|The following is an excerpt from Tamper by Bill Ectric
|There are numerous legends about human skulls that still think for
themselves, and foremost on their minds is a desire to remain in the home
they had come to love while still among the living. If removed from the
home, the skulls would wail, shriek, knock over chairs with psychic energy,
and even spoil the crops in the gardens. If these “haunted” skulls were
allowed to remain in the house, they kept quiet and the crops flourished.
Apparently, in the old days, more than a few people had the foresight to
get their hands on a skull while the getting was good, possibly realizing
that the time would come when the human skeleton would be harder to
come by, what with sanitation laws and other government red tape.
The majority of screaming skull stories are rooted in Great Britain. In his
book, Screaming Skulls of the New World, Olsen Archer posits that
because America is a relatively new country, it took longer for screaming
skull stories to surface, but surface they did. Case in point, The Screaming
Skull of Ames’ Esso & Garage, which we will discuss later. First, let’s visit
England for a couple of classics.
English screaming skulls usually reside in manors and estates with names
like the Screaming Skull of Wardley Hall, near Manchester, England. Some
say this is none other than the skull of Father Ambrose Barlow, killed in
1641 for following the wrong religion. The protestant Church of England
had warned all the Catholics to leave the country. With a defiant gesture
that may or may not have been the sign of the cross, Barlow said he was
too sick to travel and stayed in England, practicing his Catholic
sacraments, until soldiers arrested him. They hung the priest by the neck
until dead and then pulled his body apart by horses. At least, I think he
was dead before they quartered him. The authorities put his head on
display as a warning to others. Somebody snagged the skull, probably
under cover of the night. People walked by one morning and noticed it
was gone. Maybe another Catholic secretly took the grisly thing down off
the post to give the dead Father Barlow some dignity. Maybe some young
urchins took it for laughs, giddy on ale, tossed it back and forth.
Somehow, it ended up at Wardley Hall, passed down from generation to
About a hundred years later, a servant at Wardley Hall found the skull and
threw it out. That night, a raging thunderstorm terrified the owner of the
Hall. He said he could hear the screaming of Father Barlow’s spirit
entwined inside the howling wind. He could discern croaking growls of
outrage and resentment embedded within peals of thunder. He was
convinced that the skull was raining doom upon the house. Dining room
furniture scuttled around roughly, scarring the wooden floor. The next
day, to stop the pandemonium, he found the skull and brought it back
inside, where it resides peacefully at Wardley Hall to this day.
Then, there is the Screaming Skull of Burton Agnes Hall in Yorkshire,
England. In the 1599, Sir Henry Griffith was building a splendid mansion.
Or, perhaps carpenters were building the mansion for him.
Have you ever noticed, when someone says they are “building a house” it
usually means they are paying someone else to build it? Sometimes this is
true with “rebuilding a car engine” as well, but we won’t get into that
until Olsen Archer’s American book and the Screaming Skull of Ames’ Esso
So, with Burton Agnes Hall under construction, one of Sir Griffith’s three
daughters, Anne, went for a walk. The legend says someone attacked her
in a park. I don’t know if the motive was robbery, rape, or outright Jack-
the-Ripper-style devilry, but she was found dying from a serious knife
Perhaps delirious from fever, Anne made her sisters promise that if she
died, they would bring her head back into the house so she could see the
finished interior. Her sisters agreed. A short time later, Anne passed away.
Whether or not Anne’s sisters believed in life after death, we do not
know. I like to think that their exploit hinged in part on rebellion against
I can hear Sir Griffith now.
“Young ladies, I absolutely forbid you to desecrate your poor sister in such
a manner! She was delirious, and I'll hear no more about it!”
Teenagers have not changed that much in all these centuries. A girl could
become quite bored in a big English manor at night without telephones or
Maybe they hold a séance in the den, lit by a single candle, while Sir
Griffith snores upstairs after a gin nightcap. More specifically, they are
having a scrying session.
A bowl, made of dark blue stained glass, sits full of water on the white
tablecloth between the two girls. One sister holds a wand made from the
branch of a laurel tree. She dips the resin-coated tip of the wand into the
water and then rubs it slowly around the rim of the bowl. The effect is
similar to the musical tones produced by rubbing your finger around the
rim of a crystal glass filled with water.
“Will I ever marry?” asks the other sister.
Ripples form on the surface of the water, generated from the droning
vibrations of wand upon glass. Both girls lean in close to watch the ripple
form into shapes and letters.
I’m not saying drugs were involved, but the mandrake root had a
reputation in those days as an aphrodisiac. The mandrake root, like
Belladonna, contains a poison that can cause hallucinations, but it can also
cause death, so even practitioners of witchcraft no longer recommend it,
except, perhaps, to murder an enemy.
England declared witchcraft illegal in 1563, but in 1584, a Justice of the
Peace from Kent, England named Reginald Scot suggested that the
authorities were overzealous in their harassment of old haggish women
and strange men who lived alone with cats. He wrote a treatise explaining
that most witchcraft was fake and not to be taken so seriously. Real life
always falls somewhere in between two extremes, and one can imagine
mischievous parlor games involving séances and divination behind closed
doors. I may have embellished the original story, but something has to
explain why two girls would retrieve the head of their deceased sister.
The official story is that they heard bloodcurdling moans, apparently from
the vicinity of Anne’s tomb, which did not stop until they exhumed the
body. To their shock and bafflement, the head had separated itself from
the body and shed most of its skin. That was their story, but my theory is,
they cut off Anne’s head and didn’t want to admit it to their father. It
was bad enough just bringing the skull into the Manor.
“What happened to her skin and eyeballs, for God’s sake?”
“Daddy, ’tis surely the climate! You know how swift the dank soil and
conquering worm doth ravage!”
“Enough, daughters, enough! I'll hear no more about it!”
Years passed at Burton Agnes Hall, and whenever someone tried to throw
the skull away, the horses in the barns had nervous breakdowns and
pictures jumped off the walls.
Finally, because no one wanted to look at the skull grinning smugly inside
the mansion, but couldn’t stand listening to it bitch and rattle when
evicted, they sealed it behind a secret panel in the wall. You might find
the skull if you went around knocking on the walls, listening for a hollow
sound, but the present-day inhabitants of Burton Agnes Hall will not allow
|Screaming Skulls of the New World, by Olsen Archer, tells the story of Harold Ames, who owned an Esso
gas station just outside the city limits of Irwin, Pennsylvania in 1949. An Exxon station still operates
near there, but in 1949, they called it Esso. A black and white photo of Ames’ Esso shows a pale stucco
building with a striped awning over the door and a big, rectangular Coca-Cola sign mounted on the roof.
Near the door is a freestanding Quaker State Oil sign made of metal, hinged on top. The Quaker State
sign must have been dark green, you know, the way you can sometimes tell the color of something in a
black & white photograph, partly from the shade of gray it is, and partly from a memory of things you’ve
seen somewhere before. The two old-fashioned gasoline pumps look spindly and slight compared to
modern ones. A round Esso sign tops each pump. In the background, trees and telephone lines coexist
and mingle along the highway.
Beside the gas station looms a big, wooden barn-like garage where Harold Ames fixed automobiles. He
did everything from oil changes and brake jobs to rebuilding engines. According to both documentation
and word-of-mouth, Ames liked to work on cars while his son-in-law, Willis Gimble, pumped gas and
cleaned windshields for the customers. If it got busy, Harold came out to help Willis serve the
In 1946, Willis Gimble had switched uniforms, from Army to Esso. The crisp short-sleeve shirt had an
“Esso” patch on one side of the chest and a “Willis” patch on the other. In those days, there was no
self-service. Willis Gimble greeted each customer with a smile, cleaned their windshield, checked their
oil and tire pressure, and pumped their gas. Willis was married to Harold Ames’ daughter, Laura-Lee
Ames Gimble, and the three of them lived in Harold’s house about a mile down the road, in Irwin,
One hot summer, Willis sat on a chair with his feet propped up on a stack of old tires, sipping a cold
Coke from the bottle, waiting for a customer. Inside the somewhat cooler garage, Harold Ames sat amid
the oily rags and greasy tools, pondering a military surplus Harley-Davidson motorcycle that Willis had
bought. Harley-Davidson supplied motorcycles to the Army during World War II and many ex-servicemen
carried their enthusiasm for cycles into civilian life. This was a standard WLA Harley with a 45 cubic inch
Harold Ames poured himself a shot of whiskey. He didn’t know whether to fix the motorcycle or bash it
into pieces with a sledgehammer. He was not happy. He thought it was only a matter of time before his
daughter, Laura-Lee, rode off with Willis, her husband, on that Harley, leaving him alone in the world.
Ames’ wife had already taken a similar course of action with a traveling salesman a couple of years back.
People said it was because Harold drank too much. He thought it was because he left his wife alone for
days at a time, preferring to tinker in his garage. Well, he did love to fix things. With that thought, he
proceeded to fix the motorcycle.
“It still needs some work on the throttle,” he told Willis. “I’d feel safer if you left it here in the garage
until I get it worked out.”
Later, behind Harold’s back, Willis told Laura-Lee, “There ain’t a damn thing wrong with that throttle.
That old bastard don’t wanna let go of the bike.”
One night, Harold parked his car behind the garage and proceeded to drink himself into a stupor. He
was sleeping under his workbench when a noise woke him up. He lay there and listened as someone
entered the garage and rolled the Harley outside. When they were outside, Harold heard the thud of
kick starting and the rumble of the bike’s engine. He passed out again. When he woke up early the
next morning, the motorcycle was back in the garage.
About the time Harold was making coffee, Laura-Lee and Willis came driving up in Harold’s other car, a ’
37 Ford, which he loaned to them. He liked owning the car that his daughter and son-in-law used. As
long as they didn’t own a vehicle, they couldn’t leave. If they did, he could report the car stolen. That’
s why he was unhappy about Willis acquiring a motorcycle. He continued to stall the actual removal of
the Harley-Davidson from the garage.
Laura-Lee always dropped Willis off at the Esso station and then she drove into town to work at a diner.
Willis went into the garage as Harold was walking out, cup of coffee in hand.
“Mornin’, Mr. Ames.”
While Willis went inside for a cup of coffee, Harold Ames leaned on the car and spoke to his daughter
through the driver’s side window.
“So, your hubby took a little test drive last night,” said Harold.
“What are you talking about?” asked Laura-Lee.
Laura-Lee looked puzzled. It occurred to Harold Ames that his daughter didn’t know what he was
talking about. Nobody knew he had slept in the garage and maybe it was better that way.
“In his dreams,” said Harold.
“What?” she asked.
Harold chuckled, “I’m just kiddin’, baby girl.”
To her confusion, he left it at that.
A couple of days later, Harold was snooping around in the Harley’s leather saddlebags and found a brand
new roadmap. Someone had opened the map and refolded the wrong way, but it was clearly new.
The next night, while Willis and Laura-Lee slept, old Harold perused the contents of the glove box on
the ’37 Ford. What were these little flaps of different colored slick cardboard? Wallpaper samples! That
seemed like something Laura-Lee would be interested in, not Willis.
When Laura-Lee actually brought home some new wallpaper for her and Willis’ bedroom, the truth
jolted Harold Ames like internal combustion. Laura-Lee wasn’t planning to go anywhere, obviously. It
was that no-good son-in-law, Willis! He was planning to leave Laura-Lee!
No doubt, Harold Ames was drunk when he did what he did. Sure, that stretch of highway saw virtually
no traffic late at night, but it was still a foolish thing to do.
The rumbling offbeat rhythm of the Harley’s V-twin engine thundered through a dark, moonless night.
No street lights here – just solid headlight beam lapping up stretches of asphalt.
Hidden among trees on the side of the road, old Harold Ames drank from his whiskey bottle and heard
the motorcycle approaching. He saw the headlight coming.
“Nobody runs off and leaves my daughter,” he mumbled.
Harold had a brief moment of clarity. This was murder. Maybe he was going too far.
The rider caught a glimpse of something. A faint shimmer, as the headlight played across the thin
copper electrical wire, stretched across the road between two trees.
Harold felt a tip of broken wire flick across his cheek, cutting his skin deep enough to draw blood. The
broken copper wire had sprung back like a rubber band.
The Harley-Davidson kept going at first, even as the rider’s head did a forward spin and fell like a melon
in the road. When the headless rider’s hand went slack on the throttle, the motorcycle slowed, leaned
to the right, and veered off into the grass.
Harold Ames ran from his hiding place to the middle of the highway. He knelt down to get a closer look
at the wide-eyed head of his daughter, Laura-Lee!
They say she still had the wallpaper samples in the saddlebag.
Soon after beheading his daughter, Harold Ames committed suicide. Locked himself inside the garage
with two cars running, suffocated from the carbon monoxide.
Willis Gimble, being Ames’ only heir since Laura-Lee was murdered, inherited the house, gas station,
and garage. Willis advertised for an assistant, and in a bizarre twist of fate, he hired the very same
wallpaper salesman that Laura-Lee had been seeing behind his back! The salesman’s name was Trevor
Grace. One night when Trevor and Willis were drinking heavily, the salesman confessed that he was the
one Laura-Lee was cheating with. Willis forgave him and the two became closest of friends, living
together until Willis died from liver failure.
The Esso station is now closed. The Exxon station down the road is completely under different
ownership. The garage is now a tourist spot owned by the salesman’s grandson, DeForest Grace, Jr.
The main attraction is the skull of Laura-Lee Gimble. The first time Willis Gimble tried to bury the head,
the old Gimble house burned down while screaming echoed from the cemetery. Mysteriously, the one
room with the wallpaper didn’t burn. After Willis died, Trevor tried to get rid of the skull, during the
Carter Administration, and the fuel shortage shook up the industry so bad that he lost the Esso station.
The screaming skull of Ames’ Garage rests in a small cabinet made of boards salvaged from one room
that didn’t burn. The same wallpaper lines the inside of the box.