd landmark. The oddness was not over yet. As we made our way to it, I saw something in another tree nearby. My first reaction was that it looked like the wires we had seen at the Fairchild Oak designed to attract and disperse lightening, something thick and iron and twisted. The more we looked, the clearer it became that it was a piece of old rope that ended in a noose.
Something new was starting to form in our minds about what this legend might mean.
The gate, however, was still calling us. We walked through the clearing to be floored by what can best be described as a fairy ring carved into the swamp. It formed a near-perfect circle set off from the rest of the tree but blended so easily into the environment it appeared totally natural. The still water which formed the circle was split down the middle by Cyprus trees which gave the impression of being guardians and had fairy entrances. The surface was covered with green swamp algae which almost glowed in the sunlight. Several benches had been set up around it, so there was obviously some intent to have people see it even though we had read nothing about it being an attraction.
Since our experiences at Mounds State Park in Indiana we had become more aware of the trees in the places we tripped, always looking for fairy trees or indicators that something paranormal or supernatural was entering and exiting the location. This was out of a storybook. Sometimes you can’t understand a story until you’re standing in the place it was created. We both felt that we were in a presence while at the site. Despite there being several families nearby and kids calling out, the rest of the world dropped out while we were there and we heard nothing. While no voices or odd sounds came out from either recorder while we were there, we both knew something was communicating to us, although not directly. In places like Stetson we had felt we were in a moment and then the moment was over and we both could measure the time it had ended. This felt more like us being in the presence, and it wasn’t until we left that it was over.
All of that is not something you can measure, but that’s why we look to experience and not capture.
The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful. As soon as we left the circle the noises of the swamp and families came back and we explored the area and campground for a while. We left and searched for the ruins of the old city of Croom that were said to still be standing in some parts of the town but were unsuccessful. We talked to another ranger who was of little help on the paranormal or historical fronts. The old timer said he had never heard of the failed town even though he lived in the area his whole life and was technically working in a park called Croom. We ate dinner in a local restaurant, and by the time we were finished it was too dark to travel to our second location that may be the key to understanding why the legend might exist.
What It All Means
About a half hour from Hog Island stands one of more infamous cemeteries in Florida with one of worst reputations. Spring Hill Cemetery has long been known to locals and paranormal enthusiasts as one of most active locations in the state. A quick search will find dozen of sites mentioning the activity there and hundreds of first-hand accounts of encounters with the darker spirits haunting it. What makes this location so active and so negative at times is the nature of the death the ghosts were said to experience. Spring Hill was known for its lynchings.
Brooksville is defined by outsiders like us, perhaps unfairly, by the events in its history by some of the people who lived there. The town was renamed in 1856, inspired by Preston Brooks, a senator from South Carolina with a bit of a radical past. Much has been of the man’s life and beliefs, but two things can be separated from the folklore surrounding him. The man was a strong advocate of slavery, as were many Southern lawmakers at the time, and he nearly killed a man on the floor of the Senate who had insulted his family during an anti-slavery speech. Either way, the impression from those not from the town is that Brooksville, even in name, is a place with a long history of racism and violence against African Americans, even if that reputation is unwarranted. Every year they hold a Civil War reenactment, it would seem in defiance of Martin Luther King Day. According to the ranger, everyone knows in the area that they have a deep history of KKK involvement and lynchings. He spoke of three places in the area known for their hanging trees, one at Spring Hills.
There is something mystical about Withlacoochee State Forest, that much is clear. Something lives in the swamp and inspires the story of witchcraft and unusual activity. There is more to the campgrounds than just a spooky story. You feel it when you enter the ring and feel it leave you as you walk away. Perhaps that energy draws people who practice witchcraft or use natural energy, much like hotspots like the Freetown State Forest. But that same energy can trap things, and the ghost that people claim to see might be something else.
From the research, the legend comes off as a whitewashing of the history of the location. There may very well be a ghost there, but it is not a witch. Unusual things happen, and the people need to explain it. Rather than understanding and presenting the history there, like its neighbor Brooksville, the witch story might be covering up hangings that happened in the swamp. Rather than admit its past, the folklore hides a dark truth and presents a more palatable story, even though it does not make as much sense within its own history. It’s not the spirit of a murdered African American. It’s the ghost of the witch.
Witches have long been scapegoats and a great bad guy to a story. Misunderstanding makes for a great villain. At Hog Island, something is happening that defies understanding, and the easiest straw to pull is one that has been used time and time again. All ghost stories are a representation of the life and times during which they are created and told. The same can be said of the creepy things that live in them. History is alive in the swamp; it’s just not clear whose history it is.
We’re still knee deep in the #hauntedlove project, so we’re especially looking for ghost stories with a love twist.
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