Who doesn’t love scary, creepy ghost stories?
Just in time for Halloween, we caught up with Vestavia resident Dilcy Windham Hilley, the daughter of Alabama’s most famous ghost story storyteller and author Kathryn Tucker Windham. We talked about her mom’s life, their family ghost Jeffery and her favorite ghost stories.
Read on, you are in for a treat.
Most Popular Book Growing Up
When I was in 4th grade growing up in Florence, Alabama, the most popular book in the St. Joseph Catholic School library was a well-worn, dog-eared copy of 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey by Kathryn Tucker Windham.
My biggest regret was never meeting Kathryn in person. As one of Alabama’s greatest storytellers, I saw her often at library events or book fairs before she died in 2011 at the age of 93. Even though we never met, I regularly binge watch video clips of her telling ghost stories on YouTube.
That’s why, when Bham Now’s Cindy Martin set up an interview with Kathryn’s daughter, Dilcy, I jumped at the chance to meet her.
A long time resident of the Birmingham area and Vice President of Marketing and Communications at the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, Dilcy inherited her mother’s gift of storytelling.
It was perhaps the easiest interview I’ve ever done. All I had to do was sit back and listen. She was spellbinding.
Here’s a look at our interview:
Bham Now: Fifty-one years after its publication, tell us about the 13 Alabama Ghost Stories and Jeffrey?
Dilcy Windham Hilley: 13 Alabama Ghost Stories and Jeffrey was the most checked-out book in schools during its heyday. It took a long time, months and months, for people to get their hands on it so they could read it. I’ve also had people tell me it’s the book that got them interested in reading.
Bham Now: Tell us how you and your mom first met Jeffrey the ghost?
Dilcy Windham Hilley: I remember my first encounter with something unusual in the house in Selma. My mother and I were making tea cakes in the kitchen when there was this loud noise in the living room. We went from the kitchen into the living room, and when we opened the French doors, all the sounds stopped.
Mother said it was maybe a squirrel in the chimney making the noise. So, we went back to our tea cake making. Then, a little while later, the noise started again. So we went back to the doors, and again it was just dead silence when we opened them.
I turned to my mother and said, ‘What in the world is that, mother?’ And she turned and said, ‘I have no idea.’
So that was my introduction to Jeffrey. That was sometime in the mid-late 1960s, must have been after 1966. It was just my mother and me at the house to welcome Jeffrey. I was 13 or 14.
Bham Now: What sort of things did Jeffrey do?
Dilcy Windham Hilley: Once Jeffrey made his first announcement that he had arrived, we often had odd things happen. Our furniture moved in rooms. Cakes fell off tables. Chairs rocked with nobody in them.
We had an old cat named Admiral Hornblower, and when he was sound asleep he would suddenly jump up in his chair, the ruff around his neck would stand up and he would screech and go running out of the room. We didn’t see anything that would cause him to be that upset, but it was a good thing to blame on Jeffrey.
He was a good scapegoat for us. If things were lost, Jeffrey took them. If we were late, Jeffrey reset the clocks. The only time it didn’t work was when we brought home poor grades from school and said, “Jeffrey did it” and mother would say, “No he did not.”
Bham Now: Why did you name him Jeffrey?
Dilcy Windham Hilley: We just named him. It was like getting a pet. You’ve got to name it something. He was mischievous and caused no harm at all and we enjoyed him.
Bham Now: How did your mother become a writer of ghost stories?
Dilcy Windham Hilley: My mother had an interest in history and folklore and had an English professor at Huntington College who was also a well-regarded folklorist and she collected ghost stories. 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey was not the first book my mother wrote. She wrote a cookbook in 1964, which was her first book.
When her English professor from Huntington read the cookbook, which included some stories, she said, “Kathryn, now you’re gonna write another book and it will be ghost stories.” So my mother, following that lead, started to collect stories from around Alabama.
What’s so interesting is not only the stories of the ghosts, but it’s the stories of the people of Alabama and the history of Alabama and the important folktales of Alabama. They are reserved in those stories, along with the joys of the ghosts.
Bham Now: What is your favorite ghost story?
Dilcy Windham Hilley: One that I really love is the story of the phantom steamboat, which is the story of the Eliza Battle—a steamboat that was headed to Mobile with a great party of people who had come to dance and enjoy music. [The steamboat] was also carrying bales of cotton.
Those bales of cotton caught fire and the boat began to burn, causing people to jump into the cold frozen water.
They say maybe more than two dozen people died on that boat and that you can see the Eliza Battle rise out of the top of the river on those cold winter nights.
I love that story because it’s heartbreaking and really grizzly. People hanging from limbs in the frozen water and how you can hear their frozen bodies crash into it. It’s really gruesome. It’s a great story.
Bham Now: Do you have a favorite Birmingham ghost story?
Dilcy Windham Hilley: Birmingham has some interesting ghost stories. Like the ghost in the Sloss Furnaces. It’s a tragic one. There was Theophilus Calvin Jowers who worked in the furnaces in the Birmingham area. He loved his work and he told his wife that as long as there’s a furnace burning in the Birmingham area, I will be there.
One day, some men came to his wife’s house and told her that Theophilus had fallen into the molten liquid and died.
When Sloss became the last operating furnace, they said Theophilus moved there and that you could see his shadow among the tall rusted stacks at night. People would say strange occurrences happened and that it was probably Theophilus there at the furnace that he loved.
Halloween in Selma
Bham Now: What was Halloween like with Jeffrey at your home in Selma?
Dilcy Windham Hilley: With Jeffrey, it was a very popular house to go to at Halloween. My mother had one rule at Halloween, and that was that if the trick-or-treater was taller than she was, they didn’t get any candy because they were too old to be trick-or-treating. So she would send many teenage boys away unhappy.
I hope you enjoy Dilcy’s stories about her mother’s ghost stories and growing up in Selma as much as I did.
Check them out:
They won’t disappoint. Just ask Jeffrey.