Jeffery McCain was going to school.
Jeffery, or Jeffy, as everyone called him, loved school, especially reading. Books allowed him to visit places that he would have never dreamed existed outside of the boundaries of Sarpy County, Nebraska.
His favorite was an oversized atlas called Lyteman’s Guide to World Geography, which was full of colorful maps and pictures from all over the world. Jeffy especially liked Africa, and would spend as much time as he could looking at pictures of the continent.
Sometimes, as he walked to school, he liked to pretend that he was really walking across the arid, grassy plains of the African Savannah. There were lions hunting in the tall grass, and there was always a wildebeest over the next hill. He had shown his Papa a drawing of one once, and he told Jeffy that it was the weirdest damn cow that he had ever seen.
Papa wasn’t supposed to swear in front of him and his sisters, or at least that’s what Mama always said. But Jeffy was almost ten now, and when he was out in the field with Papa and his older brother, Thomas, his Papa felt free to set loose a few curse words.
He wasn’t in Africa today. The sky was too overcast, gray and pregnant with the promise of rain. As he crossed the bridge over the creek near the school, he idly wondered if it would flood like it had last year.
The rains had come hard and early last Spring, filling up the low parts of Papa’s fields and swelling the creek running underneath him until it overflowed its banks and covered the land around it.
He was almost to the schoolhouse when he saw Ms. Holly.
Ms. Holly was the schoolteacher, and she was possibly the prettiest girl that Jeffy McCain had ever seen, next to his Mama, of course. She was tall and solidly built, muscles still hard from spending nearly two decades working on her parent’s farm in Illinois.
Her parents had only been blessed with herself and her sister, Pauline. Pauline took after her mother, short and slender, while Holly had been built tall and broad like her father’s kin. With no sons to help him in the field and no money to hire a farm hand, Holly’s father had brought her out to the field to work with him. She had grown strong, and a few years away at the teacher’s college had done little to diminish that.
Jeffy didn’t care. He loved school, but he knew that he’d probably end up with a farm of his own someday. But he loved farming, too, and longed for the day when he’d have his own patch of land with a pretty wife by his side. If that lucky woman who would take his name had delicate features and auburn hair like Ms. Holly, that would be even better.
She was standing by the school bell, watching the other children playing. There was Addy Thompson and her sister, Helen. Jacob Meyers was talking with George Simpson about the spring planting, and Ida Goetz was playing a game with Emma Heismuller.
Just as he was making his way to the other kids, Ms. Holly began to ring the school bell. Everyone stopped what they were doing and began to make their way inside.
As he passed Ms. Holly, Jeffy looked up at her and smiled.
“Good morning, Ms. Holly!” he said cheerfully.
She ignored him and kept ringing the bell, like she hadn’t heard him.
She must not have heard him over that bell, Jeffy thought. Papa would have said that the thing was too damn loud, but not in front of Ms. Holly, of course.
He made his way to his desk in the second row. He liked to keep it clean and orderly, just like Ms. Holly liked it. He knew that part of that was probably because she had to clean all the desks at the end of every school day, but he was glad to make her job a little easier.
Jeffy heard the big door shut behind him, followed by the click-clack of Ms. Holly’s feet walking across the hardwood floor toward her own desk at the front of the room.
She sat down and looked out at them. The children looked back, expectantly waiting for Ms. Holly to give them their instructions and officially start the day. Ms. Holly just sat there, staring back at them.
Moments stretched into minutes. Jeffy felt uncomfortable, and he was sure he wasn’t the only one. Still, he had been to taught to obey the rules, and that you were bad if you broke them. They were supposed to wait for her to give instruction, and he was no rule-breaker.
Ms. Holly didn’t move. Her breaths came quick and hard, like she was carrying something heavy. Jeffy noticed that her eyes looked bloodshot, just like Papa’s had when he’d stayed up all night helping Mr. Harrison deliver a calf the year before.
The scream came without warning. Jeffy and the other children jumped, their own breaths catching in their throat. It was Ms. Holly.
She screamed again. It was a sound unlike any Jeffy had ever heard. It was sad and pleading and full of rage all at the same time. It was primal and defiant, like he imagined the heathen barbarians who had burnt and pillaged their way across ancient lands would have sounded like.
Ms. Holly stood up so quickly that her chair slammed to the floor behind her with a bang. Her eyes were wild.
Addy and Helen were up out of their seats in a flash. Emma and Ida weren’t far behind, running for the door.
“MONSTERS!!! YOU’RE ALL MONSTERS!!!!” roared Ms. Holly.
Addy struggled with the door, but it wouldn’t open. Ida grabbed the knob, too, and the girls pulled with all of their might, but it still wouldn’t budge. Jacob and George pounded on the door, crying out for help.
Jeffy was stunned. He was scared, terrified, and knew that he should run. But he couldn’t. He felt like he was in a dream, held in place by invisible cords.
He watched as Ms. Holly, silent once more, bent over and grabbed something from behind the desk. When she stood back up, Jeffy felt his stomach turn. Ms. Holly was holding the axe that they used for cutting up firewood by the side of the school.
Ms. Holly walked around the desk. She was smiling now, her lips stretched in a horrible grin.
“All of you are monsters,” she said calmly. “And monsters have no place here. I’m going to take out the monsters, children. I’m going to make all of you better again.”
She stepped in front of Jeffy’s desk, staring down at him with an awful, insane glee.
“It’s like getting a splinter, Jeffy. It’ll hurt for a little bit, but I’ll make it quick,” she said soothingly. “Singing helps things feel better sometimes. Would you like to sing with me, Jeffy?”
Jeffy said nothing. It was like the fear had run screws through his jaws, holding them fast. He was vaguely aware that someone was screaming. There seemed to be a lot of people screaming, but he couldn’t hear it too well. The whole world had gone quiet, like someone had stuffed his ears full of cotton.
Ms. Holly had begun to sing. It was clear and strong, and some part of Jeffy recognized it as one of the songs that they sung in church sometimes. He couldn’t remember all the words, but he knew the part about being washed in the blood of the Lamb.
She was still singing when she raised the axe high above her head, and brought it crashing down.
Holly stared into the clear water of the stream rushing below her. It was pure and clean, like the fluffy white clouds of a summer day. She smiled to herself, listening to the water gurgle and splash. It was perfect.
She looked over towards where the school was a short distance away, balancing the basket on the rail with one hand. Holly frowned.
Those monsters had taken over her beloved children. They had burrowed into their necks and taken root like rotten seeds. But Holly knew how to save them. She was brave and strong, just like her Daddy had taught her, and she had known instantly what she had to do. It was a hard thing, but it had to be done. For the children.
Holly was almost done, but there was one more thing to do. Carefully, she lifted the cloth off the basket and looked inside. She had one chance to do this right, and this was too important to make any mistakes. She counted under her breath, “One, two…three…four, five, six…and seven!” She smiled again. She had gotten them all.
It was time.
The monsters had made her children’s hearts black with evil and sin, like coal in the bin. They were infected, like a raw wound left untended. Holly hadn’t seen it at first, but when she saw Emma playing in the yard that morning, she had.
It was like she could see inside of her chest, see the darkness inside. She’d already known about the monsters in town. Holly had seen one in a woman buying flour at the general store in Papillion, and the other had been in a man who tipped his hat to her outside of church, of all places.
She’d just known what they were, just like she knew how to pull air into her lungs. When Holly had seen the children that day, she had known what God had tasked her to do. It was like He had just put that knowledge into her head, and Holly knew that she had to obey His will. That’s when she went and got the axe and put it behind her desk and why she had locked the door when she had come in the school.
It was dark work, but God’s will be done. She reached into the basket and took out one of the hearts. They were black and oozed dark green fluid that looked like ink and stained her hands. She hadn’t wanted to cut the children’s hearts out, but she knew that the only way she could make them clean was outside of their little bodies.
Holly hadn’t been sure how to do that, but she was sure God would show her the way. He’d led her this far, and she was certain that He’d guide her to the answer.
Now, looking at the heart in her hand, she knew. Giving thanks to the Almighty, she let it drop into the water below.
It hit with a splash. Let the pure waters wash it clean now, Holly prayed.
One by one, she tenderly dropped the others in. They belonged to her children, and deserved the utmost care. Besides, she knew that God would bring them back to her.
That knowledge brought her comfort, and she started to sing again as she walked back to the school.
When she got back inside, she looked at the thick black and green monster blood that covered the floor. It would take a while to clean, but Holly felt up to the task.
Walking up to the front of the room, she stood up her chair and sat down behind her desk. She smiled out at her children. Now that nasty business was over, it was time to start the lessons for the day.
“Good afternoon, children.” Holly said.
To her surprise, the children didn’t answer.
Holly greeted them again, a little louder this time. Still no answer.
“What’s the matter? Why don’t any of you answer me?”
Because they’re dead, she thought.
No! That couldn’t be right. She’d killed the monsters, but had saved the children. She’d seen the black blood pouring out of them, had seen their tainted hearts run through with bright green veins.
They weren’t monsters. You murdered them all, she thought.
Her vision swam, and she felt dizzy. Holly pressed both hands to the sides of her head, a low groan escaping from her lips. She squeezed her eyes shut, fighting the spinning feeling inside of her mind.
When Holly looked up again, she knew clearly what she had done. She had killed them. All of them.
With unrelenting clarity, she remembered each murderous stroke of the axe, each grisly act committed. From the desktops on which she’d placed them, the heads of Jeffy and the others stared back at her in mute accusation.
Holly had thought her grandmother’s madness had passed out of the family. She remembered her talking to her in hushed, secret whispers about the red-eyed man who spoke to her from underneath her bed at night. Her dead brother Charles lived in the closet now, and told her that people were watching the house.
Grandfather and Daddy took her to the county hospital after finding her trying to burn down the house, convinced it was the only way to keep them all safe from the people her brother had warned her about.
And now Holly knew, without a doubt, that she now had the same illness as her grandmother, and had done terrible things. The voice in her head hadn’t been God’s. It had been the whispering, raving madness of her own insanity.
She threw her head back and howled, her mournful wail drifting over the green Nebraska grass as a gentle rain began to fall.
Of course, all of that was pure fiction. You see, unlike all of the other stories that I’ve told you, this one is almost completely made up.
Ms. Holly, Jeffy McCain, and all of the others, never existed. The story, which has its foundations in the lore of eastern Nebraska, is actually pretty basic. A school teacher went insane, so they say, and hacked up their students one dark day at the old Portal School. Some versions name her as Holly, which has become, in some reiterations, Holly Hatchet. It’s a great name, so I kept it.
Portal School is a very real building. It was built near the town of Portal, Nebraska in 1890, one of several hundred one-room schools that dotted the Nebraska landscape during that time and into the early 20th century.
Many teachers were young women who had come from various backgrounds who would come and educate there for a year or more. Often, they would live with a local family.
Portal declined and folded early in the 20th century, and became one of Nebraska’s many ghost towns. The school remained, and was moved from its original location because of frequent flooding in the area surrounding it. It finally closed in 1993.
In 1995, the Papillion Area Historical Society bought the building and eventually had it moved to its present location in Papillion, Nebraska. They use it for meetings, tours, and to educate groups of school children about the actual history of the building, the county, and the state.
There is a lot of rich, actual history associated with Portal School. It serves as a well-maintained and valuable part of Nebraska history. The legend is part of that history.
Honestly, knowing where and when the legend started isn’t as important to us today as the question of why. Why did someone make up such a bloodthirsty and vicious story about such an innocent place? Let’s take a look.
Storytelling is one of the chief ways we use to communicate. Movies, books, and even music tells us a story that keeps the dreary boredom of everyday living at bay. We tell stories about ourselves and others in bars and at parties.
Sometimes, they’re meant to entertain or educate. Others serve as a cautionary tale of what not to do.
I personally believe that legend was meant to entertain, like a horror film.
I see it unfolding like this: a group of friends are sitting around one night. They’re a little bored, and they’ve told each other all of the juicy gossip they know. Conversation fodder is running low when, suddenly, one of them gets an idea.
“Did you know that there was a murder at that school down the road?” they ask the others.
“Bull,” another responds. “That never happened. I would have heard about it.”
“It did so! I heard it from a friend of my granddad’s. You know my grandpa is a good Christian man, and would never keep the company of liars. He said they kept the whole thing really quiet because they didn’t want anyone to get scared. The kid’s family moved away, and the teacher got thrown in the asylum.”
This is where fact and fiction start to mix together. They all know teachers frequently move on to new areas after a year or two, and lots of folks have pulled up stakes and pushed west for better opportunities.
Worse still, they’ve more than likely heard about axe murders happening elsewhere around the Midwest. Axes were a convenient weapon to use on a farm or even in the city. Newspapers, especially in areas where there wasn’t much news going on, would use stories from the Associated Press to fill their pages full of sensational crimes that people were sure to buy a paper to read about.
Crimes from Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and several other places came to people in eastern Nebraska, telling them stories of how someone was murdered on a farm just like theirs. For example, in 1912, eight people were murdered with an axe in Villisca, Iowa. Villisca wasn’t too terribly far from Papillion, and it’s possible that some readers in the region had even been there.
These stories stuck in their minds, and people would talk about them in hushed tones in their sewing circles at the local barbershop. When our imaginary friend here says that a similar murder took place here, it doesn’t seem so far out of the realm of possibility.
Maybe the friend lets them in on his deception, or maybe not. Either way, the legend has been born, and starts to grow.
One of them re-tells the story, but can’t quite remember all the details. So, they maybe add in a few things, like the teacher was named Holly. People love gruesome details, so maybe they talk about all the blood.
Over time, the story snowballs. Now a teacher went insane, beheaded the children, and then cut out their hearts. The killer than threw the hearts in the creek nearby, then left. Maybe they committed suicide, maybe they left – it all depends on who tells the story. Along the way, the ghost stories start.
Young boys dare each other to step foot in the haunted schoolhouse after dark, because the ghosts only come out at night after all the classes are finished. Young men tell their would-be girlfriends the story to scare them in the hopes that they will find comfort in the sheltering embrace of their arms. People will do a lot of things to get their significant others to snuggle a little closer.
Eventually, the story becomes a local legend. It doesn’t have to necessarily be rooted in fact, because that’s not the point. It becomes a tradition to tell the story to the next generation, so they can take it and make it their own.
The telling and the hearing of the story becomes part of local history. When children are old enough, they are told the story of Portal School. In turn, they tell their children or nephews or nieces or cousins they story. It becomes a kind of rite of passage, intertwining with the culture of the region, with each successive generation leaving their own signature on the legend as they pass it on.
The Legend of Hatchet House, as Portal School is known in some circles, has faded somewhat over the years, but still exists. Thanks to the internet, it has moved into the hearts and minds of seekers and storytellers near and far.
Years ago, a friend of mine and I visited a historic hotel in Illinois. A nice man gave us a tour, during which he asked us to put our hands on the stair railing. I complied, and he told me that now I was now a part of the history of the building, too.
Just like that railing, you and I are now part of the Legend of Hatchet House, which is tied indirectly to the history of Portal School. Our fingerprints are on it, the oil of skin soaked in to the wood. And so the legend will continue, intertwined with the history of the Nebraska plains.
Do you know any legends from your corner of the world? If so, I’d love to hear them. Please drop me a line on one of my social media outlets, or, if you prefer, drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Holly Hatchet’ scared all but two pupils away. Sioux City Journal, 8/30/1983
Body Found in Brush. The Lincoln Star, 12/24/1903
Quintanilla, James. Hatchet House and the Killer Teacher. www.designinglife.biz
Lefevers, Delana. These 8 Nebraska Folktales and Urban Legends Will Keep You Awake at Night. www.onlyinyourstate.com
Hamer, Roger and Chapman, John. Sarpy County Ghost Towns. www.wowt.com
McKee, Jim. The one-room schoolhouse in Nebraska. Lincoln Journal-Star, 5/5/2013