Ghost story from Kentucky coal mining country of one tortured man’s supernatural experience with the ultimate act of love.
Henry Jacobs was a happy man. The year was 1935, and at long last, he had finally found a job – mining coal in one of the hundreds of mines that dotted the rugged hills of eastern Kentucky. It was hard, back-breaking work, but Henry didn’t mind. He was a big, burly man from a long line of big, burly men, and now that he had a job to call his own, he felt confident and strong.
The previous years had been rough on Henry and his pretty, loving wife, Laura. It was the Great Depression, and Henry, like many other Americans, had to travel from state to state and beg for work. Henry had worked steadily since he was a child, and didn’t know what to do without a hammer, a shovel or a pick ax in his hand. What’s worse, he felt that he had failed as a provider to his family. Despite his wife’s reassurances that everything would be okay, Henry hit rock bottom.
Henry started drinking to ease his humiliation. He was an angry drunk – and violent, sometimes beating his wife. Many nights he wouldn’t come home at all, chasing after other women in a drunken stupor. But in the morning, he would come back to Laura, last night’s whiskey still throbbing in his head, and beg for forgiveness. Laura was a kind and quiet woman who tried to see the best in people, especially in Henry. Through her tears and battered cheeks, she would try to smile and believe his promises – only to watch the same thing happen again the very next night.
So it was a relief to Laura when Henry finally found a job. The drinking stopped, and Henry swore that he would make life better for the both of them.
But whiskey was a demon that Henry continued to struggle against. Henry’s co-workers offered him drinks each day after work, which Henry, with great effort, refused. But after two months on the job, Henry finally gave in. What harm would be done by having just a couple of drinks, he reasoned. After all, what kind of man doesn’t socialize with his co-workers after a hard day?
But to Henry, there was no such thing as having “just two drinks.” As soon as that first shot of whiskey crept down his throat, the dark side of his being was suddenly reawakened. He started getting drunk again, and could barely make it through the day without craving a glass of whiskey. Soon it got to be much more than he could bear.
One day, Henry decided to leave work early and buy a stash of whiskey from a bootlegger he heard was traveling into town that day. He explained to his co-workers that he needed to leave early on family business, and asked one of them to punch his timecard for him. His co-workers smiled knowingly at one another – they knew good and well why Henry was so desperate to leave. But they all liked and respected him, so they agreed to help him out.
Henry was about to leave when he remembered his friend Walter, who was working in another section of the mine. Walter had bought Henry drinks many times when Henry was short on cash. So Henry thought it was only fair to let Walter know about his bootlegger, and to take any orders he might have. Although Henry had never ventured into Walter’s area of the mine, he felt certain he could find it.
Henry wandered off the main line into the black depths of the mine. He turned down a narrow tunnel, which led to another, which led to another. Before Henry knew it, an hour had passed, and there was still no sign of Walter – or anyone else, for that matter. But Henry was as stubborn as he was strong, and was determined to find his friend. He walked deeper into the mine.
Another hour passed before Henry finally stopped. The dark, jagged tunnels were beginning to look the same, and Henry, disoriented and tired, figured he should save his strength for the walk back. He started to walk back toward the main line, but as the hours passed, he couldn’t find it. He was stuck in a rocky maze miles below the earth, seemingly walking in circles. The black walls seemed to be closing in around him. Now truly afraid, he screamed out, “Hello! Can anybody hear me?” But there was no answer, save the water dripping slowly from the ceiling.
Certainly, Henry thought, somebody must be working in this area. Then he remembered that he had left his timecard with the other workers. Once it was punched, everyone would assume that he had gone home for the day! It was then that his head lamp began to flicker – soon Henry would be left in total darkness deep in the mine, every miner’s worst nightmare. He extinguished the lamp to save some light for later, then huddled against the wall, chills shooting though his body, his blood pounding in his ears.
Another hour or two passed before Henry saw something that startled him. From somewhere in the depths of the mine, he could swear that he saw a fuzzy white light drifting slowly toward him. It wasn’t a miner’s helmet, for the light floated like a feather above the ground, filling the dank tunnel with its warm glow. I must be tired, thought Henry to himself, for this must be a dream.
As the white light moved past Henry, he swore he saw the outline of a woman inside. The woman in the light turned back, smiled at Henry and beckoned him to follow her – it was Laura! Henry smiled back and, without thinking, got up and followed the light. If I’m dreaming, then I might as well go along for the ride, he thought.
For hours it seemed, Henry followed Laura through the twisting labyrinth of mine tunnels. He tried to speak to her several times, but she wouldn’t answer. Suddenly, as they turned the last corner, the white light vanished, and Laura was gone.
As Henry’s eyes readjusted to the darkness, he found that he was standing at the mouth of the mine, the outside sky now dark and filled with stars. This was no dream – he had found his way out!
One of the guards at the mine entrance looked at Henry with surprise. “Henry, what are you doing in there?” he asked. “I thought you’d gone home hours ago.”
“I did, but I left something back in the mine,” stammered Henry, trying to think of an excuse.
“Well, your wife’s been up here looking for you,” said the guard. “I told her you’d gone home for the day.”
Henry thought about the white light he had seen earlier – had that really been his wife, or was his exhaustion playing games with his head? He then shook it off, thankful to finally be out of the mine, no matter how it happened. He walked quickly home, excited for the first time in weeks to be going home to his lovely wife.
As he reached the door of his home, he noticed that all the lights were out. Laura must have turned in early, he thought, as he quietly opened and shut the front door. He crept into the darkened kitchen, fixed a sandwich, then sat at the table. There he found a hastily written note, which read: “Henry. I thought you’d given up drinking. Now that you’ve started again, I can’t live with you anymore. I can’t live at all.”
Henry dropped his sandwich and ran into the bedroom. What he saw in the light of the pale moon made his blood ran cold. There, hanging by her neck from a ceiling beam, was his dead wife, spinning on the end of a taut rope. Henry cut her down, fell to his knees and wept. Then he realized what had happened in the mine hours before. The light he had seen was no dream, but the ghost of his forgiving wife, leading him to safety in a final act of unconditional love.
In later years, Henry gave up his drinking and his job, and became a preacher in the mining community. In his fiery Sunday sermons, he regularly condemned the evils of drinking and infidelity. But his religious fervor could not calm the guilt he carried with him from Laura’s death. Henry died of a broken heart.
To this day, they say that, if you walk deep enough into the old mining shafts in eastern Kentucky, you may run into Laura’s ghost, wandering forever through the darkness to lead lost miners to safety.
– THE END –
No Greater Love – Story Credits
Written by Craig Dominey
Told by Jim McAmis
Music by Alton Leonard
Sound Design by Henry Howard