Early settlers of Rugby. The indolent sons of English nobility largely found Hushes’ work ethic uncongenial and soon left Rugby; the middle class Englishmen who settled there did not and stayed.
Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s School Days and high minded founder of Rugby, Tennessee.
First off, let me reassure folks: there are no ghouls in Rugby, Tennessee; no flesh-eating beings of any sort, at least that I know of, reside there. However, there is a gaggle of ghosts that inhabit the place, more per square mile than any town I know of. That is why this quaint rural village has been called “The Most Haunted Town in America.” It may, in fact, be the most haunted town in the world, although proving either assertion would be difficult, since the census bureau does not keep record of such things.
Rugby, Tennessee, is located high in the Cumberland Mountains, a wild and scenic area that while by no means backward, has not been subject to the massive influx of commercialism and corporate tourist development that the equally scenic Smoky Mountains have. The Cumberlands are located between Nashville and Knoxville, so to go from one to the ‘tuther, one passes through this area; travelers rarely stay there for their vacation, however, and mostly just pause in the region long enough for a lunch or brunch at one of the many restaurants and rest stops just off the interstate. A pity, since they miss quite a lot.
To give an idea of the difference between the two mountain regions of Tennessee, in the summer when one goes fishing in a beautiful mountain stream in the Smokies, one is generally doing so with dozens of other fishermen, all elbow to elbow enjoying the same stream. When you go fly fishing in the Cumberlands, you can cast your reel without worrying about snagging another anglers fishing hat in the process and the only anglers within sight of you also fishing is the occasional bear.
So while Rugby is not hard to get to, being about an hour or so from downtown Nashville, it is not a heavily traveled spot, which suits the ghosts just fine. In this brief review of the spirits of Rugby, we can but hit the highlights; I have covered the subject in greater depth in Chapter 2 of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground.
Briefly, Rugby was founded by Thomas Hughes, the novelist famous for Tom Brown’s School Days. Hughes was a high minded sort and founded the town to provide a haven and gainful employment for the younger sons of titled English nobility who, because their elder brothers inherited the family wealth and titles, were dependent on handouts from the family patriarch yet were prohibited by social custom from gainful employment. So these younger sons whiled away their days drinking, gambling and whoring.
Hughes thought to provide in America a place where they could learn a trade and be productive members of society, so he funded the construction of this little Victorian English village in the Southern highlands. Unfortunately, while the village of Rugby served Hughes’ purpose, it turned out the younger sons of English nobility preferred to drink, gamble and go wenching instead of soiling their soft hands with any sort of gainful employment. What the late nineteenth century social experiment left behind was this village of quaint and beautiful Victorian homes and a number of mostly English ghosts in the heart of Dixie.
The first Tabard Inn, which burned under mysterious circumstances on Halloween, 1884.
One of the most famous haunts was the Tabard Inn, where a grisly murder took place in Room 13. Alas, one can not stay here, as the building went up in flames some years back. But I talked with the director once, who had interviewed eyewitnesses who testified that as the building burned they could hear screams coming from the vacant Room 13. Some think it was the ghost that haunted the hotel who set the fire.
The second Tabard Inn, scene of a grisly murder, burned under even more eerie circumstances and was not rebuilt.
Much of the Victorian furniture from the second hotel was salvaged from the fire however, and repurposed to homes throughout the town; some say cursed furniture was the cause of the supernatural phenomena spreading throughout the rest of the town. Others in Rugby disagree on this; but if you visit the town you may inquire further on that score.
More fortunate in its fate was Newbury House. Its owner was an English gentleman of high esteem but low birth who found the town quite congenial and sent for his family from England. He died before they came and now his ghost resides in Newbury House, still waiting for them to arrive.
The Newbury House in Rugby, home to its own resident ghost.
Then there is the old Victorian library, which looks for all the world like something out of Harry Potter. Some call it the “Rip Van Winckle” library, because it seems as though when one enters it, one has entered a sort of time warp. Although there is a phantom librarian reported present there, its presence is mostly unseen. You, however, may have a different experience when you visit.
The old Victorian Library is thought to be presided over by the unseen ghost of a former librarian. Its presence is more felt than seen. Ssssh!
There are a number of homes in the town with ghosts, some more active than others and over the years eyewitnesses have reported encounters with them all. There is Kingston Lisle, Thomas Hughes’ sometime residence; there is Roslyn, a two story mansion with several spirits, including the wild carriage driver who thunders up to the front door in a black carriage. Then there is Twin Oaks, once home to a witch—and perhaps still is.
Again, for more in depth accounts of Rugby’s many ghosts one is better off consulting the chapter in Strange Tales. Then after reading, you will be armed with enough knowledge to tackle Rugby for yourself. The living residents are friendly and helpful to visitors and the spectral residents are mostly harmless—even if the occasional encounter with them is a bit startling. By all means, if you visit Dixie in your travels, Rugby is worth the trip.
For more of Tennessee’s ghosts and haunts, witches and monsters and things that go bump in the night, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee; the two combined are essential reading for any interested in paranormal Dixie and Southern spirits.