by Ed Coet
They didn’t have air conditioning in Central Texas in 1867. August was so hot that a smoky mist seeped from the ground as if the dry cracked soil were perspiring, gasping, and even begging for a cool rain. It was on this burnt ground that the small, one-room rust-painted wooden schoolhouse sat by itself amidst a forest of live oaks, mesquite, and cedar trees. A forest of parched trees that were collectively struggling and clinging to life in the midst of one of the hottest and most unbearable summers in historical memory.
No one would have ever guessed in 1867 that this same ground would one day be the home of a thriving city of over 100,000 citizens known as Killeen. It would also host the largest and most sophisticated military installation in the world: Fort Hood, Texas.
The tiny schoolhouse crammed in seventeen students ranging between 6 and 16 years of age. First through 10th grade were taught in one room by a single teacher. Few students stayed past the 8th grade. No students went beyond 10th grade. Teenagers were part of the much-needed agricultural labor pool. Their labor was needed on the farms and in the forests.
Miss Warlock, also known as Big Bertha, taught all the students. Bertha Warlock had a very strange family history. Legend has it that she was the daughter of Gertrude Warlock, a wicked witch. She had cast a spell on Allen Warlock, Big Bertha’s father. This spell caused Allen Warlock to fall in love with Gertrude. The wicked witch Gertrude was decrepit and vile-looking. She had squinty gray eyes; bushy eyebrows; large ears; a cleft, protruding chin; and rotting teeth.
Even so, the spell she cast on the trapper Allen Warlock made Gertrude appear beautiful to him. While under her spell Allen asked Gertrude the witch to be his bride. They quickly married on January 1, 1868. Ten months later on Halloween night, October 31, 1868, the wicked witch Gertrude gave birth to a very large and an unusually ugly baby girl. She named the baby Bertha. This baby would grow up to be the legendary Big Bertha.
After two years, Gertrude’s evil spell wore off Allen Warlock. He was finally able to see the wretched witch that he married while under her evil spell. The sight of her was so shocking that Allen Warlock almost succumbed to heart failure. It took him months to recover and even then it was not a full recovery.
The thought of having to spend the rest of his life with such a wicked wife filled Allen Warlock with despair. He lost his will to live. The end finally came when Gertrude forced her affections on Allen. He was bedridden and defenseless. Allen tried to fight her off but his brave attempt was no match for Gertrude’s evil magic. She placed yet another spell on him.
This spell forced Allen Warlock to hold his breath until he fainted into unconsciousness. He died soon thereafter. The final cause of his death was the subject of much speculation over the years. Most believed that Gertrude murdered her husband while he was in his unconscious trance. Others thought he died from another heart attack while being forced to hold his breath under Gertrude’s evil spell.
The truth remains a mystery to this day. Whatever the actual cause of death was, heart attack or murder, nobody disputed the fact that Gertrude’s evil spell lead to her husband’s death in some manner.
It was common knowledge during this period that Allen had nothing to do with his daughter Bertha. At the time of his death, Bertha was only one year old. Even at this young toddler’s age, Bertha was mysterious and overpowering. Her father was afraid of her. The normal father-daughter bonding never developed between them.
Bertha was known to dislike males of all ages. She avoided the company of boys and men whenever possible, unless she had some particular use for them. Some of the boys and men whom Bertha came in contact with mysteriously vanished. They were never heard from again. No one knew why. It was widely believed that Gertrude the witch was teaching her daughter, Bertha, to hate men even at this tender young age.
The circumstances surrounding Allen Warlock’s death became public on the second anniversary of his death. Human bones were found around an outdoor barbecue pit next to the log cabin of Gertrude the witch. A rawhide identification wristband identified the remains as being that of Allen Warlock.
Within days of this discovery, Gertrude Warlock was tried and convicted for murder and cannibalism. The evidence proved that Gertrude had barbecued the remains of her husband. Afterwards she ate his flesh. It is not known if her daughter Bertha shared in this feast of human remains.
Since Gertrude Warlock had been convicted of witchcraft, sorcery, murder, and cannibalism, she was sentenced to death and burned alive at the stake. A single newspaper report of the execution was discovered many decades latter. It was the only record of what took place that day. This report reflected eyewitness accounts of Gertrude the witch laughing as her flesh burned. It was as if she felt no pain. Her eyes were reported to have turned crimson red. It said her head turned slowly from left to right with an evil and chilling glare.
Seconds before dying, Gertrude shrieked out a warning. She said, “Beware, my magic will live in my other flesh. I shall return and gain my revenge on man.”
Up to this point her skin and flesh only peeled under the heat of the intense flames. Then suddenly it turned to ash and vanished in a mysterious manner.
It is uncertain what Gertrude meant about returning in her other flesh. Most folks believed she was referring to her daughter Bertha who was, of course, of her flesh. From that day forward Bertha was held highly suspect. She was avoided by practically everyone.
Bertha Warlock, or Big Bertha, thus lost both her parents at a very young age. Ordinarily this would be a tragedy, but in Big Bertha’s case it was a blessing in disguise. The police investigated further and discovered the skeletal remains of 27 missing children. They were also buried near Gertrude’s cabin. Gertrude the witch had placed spells on them.
These spells put the children in a trance, whereupon Gertrude would kill and eat them. Afterwards she would bury the remains. Had Gertrude not been executed she might have killed and eaten her own daughter, the legendary Big Bertha. The prevailing concern at the time was that the blood of Gertrude ran through Big Bertha’s veins. Many feared that Big Bertha would become like her mother.
Grandma Warlock, Big Bertha’s paternal grandmother raised her. Grandma Warlock was a good and kind person. She taught Bertha good values and the importance of getting a good education. Bertha studied hard and earned excellent grades. Other than chores she did nothing else but study. Bertha tried to make friends at an early age but was always rejected. Everyone associated her with Gertrude, her witch mother. Parents did not permit their children to play with or associate with Bertha. The boys teased her and the girls made fun of her.
Bertha quickly became bitter and angry. She learned to hate boys and lost interest in making friends with other girls. She became a complete outsider. She was a loner. Bertha didn’t fit in with anyone. She often talked to herself or so it seemed. It was as if she were somehow communicating with her long dead mother, Gertrude the witch.
On occasion, Bertha was seen mixing potions waving her hands over them in a mysterious way. When questioned, she said she was learning to cook and that she was reciting recipes to herself. Was it cooking or was it witch’s sorcery as many believed? Nobody really knew for sure.
Bertha grew much faster than other children her age. By the time she was 14, Bertha had already reached a height of 6 feet 2 inches. She weighed over two hundred pounds. By her 20th birthday Bertha had matured in to a 6 foot 7 inch 325-pound woman. She had very little body fat. Bertha was as solid as a rock.
Occasionally Bertha would have disagreements with some of the tough loggers and trappers in the area. This happened only when she went shopping in town for her grandmother. Feeling the effects of too much whiskey, the loggers sometimes teased Bertha about her unusual size and her homely looks. Bertha usually just turned her back to them. Then she would walk away from them.
However, if they brought up Gertrude, Bertha’s witch mother, she would lose control. A fight would break out that was a spectacle to witness. Not once did a logger or trapper walk away from a fight with Big Bertha. She would pound them unconscious. Her hammer fist was as powerful as a sledgehammer. She smashed it against the side of the face and other body parts of anyone who challenged her.
Some did not survive the fight. Since these fights were always witnessed and because Bertha acted in self-defense, she never faced criminal charges. Those who survived a Big Bertha beating were never the same again. You could spot her victims a mile away. They were the crippled remains of once gallant and strong men. Their deformed, twisted, mangled and disabled bodies were unsightly and pitiful looking. They begged considerable compassion from onlookers.
Bertha Warlock’s exceptional grades earned her a full scholarship to the University of Texas. It was there that she set out to fulfill her life’s ambition of becoming a teacher.
There are no records that speak to what transpired until August 28, 1892. Big Bertha was 24 years old at the time. She had just accepted the teaching position in the rusty-colored, one-room country school in Bell County, central Texas. She was the only teacher in the school.
The land upon which this school was built would some day be near the center of a city that would become known as Killeen, Texas. This fact would later prove to be significant. The record is very sketchy after this, except that it is known that a few influential locals tried to fire Big Bertha from her teaching position. Their reasons for wanting to fire her remain sketchy. However legend has it that they were acting on a popular public appeal.
Their efforts to fire Big Bertha failed. There is no record of why it failed. It is only known that two of the five men who sought her dismissal mysteriously disappeared. The other three, the brothers Clyde and Jethro Belton and their cousin Jessie Stillhouse were in a complete state of shock. They had witnessed or been subjected to something awful. They could not be persuaded to speak about what transpired, not even when threatened with death, so great was their fear.
Big Bertha’s name was perpetuated by her students because of her enormous size, strength, and what seemed like her supernatural powers. It is known that Big Bertha remained a spinster, having never married. She did not like men. She could also be ruthless with women if they crossed her. Big Bertha lived alone and remained a loner her entire life. She would go into violent rages if anybody disturbed her peace.
Big Bertha was known to be an excellent teacher. She was also an extremely tough. She could be a mean and ruthless disciplinarian. Big Bertha was usually nice to students who tried their best, received passing grades, and who demonstrated good behavior.
However, Big Bertha was mean and ruthless with poor students who demonstrated bad behavior. She built her own paddle. The students nicknamed the paddle the “butt buster.” The butt buster was 18 inches long and 18 inches wide. It was 3 inches thick. It had 21 small holes and 21 metal welts screwed into it. Just three swats with the butt buster left a student crying in agony. It always left bruises, blisters, and welts on their behinds. One could hardly survive more than four swats with the butt buster. The students quickly learned: Don’t mess with Big Bertha.
Big Bertha was so strong she could pick up the largest kid in the class, with one hand, by the back of his neck. She could lift him completely off the ground while swatting him with the butt buster using her other hand. Even the older teenagers would cry and beg for mercy when someone was being punished by Big Bertha. Not many students dared to screw up in Big Bertha’s class. If they did it was only once. They made sure never to get her angry again. She was downright scary and she always inflicted great pain on badly behaved students.
At the age of 57 Big Bertha suffered a severe heart attack and died. She had no living relatives. The local officials decided to bury Big Bertha in the back of the old wooden school house. They placed a simple wooden marker over her grave. The grave marker read,
Here lies the best, meanest, and toughest teacher that ever lived— Big Bertha.
Nothing more needed to be added to the marker. Her legend spoke for itself.
With all the mystery and suspicion surrounding Big Bertha, she was always considered to be an outstanding teacher. Her students always did better academically than their peers. In adult life her former students usually became more wealthy and successful. Their success was largely credited to Big Bertha’s exceptional teaching skills.
Big Bertha thought of her students as family in a perverted sort of way. This was because she had no living relatives. Being buried by the schoolhouse was indeed a great tribute and memorial to her. It was the one place that she could most rest in peace assuming, of course, that nobody ever disrupted her peaceful rest.
Two years after Big Bertha’s death, lighting struck the old wooden school house. It burned the school and Big Bertha’s grave marker to the ground. Soon thereafter another school was built in a new location, several miles away.
Trees, brush, and grass grew over the area of the old wooden school house and Big Bertha’s grave. Because her grave was no longer marked it was forgotten about within a decade.
About a century after Big Bertha’s death, the city of Killeen had grown and thrived in central Texas. It was overrun with students. In 1994 a new school, Brookhaven, was built on the exact spot where Big Bertha was buried. Nobody realized that her grave was still there because no marker identified the gravesite.
Just prior to opening the new Brookhaven School a routine check was made with the city graves registration. Only then did they discover that the southwest corner of the Brookhaven School had been built over Big Bertha’s grave. City and school district officials met to decide what should be done. It was decided that it would be prohibitively expensive to tear down the school and move the grave. That plainly was not an option.
Since Big Bertha had no living relatives and only a few people knew her grave existed, they decided to do nothing at all. They acted as if it hadn’t happened. This would prove to be a frightening mistake.
After the Brookhaven School opened, the school’s custodians started to complain. They were concerned about some very strange happenings that occurred while they were cleaning the school after dark. There was talk of eerie noises, unexplained flying objects, and just plain spooky events.
Brookhaven experienced a large turnover of custodian personnel. The custodians were quitting almost as fast as they were hired. They told anyone who would listen about the spooky events, but nobody believed them. Nothing ever happened during the day when the students and teachers were there. Hence, the authorities assumed the spooky stories were being made up by disgruntled employees, the custodians.
About five months into the school year Brookhaven started a Behavior Management class for students who were having difficulty with their behavior. These students were occasionally required to stay after school for several hours because of poor behavior. This was called after school intervention but the students themselves called it late night.
It was when these students stayed for late night that the authorities finally found out what was really going on. They quickly learned that the custodians had been honest about their spooky encounters.
Recall that legend said Big Bertha was tough and sometimes ruthless with badly behaved students. They were students much like those who had to stay for late night in modern times. It turns out that when they built the Brookhaven School over Big Bertha’s gave the construction disrupted her peaceful rest. Big Bertha’s spirit came to life. Her ghost started haunting the Brookhaven School. She would never come out of her grave during daylight hours. That is why none of the students or staff who were at Brookhaven during daylight hours saw or heard her. Big Bertha’s ghost was only active after darkness fell. This explains why the custodians experienced all the strange and spooky happenings at night.
Big Bertha’s activities could be heard but she would rarely show herself unless bad students were in the school or on school property. Her ghost usually remained indoors, in the southwest corner of the school, near her grave. However, on occasion her ghost would fly to other parts of the school. Sometimes she would go outside on school grounds. It was as if she were protecting her turf.
Big Bertha’s ghost was off-white, almost creamy in color. It was also transparent in that you could see through parts of it as if looking through a hazy cloud like substance. Her hair was pure white. It was shoulder length and was parted in the middle. Her eyes were big, round, and pitch black. Big Bertha’s ghost still wore her long white burial dress. It had ruffles around the neck, the bottom of the dress and around the wrists of her long sleeves.
Big Bertha’s nose was very wide and long. Her cheeks were full and rotund. She had a large mole near her square and dimpled chin. Her lips were full and pale. Her mouth was wide. She had a few missing teeth. Those teeth that remained were large, pointed, and sharp. Her fingernails were also long and pointed. They resembled the claws of a wild beast.
When Big Bertha appeared she hovered in mid-air. She slowly turned her head from left to right. She glared in each direction. It was very eerie. When she saw a bad kid, Big Bertha would let out a high pitch screeching scream. It was a kind of “eeyeee” sound. Big Bertha’s ghost could look at objects such as trash cans, desks, and chairs and with mind control could send them flying through the air at a high speed. Sometimes she would intentionally miss the student, intending only to scare him. That was what she usually did to misbehaved female students.
Recall that Big Bertha was much tougher on male students than female students. Most often, if it were a boy, she would let the object hit him. For the worst behaved students the butt buster would magically appear. Big Bertha would levitate the student as if picking him up by the back of the neck. Then she would attack him with the butt buster. These students ether died from the whopping or ended up in the hospital badly beaten up and in excruciating pain.
On one occasion, two teachers tried to come to the aide of a couple of students. Big Bertha, who usually left teachers alone, became very angry when they tried to interfere. She levitated the largest teacher, who weighed over 265 pounds, and threw him into the other teacher. They both crashed against the wall with considerable force.
The smaller teacher was crushed to death. Being hit with the velocity and force of the larger teacher that came flying through, was more then the smaller teacher’s body could endure. The larger teacher ended up with a broken back. Big Bertha’s ghost levitated over him for a few seconds. She waved her index finger back and forth at the suffering big teacher. It was as if she were trying to say “naughty naughty, don’t ever do that again.” Then she vanished.
To this day, several students, parents, teachers and other staff have seen the ghost of Big Bertha. All the sightings have been at night and especially on Halloween. Recall that Halloween is the anniversary of both Big Bertha’s birth and her death.
Most people who have seen Big Bertha elect not to talk about it. They fear that nobody will believe them. Others, out of concern that the Brookhaven students might become alarmed or that parents will worry, elect to deny the existence of Big Bertha. They frequently tried to end her legendary story, but the Legend of Big Bertha lives on.
What do you believe? If you are in doubt someday you might see Big Bertha yourself. If you do, for your sake, I hope that you have been a good student. Always remember to stay away from the Brookhaven School on Halloween. The ghost of Big Bertha will make a believer out of anyone.
Copyright © 2007 by Ed Coet