The towns of the Inner Banks, the collection of inland villages and cities that border ocean bound rivers and sound, have their own unique stories and legends.
In Elizabeth City, northwest of the Outer Banks, folks still tell the tale of Nell Cropsey. In 1898, a merchant from the north made his home along the Pasquotank River with his wife and daughters. One daughter in particular, Nell, stood out as the most beautiful and drew the eyes of many local young men, who referred to this daughter as the "Beautiful Nell Cropsey."
Nell finally selected Jim Wilcox as her beau, and he courted her for years until 1901, when on a dark November night they began to argue over if he was ever intending to propose to Nell. Not long after the argument, Nell disappeared and was never seen again.
A letter arrived several weeks later with a map that showed where Nell was buried. A few days later, her body was indeed found exactly where the map had indicated.
Jim Wilcox, who was thought to be letter's author, was arrested and later convicted of murder. He was sent to prison and stayed there for 19 years until he was pardoned by the governor in 1920. He ended his life in 1922, and to this day, no one knows the particulars of the final hours of Beautiful Nell Cropsey.
In the Dismal Swamp area, locals still talk of the infamous Lady of the Lake, which poet Thomas Moore penned into infamy in his poem "The Lake of the Dismal Swamp." The Lady of the Lake is supposedly a Native American girl who died shortly before her wedding day. Her would-be husband believed that she had left her grave and took to the waters of the swamp, never to find him after death. She is still seen on occasion, paddling a white canoe across misty Lake Drummond.
In Edenton, storytellers talk about the centuries old cypress tree that stood in the middle of the harbor. Its stature and history (it is said that the tree was there well before the English settlers) led mariners passing by Edenton to begin a tradition of putting a bottle of Jamaican Rum inside the trunk. When a ship left the port, the crew would stop at the tree and have a drink for good luck. Eventually, all the local mariners began to refer to the cypress as "The Dram Tree."
Crews that didn't adhere to the tradition of leaving a bottle on their arrival and taking a drink on their way to sea encountered rough seas and hardships when they left Edenton. Many stories have been told of the ill fates these careless mariners were cast to, simply by not honoring the Dram Tree. The tree stood until 1918, when a winter storm finally cast it off to the waters of the Pamlico Sound.
In Chowan College in Murfeesboro, the legend of the Brown Lady survives after 150 years. During the Civil War, a lovely young college student lost her fiance in battle and soon died of a broken heart. Her ghost, a solitary figure in a brown dress, roamed the halls of the Columns Building and personnel have supposedly found brown leaves and sticks in the mornings after her visits.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the college held a "Brown Lady Festival," and a student was chosen every year to dress up as the Brown Lady and greet visitors at the Wise Family Cemetery on campus grounds. Today, students still consider the Brown Lady as a symbol of high ideals and pride.
In Bath, folks shake their heads at the sorry fate of poor Jesse Elliot. Jesse was a reckless resident of the town, and tweaked his nose at the conventional values that encompassed North Carolina's Bible belt. During a horse race in the late 1800s (one of Jesse's favorite pastimes), he galloped at lightning speed shouting "Take me in a winner, or take me to Hell." As if on cue, the horse came to an abrupt halt, sending Jesse flying into a tree and causing his instant death.
The footprints of Jesse's horse still remain in Bath, and while folks have tried to no avail to cover them up with kindling or leaves, the hoof prints somehow never have a leaf on them whenever they are spotted.
With centuries of dark and legendary stories, stemming from the treacherous coastal waters to the history rich and proud coastal cities, it's no wonder that the communities of the North Carolina Coast take to stories like a fish to water. Pause for a moment at a rickety fish house or stop by a convenience store where older generations of residents are swapping stories, and you are sure to pick up a bit of North Carolina history that might not be completely true. Whether true or not, it will be purely engrossing, interesting and entertaining just the same.