The spring had brought heavy rains to Greene County, and the night that John Kelly traveled from Dry Tavern to Rices Landing was no exception. Other than his wagon-mounted lantern, the only light that night was sporadic lightning heralded by distant thunder. Thunder that grew louder with each minute.
But Kelly was out anyway. He had stopped at the tavern for a meal. He got to talking, lost track of time, and now he was late. Just fifteen minutes and Kelly would arrive at the town to unload the wagon, secure the horses, and, hopefully, spend the night somewhere dry.
A deafening crack of thunder and almost simultaneous flash of lightning shattered the night. The horses, terrified and blinded by the proximity of the lightning, jumped and then bolted headlong down the road, picking up speed as they went.
Kelly quickly lost control of the situation. As the horses raced downhill, the buggy careened out of control. He pulled at the reins, muscles straining, hoping to get the horses under a semblance of control. But it was no use. The frightened horses were unmanageable.
As they neared the sharp turn of Horseshoe Bend, Kelly knew his situation was dire. He stood up in the buggy, pulling the reins as hard as he could in a last-ditch effort to regain control before entering the sharp curve. As he did, the buggy abruptly lurched, throwing Kelly forward and out, directly behind the horses’ pounding hooves, and in front of the right-side wheels of the buggy.
In an instant, the first wheel caught him in the neck. The second wheel followed. As the horses raced through the turn, the buggy slammed into a tree, sending pieces of the wagon all over the road. The horses continued down the road, slowing to a trot while dragging the busted remains of the wagon into town.
A Rices Landing man caught the fleeing horses as they slowed. After seeing the wagon remains, he organized a quick search party of townspeople. As the storm passed, the town followed the trail of broken wood and damaged goods up the hill to Horseshoe Bend, where they found the body of John Kelly.
Kelly’s body lie where it fell, but his decapitated head was nowhere to be found. The gathering searched for his head along the road and into the nearby woods, but they did not find it. A man transporting Kelly’s body for burial remarked that his neck resembled a piece of stovepipe, slightly pinched at the end. They buried John Kelly in Hewitt Cemetery.
The following spring, two young brothers were traveling down Rices Landing Road on their way home. It had rained that day, and the night was damp and foggy. The boys neared Horseshoe Bend. Andrew, seeing an opportunity for some mischief on his younger brother, Charles turned to the woods and called out for John Kelly, yelling that he had found his head — all he had to do was get it from him.
Charles, superstitious and near tears, begged his brother to stop. After a good laugh at the other boy’s fright, Andrew turned away from the woods at the heart of the curve to continue their journey home. A noise from the words pulled their attention back. Both boys peered into the woods and saw a flickering light, as though from a lantern.
As the light grew closer, the boys could see that a man was holding it, although darkness shrouded the upper part of his body. As the man grew closer, both boys realized it wasn’t darkness hiding his identity. The man had no head. In its place sat a gleaming length of stovepipe.
The terrified Andrew and Charles sped down the road to their home in town. Once home, they quickly informed their parents of the headless man. Knowing Andrew and his penchant for trouble, their parents scolded them both for telling tales and sent them to bed.
But the boys weren’t the last to see the headless ghost at Horseshoe Bend. Throughout the years, others passing around the curve on dreary nights saw the ghostly figure of a man with a length of stovepipe in place of his head. As each of these people shared their otherworldly encounter, the legend of Stovepipe was born.
The legend of Stovepipe has changed over the years, but the premise remains the same: a person lost his head in a grisly accident, and his ghostly form haunts the woods of Rices Landing.
A character named Stovepipe Kelly features prominently in two versions of the story. In one version of Kelly’s story, the jealous husband of his mistress caused his buggy to overturn, and either the buggy or the husband decapitated him. The other Kelly story adds more local history, adding believability. This version’s Kelly, nicknamed Stovepipe thanks to that hat he always wore, was a coal miner intent on unionizing local mines. Angry mine owners killed him to stop his union activity.
Another version, set in the 1800s, says a boy, hurrying to get home, took a shortcut across the railroad tracks. As he crossed, he realized a train was barreling down the tracks. He could not get off the tracks fast enough and the train decapitated him. In this version, sometimes the boy is driving a buggy over the tracks, riding a bicycle, or walking.
The boy on the bicycle has another variation. Instead of crossing the train tracks, he’s riding down Rices Landing Road and, at Horseshoe Bend, a car pushed over the edge of the road. AS he tumbled down the hillside, a sharp piece of stovepipe decapitated him.
The most modern version of the story involves a teenager driving home on a dark and stormy night. He missed the curve at Horseshoe Bend and drive over the hillside. During the accident he was decapitated. The rusting car that sat at the bottom of the hillside for many years added credibility to this story.
Regardless of the version you’ve heard, or believe, the legend of Stovepipe has long been a part of Rices Landing folklore. Like all good folktales, the story incorporated plausible elements with the fantastical and has continued to evolve over the years, adding modern touches for each generation.
Stovepipe isn’t Rices Landing’s only touch of the uncanny. The W.A. Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop is said to be haunted; paranormal investigations have been held there with unnerving results. Other buildings with a reputation for spooky encounters are the former jail, the borough building, and the fire hall.
If you want to have an otherworldly encounter with Stovepipe yourself, take the trip to Rices Landing one dark night. Travel down Rices Landing Road and once you arrive at Horseshoe Bend, call for Stovepipe and tell him, “I’ve found your head, Stovepipe.” Call for him three times and maybe you’ll be lucky, or unlucky, enough to get a ghostly visitor.