By: Jennifer Bean Bower
Over 200 years ago, a young man named Andreas Kremser lost his life in the Moravian town of Salem. After his death, a local ghost story emerged and he has never been forgotten. The story of The Little Red Man is one of the oldest and best-known in North Carolina lore. But what is the truth behind the legend? Who was Kremser and how did he become The Little Red Man? The Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, volumes 2-6, provide much information.
Born in Pennsylvania on March 7, 1753, Kremser and his family resided in the Moravian mission settlement of Gnadenhütten. As a teenager, Kremser traveled to North Carolina, settled in Bethabara—the first Moravian settlement in North Carolina—and apprenticed himself to a shoemaker. Three years later, he moved to Salem and took up residence in the Single Brothers’ House; a place where the single men of the community ate, slept, labored, conducted meetings and held religious services. Kremser worked in the building as a shoemaker and it was there that his mischievous—and sometimes reckless—deeds were documented.
In an effort to keep Kremser busy—and likely out of trouble—the church leaders added the task of cleaning chimneys to his duties. Because he was a man of small stature, they believed he would be perfect for the job. On one occasion, Kremser abandoned his job in order to steal a cabbage head from a Salem resident’s garden. As a result, he incurred serious punishment and was put to work in the Single Brothers’ House kitchen. Of course, trouble followed him there as well.
Finally, in 1786, Kremser was given yet another task, but this time it would be his last. That year, a cellar was being dug for an addition to the Single Brothers’ House and Kremser was one of the men assigned to the project. The job was dangerous and the men were warned not to dig on their knees, as doing so would impede their escape from a cave-in. All but Kremser heeded the advice.
On the evening of March 25, as the men dug deep into the cellar, the ground began to crumble. An alarm was sounded and everyone ran for safety; everyone except Joseph Dixon and Andreas Kremser. A rescue effort ensued and both men were pulled out alive. Dixon had been covered in dirt up to his armpits while Kremser—who had been digging on his knees—was completely blanketed by the earth. Dixon recovered in a couple of hours, but Kremser did not. At 2 a.m. on March 26, the mischievous little man succumbed to his wounds.
Kremser was buried in God’s Acre, his estate was sent to his mother in Pennsylvania and the cellar was eventually finished. But that is not the end of the story. Sometime after Kremser’s death, mysterious sights and sounds were reported in the building where he died. Some claimed to have heard the tapping of a shoemaker’s hammer while others professed to have seen a small man in red slipping past the doors along the hallway. Was this clamorous little red man the ghost of Kremser? To most, it was a logical assumption, as Kremser was not only short, but he was said to have been wearing a red cap and jacket when he died.
Many years after Kremser’s death, the Single Brothers’ House gave up its men as residents and became a home for widows. Yet, despite a change in occupants, the little red man remained. In fact, one of the most popular stories about the ghost occurred when a young girl named Betsy visited her grandmother at the widows’ home. During her stay, Betsy became excited and ran to her grandmother. She explained that she had seen a little red man in the hallway who beckoned her with his finger, as if to say, “Come here.”
The Little Red Man continued to be seen by people of all ages until about 1950 when local legend said he disappeared. Around that time, a minister visited Winston-Salem and was told the story of the little red man. Convinced he could put the spirit to rest, the clergyman walked into the building, invoked the Trinity and spoke the words, “Little Red Man, go to rest!”
Some said it worked, others said it didn’t; and some, like Augustus Fogle—a former mayor of Salem—believed the ghost was nothing more than a figment of overactive imaginations. In his article, “Reminiscences of Salem and Vicinity from 1828 to the Present Time,” which appeared in the Sept. 8, 1892, edition of the People’s Press, Fogle declared that “all ghostly legends…vanish before electric lights and street railways.”
Real or not, the ghost of Kremser has always been a popular topic in the historic community. When Mary Owen wrote the article “Easter in a Quaint Moravian Town” for the March 30, 1907, edition of the Twin-City Daily Sentinel, she did not fail to mention the “famous personage in red.” Today, the story of The Little Red Man is still recounted in Old Salem—particularly around Halloween.
Although the existence of The Little Red Man cannot be proven, the documented truth is that Kremser was a real man who lived, worked and misbehaved, in present-day Winston-Salem. When he died, he metamorphosed into a legend that will live on as long as the story continues to be told.
Jennifer Bean Bower is an award-winning writer, native Tar Heel and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. While working as the associate curator of photographic collections at Old Salem Museums & Gardens, Bower researched local tragedies and composed the book Winston & Salem: Tales of Murder, Mystery and Mayhem.