The Ghosts of Arkansas

The White River Monster

River Monster
Jochem D Wijnands / Getty Images

Arkansas has its share of weird creatures lurking in forests and lakes. Our cryptozoological journey takes us up north on Highway 67 to the small town of Newport, Arkansas. Newport has a version of the Loch Ness Monster that is widely accepted as a real phenomenon. The White River Monster even has his own game preserve.

From about 1915 to around 1924, residents of Newport reported seeing a monster in the White River. This monster, nicknamed "Whitey", was described as being snake-like and at least thirty feet long. Whitey actually was pretty predictable. Residents said he would surface in the afternoon and stay up for 10 or 15 minutes before disappearing again. Hundreds of people claimed to see him.
Witnesses in the 20s reported that it made a loud bellowing noise and had a spiny backbone. Many reports were made by fisherman and campers along the river.

Whitey disappeared for a bit, with only random sightings, but he came back in 1937 when a plantation owner claimed to see the monster. He claimed he saw something surface that was twelve feet long and four or five feet wide. He claimed to see the monster several times after that, but he could never determine the size or what exactly it was.

With these new sightings, locals constructed nets to catch Whitey. Divers have even searched for him. They've never found anything and Whitey disappeared again for decades.

In 1971, two men reported that they saw three-toed tracks along the muddy river banks and a places where the trees and vegetation had been broken because of the monster's size. The creature was even photographed in 1971 by Cloyce Warren of the White River Lumber Company.  This is the only photo we have Whitey. Was the photograph really of a monster? Arkansas legislators seemed to think so.

The most interesting part of this legend happened in 1973. The Arkansas State Legislator, specifically Arkansas State Senator Robert Harvey, created the White River Monster Refuge along the area of the White River that runs adjacent to the Jacksonport State Park. They enacted a resolution which made it illegal to "molest, kill, trample, or harm the White River Monster while he is in the retreat." Is this proof of his existence or just an attempt to draw tourists? Whitey is one of the few protected urban legends.

Since Whitey was seen so regularly at first, most scholars think there is actually some truth to this legend. Early sightings were probably some known animal that is not commonly found in Arkansas. Later sightings were probably alligator snapping turtles (they can get quite large) that were exaggerated in the minds of the observer due to the legends.

Biologists believe Whitey was actually a lost elephant seal that somehow migrated incorrectly and ended up in Newport. Some townspeople believe that it was an elaborate plot to gain attention by farmers in the area. No one knows for sure.

The monster hasn't been seen much in recent years but many of the people living around the White River still believe he is there. Some think that he has died because the river has gotten shallower. You'll have to find out for yourself. There is a lot of monster memorabilia around White River (T-shirts, etc.) so even if you don't see the real monster, you can get a T-shirt that says you're brave enough to look for him.

If you want to take a haunted Little Rock tour, you have to visit the Old State House Museum. The Old State House was Arkansas' original capital building and the oldest surviving state capitol west of the Mississippi River. Of course it's haunted! It's said to be haunted by a single ghost. The ghost of who is the question. Arkansas politics used to be dirty, so any number of people could have unnatural attachment to the statehouse. We have two main suspects.

It's important to note that the official statement from the Old State House is that there is no ghost. I have spoken to many locals and even a few staff people who say it just might be haunted, off the record. That being said, you really shouldn't be afraid to visit the Statehouse. It's a great museum and an interesting look at Arkansas history. This is just for fun.

One of the suspected haunting figures is John Wilson, the former Speaker of the House and the subject of one of Arkansas' most famous duels. Some of the details of the duel are obscured, but it was, as many duels were, the result of a political dispute.

During a meeting in 1837, Wilson ruled a representative, Major Joseph J. Anthony to be "out of order". Anthony and Wilson didn't get along anyway. The two had exchanged words before this incident. Anthony started to personally attack Wilson and threatened him. The two men got into a knife fight and Anthony was killed by Wilson, even though another representative threw a chair at them to break them up. Wilson was acquitted on grounds of "excusable homicide". Politics were rough.

It is said that Wilson's ghost has been seen sadly wandering the corridors of the Old State House wearing a frock-coat. Staff members of the building have reported seeing his apparition.

But, is the ghost really Wilson? Other staff members have a different idea.

In 1872, Elisha Baxter was declared the Governor of Arkansas after a disputed election. His opponent, Joseph Brooks, declared that he had been cheated out of the win. Seventeen months later, Brooks staged a coup of the State House. He threw Baxter out of office and set up a cannon on the State House lawn to discourage attacks. The cannon still resides there. The ousted governor moved down the street and set up another office, operating his own government against Brooks. It was only a short time before President Grant stepped in and restored order to Arkansas. Baxter was named as the legitimate governor and Brooks was forced to retire.

Some staff members believe that Brooks is still upset about being forced from his office. Even in death, he believes himself the rightful governor. Maybe he is the one who continues to haunt the Old State House.

The Brooks-Baxter war is one of the most famous occurrences in Arkansas history. It would be very fitting if Brooks still refused to give up his home in capital.

Imagine, a young girl on the way to the prom gets killed in a horrible car accident. I think every place has their own version of this urban legend. I think every town swears theirs is really true. The same is true for Arkansas. This ghost sighting takes us to highway 365 just south of Little Rock. Ask anyone who lives around this area and they will swear that they know the hitchhiker is real.

According to the story, every year around prom night a young woman in a white dress (sometimes the dress is reported to be tattered and the woman covered with blood and bruised) stops a driver on Highway 365. She's been seen on the part that runs just south of Little Rock and past the towns of Woodson, Redfield and even as far as Pine Bluff but most of the time she's found on the bridge. She tells the unsuspecting driver that she's been in an accident and needs a ride home.

Invariable, some poor sap gives her a ride home only to find that when they get to the house she asked to be dropped at, she's no longer in the car. She has completely disappeared. The person is always confused enough to go knock on the door of the house that she's been taken to. The resident opens the door and reports that his/her daughter was killed on prom night and every prom night since then, she's had someone different bring her home. One variation on this legend reports the girl left a coat in the unwitting driver's car and when he knocked on the door, coat in hand, the mother broke down into tears exclaiming, "That was my daughter's coat".

Convinced? Personally, some of the ghost stories of Arkansas are more convincing to me. This girl goes to a different house in a different small town every time I hear it. Sometimes she gets killed at prom, sometimes homecoming and sometimes just riding home with a date. I've also never found any information about anyone who actually claims to be the young girl's family or anything about her death. If you have any more accurate information about this legend, let me know. As of yet, I'm not wholeheartedly buying it. It seems like the girl's parents would have come to a news station by now.

Still, I'm not going to get caught riding across that bridge on a dark and stormy night!

I know what you're thinking, aren't all pianist a little haunting? This one is different, trust me. Take a turn up U.S. Highway 67 and head to Searcy to visit Harding University, and the ghost that haunts its hallowed halls. In order to see the ghost, you have to head to the music department and the music building.

Historically, this legend seems to be accurate. The ghost is referred to as "Galloway Gertie," because Harding was still Galloway College for Women  when Gertrude attended. Galloway was one of the finest institutions in the South, and Gertrude was a music major.

There are two versions of this story that I've heard. The most accepted one is as follow. One night Gertrude was returning to her dorm from a date. She told him good night and headed upstairs to her room in Gooden Hall. She heard a noise inside the elevator and went to check it out and somehow fell to her death. It's said that a blood curdling scream woke the other girls up and one saw a dark form rushing from the scene, but foul play was never proven. Gertie was wearing a white, lacy gown, as women of the time usually did for a date, when she fell. Some stories say she was buried in this gown.

It wasn't too long after Gertrude's death that students starting seeing a blonde in a lacy gown in the elevator shaft or in the halls.  Some even claimed they could hear the swishing of her gown as she walked the halls while they tried to sleep.

Harding acquired Galloway in 1934. Gooden Hall was demolished in 1951. The Harding Administration Building is now where Gooden Hall used to be. The kicker is that they used the bricks from Gooden Hall to build the Pattie Cobb women's residence hall and the Claude Rogers Lee Music Center.

Gertie liked the music center. Students reported that they could hear a faint piano playing softly, or catch glimpses of her white gown and hear the swished of her walking past. Legend says a group of boys decided to spend the night in the music center to prove Gertie didn't exist. They were locked in by security, and security checked the building to make sure nobody else was in it. Soon after they were left alone, they started to hear the mysterious piano. Frightened, they called security, but before security could come they mustered the bravery to check it out. As they got nearer to the sound, the playing stopped and no one else was found in the building.

The old Lee building is no longer used as a music building, since the Reynolds building was built. There are no more pianos in the building. Gertie sightings have decreased, but she's still around.

One teacher recounts:

I’m putting equipment in the old closet in the back, and I hear music. I hear the run of the piano and it’s this woman’s beautiful voice. All I thought was, ‘man, that is so pretty,’ but then I remembered that there are no more pianos in the building, and I was alone.

The other, less reliable, story is that in the 1930s, a young woman with a promising career attended Harding. She majored in music. She fell in love with another Harding student who was tragically killed in a car accident a short time after they met. She was very depressed and she spent every waking hour of the day on the third floor of the music building playing piano. Later in the same semester he was killed, she also died. Legend says she died of a broken heart. Soon after her death, students reported hearing piano music from the third floor of the music building. Whenever they would go to investigate, they would find no one there. Most believed it was the young girl serenading her lover from beyond the grave. 

This story was told in Haunted Halls of Ivy: Ghosts of Southern Colleges and Universities. However, Harding officials that were contacted had only heard of Gertie.

Another haunted college in Arkansas is Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. Henderson and neighboring Ouachita Baptist University have always been rival schools. The rivalry is the cause of this urban legends. Even in Urban Legends, each school tells it a little differently.

Since Henderson is the one that is haunted, we'll start with their version.

The story takes us back to the 1920s, a time when football rivalries were serious business. The legend says a Ouachita football player, Joshua, was dating a freshman at Henderson, Jane. They were madly in love, however the fact that Jane was from Henderson turned out to be a deal breaker for Josh. 

Some versions of the story say his friends bullied and teased him into submission. He finally broke up with her and eventually moved on to find a new, acceptable Ouachita girl. Other versions say he met the girl first and broke up with Jane because of it. Either way, Ouachita is the real loser in the story. Those Ouachita guys are jerks, right?

Except, when Ouachita tells it, it was Jane who was the Ouachita freshman and Joshua who was the football player from Henderson. Those Henderson guys are real jerks.

True rivals are rivals even when telling urban legends.

Anyway, the story (either version) says that when Jane found out he was dating a new girl and bringing her to homecoming, she was heart broken. She went to her dorm room and put on a black dress and veil, walked to a cliff over the Ouachita River and jumped to her death.

Now every year during Homecoming Week, Jane's spirit, dressed in black with a veil, is said to a haunt Henderson College. She has been seen walking in and out of Smith Hall, the freshman women’s residence hall and around the center of campus.

Ouachita students say she is there searching for the woman who stole the man she loved away from her (darn Henderson girls) and the boys who bullied and teased Joshua. Henderson students

Henderson students say she still longs to attend homecoming with Josh.

She doesn't do much. Students report seeing a faint black figure, hearing moaning, feeling cold hands or sudden temperature drops. She's pretty harmless, unless she finds out you're related to the girl who stole Josh, I guess.
They actually tell a version of the story at freshmen orientation, so most students at Henderson have heard it.

An interesting tidbit on Henderson's website says:

The Legend of the “Lady in Black” began in 1912, following the tenure of a Henderson student named Nell Page, who is credited with creating the story. According to legend, the Lady in Black roamed the halls in the girls’ dormitory predicting who would win the Battle of the Ravine. If she wore black, it signified a victory for the Reddies; if clothed in white, a victory for Ouachita was predicted. After Nell’s death at an early age, the story goes that it was her ghost who walked the halls.
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