In Search of Ghosts

I went in search of a ghost story.

A story as familiar to me as that of Esther or Ruth; stories which have been repeated to me since before I knew how to read myself.

I can’t remember the first time I heard the story but I heard it repeated dozens of times by aunts, uncles, cousins, and yes, most often by my own mother. They would tell the story and re-tell it whenever they gathered around a table, an ashtray of the smoked down remains of unfiltered Camels between them, and half-drunk cups of percolated coffee growing cold.

They would not tell this story in the broad daylight. It was the story they saved until the witching hour. The story they told in hushed whispers, always cautious to not speak ill of the dead. At least not loudly.

It always started with a questioning tone: “I always wondered if she poisoned him.”

The him in question was Uncle Tub. One of the Mayes brothers of five: Roy, Woody, John Harve, Carl and Charlie. Mama’s oldest brothers. She didn’t have any younger brothers. She was the baby. The long-awaited girl child. Granny Ruth was 40 when Mama was born. She was worn out by then, they say.

John Harve was named Tub by his brother Roy. A nickname meant to taunt his brother: “Because he had a big head,” Roy once explained to me. “Always bossing us.”

To us kids he was always known as “Uncle Tub”, a fun name that we associated with actual bathtubs.

The story the folks told went like this: One morning, Uncle Tub sat down in the kitchen of his home in Southern Oregon to eat his breakfast of oatmeal and drink his coffee. After eating he rose up from the table, went out back to smoke a cigarette and dropped over dead as a old mule.

Tub was 40 years old.

Too young to be dropping dead like a worn-out mule.

It was because he’d just finished eating his oatmeal that everyone thought he must have been poisoned and they figured they knew exactly who killed him.

His wife Ollie.

Uncle Tub had run off and left his other wife back in the hills of East Tennessee. That was the aunt I knew. Aunt Bea. Yes. For real. Uncle Tub had two boys – Doug and Donny – and a daughter – Helen. A wife and kids he reportedly abandoned. Donny told me once about a time he and Doug took a bus from their home up in Chicago to visit their dad in Oregon. They were in their early teens and it was the only summer they ever spent with their dad after he run off to Oregon. Donny said it was the best summer of his life, those days he spent with his daddy fishing the streams and rivers of Southern Oregon.

Our family’s migration to Oregon first took place because of Uncle Tub running from the lawmen of Tennessee. Lestways that’s the story I was told. Uncle Tub robbed a local market up at Christian Bend, so in order to keep from going to jail, he made a run for it all the way to Southern Oregon, where he lived until he died.

Without digging up his bones, I can’t say for sure how Uncle Tub died. Whether Ollie did indeed poison him, or as some said later, he died of scleroderma, a tissue disease that is four times more common in women than in men. Too much collagen is produced in the system that can cause a thickness and hardening of the skin and internal organs.  It’s not usually fatal but can be. Or as Uncle Charlie, Tub’s youngest brother said to me, “It’s only transferred from uncle to niece, so you shouldn’t worry about it.”

That Charlie was a funny guy.

The reason the folks speculated about Tub being poisoned was probably two-fold. They probably weren’t keen on Uncle Tub abandoning Aunt Bea and the kids back home, and because they said his body was hard as a rock before the EMTs arrived at the house. They knew this because Uncle Roy lived near Uncle Tub and he reported this back to the family.

Whenever they got to telling the story of Tub’s death, however, they always ended it with the story of his Aunt Ollie’s death. Ollie is the gal he married while he was out in Oregon. I don’t even know for sure that he got a legal divorce from Aunt Bea or if he really married Ollie.

I know very little about Ollie other than the story of Tub’s death.

And hers.

She was murdered. I know this for a fact. I was always told that she was murdered in Madras, Oregon. My sister was told it was in Washington State. My cousins were told it was in Tennessee.

As it turns out, Ollie was murdered in Madras. I know this because I found the record of the murder.

Turns out, this story, the one of Aunt Ollie’s murder was almost verbatim the one repeated in front of us kids during the witching hours growing up.

Aunt Ollie was murdered by her step-son in their trailer home. He killed both Aunt Ollie and her husband. Even the part of the story where the boy stood outside the trailer house and shot it up and them in it was part of the stories we kids heard. I didn’t know the part about the family’s pet canary being killed, though.

I have no clue why the boy killed his daddy and Aunt Ollie, but I can tell you that in the Mayes family, there were those who thought Aunt Ollie had it coming. Ollie married Mr. Swanson almost a year-to-the-day of Uncle Tub’s death. Maybe she married him because she needed somebody to provide for her. Maybe she married him because she was already in love with him before Tub kilt over dead. Maybe he was somebody she met afterwards.

Either way, it’s clear that the Swanson’s youngest boy wasn’t any too pleased. I don’t know what, if any, charges he received as a result of the double-homicide. Ollie had been his stepmom for five years when he shot her dead. But then again, I guess if you can kill your own father, you have no qualms about killing others.

The report says that his brother, a law student, fought to get his brother admitted to the Oregon State Hospital. I reached out to that brother to see what happened to the kid, but I never heard back.

With the help of my own private investigator who shall remain anonymous because I may need their help again in the future, I was able to determine that the boy was listed as a student in the yearbook at Madras High School in 1967 and again in 1968. And, then, in the yearbook at a high school at South Salem in 1970. So it would appear that whatever the consequences he faced for killing Aunt Ollie and her husband had no affect on his educational pursuits. Imagine a kid today killing two people with a shotgun and showing up to Math class tomorrow.

Anyway, like I said, I went in search of a ghost story and I found one.

After three hours of traipsing back and forth across Madras and through the graveyard, typing in various names to try and identify where a certain plot was, I finally found Aunt Ollie’s grave. I have no idea who paid for her gravestone. I know very little about her beyond what was reported in the initial murder story.

Don’t you just know that since Aunt Ollie and Dan Swanson were shot and killed on Oct. 28, 1967, they were the talk of every Halloween story told that year in Central Oregon?

The boy who killed Aunt Ollie is a grandpa now. He lives close by. He went on to do good things with his life if his Facebook page is a true reflection of who he became. I’ve reached out to him, told him I’d like to meet with him, to hear first-hand the story of why he killed his dad and Aunt Ollie. Far as I can tell, he never went to prison or even juvenile detention for the murders. That’s one of the questions I’d like to ask him: How does a boy kill two people and not even serve time in reform school?

Maybe it’s also a commentary on our criminal justice system. Maybe locking people up isn’t all that productive. Maybe somebody got the kid some much needed counseling. I can’t help but wonder if the kid had been a black boy or a brown boy if he would have gotten a second chance to make something good of his life. I wonder if he wonders the same thing.

I’m not sure the fella was expecting a ghost from his past to coming knocking on his doorstep 52 years later to the date after he committed a double-homicide or not, but you know me, always following up where the story and the ghosts lead me.

 

Karen Spears Zacharias was taught by her Appalachian kin to never step on the graves of the dead, to plant flowers underneath a full moon, to beware the bird that flies into one’s house, to cover the mirrors of the dead, to never tell a bad dream before breakfast, that if your nose is itching, company is coming and if you ears are burning, somebody is talking about you.  Many of those things she wrote about in her Appalachian novels – Mother of Rain, Burdy and Christian Bend (Mercer University Press).

 

 

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

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