STATUS: Still standing
Founded in 1843, the town of Newton, Alabama served as a recruiting site for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. The surrounding forests filled up with deserters and Union supporters, both of which frequently entered the town to terrorize the locals. A small battle took place in Newton in March 1865. Newton is also home to the infamous “Sketoe Hanging Hole.”
Methodist minister William “Bill” Sketoe had grown up in the town, though his family was originally from Spain. In 1864, while fighting his third year in the Confederate Army, he received word his wife Sarah had fallen ill. He hired a “substitute” to fight in his place while he was gone. Sarah was said to have significantly improved while Sketoe was there. Weeks or months later, Sketoe returned, which raised the suspicions of seasoned military officer Captain Joseph R. Breare of the Dale County Home Guard. Breare had served in the Army of Northern Virginia for a greater portion of the war. On December 3, 1864, Breare and five of his men ambushed Sketoe outside of Newton, near the Choctawhatchee River bridge, while he was on his way home from the pharmacy.
Accusing him of desertion, the group beat him up and made him crawl through the sand before placing the buggy noose around his neck, which was tied to a post oak tree. Sketoe continued to proclaim his innocence. Breare asked if Sketoe had any last words: he elected to pray instead, asking God to forgive his killers, which infuriated Breare. He whipped the buggy’s horse, but because the minister was so tall, he was able to touch the ground with his toes. The branch also bent under his weight. One of Breare’s men, George Echols, had been previously injured and was utilizing a crutch. He utilized it to dig a hole in the soft riverbank sand beneath Sketoe’s feet. His body was briefly displayed in Newton, serving as a warning to other “deserters.” He was eventually buried with his family at Mount Carmel Cemetery in the nearby town of Echo.
In historian David Williams’ book Rich Man’s War: Castle, Class, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley, an alternative reason for Sketoe’s lynching is presented, which also exposes unfillable (fact) holes in the urban legend. There is no record of William Sketoe serving in any Confederate or state military unit. In early 1864, the Confederates had repealed the substitution laws, making it highly unlikely Sketoe hired someone to take his place.
Willaims’ book explained that Newton area residents formed the Home Guards to defend themselves. Newton lawyer Joseph Breare served in the Alabama infantry, had been captured at Gettysburg, and later formed the Newton Home Guard, nicknamed “the Buttermilk Rangers.” He and his men were dedicated to locating and punishing deserters, and weree engaged in heavy operations in the area following a raider attack on a Confederate ammunition wagon and the murder of a Southern officer.
In November 1864, they fought in a battle in Geneva County, which resulted in the capture of two men, including “Doc” Prim, an undercover soldier from the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry. Prim was hung within days of Sketoe. All three lynchings took place in Newton. Captain Breare was convinced Sketoe was assisting John Ward, the leader of a group of pro-Union guerillas consisting of deserters. While there was no evidence connecting the two and Sketoe was never tried or charged, Breare hung him anyways. Historical records show Breare’s company saw the hanging of several men in Dale County, Alabama in December 1864. Those who weren’t executed were drafted into the Confederate army. Records also state that each of the six men in the Home Guard responsible for Sketoe’s hanging met unexplained, mysterious deaths.
Captain Breare was struck by the limb of a post oak tree while out riding, causing him to fall from his horse and die. George Echols died in the swamp from an unknown cause. One man was struck by lightning, and another was thrown off of his mule after it became spooked by something. The last two died of mysterious causes. It’s believed that Sketoe had a part in their deaths from beyond the grave.
The hole has refused to go away. Over the course of 125 years, visitors tried to fill it in, using dirt, trash, and sand to attempt to get rid of it. When they returned, sometimes as quickly as within an hour, the hole was empty. Each time, it maintained its original dimensions: 30” wide by 8” deep. Locals believe this phenomenon to be caused by the ghost of Bill Sketoe.
While the new bridge was being built, two men decided to camp over the hole. They filled it with dirt and one placed his bedroll over it, only to discover the hole to be empty the very next morning.
The locals say that the hole can never be filled, as it will empty itself of its soil, trash, and/or debris. No matter how many times the hole is filled up, it somehow manages to return. It was believed that Sketoe was dragging his feet from the tree to clear the hole. In 1979, the hole became partially covered by a bride and some rocks, but it remains a local attraction.
The hole was featured in Kathryn Tucker Windham’s book, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey, which gained exposure for the haunting.
In 1990, the Choctawhatchee River flooded and the “unfillable hole” was finally vanquished. It was filled with rocks piled beneath the modern Newton bridge; they are believed to be too heavy for a ghost’s feet to sweep away.
A recreation of the hole and an informational sign were placed near the original site at the riverside park by Highway 123/134 bridge in 2006, courtesy of the Newton Historical Society. A local museum displays items surrounding Sketoe and his execution.
Bill Sketoe is buried in the Mt. Carmel Cemetery near Echo, Alabama. It is fenced off to protect it from thrill seekers and ghost hunters, as one visitor damaged the headstone a few years ago.
In Pop Culture
- The Sketoe Hanging Hole was featured in 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey by Kathryn Tucker Windham.
- Explore Southern History. “The Ghost of Sketoe’s Hole,” www.ExploreSouthernHistory.com
- Moonlit Road. “Bill Sketoe’s Hole: Alabama Ghost Story,” www.TheMoonlitRoad.com
- Only In Your State. “The Alabama Ghost Story That Will Leave You Absolutely Baffled,” www.OnlyInYourState.com
- Roadside America. “Cursed Hanging Hole of Bill Sketoe,” www.RoadsideAmerica.com
- Seeks Ghosts. “Bill Sketoe’s Hole,” www.SeeksGhosts.blogspot.com
- Wikipedia. “Bill Sketoe,” www.Wikipedia.org
- Wikipedia. “Newton, Alabama,” www.Wikipedia.org
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