Hezekiah Hall, an infamous Tennessee bushwhacker, was responsible for a reign of terror in the difficult years after the Civil War. His gang of renegades robbed, stole, rustled livestock, burned barns, kidnapped, tortured and murdered.

His criminal career ended in an ambush. Local vigilantes turned the tables on Hall, riddling him with bullets. Community residents loaded his bloody body on a mule-drawn wagon and paraded several days with the corpse, seeking a place for burial. No one wanted the outlaw's remains on their property.

What happened to Hall's corpse remained a mystery for more than 140 years.

Then Dwight Stubblefield received a call from a descendent of the outlaw, who wanted information for a genealogy project. He knew the legend of Hezekiah Hall, having heard stories passed down in the family. A local history buff, Stubblefield shared what information he had.

Working on a tip from the descendant that the bushwhacker might have been interred at a local cemetery, Stubblefield investigated but could not find a grave marker or any indication that Hezekiah Hall was resting in hallowed ground.

So Stubblefield put together his dowsing rods and began an age-old practice of divination aimed at finding unmarked graves, water, oil, metal and minerals. Indeed, the hated criminal had been buried there, but outside the cemetery fence with no headstone or memorial.

"The dowsing rods crossed right where he was buried," recalls the 88-year-old Stubblefield. "All those years, people wondered what happened to his body, but no one realized it was on the other side of the cemetery fence."

This was a common practice, dating back to Medieval Europe. Sometimes, unrepentant wrong-doers were considered too evil to be buried alongside God-fearing folks. They wound up in potter’s fields or interred on the north side of the graveyard, a place for outcasts and murderers.

As America expanded westward in the 18th and 19th centuries, tens of thousands of graves and even entire cemeteries were abandoned, forgotten and reclaimed by nature. Today, the bones of Native Americans, pioneers, early settlers and soldiers lay hidden in unlikely places.

Although many might experience a shiver at the thought of unmarked graves in backyards, parks or fields, others believe that locating these burial sites brings closure. As a dowser, Stubblefield's talent is finding unmarked graves and sometimes piecing together the story of how the forgotten ones lived and died.

He calls it a gift from God because the ability to dowse, while not uncommon, is hard to explain. Stubblefield learned from a cousin who belonged to a dowsing club in Plano, Texas.

He uses a pair of metal coat hanger sections that rest freely in plastic pipe handles. Holding them in both hands, he watches the dowsing rods point in the direction he should search.

The rods also can be used to answer simple questions. Clockwise motion means "no," while counterclockwise means "yes." Stubblefield has developed a simple alphabet system to help refine searches on the basis of whether he's looking for a particular person or has found an unknown individual.

Although he doesn't promote his dowsing abilities, Stubblefield often is called by families and even public officials to help them locate unmarked graves.

Legend had it that there were hidden graves near the county courthouse. An elected official asked Stubblefield to dowse around the courthouse lawn.

"We found four graves right in a line. They might have been Confederate soldiers," he says.

Stubblefield has dowsed for friends and acquaintances, finding forgotten graves in their yards and pastures. He also investigated a possible haunting.

“They [homeowners] started glimpsing what seemed to be a teen-aged girl in their house. Then she would disappear.”

He used his dowsing rods to find a grave on the property. Through a combination of historical research and local lore, he discovered that a 14-year-old girl had been buried there. She was thought to have been murdered. The homeowners have not seen the apparition since Stubblefield solved the mystery of the girl and the grave.

A devout man, Stubblefield believes dowsing serves a useful purpose.

“I can’t tell you why it works, but it does. Whether it’s someone dowsing for underground water or what I do -- finding things buried and forgotten – dowsing is a way to help.”

SHARE
mm
Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama. His column, "Appalachian Notebook," appears in the Independent Herald bi-weekly.