So I’ve had a (somewhat spotty) tradition of Thriller Thursday over at my Facebook page, but this week’s find turned into a much longer post so I thought I’d try posting it over here as a blog instead.
Since I write about Southern monster hunters in my Hell’s Belles series, I often research Southern folklore and haunted locations. I’m also into costuming, so imagine my delight when the Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama, turned up on a list of the South’s most haunted locations. Why is costuming even relevant, you ask? Well, one of my talented friends, Matt Nicholson, is the photography genius behind Dim Horizon Studios, and he often does amazing costumed photo shoots at Sloss. (And apparently, he’s braver than me, because the stories are enough to scare me silly!)
So let’s get into the scary stuff. Just a few years after the city’s founding, the Sloss Furnaces were built in the 1880s in Birmingham, taking advantage of the city’s proximity to plentiful deposits of the raw materials needed to produce steel: iron, limestone, and coal. Hundreds of locals were employed there, but employment as Sloss should have been described as “at your own risk.” If you believe everything you hear, a Dante-style “Abandon all hope, ye who enter hear,” might have been appropriate.
Pretentious literary allusions aside, Sloss’s heyday was well before the advent of OSHA, and there were no government agencies to enforce safety regulations or indeed, provide any sort of protection for the plant’s employees from its many hazards. On any given day – which could be twelve hours at low pay – workers risked everything from a scalding by a hot pipe to incineration in a vat of ore, to carbon monoxide or methane poisoning, to being crushed by a huge wheel.
One particularly gruesome story from Sloss’s colorful history tells of a worker who enjoyed eating his lunch near a large wheel that produced a cool breeze as it turned, a definite luxury in the oppressive heat of the furnaces. One afternoon, while eating the meal he surely didn’t predict would be his last, the man’s clothing caught on the wheel, which dragged him into its crushing maw. It happened so quickly that no one could stop the machine. His unfortunate coworkers, helpless to save him, were then subjected to the sight of their friend’s body being mangled worse and worse with each turn of the wheel.
This isn’t the only horrific accident documented at the Sloss Furnaces. History tells of workers falling into furnaces, being electrocuted, and dying from gas inhalation. Basically, the entire place was an accident waiting to happen. An Alabama historian ominously proclaimed, “Once you went to work at Sloss, you didn’t get out.”
Now, here’s where history and folklore do a little do-si-do.
In my research, I found several stories about the fearsome James “Slag” Wormwood, a brutal foreman at the furnaces in the early 1900s. With a nickname like “Slag,” you can probably guess he wasn’t famous for bringing his workers homemade brownies. Supposedly Slag pushed his workers to the limit to maximize production, forcing them to take risks that resulted in 47 deaths during his reign of terror in the Furnaces. In a story that seems a little too perfect Hollywood justice for me, Slag supposedly fell into a pool of melting ore in 1906. (Or 1907, depending on the source.) To add to the moment of satisfying justice, it’s said that Slag had never been atop Big Alice, the giant furnace from which he fell; it’s suggested that his beleaguered workers may have thrown him from the furnace and ended his tyranny once and for all.
In the video above, several former workers tell the tales passed down of workers who’d been subjected to Slag’s cruel conditions. However, according to local Alabama historian, Richard Neely, “Slag” is more of a fabrication, one that’s been adopted into the lore for the site’s annual haunted attraction, Fright Furnace, and isn’t based on fact. In fact, Neely estimates “at least 20” people died at Sloss during its years of operation, a far cry from the nearly 50 deaths under Slag’s watch alone.
Research does turn up pictures of the supposed James Wormwood, and these documentaries have oral history about old Slag, so who knows? Maybe he’s a legend that lives only through tall tales, and maybe he’s based in reality.
Another particularly gruesome story – one I suspect is another fabrication for tourist appeal – tells of a night watchman named Samuel Blumenthal. On a late shift, Blumenthal found himself face to face with a “half man/half demon” that struck him with his fists and pushed him. Blumenthal suffered intense burns, and died from his injuries.
This one’s another superbly scary story, but the only references I found for it pointed right back to Fright Furnace, which is the haunted attraction website for Sloss, so I take that one with a big grain of salt.
While the stories about Wormwood and Blumenthal may be fabricated or exaggerated, it’s certainly no tall tale that the furnaces claimed a number of lives in their years of operation. And I don’t doubt for a second that there’s something hinky out at the Furnaces. Local police have received over 100 reports of paranormal activity, such as noises or lights when nobody is at the furnaces, typically during what would have been the graveyard shift while the plant was still running.
Furthermore, several paranormal investigation teams have conducted investigations, and reported strange phenomena such as shadowy or misty figures, a sense of being watched, and the sound of pounding, screams, and whistles, much like the emergency whistle carried by the plant’s foreman.
Check out this video for an unexplained sighting of a misty presence, as well as the phantom sounds of a hammer on metal.
And here’s one more that captured four shadowy figures out at the Furnaces. Is this the silhouette of normal machinery, or the spirits of four furnace workers who never clocked out?
All in all, the Sloss Furnaces provides a fascinating story. If you’d like to learn more, check out some of these links and read more!
- Is Sloss Furnace Really Haunted?
- A little truth goes a long way for Sloss
- Travel Channel – Sloss Furnaces’ Haunted History
- Roadtrippers – Destination Strange
- Ghosts and Ghouls – Do dead workers haunt Sloss Furnaces?
- Wikipedia – Sloss Furnaces
- Fright Furnace
- Sloss Furnaces – National Historic Landmark
And of course, since Sloss is closed and now an official historic landmark, you can visit for yourself. (Hopefully during the day!) You can go explore for yourself on a self-guided tour, or if you visit on a Saturday, you can take a guided tour with a knowledgeable guide. Even if you don’t see Slag or his crew, you’re bound to enjoy this piece of spooky history. Check out the official Sloss site for more details! (I am in no way paid by the state of Alabama, but I’d love to hear back if someone visits!)
Thanks for checking in this Thriller Thursday, and be sure to share this post if you enjoyed it. 🙂 See you next time!