While the men of the Fifteenth Alabama served their state and their country honorably during the many battles of the Civil War, their brethren who stayed behind in Dale County did not do it such justice. In fact, it was their cruelty that led to one of the most infamous events in Alabama’s history, one that gave us the story known simply as “Sketoe’s Hole.”
The story drifts down to us through the ages, featuring prominently in the tales of that grande dame of southern storytelling, Kathryn Tucker Windham. It begins with a man from Madrid, Spain—William Sketoe.
Bill had lived most of his life in Alabama, having moved to Dale County with his father as a boy. But that fact did not prevent the locals from viewing him with suspicious eyes. He was, after all, a Spaniard, and relations with that nation had been tenuous at best in the years following the formation of the Union. But as the boy grew, his kind manner and deep religious faith eventually earned him friends in the area, and it wasn’t long before he was preaching sermons at churches around the county. He soon ended up with a congregation of his own in a little log cabin Methodist church in Newton, where he met and fell in love with his future wife. For several years, they lived happily together. Sketoe tended to his growing flock, and it seemed as though the young couple would grow old together. But then came the War Between the States. When secession was announced, Sketoe prayed that it would not come to war. Sadly, it was not to be. The South would not compromise its position, and the North would not sacrifice the Union. War was inevitable. When it began, Sketoe was one of the first men from Dale County to join the local regiment. As much as he didn’t want to leave his family, he felt a duty to this adopted home and could not turn his back. So, off to war he went.
For three years, Sketoe fought bravely in battle after battle for the Confederate army. He rose through the ranks, and more importantly, he survived without injury. He might have seen the war all the way through had it not been for a message he received on the front telling him that his beloved wife was very sick and on the verge of death.
Sketoe had few options. He could stay in the military and pray that his wife got better, but Sketoe trusted few at home in Newton to nurse her back to health. Or he could hire a substitute to fight in his place, not an uncommon choice in those days. It was not cheap—$1,000 was the going rate—but Sketoe did what he had to do. He raised the funds from his pay and savings and hired a replacement to take his place on the line. Then he hurried back to Dale County to take care of his wife. Things went well at first. His wife was overjoyed to see her husband, and she immediately began to recover. Sketoe promised that he would not leave her until she recovered fully. And that’s where his problems began.
The writing was on the wall by the winter of 1864. Early victories had turned into a string of defeats for the South, and with Ulysses S. Grant providing the kind of leadership that earlier generals had been incapable of, the Confederacy was on the verge of collapse. Social order began to fall with it. In counties around the South, so-called Home Guards were set up. Composed of men who were either too old, too physically infirm or too cowardly to fight in the military, these lawless bands made it their business to ensure that loyalty to the Confederacy was complete and punished anything they saw as less than total devotion to the cause. And when they saw Sketoe, an able-bodied man at home with his wife while the war still raged (and a foreigner at that), they decided that he was a traitor and had to be punished.
It was a cold, early winter day when the Home Guard decided to strike. As Sketoe crossed the Choctawhatchee River north of Newton, he was ambushed by six men. They dragged him into the forest and beat him before putting him in a buggy and tying a noose around his neck. Some of Sketoe’s friends happened to be crossing the bridge at that time, and once they saw what was happening, they rushed back to town to collect some weapons and men to free the preacher. Sketoe’s attackers knew that they didn’t have much time. They took the buggy and put it under an old post oak tree, and they asked Sketoe if he had any last words. He asked if he could pray, and the men gave him this one last courtesy—at least, until they heard what he prayed for.
“Forgive them, father,” is all he said. When the men heard that he was praying for them and not himself, they were enraged. They struck the horse, and it pulled the cart from underneath Sketoe, leaving him dangling in midair. But the men had miscalculated. Sketoe was a large man, and his weight pulled the branch down to the point that his feet actually touched the ground. One of the men grabbed the crutch that he had because of an old war wound and used it to dig a hole in the ground beneath Sketoe, who strangled to death over that hole before his friends could return with help. That was the end of Sketoe, but it was not the end of the story.
A dark presence started to haunt the men responsible for Sketoe’s death, and it was whispered in Newton that none of them slept another full night the rest of his life—what life he had left, that is. You see, something haunted the murderers of Bill Sketoe. Whether it was his vengeful spirit or the wrath of God himself, none can say. But what we know for sure is that none of the men involved in Sketoe’s lynch- ing died a natural death.
One was killed while riding his horse underneath a post oak tree—the same kind of tree from which Sketoe was hanged—when a limb broke away and struck the man in the head, killing him instantly. Another man was killed in a riding accident when his horse went wild on a flat, unremarkable road, throwing him to the ground and then trampling him to death. Yet another man was struck by lightning. Another was found dead in the midst of a deep swamp, with no cause of death evident and certainly no explanation for why his face was contorted into a mask of terror. The other two simply disappeared, never to be seen again.
But what has never disappeared is the hole that was dug beneath the feet of Ske- toe, the hole that marked the place of his death. Fill it with dirt or cover it in sand. No matter; the hole would always reappear. Even one hundred years later, if you went down to the river and knew where to look, you’d find the hole, just as it had been on that fateful day so long ago.
They finally found a way to cover the hole, burying it under tons of rock as part of the construction of a bridge over the Choctawhatchee River. But one has to won- der if deep beneath its rocky cover, the hole remains, a silent sentinel to the man who died for the woman he loved.
Haunted Alabama Black Belt written by David Higdon and Brett Talley – Copyright © 2013 by David Higdon and Brett Talley – All rights reserved