Tolleson, DL. “The Devil’s Advocate and Tom Skinnelrince Wilson.”
R.L. Paschal, 1980.
Tolleson, DL. “The Devil’s Advocate and Reverend Tom Wilson.”
DL Tolleson, 1998.
The Devil & The Bull.
Tolleson, DL. “The Advocate and Thomas Wilson.”
Tolleson, DL. “The Advocate and Thomas Wilson.”
There was a preacher named Thomas Wilson, who, in the year 1920, had a large flock of followers. They were members of churches who had heard him preach a sermon or two and enjoyed his tongue-in-cheek, fire-and-brimstone messages. Wilson’s sermons usually concerned evil, which, if confronted, could be overcome. In all fairness to the people of that small countryside, Wilson was not a Bible-thumbing egoist. He was loud and long-winded, perhaps, but that is neither a spiritual nor secular sin.
As it happened, or so the story is told, Reverend Wilson was rocking on his front porch during a particularly hot August evening. Now young Wilson was an awkwardly stubby chap in stature, and had chosen to live in the country. He was often saying that God was more easily found in the country. If that were so, Wilson had plenty of acreage in which to search. Anyway, as he was rocking that one summer evening, he heard a voice.
“Thomas . . .” called the voice.
Wilson, being half asleep, paid the voice no mind—but it persisted. “Thomas . . . Reverend Thomas. . .”
When his eyes opened, he was alone.
“Who’s there?” he said in a squeaky voice.
“It is I, Thomas . . .”
“And who might ye be?” Wilson asked, his Irish brogue more pronounced under the strain of this mystery.
“The advocate of the one you ostracize.”
Wilson rose from his chair, still trying to locate a body for the voice. He looked about the porch, feeling silly for examining what was obviously an empty area. Wilson was at a lost for an explanation of whatever trickery might explain the disembodied voice. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about?”
“Surely you do.”
Wilson peeked through his screen door and into the empty living room of his house.
“You’re good at hiding is all that I can tell,” Wilson countered, now looking off the porch.
“As are you,” the voice said, coming from the empty rocking chair. Wilson spun around, all but falling over the wood porch railing. Sitting in the chair before him, was the strangest man he had ever laid eyes upon. The stranger wore a black suit, black bow tie and black shirt. A black watch chain vaguely accented the foreboding ensemble. In fact, the only white apparent were the whites of his eyes—and those only appeared white in contrast to startling fierce black eyes glaring out from behind dark lashes and a dark brown face. His thin lips and slit-like eyes seemed to taper his face into an elongated shape, topped off by a widow’s peak and slick-backed hair.
“Good Lord, man,” gasped Wilson. “Do you always frighten folks in such a Way?”
The Stranger did not answer, but instead rose . . . and rose and rose and rose. To Wilson’s shaken amazement, he finally stopped rising at about nine feet—just short of the porch roof.
“Well,” mumbled Wilson, “What—is it you—uh—you want?”
“I am here,” the stranger answered, “to help.”
The two looked at each other for a long moment. Finally, a dawning recognition in Wilson's face prompted the stranger to say, “I believe we understand each other, do we not?”
“Oh yes,” Wilson said. “I understood you long ago. You were wasting your time then, and you are certainly wasting it now.”
“Silence is the wisdom of learned men,” the stranger said.
To Wilson’s credit, it must be said he stood his ground, even to the point of appearing cavalier: “Then wise up and shut up.”
“I will have your silence by contribution or retribution!” the stranger said ominously.
Wilson was out in his yard before another bat of the eye.
“Now—see here,” Wilson stammered. His voice trailed off as the stranger maneuvered to the steps and seemed to grow taller yet again. The stranger was now inhumanly looming even higher than the porch’s overhang.
“You will be silent or be silenced,” the stranger said in a portentous tone.
Wilson glance out at his front gate and then pointed toward it. “See that gate? Don’t let it hit you on your way—”
Wilson turned his eyes back to the porch, and stopped in mid-sentence. The stranger had vanished. In his place remained a pall of smoke and an aroma that Wilson only later realized was burnt flesh.
Thomas Wilson swallowed hard, backing out of the yard. Wandering around dazed for a better part of the day, he finally ended up on the porch of his nearest neighbor, Carl Hatty. Some say Hatty was the only person Wilson told of the stranger, and he in turn passed some of the story along. Even today, the phrase, “shoot the devil or Hatty for lying,” is renowned throughout that part of the country. Having pointed that out, some folks say Carl Hatty is the one responsible for what little we know of these curious events. Others have suggested Hatty knew the stranger personally. These speculations certainly add legitimacy to the details we know of that evening and the events two weeks later, which are too detailed—even in vagueness—to have been invented after the fact.
Two weeks later, Reverend Wilson was milling around in the local dry goods store of Howard J. Cannon. Wilson was the picture of self-destruction. His past nights had been filled with dreams of the dark stranger. His last sermon had been a short foreboding affair that many of the townspeople later said was the most gripping oratory of his career.
A fairly successful businessman, Mr. Cannon had taken one of his frequent two-day vacations and left his store in the care of a young manager unfamiliar with Wilson. The Manager, James Karr, took it upon himself to be a huckster. He was, after all, a salaried man blessed with a commission on any sells.
“Good day, Sir, I’m James Karr, the Manager,” Karr said. A nondescript sort of chap, Karr could light-up a room when making a sales pitch. “Could I help you with something?”
Wilson’s bloodshot eyes rolled to view Karr.
“Just looking,” Wilson mumbled and brushed by the Manger.
Normally, Karr would have given chase with a useless amount of banter aimed at endearing himself to the pitiful customer. But something about Wilson’s demeanor held Karr back.
Wilson suddenly stopped, being face-to-face with his own image in bronze.
“What is this?” Thomas Wilson said, just above a whisper.
Karr stepped-up, explaining that the statue was an oddity that Mr. Cannon acquired at an out-of-town auction. The auction’s proceeds were to go toward saving a small school for the speaking and hearing impaired.
Wilson turned and regarded Karr with the briefest of startled expressions.
Sensing a sell, Karr forged ahead: “I fear it’s a losing battle. Should the school fail, an ironworks company will own the land. Imagine all that smoke filling up the sky. Tisk-tisk. The poor people are so desperate for money that this statue is actually on consignment—Mr. Cannon didn’t buy it out-right.”
It was then Karr realized the statue favored the customer. As Wilson leaned forward, Karr could see it was almost an exact mirror in bronze. The statue even held a Bible similar to the one in Wilson’s hands.
Wilson bought it. He loaded the bronze statue into the back-end of his horse-drawn wagon, took it home and cemented it in the front yard.
That night, while reading his Bible, Wilson again heard the voice that had haunted him nightly for two weeks.
“Thomas . . . ”
“Go away!” he yelled.
“Thomas . . . Thomas . . . Thomas . . . ”
“Thomas . . . Thomas . . . Thomas . . . ”
The voice, growing louder, was coming from the door. The young preacher had reached his breaking point. He reached into a nearby desk drawer and pulled from it a revolver. Aiming the gun at the door, Wilson yelled: “Return to your master.”
He pulled the trigger and continued to do so until the pistol’s six shots were discharged. Calmly, he laid the gun down and listened. After a moment of silence, he went back to reading. As he ran his eyes over the Ten Commandments, he came to a stop on one verse: Thou shalt not kill.
Wilson’s eyes grew wide. What if the voice at the door—
He leaped from his chair and to the door. Jerking the door open, he tumbled back in horror. Crumpled in the doorway lay Carl Hatty. A stream of dark blood pooled beside his body. The bullet wounds were centered in the chest, from where the obscuring red life was pumping out, timed and pulsed by the dying heart. Poised in a ghastly mocking position of prayer, the body was as grotesque as death itself.
Wilson shrunk away from the body, all the while fighting down the urge to pass out.
“THOMAS!” boomed a voice. “SINNER.”
“NO!” Wilson cried out.
Suddenly, the dark stranger appeared in Wilson’s living room.
“Your time is at an end,” growled the stranger.
Wilson shrieked, bounding over the body as he fled. He rushed out to the yard, heading for the gate.
Thunder roared, followed by the staccato strobe of striking lightning. Then there was silence.
The police chief shook his head and looked at Karr. “And you were the last to see him?”
“I guess so. He was in my store—” Karr paused to look at the elderly gentleman beside him. “I mean, Mr. Cannon’s store, yesterday. I sold him the bronze statue over there.”
The Chief nodded as he watched the covered body of Carl Hatty being carried away. The Chief turned, moving past the statue and toward the gate.
“Uh, Jake,” Howard Cannon called to the police chief—it was a small town then and everyone was acquainted.
“Not really,” the lean, plain-clothes Chief said. “Carl was shot by someone inside Brother Wilson’s house, by this revolver—I think.” He held up Wilson’s pistol in a paper bag. “I don't know it yet, but I suspect prints will have been wiped from the gun. There were no shell casings inside the chambers. All I’ve got is this extra clean revolver, a dead man and his missing neighbor.”
Turning again, the Chief walked out of the yard.
Cannon and Karr followed the Chief’s exit. Just outside the gate, Karr stopped and looked back.
“What?” Cannon asked, stopping at his employee’s side.
“It hasn’t got a Bible,” Karr said to himself and then turned away.
“What're you babbling about?” Cannon pressed, following.
They climbed into a blue car and Cannon started the motor.
“Well, I guess I’m going senile,” Karr answered, glancing back as they drove away.
Cannon waited for him to continue.
“I could have sworn that statue from the deaf and mute school had a bible in its hand.”
“It does,” Cannon said, working from memory.
“The one in Wilson’s yard doesn’t.”
Cannon hit the brake, stuck his head out and looked back: “Well I guess I never noticed it before—it sure doesn’t!”
Karr laughed. “Well I guess we both missed it.”
“Either that,” Cannon added while bringing his head back inside, “or Preacher Wilson found the perfect hiding place.”
The two men laughed and Cannon shifted the car into drive.
The Bible-less statue of Reverend Thomas Wilson remains as much a mystery as the events surrounding Thomas Wilson’s disappearance and Carl Hatty’s death. The mold from which the statue was cast did later prove to have a Bible. The revolver was examined and found clean of fingerprints. The weapons and ballistics experts couldn't agree upon whether the recovered pistol had even been fired. This last item of disagreement was compounded by the Hatty autopsy revealing bullet wounds, but no bullets.
As for Thomas Wilson, he was never seen again—not exactly, anyway.
Sightings of the stranger, on the other hand, increased in proportion to the mystery’s popularity. People reported seeing him at the scenes of other unexpected deaths in and around that part of the country. Of course, it was always a case of someone saying somebody else saw him. Those same people repeated stories of travelers seeing Wilson running from a darkly dressed stranger—usually whenever the weather turned most foul and was accompanied by lightening, of course. Some of those wayfaring nomads have even told of witnessing the ghostly stranger in black dissolving into the ground while Wilson solidified into the statue that so eerily resembled his features.
Only one man, a writer of some repute who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, ever gave me pause to consider this whole affair.
“I don’t know about the devil,” he told me genuinely, “but I personally knew that conniving Thomas Skinnelrince Wilson, and I swear I saw him just the other day in one Jim-dandy of foot race in the pouring rain.”
I didn’t know Wilson’s middle name until that interview. But a few hours browsing the old hand-written courthouse records confirmed it. Like many others, the aging writer admitted he always avoided the dirt road running by Wilson’s house. That’s all the old writer would say, and he has since died of old age.
I myself have never experienced more than a passing chill during evening walks that have taken me by that frightful statue, which to this very day remains standing in front of that old, deserted house.