Haunted tale: The devil-bat

Haunted tale: The devil-bat
An illustration from “Alexandria Ghost Stories” of the devil-bat who lived in the city hall bell tower. (Photo/Eric Segal's "Alexandria Ghost Stories")

By Kassidy McDonald kmcdonald@alextimes.com

Alexandria is a city known for its rich history, shops, restaurants and, especially in October, its haunted tales. One legend in particular, the devil-bat of Market Square, is one that is not as familiar to many Alexandrians.

The legend is told in a 1976 publication titled “Alexandria Ghost Stories” by Eric Segal, in which a man named Louie Robert recalls the legend of the devil bat to the author. The tale begins with Robert, who owned a framing shop on Cameron St. in Old Town. He had heard previous tales of – and then eventually saw – the devil-bat scare away a group of sailors.

Micheal Pope, a local author and journalist who also used to be a tour guide for Alexandria’s Ghost Tours, wrote a book featuring a collection of ghost stories called “Ghosts of Alexandria.” One of the tales in Pope’s book details Robert’s recollection to Segal of the devil-bat living in the belfry of city hall, looking over the city to protect its clock tower.

Pope’s book retells the legend of the devil-bat in an interesting way.

“I bounced off the idea of the devil-bat as being like a concept or a recurring theme. The lack of affordable housing is a devil-bat … using the devil-bat as a way to think about problems that plague the city and never seem to go away. There’s always a devil-bat. Flooding in Del Ray is a devil-bat. The metro being shut down is a devil-bat,” Pope said.

Not only does Pope retell the tale of the devil-bat in his book, he also includes other ghost stories like the female stranger, a more well known tale. Pope said that a lot of Alexandrians know about the female stranger but not many know about the devil-bat.

“It’s kind of a more obscure Alexandria legend,” Pope said. “I would not have known about it unless Eric Segal wrote about it in his booklet. I’m glad that he did sort of write down this legend that he got from Louie Robert because I would have not heard about it.”

Since Alexandria’s founding, and then in 1817 when Alexandria built the clock tower for city hall, the legend of the so-called devil-bat has been around. The animal eventually began living in the clock tower until a fire destroyed it. The city worked to rebuild the structure and once it was rebuilt in 1871, legend says that the devil-bat returned to its original home.

Several reports claimed that the devil-bat had flown over the city at night and some residents had claimed they had seen it, but the most famous sighting was when Robert saw the devil-bat chase away a group of drunken sailors one night. The North Boat used to come into the city and would bring a typically rowdy crowd, according to Robert in Segal’s publication.

“No, ‘twasn’t long ago that the North Boat used to come to port in Alexandria. It came in at night, about eleven or twelve. There were lights all over it, people singing, the boat rocking back and forth. It was generally pretty hard to miss. ‘Til, of course, they stopped it a couple of years ago. I think it burned down or something. Anyway, the crowds that used to get off that boat were, well, there were hundreds of them and they were always real rowdy and full of liquor: screamin’ and shoutin’ and raisin’ hell. I don’t know; something about that boat made those guys really wild. I don’t know what it was, but they always came on shore a little more than drunk … Yeah, they was always a sight, let me tell you,” Robert detailed to Segal.

On one night in particular, the crowd that had come off the North Boat was especially rowdy. They were gallivanting up and down King St., making a lot of noise and breaking doors and windows. It was even rumored that the men were planning to tear down city hall, where the devil-bat lived. Legend then says as Robert watched the events unfold, he had screamed out to stop the rowdy sailors’ violent ways. He yelled out to the animal, “Devil-bat, Devil-bat! Keep this crowd back!” The mob was practically at the doors of city hall when all of a sudden a huge creature swooped in.

“I didn’t know if anything would happen but there wasn’t anything else I could do. Well, the next thing I knew, I saw this big black thing, real close to the ground, come zingin’ around the corner in the same direction the crowd or mob, I guess I should say, was comin’ from. And it just kept goin’ ‘til it got to the doorway, on Royal Street, of city hall. It hid there, and I didn’t know what to expect then, but you can bet that I wasn’t goin’ anywhere ‘til I found out. Well, the mob kept gettin’ closer and closer, ‘til it was practically on top of the Hall, and then, just at the very last possible moment, this black thing shot out of the doorway like nobody’s business,” Robert told Segal.

After the devil-bat swooped in, the violent crowd of sailors were frightened and ran away. Robert then looked in the middle of the street and there was a huge dead skunk in the middle of the road where the creature swooped in. Legend says that the devil-bat saved city hall from the rowdy crowd planning to destroy Old Town, but not everyone believes the tale.

“Some say that proves the devil-bat doesn’t exist, it’s just some old skunk,” Segal’s booklet reads. “But others say, that proves it does, it just turned into a skunk to protect its old home.”