“The Hole That Will Not Stay Filled”
The legend of Sketoe’s hole is one of the South’s most intriguing ghost stories. The tale involves a spot on the Choctawhatchee River opposite the town of Newton, Alabama. It is a story of the Civil War, the hanging of a man named Bill Sketoe (or Sketo) and a “hole that will not stay filled.”
Sketoe’s Hole was a Dale County landmark for many years and became quite famous after Kathryn Tucker Windham wrote about it in her beloved book 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey.
The legend holds that Bill Sketoe was a Southern soldier who came home to care for his sick wife during the darkest days of the Civil War. He supposedly hired a substitute to fight on his behalf and was on his way with medicine for his wife when he ran into men from Captain Joseph R. Breare’s Dale County “Home Guard.” Breare and his men accused Sketoe of desertion, a charge that he denied. Despite his claims of innocence, they hanged him from the limb of a nearby water oak even as he prayed for God to forgive his killers.
Sketoe, however, was a tall man and his feet touched the ground, preventing his death. Seeing this, one of Breare’s men used his crutch to dig out a hole beneath the hanging man so he would die.
The hole remained long after Sketoe’s body was removed. Local people regarded it with a sense of horror and noticed that it stayed a pristine as the day it was made. As a test they filled it with trash and debris but returned the net day to find that it had been swept clean. A story grew that the ghost of Bill Sketoe still swung from the tree, his feet sweeping the hole clean as they dragged back and forth each night.
The real story of William Sketoe is difficult to unravel. Historic records prove that several men were hanged in December 1864 by members of Capt. Joseph Breare’s company. The unit was not a “home guard” company as it is usually described but actually was a Confederate cavalry company assigned to enforce the conscription or military draft in the area.
Breare was a seasoned military officer. A former judge, he accepted a lieutenant’s commission in Company E, 15th Alabama Infantry and served in the Army of Northern Virginia for much of the war. He fought in such engagements as Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Captured in the last of these battles, he was carried away to a Union prisoner of war camp where he suffered for some time.
By the time he was exchanged, Breare was in poor health and came home to recover. While back in Dale County he was named captain of a mounted unit assigned to the Conscription department. He and his men patrolled the woods and swamps of the region in search of deserters and “lay outs” who were avoiding military service. When captured, these individuals usually were sent back to the front lines. Hanging was not the normal method of dealing with them, especially when the
Confederate armies were desperate for soldiers.
It is worth noting that the captain himself was accused of being absent without leave from the 15th Alabama during the winter of 1864-1865. His medical furlough having expired, he was ordered back to the front but did not go. A flurry of letters were exchanged with authorities in Alabama but the war ended before the batter was fully resolved.
While the precise events that led to Sketoe’s hanging are not known, the available facts cast some doubt on the traditional story. First, there is no record that he ever served in the Confederate military. He was of military age and by 1864 was subject to service in the Confederate army unless he had a compelling excuse. He is said to have been a Methodist minister and may have used his status as clergy to avoid service, but either way there is no evidence that he was in the army and came home to take care of a sick wife.
The claim that he hired a substitute to fight in his place is probably a later embellishment. The question of his military service aside, the Confederacy had outlawed the practice of hiring substitutes well before the time of Sketoe’s death.
So what brought William Sketoe into the crosshairs of Capt. Breare and his men?
The captain and his men were engaged in heavy operations in and around Dale County in November and December 1864. A group of “raiders” attacked a Confederate ammunition wagon and murdered an officer that fall, prompting a campaign by Breare’s company and other units. They fought a pitched battle with the raiders in November in what is now Geneva County and succeeded in capturing several of them. At least two of the prisoners were hanged.
One of the executed men was “Doc” Prim, a soldier from the 1st Florida Cavalry (U.S.). He was tried as a spy after he captured out of uniform and engaged in combat against Confederate soldiers. The identity of the other hanged man is not known but he may have been Bill Sketoe as the timing of Sketoe’s execution places it at roughly the same time as the hanging of “Doc” Prim. There is circumstantial evidence in the available documentation that a second man was tried and hanged on the same day as Sketoe. Could those vague references be to Prim?
The description of a hole being dug beneath Sketoe’s feet appears to be true. The incident was described by several members of Breare’s company who were present at the time. They described how the unfortunate man’s feet touched the ground allowing him to push himself up on his toes to avoid dying. A wounded soldier serving in Breare’s unit used his crutch to dig out the sandy soil from beneath Sketoe so he would strangle and die.
Sketoe’s body was displayed briefly in Newton as a warning to others and then buried by his family at Mount Carmel Cemetery in nearby Echo, Alabama.
The ghost story drew curious individuals down to the banks of the Choctawhatchee River at Newton for more than 100 years. Unfortunately, the original hole can no longer be seen. The “hole that would not stay filled” was covered with rock during the massive Choctawhatchee flood of 1990. The modern Newton bridge was being undermined by flood waters and state highway crews brought in large rocks to prevent its destruction. Even a ghost’s feet were not strong enough to sweep away the tons of rock that now cover the site, although it must be noted that the hole could still be there beneath the rocks.
A reconstruction of Sketoe’s Hole and an interpretive sign were placed a few hundred feet away in the riverside park net to the Highway 123/134 bridge at Newton. To find it from downtown Newton, just cross the bridge, take the first left and then take the immediate left leading to the park by the bridge. You will see it under the trees to your right.
Bill Sketoe’s grave at Mt. Carmel Cemetery is surrounded by a small fence to protect it from damage. A ghost hunter damaged its inscription some years ago, much to the displeasure of people in the community.
To see the story of the ghost of Sketoe’s Hole brought to life, enjoy this free video from our sister channel Two Egg TV: