For almost 84 years, Lynchburg’s own haunted rocking cradle has been lost to public record and reduced to rumor, little more than a ghost story retold every Halloween.
But now, about 182 years after the alleged haunting that rocketed it to infamy, the cradle has been donated to the Lynchburg Museum by direct descendants of the original 19th-century owners.
As the story goes, according to William Asbury Christian’s “Lynchburg and Its People,” published in 1900: It was the spring of 1839, in a one-story brick house on Jackson Street.
The Rev. William Smith was renting the home in the midst of his career as a Methodist preacher in Lynchburg. He and his wife borrowed a cradle from the Rev. John Early, a prominent leader in the Methodist church, who would later become Bishop Early.
One morning, the Smiths noticed the cradle began to vigorously rock on its own. According to the account: “Dr. Smith moved the cradle from near the fire-place into the middle of the floor, and said: ‘Now Geoffrey (he called the Devil by that name), rock!’ and he did.”
In other versions of the story, the devil is called “Beelzebub” in the command uttered by Smith. Accounts differ — with some blaming the rocking on the devil, others on spirits, ghosts or “invisible hands.”
The news of the cradle spread, and hundreds came to see it. No explanation for the mystery was satisfactory. In this version of events, the cradle continued rocking for some time, perhaps a month — and then stopped.
It is one of the city’s best-known ghost stories, with reports of the “self-rocking cradle” published in papers across the state in the late 1800s.
The cradle is a local legend, said Museum Curator Emily Kubota. It’s the first ghost story she heard when she moved here, and she’s wanted to see proof of the cradle since she heard the stories. Acquiring it for the museum has been a dream come true, as much as an allegedly deeply haunted item can be a dream.
The thing itself is unexpectedly large and is incredibly well-kept for an almost 200-year-old artifact that spent long years sitting in dark attics, or in forgotten rooms. It’s 3.5 feet long, 2 feet wide and 4.5 feet tall, made of stained mahogany and crafted in the Sheraton “high poster” style, according to the museum’s release.
The original rockers were removed many decades ago, and the current ones are likely 20th-century additions. Last week, the rockers sat beside the cradle. Currently stored at the museum, it seemed no one wanted to tempt fate until later.
It was Rebecca Pickard, museum experience leader, who was tasked not only to do extensive research upon the acquisition of the cradle, but to put together a research file on the descendants themselves, creating a theory of the cradle’s potential location, so the research could be matched with the descendant’s own oral history.
Combing through newspaper articles, census records, wills and various publications, Pickard assembled a narrative. It led her, ultimately, to Tom Jackson’s father.
It was Tom Jackson and his sister, Joan Coleman, both of Lynchburg, the great-great-great-grandchildren of Early, who donated the cradle to the museum this summer. Jackson, 62, said the cradle has been with him for the last 55 years, almost a lifetime.
After the incidents of the story, whatever version you believe, Pickard’s research shows the cradle was given back to the Early family who stored it in the attic of their home at 700 Court St. The house passed to his daughter, and then his great-grandson. Eventually, the house was disassembled and reconstructed on Peakland Place. During the move, the cradle was discovered in the attic, rockers removed, and moved with the house.
A 1937 Virginia Works Progress Administration report is the last known mention of the cradle in the public record.
Eventually, the cradle passed through the family to Jackson’s father and then to Tom, himself. It was kept in a back bedroom of the house for most of his life, he said.
“It was kind of like my little secret,” said Jackson. He said there isn’t much extra to tell, “no R-rated movie” twist. But, he continued in the same tone, earnestly: “If you ask me, I think it’s still possessed.”
He said it’s brought him bad luck, and even more bad luck has happened since he moved the cradle. But he and his sister were its keepers, and after all this time, he wanted to donate it to the museum to keep it safe. Without any descendants that would like to take it, he was worried if the cradle began to get moved around, it could get damaged or lost.
“I would hate it if something happened to it, and no one knew that it existed,” Jackson said. Not many people have seen it over the years, he said, but he’s glad it is now in the possession of people who will appreciate and take care of it. He feels it is a “part of Lynchburg history.”
And now that it has emerged from obscurity and myth, he wants to “share it.”
Like any story, there’s countless versions. In some, the baby is in the cradle during the alleged rocking. In others, the cradle is commanded to stop and the devil banished, the rockers cut off to ensure any possession cannot find hold.
Pickard said some of her most interesting findings were of the fates of the people in the story. The Smith’s newborn child passed away, and Smith’s wife, as well, years later. Their other daughter also died young.
According to Pickard, Elizabeth Early, the toddler whose crib had been gifted to the Smiths, was labeled a “lunatic” in her early 20s, and she was institutionalized at Western State Lunatic Asylum in Staunton until her death.
When asked if the cradle is haunted, Pickard exhaled deeply. She doesn’t want to risk it.
“I think spiritual forces are at work in the world, and I don’t want to tempt them,” she said. “That’s as far as I will go with it.”
Still, she’s looked at it on many a lunch break.
Kubota said she hasn’t had any suspect experiences yet, but “we’re all really waiting.”
The museum will carry out a test Oct. 29, when staff will livestream a feed of the cradle at an undisclosed location from 8 to 10 p.m., in a “paranormal investigation.” Staff plans to set up an infrared camera in the dark aimed at the cradle to capture any unexplained phenomenon.
The cradle also will be on long-term display at the Lynchburg Museum beginning Nov. 4.
Kubota said she’s excited to hear people’s stories, be it about the cradle or other Lynchburg legends.
“I think legends are really reflective of time and place, and I would love to hear more about people’s own experiences with the paranormal in Lynchburg, and specifically with objects that are attached to those,” she said.