Volume 2, Number 5 - Fall 1965

The Headless Cobbler of Smallett Cave

The Origin and Growth of a Douglas County, Missouri, Legend
by Darrell Haden

Chapter II

I. The Smallett Legend

As Related By Informants

An Ozark cave can be wonderfully varied in content. To the anthropologist it can yield yellowed bones and artifacts of ancient peoples; to the prospector it can disclose hidden veins of mineral; to the folklorist such a cave may offer long-lost tales.

According to the tradition surrounding Smallett Cave, a staccato tapping from within the cavern comes from the hammer of a phantom shoemaker -- the "Headless Cobbler," as he is called locally. The especially superstitious reporters of the Smallett Cave spook have held that the apparition never appears before the dusk of the day, if not later in the evening, tramping along the roads and banks adjacent to Spring Creek. He is reported to have where his head should be, only a dangling clump of shoes.

The Headless Cobbler is rumored to have made his first appearance at the Smallett Cave during the latter part of the Civil War, although no date or name of witness to this initial appearance could be supplied by any informant interviewed by the writer. Passersby could hear occasionally during the early hours of evening a distant tapping like that of a hammer against leather on a shoe last. Other anonymous witnesses over the years have added that sometimes a glimmer of light from the cave has been reflected on the waters of Spring Creek, a stream which runs east to west only a few feet north of the cave’s mouth.

One of the earliest and most prevalent stories about the Headless Cobbler originated, it would seem, with the writer’s great-grandmother, Frances Indiana (Kay) Haden, who died in 1931. Her eldest son, and the writer’s late grandfather, Walter D. Haden, related the following story in an interview at his home in Ava, Missouri, December 22, 1960:

Mother and a Mrs. Hall were on their way to sit up with Mrs. Cloud, a woman who had been sick of consumption and was reported to be dying. The two women were walking up the road alongside Spring Creek and the old cave across from it. Mother reported later that just at "dusky dark" a man without a head stepped out into the road in front of them. On one shoulder he had a Bible. As the two women and the headless man met, no word was spoken, the women walking quickly on and the strange man walking in the opposite direction. Mother and Mrs. Hall hurried on east to the Cloud home, where later that night the sick woman died. Mrs. Hall, mother, and her sister, Aunt Julia Sellers, laid out the corpse for burial while the men started work on a casket. It was a hot night, so the women, when their work was done, sat down to cool for awhile in some cane-bottom chairs in the yard. Mother had leaned back in her chair as she smoked her clay pipe. All of a sudden from between the back of her chair and the side of an old cellar, a commotion began. At first she thought it was the headless hant, but then she found out it was only a sleeping calf she had mashed. The calf lit out, and so did mother.


Hunters have been among the most frequent reporters of strange sights and sounds about the cave. One night early in this century, the Sellers brothers - John, Ernest, and Edgar (all now deceased) - went ‘possum hunting back into Smallett Cave. Soon their dogs came piling back out of the cave, howling a retreat. Then the hunters saw something back in the dark, they thought, but they could not tell what it was. Whatever they saw kept its distance. The rocks that they flung seemed to go through their target, the men recalled.34

Mrs. Della (Fulton) Sellers, interview at her home near Smallett, Missouri, December 22, 1960. Mrs. Sellers is the widow of the late Ernest Sellers, whose relatives are mentioned later in their relationship to ancestors of the writer.

The mysterious light sometimes associated with the Headless Cobbler’s nocturnal prowlings was mentioned by one of the informants for this study. At his home a half mile northeast of Smallett Cave, Raymond Sellers told of recent sightings of the light of the Headless Cobbler’s "lantern," bobbing along at treetop height for three miles along the wooded ridges flanking the curving course of Douglas County Highway FF. Mr. Sellers described the light as red, slow-moving, and blinking. He said in an interview at his home December 22, 1960, that he and his wife had thought at first on the dark night when the light appeared that it was the light of a low-flying airplane in distress. However, on going outside in the yard to listen for sounds of a failing motor, the couple heard nothing. But the light continued to move west above what is called "the Newt Johnson Bluff" until it was almost directly over the location of Smallett Cave. From that point it turned, Mr. Sellers said, and headed due south while he and Mrs. Sellers watched it out of sight. The couple’s sons, Billy and Jerry, both holding college degrees, have also reported seeing the light their parents described. Both are, according to their less skeptical parents, attempting to explain the natural causes of the light, a phenomenon to be dealt with later in this chapter.

Darrell Haden joined the White River Historical Society in 1962. When we asked for material for the Quarterly he sent excerpts from "The Headless Cobbler of Smallett Cave," a book he has written and soon to be published. His articles and poetry have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Springfield Daily News, and The Secret Place. His column, "Heart in the Hills Column," ran periodically in the Douglas County Herald for five years.

He says of himself, "Although I have taught and studied in Illinois since 1957, my native state is Missouri. I was born and reared at Smallett, not far from the cave which furnishes the legend for my book, was graduated from Ava High School in 1950, and was graduated from Southwest Missouri State College with a B. S. in Education in 1958. In June of this year Northern Illinois University of DeKalb awarded me the M. S. in Education. I have taught Senior Composition and English Literature at Sterling Township High School since 1958. My wife and I have a son and two daughters."



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