A chilling specter of the 18th century reaches its icy grasp to the present day. Hear the story of Moses Riggs, a man possessed.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. After night falls in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, modern visitors are joined by the ghosts of the past. This week, we’re bringing you a sample of one of our evening tours called “Ghosts Amongst Us.” Just a note before we begin: the story you’re about to hear may not be appropriate for young listeners.
Merritt Caposella: Let’s begin. I shall begin with a question. The question is, do you believe in ghosts? But you have come to the restored capitol of the colony of Virginia: Williamsburg. A very old city, a city where after nearly 300 years, people have lived and died.
As evening falls and the activities of the day cease, night comes quickly. Who knows what lurks behind a tree or around a corner, or in some dark space? Tonight you will decide if there are truly ghosts amongst us. Let us continue now on our journey.
Do you see this building over here, this house? It is the James Geddy House, which we’ll be going into in just a moment. Let me tell you something first of who you might meet and what you shall hear.
Images of demonic possession often bring to mind the unfortunate incidents that occurred in Salem Massachusetts at the end of the 17th century. Now though less known, similar tragic events occurred in Virginia as well. For example, in 1706, there was a trial of Grace Sherwood, for witchcraft.
But in 1770, another unusual case came before the general court – as case of murder so disturbing that it deeply affected all who heard it. Are you ready to enter? Then let’s enter.
Patty Vaticano: I thought I heard voices. I’m so pleased to see you all here this evening. I hope you have a few moments to spend with me. I’m ever so grateful for companionship now when the shadows lengthen and the stillness of evening comes.
Truth to tell, I’m more fearful of darkness now than I have ever been. But I promise not to keep you long. There’s to be a prayer service this evening in the home of a godly man here in Williamsburg. My friends are gathering there now, they’ve sent a coachman for me. Shouldn’t be very long before he arrives. But for as long as it takes, if you could keep me company, I should be much appreciative.
Do you believe in the world unseen? I’m not talking about ghosts, not ghosts. Ghosts are harmless creatures for the most part, lost and confused most often, I say. Timid-like as not, and not unlike ourselves. Goodness, ghosts were once human, weren’t they?
But I’m not talking about ghosts. Not ghosts. I speak of things, things that may never have been human. Agents of a greater evil than you or I could ever imagine. Things that wait to do us harm, to steal our very souls.
I have a very great need to tell you something while we’re waiting this evening, and you have a very great need to hear it, if you can but bear it. May I tell it to you? There’s a fearsome old man who walks the streets of Williamsburg here in the evening just as the sun is setting. Perhaps you’ve seen him, he wanders about aimlessly, very like a ghost himself. Sometimes in and among the trees of the commons here, sometimes along the graveyard wall of Bruton Church. Well that man’s name is Moses Riggs.
Although the people here in Williamsburg say that he’s insane, I say we little know what insight, what window into the next world is gifted those people that you and I call mad. Close to seven years ago now, just north of here in Accomack County, Moses Riggs did a hideous thing. Early one morning he murdered a poor young negro boy coldly and without conscience or heart.
The young boy’s name was Stepney, he was a slave, property of a Mr. Benjamin West – the younger of that same county. It was a ghastly act, ghastly. Early that morning with the heavy stock of an old gun, Moses Riggs dashed the brains out of that poor young negro boy, and with the muzzle of the gun, why, he punctured that poor boys’ body. So as to, as he claimed, “Let the green poisons drain out.”
Moses was found later that day with blood and brains all over him, and on the muzzle of the gun of course. When the authorities arrested him and questioned him as to how he could commit such a foulness, he would only make answer calmly and with a leveled gaze, “I killed the Devil, that’s all there is to be done about it.
Moses claimed, you see, that early that morning, just as the moon and stars were winking out, that he’d seen a small demon enter into the boy’s body, and that the same would have enacted great malicious mischief all about the county if he, Moses Riggs, had not done just as he did. When the boy was dead and the body still, he saw again in his own words, “The wretched little Satan free itself from the boy’s body and go flying off into the winds howling and shrieking as it flew.”
Well I tell you I read the whole of the indictment against Moses Riggs, what I’ve just told you is true. I had the sad occasion thereafter of seeing that poor boy’s body. It was a horrifying claim to make. Moses was eventually brought down here to Williamsburg and after court proceedings held here in the public jail. They kept him there nearly six years while they tried to decide whether he was a murderer or a madman, and in the end, let him go. I’ve never been sure of the reasons. Perhaps because they believed that the years had at last burned the madness out of him, or perhaps because they assumed that all but negroes were safe from his hand.
I can tell you this, Moses Riggs is a strange man. He is always talking about ghosts and apparitions, dark beings and the world unseen. He has strange and peculiar beliefs, too. The strangest of which, the one people find hardest to believe, is that demons and all manner of foul and unearthly creatures lurk in the corners, any corners they can find but most especially dark, sharp, angled corners. From such places they are always watching us, always waiting, always listening for every mean act and unkind work by which they may enter in and do us grievous harm.
Moses is always peering off nervously into corners and giving such places wide berths, except for churches. He never takes shelter indoors, despite the most severe of weathers, and despite the most charitable of invitations. He never lingers long in either public or private dwellings. His home, if you can call it such, it’s a large hollowed-out old oak tree, as large and as round as a gristing stone. It’s the only place he’ll rest, you see, for it’s the only place that’s free of corners and sharp angles.
I came to know Moses very well those years that I was in the … oh forgive me. My name is Mrs. Thorne, I’m a relative of Mr. Pelham, our jailer here in town, and his wife. It was myself who most often brought Moses his food those six years he was housed at the Public Gaol. Most especially once he had been brought indoors to the inner cells where they house the insane.
But he was no trouble, truly he was no trouble most of the time, except for the talking, the incessant talking. He was always talking for hours at a time to no one in particular in his cell. Sometimes in his own voice and sometimes, as I thought then, in a voice feigned or pretended. Weeks and then months and then whole years flew by like that for poor Moses, with little change. I were there for much of them, until one evening.
It was an evening very much like this one. I had come, as was my custom, with an evening meal. As I approached the cell this time, this time I heard two voices, two distinct voices speaking at once and in an agitated manner. They were having an argument in there. I thought at first that a visitor had come. I was just as quick to realize that no visitor had come. No visitor would have been allowed in so late in the evening had they come. I heard the other voice – not Moses – punctuate its words with a low and venomous hissing sound. It chilled me to the marrow to hear it.
I was curious, so I lowered myself down slowly to peer into the cell through the food slot in the door. I could see little at first, little due to the lateness of the hour and the dimness of the cell, little except for the outline of Moses himself of course, his rolled up sleeping pallet and the remnants of his last meal.
When my eyes grew more accustomed to the dimness, I could see more plainly. Good people, if you can believe what I’m going to tell you now, all may yet be well with you. You will be forewarned then and made safe, for the Devil has no greater power over you than when you believe he does not exist! There, in the left-hand corner of that cell across from where Moses sat, a dark, sharp angled corner. It was no play of shadows, I can assure you it was no play of shadows.
There in that corner I saw a most horrific and malevolent form. It was not human, yet somehow it was human-like. It was torturously shaped, it was grotesquely deformed. It was small and black, and yet I could sense such a great and oppressive depravity there, coming from that corner, so wicked and terrible I screamed. At my outcry the shape of the creature disappeared, but the shape only, only the shape – not its eyes! It’s eyes remained in that corner, hovering disjointed from its body – yellow, jaundiced, filled with hate. God have pity upon me, those eyes. They leveled upon me and held me fast. They searched my soul through and through. It recognized me don’t you see? That foul creature recognized me and laid claim to my very soul.
I little know what happened next. They tell me that I was in a long delirium for weeks, and there was talk of committing me to the Public Hospital here in Williamsburg as a lunatic. I have no recollection of it, I have no memory of it at all. They tell me that good people, such as yourselves, came and prayed over me, day and night they prayed over me. In the end I was saved from the darkness. I was spared those shadows that had long ago claimed poor Moses Riggs. Now it is only in prayer that I feel safe.
Once thereafter, I had the occasion of coming upon Moses in his wanderings. I cannot tell you, I have no words to tell you the horror, the fear that rose up in me when I saw him. Our eyes met, and we communicated each to the other a sad and terrifying knowledge that I wish we did not have. I wish I did not have it now!
Mark my words. Listen to what I tell you this evening. Beware dark corners where sharp angles meet. Be wary of what you do and say around such places. They are always waiting for us there, they are always waiting, always watching, always listening for every mean act and unkind word by which they may enter in and do us grievous harm of body and of soul that we can little imagine it. You can little imagine it!
Oh forgive me. I did not mean to carry on so, and you’ve been more than patient to listen. It’s getting late, I would be on my way as well as I can imagine you wish to be on yours. It’s obvious to me that you are strangers in our city, and no doubt you must needs find accommodation for the evening.
The coachman’s come. I may join my friends now in prayer and you good people may be on your way. Please know that I am greatly in your debt this evening. I shall remember you in prayer with my friends. I shall pray that God rewards you for your kindness to me and blesses you for your mercy, and in God’s own mercy, he will keep you all, every one of you safe. But remember my words, remember what I’ve told you this evening. Beware dark corners where sharp angles meet, for they are always waiting for us there, always waiting, always watching, always listening for every mean act and unkind word to torment us more than you know, more than you know. Thank you every one of you for your company this evening. Thank you and goodnight.
Merritt: Come, follow me please. Moses Riggs was tried for the murder of the slave boy Stepney. His own words were taken directly from the court record. Riggs was confined to the Public Gaol for six years, and released. Did Moses Riggs commit murder, or provide salvation for that poor boy? And what about the creature he released? Perhaps after tonight you will find yourselves searching dark corners where sharp angles meet more carefully. Unless you are afraid of what you might find lurking there.
Harmony: The performers you heard were Merritt Caposella and Patty Vaticano. Find more about evening programs on our web site at history.org/visit.