The Old Bethel Church

The Old Bethel AME (African-American Episcopal) Church in McClellanville, SC. A historic landmark built in 1872, The site of my story. (Photo taken by me in February, 2022).

I selected the photo of the Old Bethel AME Church as the topic for the Monday, 3/13/23, meeting of the Chatham Writers Group. I tried my hand at writing creepy, horror type stories this week (see Philadelphia Alley). I started writing my story and got carried away. I had several characters, some deaths and more gore, a couple of different locations, etc, and was approaching 2000 words on a story that was supposed to be no more than 1000 words. I eliminated characters, body count and scenes to concentrate on events at the church. At the end of my story, there will be a brief history of the Old Bethel AME Church.

The Old Bethel Church

Sheriff’s  Deputy Claire Simmons shifted uncomfortably in her chair and glanced at the business card in her hand, “Bennett Sisters Consulting”.  There was a phone number, and a satanic symbol with a red X through it. 

She made a quick inventory of the two African-American women sitting opposite her.  Identical twins, they appeared to be in their early 50’s, and were dressed almost identically with light blue denim shirts, jeans and walking shoes.  The only difference was one sister wore a navy blue bandanna around her neck and the other wore a pink one.  “And what type of, um, consultation do you provide?”, she asked.

The sister who had identified herself as Mae answered, “My sister, Lena, and I consult on matters of the occult.  We provide a cleaning service of sorts in that we remove demons, phantoms, those sorts of things.  They sometimes take over abandoned places of worship.  What’s your story Deputy Simmons?”

Choking back her emotion, the Deputy described how her Dad and his friend were walking past Old Bethel Church on their way to the pond to fish.  Her Dad suddenly stopped and started acting strange.  He was looking at the church and told his friend he needed to talk to someone, said to go on, he’d meet him at the pond.  His friend looked to where my Dad had been looking and saw the back of a man wearing overalls go into the side door of the church.  When my Daddy didn’t show up at the Pond, his friend went to look for him and found him behind the church with his throat ripped open.  

“Coroner said it was a rabid dog, but I believe the man in overalls had something to do with it.  Something ain’t right with that church.” 

“And your father’s friend didn’t tell his story to anyone else?”

“He was terrified Miss Bennett, so he only told me.  The man in the overalls didn’t appear to be real, he kind of shimmered.  My Daddy is buried in cemetery alongside the church.  When I go to visit him, the church seems to be mocking me.  I hear laughing and whistling coming from the slats on the belfry.  I told my Aunt, my Dad’s sister,  she told me about the two of you, and here we are.”

“Well, let’s go have a look see then.”, declared Lena.

“Now?” Deputy Simmons was incredulous.

“No better time than now.”  The three of them piled into the Bennett’s old Range Rover and drove off.

A pine tree lay across the dirt road that led to the Old Bethel Church.   The Range Rover clattered to stop and the three women climbed out to look at the tree.

“The pine must have fallen during the night,” said Deputy Simmons, “the road was clear when I patrolled it yesterday.”

“It knows we’re here.”, said Mae.  

The Bennett sisters opened the tailgate of the Land Rover and removed a few items.  Deputy Simmons was startled to see Mae carrying a viola case and Lena with a guitar gig bag slung over her shoulder. 

Without a word, the Bennett sisters climbed over the tree, and trudged down the dirt road.  The Deputy scampered over the downed pine and followed behind the twins.  A gentle breeze picked up, the moss draping the oaks that lined the road began to sway, seeming to beckon the three women to the church. 

The dirt road ended at a clearing.  Confronting them was the Old Bethel Church.  Deputy Simmons shivered, the air had gotten noticeably cooler.  “I feel it,” she said, “that church is looking at us.”

Not only did she feel as though the church was staring at them, she swore she could see it breathing.  The red tin roof and sides of the old building appeared expand and contract.  She sensed movement to the right of the church, shook her head and rubbed her eyes.   “Did those headstones just turn to look at us?”  Deputy Simmons inhaled deeply, she could see her father’s grave, his old fishing cap resting on it’s headstone.

“We’ll take it from here Deputy Simmons. You need to walk a ways back down the road,” ordered Mae.  

“You’re kidding!”, exclaimed the Deputy.  Mae stood holding a Super Soaker.  From her gig bag, Lena had assembled a 5 foot chrome rod with a cross on top and a spear point at the bottom.  Reaching for her pistol, Deputy Simmons said, “You’re gonna need more than a damn Super Soaker and a steel bar.  I’m going with you.”

“Suit yourself,” said Mae calmly, “You can figure out later how to explain what ya’ll will see.  And put that away, it won’t work,”  she added, pointing at the officer’s pistols. “ This Super Soaker has a mix of Holy Water and salts blessed in the Holy Land.  Lena’s rod is pure silver.  These things are demon killers.”

The side door flew open and slammed against the building, momentarily startling them. 

A figure wearing blue overalls appeared in the door.  Two bright, yellow orbs glittered in the shade cast by the wide brim hat on its head.  Waving a dismissive hand, the figure went back into the church.  The women looked at each other, then stepped through the door.  They stood for a few moments waiting for their eyes to adjust to the gloom.  Deputy Simmons thought the inside of the church had a metallic smell similar to that of a dead deer found along the side of the road.  Snapping on their on their flashlights, they circled the pews.  Lena broke away and began to move up the center aisle, holding the cross topped staff in front of her.  Mae and Deputy Simmons continued along the wall.  A shuffling noise came from behind them.  Simmons turned her beam in the direction of  of the sound.  She gasped.  The form shuffling towards them was her father, or what used to be her father.  A gaping, raw wound ran from his throat to just under his ear.  The dried blood from the wound had left a huge brown splotch on his fishing jacket.  His fishing hat, laced with lures, sat tilted on his head.

“Daddy?”, her voice choked with emotion.

“Claire! You’ve come to help me! Help me…” the apparition groaned and extended its arms.

Mae shouted, “No!”, and yanked the Deputy back.   The father/demon opened its mouth to reveal jaws lined with long piranha teeth, and began snapping at them.  Releasing a high pitched, fiendish giggle, it rapidly approached them.  The spear end of Lena’s silver staff jabbed through the front of its shirt, cutting off the laugh.  The demon looked down in surprise at the spear.  It turned a parchment brown color, broke apart and fluttered to the floor like tree leaves.  

A long howl ripped the air.  Lena aimed her flashlight toward the front of the church.  Caught in the beam of light, the yellow-eyed thing in bib overalls howled again, exposing a line of those piranha teeth..  It jumped from the pulpit and raced towards them, bounding along the backs of the pews, snarling.  Mae let loose a stream of the Holy Water concoction from her Super Soaker and stitched a line across the creature from right hip to left shoulder.  Without another sound, the thing fell apart in two pieces,  dissolving into a pile of parchment leaves as well.  Except for the sounds of their rapid breathing, the church was silent.

Two days later, Deputy Simmons and the Bennett sisters visited her father’s grave in the Old Bethel Church Cemetery.  The church was silent, the cemetery peaceful. Her father’s fishing hat rested on his headstone.  They were not certain if it was because of a sudden puff of wind, but it seemed as though the hat tipped, grateful for what they had done. 

Fishing hat on headstone in the Old Bethel AME Church cemetery. Photo taken by my wife in February 2023.

The Old Bethel AME (African-American Episcopal) Church is the first AME Church created in McClellanville. With the end of the Civil War in 1865, former slaves were now allowed to build their own places of worship and the first congregation met under an oak tree in MClellanville in 1867. The Church was constructed in 1872, damaged by a hurricane in 1916, repaired and continued to host services until 1979, when a new Church was built for the growing congregation. In 1986, the Old Bethel Church was lifted off its foundation by Hurricane Hugo and almost all of its stained glass windows were shattered. It was supposed to be converted to a community center in 2002, but for some unexplained reason, it never happened. Old Bethel Church was used as a backdrop for a 2019 min-series called “Lowcountry”, but then was vandalized. The remaining windows were boarded up and it has remained vacant.

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Writers Group

March 13, 2023

Philadelphia Alley

Philadelphia Alley, Charleston South Carolina. The steeple of St. Philip’s Church rises above the wall to the right. The setting for my story

This week’s prompt for the Sturgis Library Writing group was to write a story/memoir/poem using the photo of the alley shown above. My tale of mayhem follows.

Philadelphia Alley

Sergeant-Major Poe stood at  the parapet of Fort Moultrie, jotting down his observations of Sullivan’s Island in a notebook.  Shortly after his arrival at the Fort, the local inhabitants told tales that the pirate, Captain Kidd, had buried a substantial treasure somewhere along its shores.  The tales had given Poe an idea for a short story and he had begun to create a plot line.  To help potential readers develop an image in their minds of the story’s setting, he wanted to provide a description of Sullivan’s Island.   Poe stopped writing for a moment and gazed off to the west across the wide expanse of Charleston Harbor at the city of Charleston itself.  In the setting sun, he could just make out the stately homes on Battery Street and the tall spire of St. Philip’s Church.  His line of concentration was interrupted by the approach of one of the post’s orderlies.   He snapped Poe a crisp salute and pulled a folded piece of paper, sealed with wax, from his leather messenger bag.  “Lieutenant Griswold’s compliments Sergeant Poe, he asked me to pass this order to you.”   Poe thanked and saluted the orderly.  Breaking the seal and folding open the note, he read that he was being ordered to Charleston the following morning to oversee the unloading of munitions from a supply ship and to ensure their delivery to Fort Moultrie.  He would be met at the docks by Monsieur Paul Douxsaint and would be a guest at his house.  Poe signed the log book acknowledging receipt of the order and proceeded to his quarters to prepare for the trip.

The unloading of the supply ship began mid-afternoon and ceased at dusk.  As Poe stepped from the gangplank on to the dock, a rather well dressed man in top hat and carrying a bejeweled cane approached and introduced himself as Monsieur Douxsaint.   Gregarious and possessing a delightful French accent, he invited the sergeant to dine with him at a private club called the Vendue.  By the time they completed their dinner, darkness had fallen and the streets were illuminated by flickering gaslights.  Walking along Queen Street on the way to the Douxsaint house they had reached the intersection of Philadelphia Alley when their conversation was cut short by a horrible scream that made the hairs on the back of their necks stand up.  It was a woman’s scream and it came from somewhere in the Alley.  As they stared into the darkness, a second scream made them jump.  Poe started to make his way into the Alley but Douxsaint grabbed his arm.  

“Sergeant Poe, please, do not enter they Alley, it is dangerous.”

“But it sounds like a woman is in trouble Monsieur, she needs our help.”

“It could be a ruse to lure us in, Sergeant Poe.  We will be discovered in the morning with our skulls bashed in, our money and valuables taken.”

Women’s screams and the hoarse shouts of men disrupted the darkness of the Alley.

Poe retrieved a pistol from his valise and drew his sword.  “Tell me what’s down this Alley, Monsieur.  Someone is in desperate need of help.”

“A few apartments, the entry to the church cemetery on the left.  The Barnwell Mortuary on the right.”

Poe disappeared into the darkness.  Douxsaint uttered a curse, and began to shout for the police.  He gave the jeweled head of his cane a twist and pulled it, extracting a short sword from its hollow body.  “Wait for me Sergeant!”  

The two of them crept slowly along Philadelphia Alley, listening.  The shrieks and shouts had stopped for the moment.   A door swing open and slammed against the wall, making them retreat a few steps.  A shaft of light from the other side of the door broke through the darkness in the Alley.  They gasped as a man staggered from the door, the handle of a knife protruding from his neck.  Falling to the ground, blood from his severed jugular sprayed the Alley.  Poe and Douxsaint ran to the fallen man, but they saw he was beyond help.  Douxsaint stood and began to shout as loudly as he could for the police, anyone, “Murder! Murder!” he yelled.

Readying his sword and pistol, Sergeant Poe went through the open door.  What he saw revolted him, his dinner gave a huge roll in his stomach.  On the floor lay the body of another man, mouth open, empty eyes facing the ceiling.  It appeared he had been stabbed in the heart.  On a table was the body of a third man, but it was clear he was being prepared for burial.  “The morgue,” thought Poe.

“Oh Mother of God!”  exclaimed Douxsaint when he came through the door.

Shouts and screams from two women came from somewhere else in the building.  They pushed through a set of doors into a wide hallway.  To their left was a staircase leading to an upper floor.  The sounds seemed to be coming from there.  Bolting up the stairs they stopped to listen.  A struggle could be heard from a balcony behind them, in the front of the building.  Racing out to the balcony, they saw a woman gripping another woman by the throat with one hand, while trying to plunge a knife into her chest with her other hand.  The second woman was using both of her hands to keep that from happening.  Poe could hear the sounds of police whistles from the street below.

“Madame, please, put down the knife,” Douxsaint said softly.

The quiet French accent had an effect on the knife wielding woman.  She looked at Poe and Douxsaint, blinked and dropped the knife.  “They killed my husband,” she sobbed, “they cut him open down in that room.” Looking at her blood stained hands and clothing, she gasped, “What have I done?”

Police officers boiled out on to the balcony.  Quickly assessing the situation they escorted the knife wielding woman away.  From the woman who had been attacked they learned the knife wielder’s husband had died of consumption the previous day.  The morticians were in the process of preparing his body for burial when the distraught wife burst in.  Seeing her dead husband displayed on the table made her go berserk.  She grabbed a dissecting knife and stabbed one of the morticians in the heart then jammed the knife into the neck of the second mortician.  Then she grabbed another dissecting knife and came after her.  Gesturing at Poe and Douxsaint, she said, “The gentlemen arrived in time to save me.” 

Before giving their version of what they witnessed to the police, the gentlemen were asked to provide their full names and occupations.

“Monsieur Paul Douxsaint, shipping merchant.”

“Edgar Allan Poe, Sergeant-Major, Company H, 3rd United States Artillery.”

The police completed their questioning and allowed Poe and Douxsaint to leave.  Sipping brandy in the parlor of his home, Douxsaint shuddered.  Looking at Sergeant Poe he said, “My dear Edgar, this has been a truly horrific night.  I don’t know if I will ever see another restful night of sleep.  God, I will forever rue the night we came upon the murders at the morgue.”

Edgar Allan Poe looked at the brandy in his glass and swirled it once.  “Murders? Rue? Morgue? Hmmm…” he thought.

A drawing of Edgar Allen Poe in his uniform at the time he was at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. The stripes on his sleeve are not those of a Sergeant-Major, he didn’t achieve that rank until later in 1828.
The house of Paul Douxsaint on Church Street in Charleston, S.C., built in 1725, still standing today. My story ends in the parlor of this home.
Saint Phillip’s Church. Philadelphia Alley runs behind the Church, the Douxsaint home is a block away.

I took some creative license in writing this story, what is factual follows:

  1. Edgar Allan Poe was a member of Battery H, 3rd U.S. Artillery at Fort Moultrie S.C. from 1827 to 1828.  He wasn’t promoted to Sergeant-Major until after his transfer to Fort Monroe in Virginia in December, 1828.
  2. For some some reason, Poe enlisted in the army using the name Edgar A. Perry, perhaps to disguise his age?  He said he was 22, but was really 18 when he enlisted.  He resigned from the service near the end of 1828, at which time he revealed his real name and age.
  3. Poe did use the setting of Sullivan’s Island and the rumors of Captain Kidd’s treasure as the inspiration for his short story, “The Gold Bug”.
  4. St. Philip’s Church was built in 1836, 9 years after the time line of my story.
  5. Paul Douxsaint was a real person, his home still stands, two blocks from St. Philip’s Church & Philadelphia Alley.  He built his home in 1725, so he would never had met Poe.
  6. The Vendue is a boutique hotel on Queen Street in Charleston, but didn’t exist at the time my story takes place.  I thought it was a cool name to use.

Ernie Stricsek, The Sturgis Library Writers Group, March 15, 2023

The Whistleblower

Cobalt Strip – the root of all evil in my story

I am getting behind on my story posts! The prompt for the Sturgis Library Writing Group last week was to write about a piece of mail you received, in any genre. A couple of years ago, I began writing writing a series of fiction stories, based on true events, using a young reporter working for a fictitious Pittsburgh newspaper (The Manchester Press & Journal). This young reporter hopes to someday become a sports writer covering his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers. But in the mean time, because he is relatively new, he keeps getting assigned to a hodgepodge of stories. The only “sports” type story he wrote about was a pigeon race held at a place called “World of Pigeons”, located in a small town in the north central Pennsylvania coal region. My story is sprinkled with Pittsburghese, a language I became fluent in. At the end of my story, I will reveal the real events this story is based on.

The Whistleblower

Sly from the mailroom interrupted my line of concentration in crafting a brilliant story about the cow patty bingo tournament I had witnessed at the Washington County Fair.

“Yo Rookie!  Looks like yinz got a fan.  There’s a real letter, addressed to you personally, mixed in with this stack of junk mail.”

Even though I have been with the Manchester Press & Journal for almost three years now, Sly still referred to me as “Rookie”.  

“Thanks Sly.  Even junk mail is typically addressed to me, though.”  I called the mailroom guy Sly because he was anything but Sly.  He liked me calling him Sly, but he wasn’t sly enough to note it was a slight.

Stuck in the fold of an ad telling me if I could draw the pictured lumberjack I would be eligible for a scholarship to some obscure art school, was a plain white envelope.  The address was from someone named Hamilton in Strabane Township, about 20 miles SW of Pittsburgh.  It seemed to me that most people from the Strabane area called Pittsburgh “Picksburg”, and I wondered if they spelled it that way.  Seeing Pittsburgh spelled correctly on the envelope dispelled any doubts I had.

I debated opening the letter, was it hate mail?  I wasn’t in the mood for hate mail.  But my curiosity got the better of me so I slit the envelope, pulled the contents out and began to read.  Astounded by what I read, I had to read it a second time and went from astonished to mystified.  The letter was sent by a fellow named Steve Hamilton.  He said he’d met me when I wrote a story about an industrial accident that occurred in the factory he worked at.  I vaguely remembered him.  In the body of his letter, he was essentially blowing the whistle on his company, specifically on a co-worker and a few people on its management team.  He was accusing them of stealing raw material and scrap and selling it for personal gain.  He referenced an incident where 10 tons of cobalt strip shipped to a company in Ireland for conversion into industrial diamonds never arrived.  When the crates were opened, they were full of sand.  That story did jog my memory, but I didn’t realize it involved the company Steve worked for.  He said about two months after that disappearance, two managers bought up-scale homes in Canonsburg and his co-worker was tooling around in a Datsun 280Z.  He said he would like to meet to show me some Polaroid photos he took as evidence and gave me a phone number to call, and a specific time to call, which made me believe I’d be calling a pay phone.  Making the call at the requested time,  the traffic noise in the background confirmed the pay phone guess.  Steve asked if we could meet in “Picksburg” he didn’t want anyone he worked with seeing him talking to a stranger, much less a reporter.  I suggested we meet at my favorite dive bar, The Three Deuces at 222 Federal Street.  They had great kielbasa sandwiches and Wednesday was pierogi night.  I asked him if he wanted to talk to the police, I was good friends with a couple of Pittsburgh’s finest and assured Steve they would be discreet.  He hedged a bit, then agreed.  It being Monday, we would meet in two days on Pierogi Wednesday.

The Three Deuces, 222 Federal Street on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. A favorite meeting place for my characters. Sadly, the Three Deuces was torn down several years ago.

A visit to Three Deuces is an experience that ends in sensory overload.  Directions to it were easy, cross the Roberto Clemente Bridge and the bouquet of kraut and kolacz will draw you to its doors.  The air in the bar was so dense with smoke from the grill and cigarettes, it would have resisted a chain saw.  I found the bar by bumping into it and was greeted by Eddie Stanko, the owner of Three Deuces and now a good friend.  

“There’s a guy with a big rent in his head askin’ for yah.  He’s in the booth you reserved.  I don’t mean to be nebby, but will the detectives be joinin’ yinz?”

“Yes,” was all I said. 

Eddie jammed an ice cold Iron City in my hand and said, “Try not to stare at the gash in his head, it might make him self conscious.”

“Thanks, like that’s all I’m going to see now.” 

Sure enough, Steve had a big cut on his head and a black eye.  Asking if the thieves were on to him and roughed him up, he said, “Nah.  My wife and I were at dinner celebrating our anniversary.  I said I wanted a divorce and she hit me with an ash tray.”

“Nobody will ever accuse you of being a romantic Steve.  That’s for certain.”

“My crook co-worker is her brother-in-law.  She knows what he’s up to and has dished up huge quantities of grief on me for not getting involved.  It’s gotten really bad.  I am not a crook, so I wanted out.  This is my reward.” He pointed at the cut on his head.

My Pittsburgh PD friends, detectives Pat Martin and Jack Rowan, joined us.  Their eyes flew wide when they saw Steve’s horrible head wound, but they said nothing.

We listened intently to Steve’s tale.  He laid out a dozen Polaroids he secretly snapped of his co-worker sneaking Cobalt scrap out to his car.  He had another batch of photos showing the two managers overseeing the loading of coils into a curiously unmarked truck.  When asked why he didn’t go to the higher authorities within the company, Steve said he thought they may be involved as well.  His wife had let something slip about the plant manager buying a summer home in the Outer Banks.  Suspicious of everyone, he felled compelled to reach out to me.

After hearing Steve’s story, Pat & Jack sat back, deep in thought.  Jack leaned forward and said he and Pat were going to have to run this past the Chief of Police.  Federal laws were violated, this was under the purview of the FBI.  Pat looked at me and said, “We can’t say anymore, your involvement ends for now.  If a story breaks, we will do our best to make sure you get the scoop.”  Thanking Steve for his bravery and me for involving them, they disappeared into the smoke.  

Out of the fog appeared Eddie holding a tray with a plate of pierogies and two frosty Iron City beers.

The FBI did conduct an undercover operation and sure enough, the corruption not only involved the plant manager, but also the regional sales manager and group vice-president.  True to their word, Jack and Pat did pull strings for me to scoop the story and I made the short drive to the factory to interview other management and hourly personnel.

While hammering the plant controller as to how he could have missed the large quantity of unaccounted materials and revenue, a motion outside the picture window in his office made me pause my line of questioning.  It was Steve Hamilton sprinting past.  A woman was chasing after him, but her high heeled sandals hampered her pursuit.  Picking up a rock, she screamed “You bastard!” And threw the rock at Steve, catching him between the shoulder blades. Roberto Clemente would have been proud. 

The controller turned to look back at me.  His eyes were bulging and his mouth agape.  He was trying to form words.

“They’re getting a divorce,” I said.

*Notes*: this story is based on true events. Forty two years ago, a work colleague was terminated for stealing and selling cobalt scrap for personal gain. The majority of the earth’s cobalt is mined in the Republic of Congo. Civil War erupted there in 1980 and the price of cobalt skyrocketed, almost quadrupling in price. The guy I worked with tried to cash in on the boon. Although he was never caught red handed with the goods, there were strong eyewitness accounts that led to his dismissal.

The story of the guy Steve (not his real name) getting brained with an ashtray after telling his wife he wanted a divorce is true. I was the first one to see him when he arrived at work and he told me his story. A short time later I saw him sprint past my office window, his wife chasing after him pelting him with rocks. Those decorative, white landscape type. She had a good arm!

Ernie Stricsek

The Sturgis Library Writing Group

February 20, 2023