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Coast Chronicles: Stories of ghosts on Deer Island

SUN HERALD FILE/AUDREY MURPHYDeer Island, not far from the Biloxi and Ocean Springs mainlands, has long been an island of mystery and tales of pirates, campers and ghosts. Audrey Murphy, a mid-20th century Biloxi photographer, captured this image of Deer Island before Hurricane Camille and other storm and natural erosion changed its number of trees.
SUN HERALD FILE/AUDREY MURPHYDeer Island, not far from the Biloxi and Ocean Springs mainlands, has long been an island of mystery and tales of pirates, campers and ghosts. Audrey Murphy, a mid-20th century Biloxi photographer, captured this image of Deer Island before Hurricane Camille and other storm and natural erosion changed its number of trees.

A headless skeleton and a firewater ball blasted their way into the local ghost scene many years ago. In the 21st century, they are faint apparitions of their former selves.

We must decide ourselves if we choose to believe. Or be skeptical. Or say, oh, is Halloween near?

Meet the Deer Island headless ghost. He was immortalized in this newspaper 93 years ago, in a column titled "Back With Father Time in the Early Days of the Mississippi Coast." Father Time was Anthony Ragusin, aka Mr. Tony, who on May 20, 1922, titled his history column "Headless Ghost Haunted Deer Island In Olden Times."

Headless Ghost of Deer Island

"The first-known appearance of the Deer Island ghost goes back about 100 years," Mr. Tony, as he was known later in life, explained in dating the ghost time to the early 1800s.

Mr. Tony is remembered as one of Biloxi's and the Mississippi Coast's best spokesmen, often weaving the region into the national spotlight through his writing, photography and dogged promotions. He later became known as Biloxi's Mr. History, so these early forays into local lore -- he was only 21 when he penned the following ghost column - are not surprising.

"There were two fishermen who landed on the island at night," he wrote in 1922. "It was in the days before the railroad through the South and there was very little to Biloxi then.

"The fishermen made a camp fire on the sand and were making coffee and getting other 'eats' ready, when suddenly the palmetto bushes began to create much noise despite the stillness of the night. Thinking it was wild hogs the fishermen paid no attention to the bushes, later they glared around and beheld a skeleton standing erect, but without the skull.

"The fishermen, completely surprised, managed to move back some feet but the headless ghost began to follow, and the men stampeded to their boat. They reached their boat, shoved it off the island and made off to the sea leaving all their equipment on the island.

"The next morning they returned to the island and secured their cooking utensils. It was also said that later money was found near the spot."

The best local storytellers

Mr. Tony explained that this story was told to him by Eugene Tiblier Sr., then about 78 and a lifelong Biloxian. Tiblier, his son and grandson of the same name, were respected as locals who understood Coast history and, indeed, were an important part of it themselves. The family dated to French Colonial times and were fishermen, oystermen and businessmen who kept traditional stories alive.

In retelling the headless ghost tale, Mr. Tony said that "many imaginary answers could be given for this story." But he doesn't own up to whether the explanations are his imagination or long-held postulations of the locals.

"Years before the two fisherman saw the headless ghost," Mr. Tony wrote, "a pirate ship landed inside Bay of Biloxi near Deer Island to bury stolen loot and refit for another expedition. The pirate leader with his men landed on the shores of Deer Island to bury the treasure. After the treasure was hidden, the chief exclaimed:

"'Who wants to guard this treasure?' An inexperienced pirate, not realizing the great mistake, said, 'Me guard the treasure.'

"Just as the last word died away one of the chief lieutenants swung his cutlass and cut the man's head off. Throwing his headless body into the palmettos the pirate gang left the island for the ship. Thus did the headless skeleton appear in later years to protect the buried treasure whenever it seemed in danger."

Mr. Tony reported that through succeeding years, others saw the Deer Island ghost. I've not heard of any 21st-century sightings, but I leave the possibilities open.

And yet another ghost

Now, meet the Ghost of Blue Fire, aka the Firewater Ghost. Mr. Tony explained this was a common story among early fishermen, who saw "a mystic object ... that moved along the water in the shape of a ball of fire." In the days before electricity, some people called it the "mysterious lantern."

"There is one Biloxian who remembers seeing with his own eyes the firewater ghost," Mr. Tony wrote. "It was along the year about 1891 when Captain Eugene Tiblier Jr., 55 years, was rowing a skiff to the Back Bay one dark morning about 2 a.m., accompanied by his brother Lewis when the light was sighted.

"'It was a bluish light and traveled about one foot from the water," said Capt. Tiblier, "and we stopped rowing and watched it move out of sight toward the vicinity of Ocean Springs."

Again, I've not heard modern versions of the Coast's firewater ghost, but does that make it not so?

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535-4567.

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