The following story is found in The Hamlyn Book of Ghosts, Part II by J. Allen Randolph, published in London in 1973:
As the crisp scent of autumn permeated the chill evening air, I sat down with Mr. Martin Fleetwood on the porch of his North Carolina home. Mr. Fleetwood had been a resident of the region his entire life, over ninety years as he figured it. Here he had farmed his small plot and provided a satisfactory, if arduous, life for his family.
Mr. Fleetwood, having been privy to secrets and tall tales of the area for much of his long life, was a living archive of Americana, especially the kind that liked to lurk in dark corners and deserted country lanes. I traveled to Mr. Fleetwood’s modest home in order to hear a master storyteller “weave a yarn,” as the Americans like to say. I was not disappointed.
Of the many stories related to me, that of the Corn Witch was easily the most compelling, being a tale steeped in history and dripping with both tragedy and horror. The story of the Corn Witch begins in the early years of the century in the same part of North Carolina where Mr. Fleetwood’s family lived. I submit this story to you in Mr. Fleetwood’s own words:
“The Mathews family lived just up over the hill. Now, they were poor – we all were poor – but they were poorer than most. Mr. Mathews had been born into slavery and he took for his wife a Catawba Indian woman and some people didn’t think that was a proper way of doing things. What that meant was they didn’t get help when they needed some, so when Mr. Mathews died, why they were hard-pressed to keep the bank from taking what little land they had left.
“Now, two of the Mathews children, Zora and John, were twins and were always going about together, always getting into trouble of one kind or another. At the time they must’ve been about twelve or so; young enough to know everything. Their mother was worked up about the money trouble and some said she had turned to drink, and so, the twins were desperate to find any way they could to hold onto their daddy’s land.
“It was coming up on Hallowmas – Halloween – and there was an old story about a witch what used to live hereabouts. Folks called her the Corn Witch and it was said she could make the corn in the fields wither and die with nary but a sideways look.
“Some folks said she was up and hanged before the start of the War for the Union, and some others said she was an English woman married to a pirate what come across the sea before the Independence War, and some said she was an Indian maid cursed by the Devil, and still some others said she was older than all that, that she had been here before there was people here.
“Well, the part of the tale told ‘round these parts has it that the Corn Witch walked the fields by night, and she could bless ‘em or she could curse ‘em, depending on if she was feeling charity or spite. People back then liked to leave her little things like hard candy or rock salt or little dolls made with corn feathers, and folks said the Corn Witch would take them and make your corn grow.
“The other part of the legend said that if you caught the Corn Witch in the field, if you looked down her long nose and didn’t turn from her old warty face, why you could get her to give you a wish, just like a genie in old Araby. The thing was that you could only catch her in a field she had cursed and you could only do it on Hallowmas night, when all the ghosts and the goblins and Hell’s own went to trooping about.
“John and Zora, being kids, got it into their heads they were going to catch that there witch. Hallowmas night came and John led Zora up to the high fields, the ones that get left to themselves more oftener than not. There was a field there owned by a Mr. Freemer that did bad that year and that was where they were going to go to wait for the Corn Witch.
“It was an awful cold night and them twins had a long wait ahead of them. Now the corn field was picked clean except for a few ears here and there – food for crows – but the dead stalks were still standing row by row.
“John and Zora walked hand in hand down those rows and stepped across the dried-up husks, watching the moon get bigger and hearing the sounds of the night birds. It was sometime in the dead of the night, when it’s so cold it can’t get colder and it seems like the sun ain’t never coming back, that the Corn Witch came upon them.
“Now, this is the part of the story that folks want to hear and it’s the part of the story that can’t ever get told because no one except John and Zora can tell it and they for sure ain’t talking. This story’s got a big hole right in the spot where the heart ought to be, but it really ain’t like that at all.
“People like to get to talking about things they know, but they really love to talk about the things they don’t know. For every corn stalk in Freemer’s field, there’s a dozen stories about what happened to John and Zora Mathews that night.
“Some folks think it was the Devil himself come up and others that it was a crazed-up mountain man, but I imagine that sometime that night when the whole Earth was still and cold as a grave and you’d think it just couldn’t get any later, that John and Zora might’ve seen a ragged, black shape rise up out of the stalks and cross the night sky on an old corn broom, trailing a dirty tattered shawl behind it.
“It might’ve struck John and Zora as looking like one of Freemer’s old scarecrows before it lightly came to rest among the dead stalks. On her head she probably wore a tall, crooked hat like she was pointing one angry finger up at God, and she might’ve glared at the children with hellfire eyes from beneath that broad brim.
“So, I’d imagine it might’ve been. All I know is that, in the morning, John came down from the high fields alone. Zora was nowhere to be found from that day to this. Folks said she run off with a peddler and others in their whispering said that John had killed her and buried her up in the field.
“Now, I don’t believe hardly none of it, but I don’t know exactly what to believe if you take my meaning. December was coming up when the bank agent come to town and went up to visit the Mathews farm. John met him at the door and paid off the family debts with a fistful of old Spanish doubloons.
“The bank agent almost fainted dead away but he took it for the debt ‘cause he knew that John was overpaying. John didn’t care about that; he worked hard to help his mama and get that farm working again.
“No one in these parts had seen crops grow so fast and so well as they did on the Mathews farm the next season. Why, in a few years, John was able to buy out some of his neighbors, and by the time his mama was put in the ground, John Mathews was one of the richest men in the county.
“That sure gave people something to talk about, no doubt. They were jealous and they were petty and mean and most of all they wondered what really happened to Zora Mathews on that Hallowmas night so many years before.
‘Well, if, like me, you like to take your evening constitutions on the old country backroads, and if, like me, you don’t mind walking after the sun is down and everything is dark, and if, like me, you sometimes stop to watch the moon and listen to the music them lonesome night birds make, then you might, on nights when the air is getting chilly and the leaves are starting to fall, spy a figure behind the dried-up stalks, a small figure, ‘bout the size of a girl, wearing a big old pointed hat and torn black shawl, sweeping the rows with an old corn broom.
“They say the corn grows well in this part of the country, but I say we just know how to treat our friends. What happened to little Zora Mathews? Well, the corn needs to be planted again every year, and I’d imagine that maybe something like a Corn Witch needs to be planted again from time to time.”