Jenny sat huddled next to the tiny coal stove that tried vainly to warm her shack. She pulled her threadbare shawl tighter around her shoulders and blew into her cupped hands. The chill of a dying winter clung to the dirty canvas and boards that made up the tiny shack she called home. Jenny’s husband had gone off to fight in the great war and, as she knew, he had died at the 1st battle of Manassas. A tear slid down her cheek as she
remembered how brave and hopeful he was as he marched off with the rest of the young men in Harpers Ferry, resplendent in their federal blue uniforms. She wondered if he carried her handkerchief with him to battle, and she wept as she wondered if they buried him with it. She let herself cry. There was no one to hear her, no one to console her and Jenny felt the cold creeping into her heart. She tossed another solid lump of coal into the stove and shuddered a little as the surge of heat chased the chill away for a moment. It did nothing to comfort her as she slid her weary bones into bed and pulled her blankets over her and fell into a fitful sleep.
She awoke the next day to the chill she was accustomed to. It was never warm in the mornings the early in March and especially not along the river where her shack was. She pulled her thick and heavy wool coat on and had her meager breakfast of tea, some hard tack bread, and it was a good day as she even had some cheese left over. She left and the cool morning braced her, giving her a little pick up…more so than her tea had. With her heavy wool coat pulled around her to stave off the morning chill, she walked the short mile from where her shack was along the train tracks that coursed through Virginius
Island to the main gate of the Harpers Ferry Armory, where she and almost all the other widows went for work and perhaps even to find another husband. Jenny wasn’t interested in finding another husband. She was simply trying to make a wage enough to purchase a ticket to Baltimore and from Baltimore she would take the first ship she could to anywhere but here. She would take the first ship she could away from the war, the pain, and she would be happy again. Jenny was sure of it. This thought alone got her through the day of packing powder and the other mundane responsibilities of her work day. Before the war, she was happy and content in her role as a housewife. When he left for the war, she couldn’t keep the house by herself, the bills piled up and eventually she had no option but to leave the house she had loved. She would never forgive him for that. Jenny could never forgive him for leaving her with nothing. These thoughts filled her head as she ignored the cat calls and lewd comments from some of the more aggressive men who inhabited the armory.
Such was the life of many women who were left widowed by the war. They were objects of ridicule by those who didn’t share their political views; a social stigma was attached to women whose men died on the “wrong side” of the war. In a town with southern sympathies, a woman whose husband fought and died on the side of the union was not highly thought of, and vice versa. (**Harpers Ferry changed hands 14 times during the civil war, so sympathies swung radically depending on who was in control of the town. The town was of great strategic importance but the low elevation and the height of the surrounding mountains made it virtually impossible to defend. General “Stonewall” Jackson called Harpers Ferry “the stinking Hole”**)
When her day ended, she smiled to the few other ladies that she counted her friends. They too were widows, and knew the pain Jenny felt. They shared a common bond in their melancholy, and sometimes, when the sun shone into the armory square they shared a laugh. The sun wasn’t out today. The wind was quick and cold. Winter wasn’t quite done with yet. grey clouds loomed on the horizon, turning the cleft between the mountains into an angry looking cauldron.
“Storm’s coming, Jenny…can feel it in my bones. Best get inside quick.” The old woman said and pulled the doors to the tavern closed.
Jenny pulled her coat tight around her and hurried down the cobblestone side walk. others hurried past as well, eager to get home before the cold rain-soaked the town. A roll of thunder sounded in the distance punctuated dramatically by a flash of lightning. Jenny reached her tiny one room shack just as the sky opened up and let the rain fall. It was heavy and fast. Jenny sighed and placed three small pots on the battered wooden floor to catch the rain she knew was going to be coming through very soon. She opened the tiny, pot-bellied coal stove and tossed a lump in, then another, she felt the heat rise in the room. The light from the open stove threw long, slumped, sad shadows on the canvas/wood walls that did little to keep the wind that was now picking up with the rain, out. She felt the grey cloud slip over her heart that matched the sky. Jenny promised herself she wouldn’t cry again tonight. She promised. She took a bottle from a cabinet and popped the cork. The whiskey warmed her and calmed her. Jenny didn’t feel like crying now. She felt warm.
She took another pull from the bottle. The warmth flowed from her slender throat to her stomach and then into her limbs. The storm outside swelled and howled but Jenny cared nothing for it. The whiskey was her shelter and she was finally warm. She tossed a lump of coal on the fire, then another and another. She was determined to make her meager, paltry shelter as warm as the whiskey had made her. She laughed and fell into the armchair that used to belong to her husband. She could almost smell him in the fabric of it. It felt like he was hugging her when she sat in it. And it was here she fell asleep, the whiskey in her hand clattering to the floor and spilling out. The hem of Jenny’s dress soaking up the whiskey into the gunpowder stained cloth.
She heard it through the whiskey haze.
*POP crackle POP*
Again. Jenny tried to make sense of it. She knew that sound. Something in her mind told her she should wake up. Open her eyes.
Then se felt warm then hot. She opened her eyes wide in immediate panic. The hem of her dirty dress was in flames. She stood and started to stamp, clumsily, at the hem with drunken feet. The action doing nothing to stifle the fire. it only fanned the flames further to life, fed by the alcohol and gunpowder soaked into the cloth.
She erupted into fire.
Screaming she fled into the night. The storm had long abated and now her flaming feet made hissing sounds with every panicked running step she took. The flames grew and grew. She was engulfed in flames as she ran screaming down the train track that wound through the town. The townsfolk awoke to stare in horror out their windows at the grisly scene that was transpiring before their weary eyes.
Jenny did not make it far before she fell, dead on the tracks. Her body burning and hissing on the wet wood and rails.
She was buried the next evening with very, very few in attendance. the sky was the only one who wept for Jenny. The rain continued until the last clod of dirt was laid on her unmarked pauper’s grave. Her death was talked about for some time, and amongst the town gossip was second only to John Brown’s rumored gold and What happened to that poor soldier Jacob, down on Harrow street.
But some tales, some legends are more real than others.
To this day, people from all walks of life have seen poor Jenny on Virginius Island. Although the island is now wooded and overgrown, the ruins and foundations of much of the homes, businesses and industrial centers are still able to be seen. The path ways that wind through the forest along the Shenandoah River follow streets that once were lined with people and commerce. The skeleton of that part of Harpers Ferry lies bare for all to see. At night, the ghosts of that island come out. Walking on Virginus Island under a moon lit night, you can hear voices in the trees. See shadows dart down shaded pathways that were once busy avenues. The island is very haunted. Some stories tell of the families who died in the flood of 1932 that permanently changed the face of Virginius Island. You can hear their wails and cries in the night. Some tell of the things that stalk the woods. Those things that used to haunt the waterways and canals of the island before the flood that wiped those places from the map. The air changes on that wooded island when the sun falls behind the western horizon.
But one story almost every one accepts in Harpers Ferry as true is the story of Screaming Jenny. To this day she is seen screaming down the track, her dress engulfed in flames. Her cries echoing across the river and the light of her flames seen through the trees. When I was young, and getting into youthful trouble in Harpers Ferry, our town’s Sherriff would even use Screaming Jenny as a deterrent to keep us from Virginius Island at night. (which obviously never worked)
As a chronicler of local folklore and a collector of folklore in general, I have discovered that most every small town, and in fact everywhere has a tale or two that may sound familiar, but is in its own way unique. We’ve all herd the story of the ill fated couple that lept from “lover’s leap” in Nowhere, rural America. Or the sad tale of the children killed by a bus accident, and their spirits now push cars across tracks in Grassroots, America. Or the tale of the guy who picks up a lonely girl along a stretch of highway Number Anything that stretches from Nowhere to Somewhere. They share a commonality that resonates in us all on some base, primal level. Harpers Ferry is no different. We claim many tales that may have a ring of familiarity. There’s the legend of John Brown’s gold buried somewhere in caves along the banks of the Potomac River. (there is no gold, there are no caves, please treasure seekers…don’t bother) We also have a tale of ill fated lovers from opposite sides of the American Civil war, who leapt to their deaths from the bluffs of Maryland Heights.
Screaming Jenny is one of those tales that Harpers Ferry claims as soleyl its own.