23 December 1981
“Somebody’s gonna die here tonight,” screamed the intruder. Johnny Cash looked up to see three figures with stocking-hidden faces. One wielded an axe, another brandished a knife, while the third figure waved a gun in the air.
Only a few moments earlier, there’d been an air of good cheer in the house. Cash, his wife June and their son John Jr, along with a few guests, had been sitting down awaiting Christmas dinner at Cinnamon Hill, their Jamaican home. Now John Carter had a gun held to his young head. “Tell them, fucking blood claat!” screamed the gunman. “Say you will die if they do not give us three million dollars!”
In his book Anchored In Love, John Carter recalled that the family were ordered to lie on the floor. ”One of the bandits said they were going to take us, one at a time, all around the house and to our rooms so we could give them all our money and valuables. We were completely at their mercy, not that they seemed to have any.”
We were terrorised for three hours. They searched the house and locked us in the cellar. I really wasn’t scared but I was uneasy when the one with the gun held it on my son.”
“We were terrorised for three hours,” Cash later said. “They searched the house and locked us in the cellar. I took a four by two after they left and broke the door down. I really wasn’t scared but I was uneasy when the one with the gun held it on my son.”
It was estimated that the gang stole over $35,000 worth of loot. An abandoned getaway car was found just a few miles from the house and the robbers quickly found. To some jaded observers, it was just another day in Jamaica.
Cash had bought Cinnamon Hill in 1972. Even then the area had strange associations - the house was located near Rose Hall, a Georgian mansion that in the 1820s and 30s was owned by Haitian born, reputed Voodoo practitioner Annie Palmer. This near-legendary figure was said to haunt the residence after being murdered in her bed by one Takoo, a slave who had been her lover during the slave rebellion of 1831.
Johnny Cash, intrigued by countless Rose Hall tales of séances, tunnels and mysterious bloodstains, promptly did what he did best and wrote a song called The Ballad Of Annie Palmer. He used to introduce the song by commenting, “They tell tales about Annie and the slaves. There were about 5,000 on the plantation, 5,000 slaves. She had her favourites and she had the ones that weren’t her favourites. Down on the sea there are three palm trees waving in the breeze and they say that Annie’s three husbands are buried under those trees.” His lyric retold the legend: “Where’s your husband Annie, where’s number two and three? Are they sleeping ‘neath the palms beside the Caribbean Sea? At night I hear you riding and I hear your lovers call, and still can feel your presence round the great house at Rose Hall.”
Guides still sing these stanzas when showing tourists Annie Palmer’s grave, explaining that slaves placed crosses on three sides of the grave to contain her powers after death, but left one gap just in case she opted to roam once more.
Certainly such evil didn’t fly too high at Cash’s Jamaican home at the time of that Christmas robbery. No one was actually harmed, and the thieves proved not to be cold-blooded killers, merely addicts out to make a quick buck - Cash rated them as “desperate junkie boys”. When Cash’s cook, Edith Montague, felt faint, they provided her with a drink of water and, when locking the family in the cellar, they even supplied some cooked turkey so that the seasonal celebrations would not be entirely ruined.
What was the fate of the miscreants? Cash always seemed unsure of the answer. In one interview he claimed that all three died within a brief space of time, either before or after capture by the local police, noting: “It’s not easy for a convict to stay alive long in Jamaica”. At other times, he provided variations on the theme. Then, he always had a story to tell, some regarding not only Rose Hall’s ghosts but also Cinnamon Hill’s own spectres. Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter attest that they heard weird noises when they stayed there, and others claimed to have seen a woman who walked straight through a locked door. However, as Cash once observed about Cinnamon Hill, it was a place where “the living were much more dangerous than the dead.” Following the Christmas intrusion, Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga ordered an armed guard to keep watch on Cash’s Caribbean abode.