Henry Lee

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The Legend of Henry Lee

retold by Bill Nunes
(original author unknown)

 

Halloween was always a fun, but scary, proposition back in 1930s East St. Louis. My head is still filled with spooktacular memories of ghouls and ghosts, witches and gobblins. Carving the Jack-O'-Lantem was unfailingly a highlight of the season. I would help my mother select a medium sized pumpkin. We made sure that the shape was symmetrical and the orange color on the outside was free of defects. Once we got home, Mother cut the obligatory round hole in the top and scooped out the innards for making scrumptious pies. Then she gave me a butcher knife to carve the face on the front. "Don't cut your finger off and get blood all over my clean floor," she always warned. I had the choice of making it a "smiley face" or a "spooky face." I usually opted for the sinister design with a menacing look.

It wasn't easy for kids in my neighborhood to go trick or treating. My older cousins Donnie Madelyn and David Lee warned me that witches liked to swoop down on their broomsticks and snatch kids off the streets. They would then whisk them off to some horrible cave, plop them in a cauldron of boiling water (bubbling with lizard tails, newt eyes and salamander toes), and make stew out of their flesh. "If you ever encounter an evil witch that begins chasing you, be sure to take off your left shoe and spit in it. That will break her magic powers and she will be forced to search for a different victim," they explained.

214-assembly of god.tif (87184 bytes) Being caught in the clutches of evil monsters wasn't the worst thing that could happen to a kid back then. There was also the ghost of Henry Lee. According to the legend, Henry was a religious man who attended the Assembly of God Church on Forest Boulevard. He worked the night shift in Washington Park at the East St. Louis Bridge Company, next to the B&O tracks. It was Halloween Eve in 1930. Henry Lee lived in a desolate area called Jackass Flats. He loved going to shallow Spring Lake, near the L&N tracks, to go frog gigging. A long pole with a fork-like mechanism on the end proved very useful for plucking the green amphibians from their murky habitats.

One fog-laden night, he was walking home from work, carrying a kerosene lantern to light his way through a mist that was thick as pea soup. He stumbled upon a group of moonshiners who thought that he was a "revenuer." One of them quickly picked up a shotgun and fired. The blast knocked Henry Lee clean out of his shoes. The unlucky fellow never made it home from work. After the incident, on every subsequent Halloween, people reported seeing a ghostly apparition, walking around in the area, carrying a lamp. The spirit of poor Henry Lee was just trying to find his way home.

Kids in my neighborhood were afraid to trick or treat in Washington Park. We usually made our rounds a few blocks away in the Rosemont area where we were less likely to run into Henry Lee. But one year, when I was eleven years old, I mustered up the courage to go looking for Henry Lee. I took along a Brownie camera so that I would have proof of the encounter. It was Halloween and the cold night mist settled on my hands and face and sent a chill down my spine. Undaunted, I made my way along Old Caseyville Road, hoping for success - yet praying that the story had just been a figment of someone's imagination, Suddenly, out of the ink-black darkness of Hades, there it was. My hands trembling, I hurriedly snapped a picture and ran as fast as I could back to the safety of my home. When the roll was developed, I quickly shuffled through the snap shots looking for my prize. I gasped in shocked surprise when I came upon the picture. All that you could see in the photograph was a lantern about three feet off the ground, slightly to the left of an empty pair of brogans!

 

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