September Greetings from Ocracoke Island!

We recently received the following email from one of our island visitors, Patrick Crockett:

“I thought you folks might be interested in these two weather photos from the end of June — I think they were taken on the afternoon of the 26th, 27th or 28th. First, a rainbow; then about 30 minutes later, a waterspout (looked to be on the ocean side of the island, but it moved across to the sound).”

Rainbow at Oyster Creek


Waterspout over Ocracoke

Many thanks to Patrick for sharing his photos with us.  Ocracoke Island and her people have always had a close connection with the weather.  Sometimes the weather is severe, but so far the island has fared rather well, even during the late summer, early fall hurricane season.  We hope this year remains storm free, as it has the last two years.

This month I share with you an Ocracoke story that captured the attention of island children of a generation or two ago.  I hope you enjoy it.

Old Diver
© Philip Howard, 2002

Before the middle of the twentieth century the road that passed by the old Howard and Williams graveyards on Ocracoke Island was an unpaved sand lane.  Trees and thick underbrush surrounded the graves and even in daylight the area seemed mysterious and fearsome. At night it was ominously dark and foreboding.  Moonlight shining on the ancient, moss-covered live oaks would cast eerie shadows across the stone markers.

During World War II a British vessel, the H.M.S. Bedfordshire, was torpedoed off shore.  No one survived, but the bodies of four of the British seamen washed ashore on Ocracoke’s beach.  The story of their burial next to the Williams graveyard is well known on the island.  To this day an annual ceremony, attended by British and American dignitaries, honors the ultimate sacrifice made by these men and others like them during the war years.

Another grave also lies nearby.  This small unmarked plot contains the remains of an Irish sailor, Augustus Abner McGuire.  But this man lost his life, not because of war, but because of an accident at sea.

The date was September 23, 1913.  McGuire was a diver aboard a Norwegian ship which sprang a leak while passing off shore of Ocracoke Island. The captain sent McGuire down to inspect the damage.  He descended a second time, intending to repair the puncture.  It soon became apparent to his support crew on deck that something had gone dreadfully wrong. Some suspect that the boy in charge of the pump and air hose walked away, leaving McGuire without oxygen.  Others think McGuire had a heart attack.  At any rate when he was pulled to the surface they found him unresponsive. The captain and crew did all they could for McGuire, but to no avail.

Instead of conducting a burial at sea, Captain Weatherspoon decided to contact David Williams who was in charge of the Ocracoke Lifesaving Station.  Keeper Williams secured land for a single gravesite just outside his own family graveyard.

Augustus McGuire’s Unmarked Gravesite:
Old Diver Grave

The Methodist preacher was informed and he arranged for a simple but dignified funeral for Augustus McGuire.  A choir was hastily called together and the captain and crew were joined by sympathetic islanders who gathered on that September afternoon to pay their last respects to a man they never knew.

A cedar post was placed at the head of the grave and McGuire’s diving boots at the foot, among yaupon and myrtle bushes.  They remained there for years, in silent testimony to another life lost at sea.  Eventually the post deteriorated, and the boots were removed.

With time some of the details of Augustus McGuire’s fate faded from memory, but his story was reinvented.  “Old Diver,” as he came to be called, became a symbol of mystery and suspense, especially for the island children.  Older boys would often hide behind the Howard family tombstones and wait for unsuspecting younger children to venture by.  The ghost of Old Diver, imagined still attired in his cumbersome suit and brass and glass helmet, was invoked to send the youngsters scampering away in fear.

Eventually a mantra was established.  As children approached McGuire’s grave they would chant, “Old Diver, Old Diver, what do you say?”  After a poignant pause, they would intone, in a deep, somber, and drawn-out voice “And…he…says……..’Nothing.’”

Older residents remember clearly, as children, running as fast as they could through the sandy lane to avoid the ghost of Old Diver.  Even today there are those who walk warily past this spot.

Today, the grave is unidentified.  No post or stone marks the spot.  One of the diving boots, however, is on display in the David Williams house, now the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum.

Old Diver’s Boot
Old Diver Boot

The road has been widened and paved.  In the age of tourism, automobiles and mercury vapor lights not everyone remembers the story of Augustus McGuire, and children sometimes ignore Old Diver as they pass by, even in the dark of night.  But those who risk a glance in the right direction, beyond the last row of graves in the old family cemeteries, and especially when the moon is full, often report seeing the glint of a reflection from the glass face plate on Old Diver’s helmet.

In 1994 Augustus McGuire’s granddaughter, Patricia McGuire Hospador, visited Ocracoke from her home in New Jersey.  Although she knew about her grandfather’s accident at sea, and that he was buried on the island, she knew little else. Until her visit, few on the island remembered Old Diver’s real name, or the story of his death.

Today, there is talk of placing a new marker at Augustus McGuire’s grave. It will be fitting tribute to Mrs. Hospador’s grandfather, and to a unique island legend.

Mrs. Hospador was kind enough to share a letter from W.P. Small, M.D., who was serving Ocracoke in 1913, and who sent a letter of condolence to McGuire’s widow.  A transcription follows:
Ocracoke, North Carolina
Wednesday, Sept. 24, 1913

Mrs. Augustus A. McGuire,

I was called yesterday to render aid if possible to your husband, but found upon examination that he had expired some time previously.  The ship upon which he was employed having received a puncture in her hull, the crew, in charge of Capt Weatherspoon, were endeavoring [to] repair the leak.

Mr. McGuire went down in a diving suit, made an examination, remaining under water only a few moments.   He repaired to go down again—but Capt. Weatherspoon urged him not to as he seemed nervous and fatigued—but he persisted in his purpose to go down again.  Getting into the diving suit he descended.  At the end of about three minutes the men at the life line thought they received a signal to pull him up which they did promptly.  His arms were hanging by his side, denoting an unconscious or helpless condition.  The glass in the helmet was instantly broken to give him air.  The helmet and suit [were] removed but Mr. McGuire was dead—heart disease had caused his death.

The officers and crew of the ship did all in their power to revive him but in vain.  The diving apparatus was tested before being used—and found to be in perfect condition.

All this I learned on my arrival to the ship a short while after Mr. McGuire was brought up, from Capt. Weatherspoon, Mr. McCoy, the chief engineer, and others.

Great regret and sympathy were felt and shown by all on board.

No embalming could be obtained as it was Capt. Weatherspoon’s desire and intention to ship the body to his house, so the body was buried here, on this island.

Great respect and sympathy were shown by the people here.  The Methodist minister, Mr. Earnhart, conducted the funeral service, assisted by a volunteer choir of ladies and gentlemen.

The burial took place at the end of a beautiful day—the sun low in the West shed a soft light over the beautiful green foliage.  Nature seemed in accord with the sad but beautifully simple service.  As the last sod fell on the resting place of the deceased the choir sang “Blest Be the Tie that Binds Our Hearts in Christian Love.”

The body lies in a beautiful spot shaded by the evergreen foliage of the live oaks, a fit resting place for the best of us.

I have written this as a brother Mason knowing that our deceased brother was a member of that order in good standing.

Capt. Weatherspoon is ready to ship the body to his house, at a suitable time if you so desire.

And in closing let me assure you that everything that was possible for human beings to do was done in an intelligent and sympathetic manner, both to preserve his life and afterward to lay his body to rest.

Very respectfully yours,
W.P. Small, M.D.

P.S.  I enclose a sprig of evergreen which I took from the wreath of flowers placed upon [his] casket by sympathetic friends.


Until next time, all the best to you from,

Philip and the gang at Village Craftsmen


Greetings from Ocracoke Island!

Ocracoke, like most isolated areas, has its share of supernatural stories.  The following was told to me by Larry Williams.  I include the historical and geographical details not only to make the story more understandable, but also to preserve a bit of island history.  I’m told this story is best read just before bedtime, when you are home alone and the waxing moon is casting unnatural shadows through your bedroom window.  Enjoy!

This is the story of Fannie Pearl MacWilliams Wahab,  born September 13, 1894 in the shadow of the Ocracoke lighthouse, and daughter of John & Elizabeth MacWilliams.

View of Ocracoke Lighthouse from John MacWilliams property:
Lighthouse from House

The Dream of Death

Modern-day visitors to Ocracoke Island are often surprised to learn that the village, and indeed the island itself, are in many ways very different from what they were not too many years ago.

Sometimes a newcomer to the island will hear a native talk about living “round creek”  or going “down point.”  The “creek side” of Ocracoke village comprises the area on the north side of the harbor that includes the Community Store, Howard Street, and the Methodist Church.  The “point side” takes in Albert Styron’s Store, the lighthouse and surrounding areas to the south.

The newcomer might even detect a little bit of good-natured competition between  “creekers” and “pointers.”  And it might take a while for him to understand the historical significance of the distinction.  After all, Ocracoke is a small village that even today has a population of fewer than 800 people.  What possible motivation could there be for identifying with one half of the village or the other?

Prior to World War II the harbor was called Cockle Creek (or often just “the Creek”).  Although a natural harbor, it was basically a wide, relatively shallow body that was joined to Pamlico Sound by a narrow inlet dubbed the “Ditch” by locals.  Most of the periphery of the harbor was low, marshy and wet, a perfect breeding ground for the ubiquitous Outer Banks mosquitoes.  On the east side, the Creek extended through the village by means of several “guts” that effectively divided Ocracoke into two distinct areas.

One gut lay more or less where Highway 12 now runs.  Another was situated farther south.  Both extended towards the bald beach .

Eventually simple foot bridges were built across the guts, and later on the Civilian Conservation Corps replaced these with more substantial structures, including handrails.  Even so, in the age before bicycles and automobiles, it could be a significant hike through soft sand paths from one side of the Creek to the other.  The walk was made even more difficult if you were carrying a small child, a laundry basket, or a mess of collards from the garden.

1939 view of Cockle Creek:

Click on photo for larger image.

Although horses and carts were often used to carry larger items the earliest bridges would not accommodate a vehicle so wide.  So the driver was forced to detour around the guts by taking his team all the way out to the beach and back up the other side of the village.

When the Navy established their base here during the second world war one of the first things they did was dredge Cockle Creek so they could dock their vessels within the protection of Ocracoke’s natural harbor.  Much of the dredged sand was pumped into the surrounding wetlands, including the guts which were completely filled in.  Although locals still refer to this body of water as the Creek it was rechristened Silver Lake as a tourist promotion.

Before Cockle Creek was dredged Mr. John MacWilliams owned and operated the “Department Store” on the south side of the harbor.  This was, by Ocracoke standards, a large conglomeration of buildings near the water that included retail stores and a dock.  He and his family lived nearby.

The John MacWilliams home:
MacWilliam's Home

John & Elizabeth’s daughter, Fannie Pearl, attended school in the Oddfellow’s Lodge (now used as the center section of the Island Inn).

Island native, Robert Stanley Wahab, was a teacher at the school and he and Fannie Pearl fell in love.  Soon Fannie Pearl left the island to finish her schooling in Marshalburg, NC.  The two lovers continued to see each other and were eventually married.  When Stanley was offered a teaching job in Norfolk, Virginia they moved to the city.  It wasn’t long before Fannie Pearl discovered that she was pregnant.  She was seventeen years old.

In 1912 pregnant women were expected to sequester themselves until their baby was born, so Fannie Pearl came back to Ocracoke to rest and wait. She stayed with Stanley’s mother Martha Ann Howard Wahab “round creek” in the house that Myra Wahab lives in to this day. Stanley remained in Norfolk, working, and regularly sent money home to his wife.

Martha Ann Howard Wahab home:
wahab home wayhab home

One morning Fannie Pearl awoke with a disquieting sense of melancholy.  She had had a disturbing dream during the night.

In her dream, she had died.  That was uncomfortable enough.  But, in the surreal realm of dreams, she was not only dead….she could see herself dressed in white, lying in a white casket sailing at night in a white sailboat.  The silvery-white full moon had recently risen above the horizon, casting its unearthly glow upon the dark water and reflecting from the white canvas sail.  Silently and somberly the sailboat of death glided across the smooth water.

Fannie Pearl found the dream so distressing that she felt compelled to share it with Martha Ann.  It haunted her throughout the day.

Tragically, that very night Fannie Pearl died.  Apparently her unborn child had died in utero and the now lifeless child within not only drained Fannie Pearl’s body of strength and vitality, but slowly poisoned her bloodstream.

In those days Ocracoke had no telephones.  Urgent messages were relayed by the Coast Guard via ship-to-shore radio. As soon as he received the terrible news Stanley sent his reply back.  Please, Stanley pleaded, do not do anything until I can return home.

Immediately Stanley made arrangements to find a way back home.  Before leaving Norfolk he purchased a beautiful casket.  Not that he disdained the homemade caskets the local island carpenters made for these occasions.  He just wanted the finest tribute he could for his young, deceased bride.

By the time the mailboat pulled up to the dock the next day with Stanley and the casket on board it was already afternoon.

Family and friends were beginning to worry.  They had respected Stanley’s wishes, but time was running out.  In those days there was no way to embalm a body on the island, so most burials were made within 24 hours of death.  By the time Stanley made it back home it was decided that no time could be wasted.  They must put Fannie Pearl in her new casket and inter her as soon as possible.

Of course Fannie Pearl had died “round creek” at Martha Ann’s home, but her family cemetery was “down point” near her father’s store.  By then it was dark.  It was a long way around the guts, out to the bald beach and back to the MacWilliam’s home place. The cart path was deep soft sand in many places, and the trek would have been difficult for many of the older folks.

The natural solution was to put the casket in a skiff and take her across the Creek for burial that night.  The boats were readied, the mourning party gathered at the shore, and soon they were off.

The freshly painted sailing skiff with the casket on board led the way.  Rowboats filled with family and friends followed behind.

Martha Ann was in the rowboat immediately behind the sailing skiff.  The funeral procession was hushed and somber.  Half way across the Creek Martha Ann had time to reflect on the last several days.  When she did she noticed the brand new white casket lying silently across the planks in the bright white sailboat with white canvas sails.  The water was slick as glass.  She looked up.  There rising above the horizon was the silvery white full moon illuminating the mournful procession.

Fannie Pearl MacWilliams Wahab gravesite:


Don’t forget the OcraFolk Festival & Howard Street Arts and Crafts Fair.  This will be all day, Saturday, June 9.  Hope to see you then.

Take care,

Philip and all the folks at Village Craftsmen