Put to paper by Mark Twain in “How to Tell a Story” (originally published in 1897), Twain reports that the Golden Arm was a “Negro ghost story” and showed to great effect how important a pause is within a story. Retold for generations, the Golden Arm is one of the first stories to terrify children around a campfire and there are as many versions as people telling it.
As this is one of the earlier Twain works in the public domain I can happily show you both Twain’s reported version (complete with helpful tips on how to pause and tell the story) and a more modern translation here. So get to memorizing to better scare the next generation with this near-ancient and still oh so creepy tale.
The Golden Arm as written by Mark Twain:
The Golden Arm
Once ‘pon a time dey wuz a monsus mean man, en he live ‘way out in de prairie all ‘lone by hisself, ‘cep’n he had a wife. En bimeby she died, en he tuck en toted her way out dah in de prairie en buried her. Well, she had a golden arm — all solid gold, fum de shoulder down. He wuz pow’ful mean — pow’ful; en dat night he couldn’t sleep, caze he want dat golden arm so bad.
When it come midnight he couldn’t stan’ it no mo’; so he git up, he did, en tuck his lantern en shoved out thoo de storm en dug her up en got de golden arm; en he bent his head down ‘gin de win’, en plowed en plowed en plowed thoo de snow. Den all on a sudden he stop (make a considerable pause here, and look startled, and take a listening attitude) en say: “My lan’, what’s dat!”
En he listen — en listen — en de win’ say (set your teeth together and imitate the wailing and wheezing singsong of the wind), “Bzzz-z-zzz” — en den, way back yonder what de grave is, he hear a voice! — he hear a voice all mix’ up in de win’ — can’t hardly tell ’em ‘part — “Bzzz-zzz — W-h-o — g-o-t — m-y — g-o-l-d-e-n — arm? — zzz — zzz — W-h-o g-o-t m-y g-o-l-d-e-n arm?” (You must begin to shiver violently now.)
En he begin to shiver en shake, en say, “Oh, my! Oh, my lan’!” en de win’ blow de lantern out, en de snow en sleet blow in his face en mos’ choke him, en he start a-plowin’ knee-deep toward home mos’ dead, he so sk’yerd — en pooty soon he hear de voice agin, en (pause) it ‘us comin’ after him! “Bzzz — zzz — zzz — W-h-o — g-o-t — m-y g-o-l-d-e-n — arm?”
When he git to de pasture he hear it agin — closter now, en a-comin’! — a-comin’ back dah in de dark en de storm — (repeat the wind and the voice). When he git to de house he rush up-stairs en jump in de bed en kiver up, head and years, en lay dah shiverin’ en shakin’ — en den way out dah he hear it agin! — en a-comin’! En bimeby he hear (pause — awed, listening attitude) — pat — pat — pat — hit’s a-comin’ up-stairs! Den he hear de latch, en he know it’s in de room!
Den pooty soon he know it’s a-stannin’ by de bed! (Pause.) Den — he know it’s a-bendin’ down over him — en he cain’t skasely git his breath! Den — den — he seem to feel someth’n c-o-l-d, right down ‘most agin his head! (Pause.)
Den de voice say, right at his year — “W-h-o — g-o-t — m-y — g-o-l-d-e-n arm?” (You must wail it out very plaintively and accusingly; then you stare steadily and impressively into the face of the farthest-gone auditor, — a girl, preferably, — and let that awe-inspiring pause begin to build itself in the deep hush. When it has reached exactly the right length, jump suddenly at that girl and yell, “You’ve got it!”
Modernized Language Version of The Golden Arm
This is how it was told to me oh so many decades ago when I was a young’un (as they say around here).
The Golden Arm
(Try to get everyone to sit in a circle around the campfire for best effect.)
Once upon a time there was a hideous mean man. He lived way out in the woods all alone. Local stories said he was mean but rich so one night some local boys went to rob the mean old man. They snuck into the house but they couldn’t find anything worth stealing. So they snuck up the stairs, quiet as mice. Up, up the stairs they went until they found the man’s bedroom. He was sound asleep and through the window a beam of moonlight sparkled on one of this arms…it was made of pure gold. The boys jumped the old man and killed him, stealing his golden arm.
(Start walking around behind those you are telling the story to at this point.)
The county buried that mean old man in a pauper’s grave behind his house, out in the middle of the dark woods. But that old man just couldn’t rest without his golden arm. They say you can still hear him looking for it on dark nights when the moon barely shines, just like that night he died…just like this night! “Whooooo’s got my golden arm?” He whispers. “Whooooo’s got my golden arm?” “Whooooo’s got my golden arm?”
(Be sure to bend and whisper that phrase next to the ears of the more nervous listeners as you walk the circle.)
He wanders these woods, hunting that golden arm and the boys that took it from him. He wants that golden arm but he wants to catch those murderous boys too so he can drag them down to Hell with him. “Whoooo’s got my golden arm?” “Whoooo’s got my golden arm?”
(Start to sound angrier as you repeat the phrase and keep walking around the circle. Ignore all the boys and whisper more at the girls until this last and then pick the biggest and toughest looking boy for best effect.)
“Whooo’s got my golden arm? YOU DO!”
(Shout the last sentence as you grab the boy by the shoulders from behind. If you’ve told it right he’ll yell like a kindergarten-age little girl.)