ByCassie Benter, writer at
Breaker of Games, Mother of Bug Finding. Co-creator of AdventureJam. Twitter: @FenderBenter
Cassie Benter

I'm not one to jump the gun and believe everything I read on the internet, but I found some ghost stories about a little town called Avilla, with an estimated population of 122. I quickly found out that there are legends about a civil war spirit (or perhaps something far worse), various shadow figures, random stenches as if something had died, and something called a Death Tree. But first, I had to look into what we know to be true, especially since these myths seem to stem from the town's history.

The Facts

Avilla founded in 1856, and it and the surrounding area was plagued with bushwhackers and the occasional small band of either Confederate regulars or guerilla raiders on horseback. One instance in particular, the town was attacked by over a hundred bushwhackers, which were believed to be led by William T. Anderson.

William "Bloody Bill" Anderson
William "Bloody Bill" Anderson

Some time later, a rebel's skeleton was found just south of town with a bullet hole in its skull. His remains were not found until they were in an advanced state of decomposition, and the body was never identified. Shortly thereafter, the skull was hung and suspended from an apple tree near the road at the Dunlap apple orchard for over a year, as a warning to all other bushwhackers. The tree has since been named The Death Tree.

Wikipedia claims that Avilla started to decline in the 1940s after World War II, when many people were moving away from small communities to larger, industrial cities for employment opportunities. But others claim that it's something else entirely...

The Avilla Shadow Folk

The fields, old streets, and abandoned buildings surrounding Avilla are believed to be haunted by the "Shadow Folk", which are as the name implies, shadowy types of ghosts. They are mainly seen with peripheral vision, and can be spotted at any time of day. They've been seen walking around in the town's park, standing under abandoned store awnings, in windows, and even passing through locked doors of the US Post Office, among other places.

Artist Tim Madrid's impression of a shadow person.
Artist Tim Madrid's impression of a shadow person.

One of Avilla's Shadow Folk has even been given a name! Otis (who is rightfully named after the character in The Andy Griffith Show) is said to appear as a town drunk, stumbling from the old tavern building after hours, and passing out in the streets. Shadow people's behavior is supposed to be as varied as us humans. But from the sounds of it, the ones in Avilla are quite docile and harmless. Though there is one dangerous entity to worry about...

The Avilla Phantom Bushwhacker

Believers refer to it as a revenant, or rare type of semi-visible poltergeist. He not only haunts the Death Tree, but roams around Avilla and the surrounding areas. He's received the nickname Rotten Johnny Reb. "Rotten" from the rancid, rotting smell of a corpse that occurs when he's nearby, and "Johnny Reb(el)" being what patriots called Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War. The revenant is perceived as headless, while wearing a long duster and carrying an antique gun.

Rotten Johnny is not only searching for his head, but vengeance on the town citizens as well. He lurks at night, searching for unsuspecting Yankees around Avilla to bushwhack. This revenant is considered dangerous because of its ability to affect things in the real world, and inflict harm on living bodies. Its presence is believed to cause severe night terrors on sleeping victims, and intoxicated people can be driven mad by the hallucinations it provokes. Some unexplained deaths are attributed to the phantom, and he's rumored to be the reason why people have been moving away from the town.

Gettysburg National Military Park - Photo by: Truck Camper Magazine
Gettysburg National Military Park - Photo by: Truck Camper Magazine

Rotten Johnny can be found at any time during the year, but is supposed to be most active in Autumn. People believe his skull was removed on All Hallow's Eve, accounting for his deadly power in the afterlife. The old village folk believed that the only way to break the curse was to find the Death Tree and remove the skull, and then properly bury it in a cemetery with other resting Confederate soldiers, or otherwise destroy it in a fire on holy ground. Several residents have tried to break the curse in years past, but all have failed, and the knowledge of the tree's location died with them. Opponents to this idea believe that the phantom is not a ghost at all, but an ancient demonic entity that predates the Civil War, and even the human presence there.

A Recent Rotten Johnny Reb Ghost Story?

There was a ghost story submitted several years ago by a woman experiencing what could have been Rotten Johnny. While working on a fixer upper in Avilla, the husband and wife were staying at their friends house. The wife would wake up, put the cleaning supplies in her car, and work until dark. The people that lived in the house before left the place quite dirty. Floors were filthy, black hair in the bathtub, etc.

One night, after finishing up the work for the day, she returned to a friend's house in town to take a shower and go to bed. That night, she dreamed quite vividly about her usual routine. Wake up, pack the car, go to work. In her dream, she went to go to the bathroom to start scrubbing down the bathtub. She pulled open the shower curtain, and there was a corpse of a man lying inside, with his head severed and wrapped in plastic on his lap. There was a lot of blood, a terrible odor, and many flies. End of dream.

I've seen enough movies to know where this is going. (Photo from Silence of the Lambs)
I've seen enough movies to know where this is going. (Photo from Silence of the Lambs)

Eventually the husband and wife moved into the house and experienced several unusual encounters, such as hearing random scratching noises, or their significant other's voice when they weren't home. Doors opening and closing on their own. Experiencing feelings of being stared at. Many of the wife's sentimental belongings were broken with no explanation, while the husband's were completely untouched. There was even an instance where the husband looked up from his desk to see a dark headed man lean around the open doorway, grinning at the husband, then leaning away and disappearing.

Some time later, the husband received a job opportunity, requiring them to move. They packed most of their things, with the exception of a few key items to go back for. One afternoon, the wife came back to pick something up. She entered the kitchen to hear this loud buzzing noise, as if there were many flies in the house. She also picked up this terrible smell that was reminiscent of a dead animal. She checked the fridge for rotten meat, just to be sure, but nothing was there. She followed the buzzing sound to its source: the bathroom door. As soon as she opened the door, the sound stopped as quickly as if someone flicked a switch. Nothing was in the bathroom, except for that rotten smell. She shut the door behind her, and only took two steps away from the door before it busted open behind her as if someone kicked it in. Needless to say, she ran as fast as she could.

A Warning to Ghost Hunters...

An anonymous user on Haunted Places claimed that most newcomers to Avilla aren't knowledgeable of the town's history, and that the oldest residing resident has only lived there since 1962, and has difficulty remembering things. They went on to say...

I lived in Avilla during the 1960’s, and I knew many of the old timers then. At that time, Burt Stemmons would sit on his front porch and retell the stories he learned from his ancestors. ... He told me many stories about the ghosts that were about, and that is when I learned about the dead man’s skull that was hung from an apple tree as a warning to Confederate bushwhackers. That was ultimately the cause of the downfall of the town. There is a single dark spirit there, and I know from personal experience that he exists. If you have ever smelled a dead human body, you will never forget it, and such is an experience with Rotten Johnny Reb.
An abandoned house in Avilla, with the local tavern to the left. Perhaps the one Otis visits?
An abandoned house in Avilla, with the local tavern to the left. Perhaps the one Otis visits?

The anonymous user also wanted to warn any ghost hunters visiting Avilla (specifically at night), saying that most people currently residing are unhinged, and that no matter your beliefs - be it that Rotten Johnny Reb is dangerous, or the people residing there are - the danger in Avilla is real.

Sources: Wikipedia [1] [2], Haunted Places, Your Ghost Stories


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