Memphis, the Mothership and other weirdness

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Artist’s conception of a mothership. Did one hover over Memphis, Tennessee in 1904?

December 2, 1904, dawned clear and cold over the Bluff City. People in the city were going about their normal Friday morning activities, rich and poor, black and white.

Then, around nine a.m., something strange happened. Without warning the sun was blotted out of the sky. In the space of a minute or so, the day went from a bright, sunlight autumn morn to utter and complete darkness. Work came to a crashing halt; laborers and others scramble to turn on gas lamps, oil lamps or incandescent bulbs. It soon became apparent that this was no ordinary event.

The “inky darkness” was sudden and complete; there had been no warning, no approaching storm. The schools, which relied on daylight for illumination, were plunged into darkness, throngs of children terrified. Adults too were scared out of their wits, both at home and at work. One longshoreman hugged a telegraph pole for dear life, too frightened to let go.

All in all, the eerie darkness lasted more than half an hour, then disappeared as quickly as it had begun. The mysterious blackout was soon followed by a real storm, which was itself awful in its ferocity. For days the people of Memphis, Tennessee, were bothered and bewildered by what had happened.

A sudden "inky blackness" descends on Memphis without warning.

A sudden “inky blackness” descends on Memphis without warning.

Of course, there were the usual naysayers who tried to dismiss it as just a dark storm cloud passing over. But those who experienced knew that was a lie. The storm came after the blackness, not before or during it. It was an eclipse then; unexpected but nothing more? Well, neither the sun nor moon make special side trips for eclipses; no solar eclipse was scheduled for that day in that place.

Having myself experienced a number of total eclipses in my lifetime, from the written accounts it is clear that it couldn’t have been a natural eclipse. For one thing, the sky gradually gets darker, like a cloudy day, before the total eclipse and even then the blackness only lasts few minutes at most. This was different: it was sudden, it was total and it lasted a long time. The object blotting out the sun had to have been in stationary orbit between the earth and sun to create such an effect. No natural celestial body could have done that.

Though no one at the time voiced the opinion, only a UFO of massive size and capable of maintaining a stationary orbit above the city could have done that: in effect, a “mothership.”

Now this event is but one of the many strange things that has been know to happen in Memphis. Aside from a surfeit of haunted houses and similar apparitions, there was the case on January, 15, 1877, when it rained snakes on the city. They were not little hatchlings either: the snakes were all dark brown—thousands and thousands of them—a foot to a foot and a half in length.

via Pinterest

In January, 1877 thousands of snakes rained down on Memphis, one of the weirdest Fortean Falls on record.

Again scientists tried to explain away the unexplainable: they had been picked up by a “hurricane” and somehow deposited by the tens of thousands on the city. The fact that hurricanes don’t occur in January, that Memphis, Tennessee is too far inland for a hurricane to reach or the fact that snakes, being cold-blooded animals, would be hibernating securely underground in January did not seem to phase the professional debunkers then, any more than it does now.

For more true accounts of high strangeness in the Mid-South, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground.

“Bitter” Bierce

Christopher Coleman:

Here is a brief piece on Bierce from the Emerging Civil War blog. It is a nice summary, although a whole book could be written of Bierce’s war career–and has. The only thing I would add at this point is that Bierce rejoined the army in time for the Autumn Campaign and that there are some discrepancies regarding his actual date of separation from the service.

Originally posted on Emerging Civil War:

Bierce, AmbroseAmong the men missing from the roles of the Army of the Cumberland after the Kennesaw Line was twenty-two-year-old Lt. Ambrose Bierce. Bierce is famous for his dark and disturbing writings, the most famous of which, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, has been adapted to film numerous times—most notably by the Twilight Zone during the Rod Sterling era. Bierce’s writings are still impactful today, influencing the writings of such noted authors as Stephen King. Bierce’s writings were influenced by the horrors he witnessed at places such as Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Pickett’s Mill in the Atlanta Campaign.

Bierce, who served on the staff of General William B. Hazen—whom he called “The Best Hated Man in the Army”—really lost his faith in humanity during these engagements.

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Tall Betsy, Bradley County’s Lady in Black

Tall Betsy, Cleveland, Tennessee's resident spook, comes on Halloween to deliver tricks and treats.

Tall Betsy, Cleveland, Tennessee’s resident spook, comes on Halloween to deliver tricks and treats.

In the pages of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I have previously chronicled some high strangeness originating from the area near Cleveland, Tennessee, as well as a rather scary apparition from East Tennessee referred to as The Lady in Black.  In Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, I delved even more deeply into the supernatural stirrings of the Mid-South.  Even with the ghost stories and mysteries which I did not chronicle in those books, I had assumed I had researched just about every paranormal phenomenon and tale there was to known about this region; my file cabinets are bulging with accounts and my computer files contain even more.  Well, I was wrong, for until just recently, I had never heard of Bradley County’s favorite apparition, Tall Betsy.

While most folks outside of Cleveland have never heard about Tall Betsy, anyone who grew up in or around the East Tennessee city can give you an earful about this unusual hobgoblin.  An online search of the usual ghost-hunter websites and directories will generally give you a blank; but that is not to say she is not real–or as real as any immaterial being can be.

I stumbled across Tall Betsy through one of my son’s friends who grew up in Cleveland.  My son Bubba knows just about everyone in Sumner County and his friend, who now hails from here, spent most of his boyhood in Bradley County.  So, knowing my interest in all things weird and wonderful relating to the South, Bubba’s friend regaled me with what he knew of Tall Betsy.  The game afoot, I dug deeper and came up with more on this mysterious apparition and what passes for the facts about her—admittedly not much.

Unlike TV ghost hunters, who go armed with all sorts of high tech gear and flashlights glued to their faces and generally end up scaring themselves, I resort to low tech methods to research ghost stories: word of mouth, hearsay, old newspaper clippings, an occasional eyewitness and the like.  No, it’s not scientific–but then neither are those TV “experts” who charge a large hunk of chump change for their expertise these days.

In her present incarnation, Tall Betsy dates back to 1980, when a local Cleveland Tennessee businessman and entrepreneur, Allan Jones, decided to get up on stilts, don a long black gown and a witches’ fright mask and hand out candy to neighborhood kids.  At first his fright costume worked too well; the local children avoided his home on Halloween like the plague.  Bit by bit, however, the kids got used to the spooky seven and half foot crone and the appearance of Tall Betsy became an annual tradition until it grew into a day long block party with thousands attending.  In recent years the celebration has also included TV celebrities and rock stars such as Little Richard.

Whether the block party got a little too big or whether Squire Jones simply got weary of standing on stilts all day, Tall Betsy disappeared from the Cleveland celebration for several years.  By all accounts she is back on the scene, handing out candy as before and a documentary has even been made about her legend.  So Cleveland, Tennessee is definitely a fun place to be on Halloween.

Although Allan Jones can certainly be credited with reviving the tradition regarding Tall Betsy, contrary to what professional debunkers may claim, he by no means originated the legend.

Jones actually learned the story of Tall Betsy from his mother, Giney Jones, who in turn had heard it as a girl from her mother, Marie Slaughter. So the tale of Tall Betsy, also known as Black Betsy or simply The Lady in Black, goes back to at least the 1920’s and 30’s and the story seems to be a genuine local tradition.

In her original incarnation, Tall Betsy was a real apparition—or at least “told as true”—who was of uncommon height (seven and half feet tall) who had a persimmon tree for a cane and who wandered the streets of Cleveland late at night.  Her grave is located in Fort Hill Cemetery, where she seems to have originally been seen and all sorts of dark tales were told about her to young children.  She was alleged to kidnap children out too late on Halloween and carry them off to her mausoleum, where she would cook and eat them and gnaw on their bones.

At this point in time it’s impossible to say how the story of Tall Betsy originated.  Whether there was indeed a cemetery ghost who was a Lady in Black (Kingston, Tennessee has one too) which was sighted on dark and gloomy nights, or whether she was just some eccentric old crone of uncommon height whose nocturnal wanderings became the subject of unkind gossip, is not known.  Tall Betsy defies easy explanations; but as far as the folk of Cleveland, Tennessee are concerned, she is a reality—at least once a year.

For further uncanny tales of ghosts, ghouls and witches, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, and, of course, Dixie Spirits.

The Day the Devil Came Down to Arkansas

Call his name and the Devil will appear they say.  One day two Arkansas boys found that out.

Call his name and the Devil will appear they say. One day two Arkansas boys found that out.

Many’s the man who they say has met the devil and won, but I don’t know of anyone who’ll look you straight in the face and say they did.  Daniel Webster supposedly did; Andrew Jackson confronted the Bell Witch, but even he didn’t claim to have bested the hag.  Let me add to the list names you never heard of before, and probably never will again: John Chesselden and James Arkins.

They were just two country boys, living out beyond the bounds of civilized society, in what is today Arkansas but back in 1784 wasn’t even considered part of the U.S.  One bright May day they left the frontier settlement of Kenfry in the northeast part of the territory to visit a friend in an outlying hamlet.

The distance as the crow flies was about twenty-five miles, but they had to pass through a forest called Varnum’s Wood, which had a reputation for being haunted.  Why, only a few days before, one of the boys said, old Isaac King had encountered the Devil himself and barely escaped with his life.  His friend scoffed at the tale and then in a prideful boast declared he was not scared of any demon and defied Old Scratch to appear.

In 1784, two pioneers confronted a headless Devil in Arkansas.  They were lucky not to lose their own heads that day.

In 1784, two pioneers confronted a headless Devil in Arkansas. They were lucky not to lose their own heads that day.

Pride goeth before the fall, they say, and not longer after his prideful boast, the two lads encountered a puff of black smoke and a strange beast which soon congealed into something resembling a human—only a human without a head and hovering eight feet above the ground. Even without a head, however, the Demon talked up a storm, tempting the two boys with thrones and dominions beyond the ken of mortal men.

Of all that befell the lads that day, I haven’t room here to say; and, anyway, I gave a complete account of it in Chapter 6 of Dixie Spirits. That and other true tales that defy logic and reason unfold as best as can be told by this humble scribe.  Suffice it to say that the two young men only just escaped being dragged to Hell.  When they made it to safety, few would believe their tale, until they showed the local folk where the demon had moved a giant boulder; a boulder so big a dozen men couldn’t move it if they tried.

Happy Halloween from Dixie.

Happy Halloween from Dixie.

So if you wander in a haunted wood during the dark of the moon, I advise you to not tempt the Devil, else Old Nick takes you up on your offer.  And if all I say is not the gospel truth, well, then: God Bless the Devil!

The Great West Tennessee Haunt Hunt: Bolivar, Tennessee

Magnolia Manor a cozy B&B in West Tennessee is seriously haunted.

Magnolia Manor a cozy B&B in West Tennessee is seriously haunted.

Between Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee, lies the scenic West Tennessee town of Bolivar. To the casual visitor it is a placid and serene city, filled with friendly folk where nothing untoward ever occurs.

Beneath the idyllic surface of Bolivar, however, flows an undertow of supernatural strangeness. While Bolivar may not be a big bustling metropolis like Memphis or Nashville, it rivals those towns in the intensity of paranormal phenomena there per hectare.

The haunted rocking chair on the front porch of Wren's Nest, Uncle Dave Parran's old home.

The haunted rocking chair on the front porch of Wren’s Nest, Uncle Dave Parran’s old home.

Perhaps the most famous and most beloved apparition in Bolivar must certainly be Uncle Dave. In life, Uncle Cave Parran was a daily sight at his place of business in the quaint town square. But where Uncle Dave was most seen was on the front porch of his home, Wren’s Nest, rocking back and forth on his old rocking chair. He would wave and say hello and engage in conversation all who passed by. Everyone in Bolivar knew and loved Uncle Dave till the day he died at age 86. Then something strange happened; Uncle Dave refused to leave Wren’s Nest even in death. Some folk have even claimed to see him on the front porch; mostly, though, the rocking chair just rocks back and forth on its own, as if some invisible soul still occupies it.

Old photo of McNeal Place.  Haunted then; haunted now.

Old photo of McNeal Place. Haunted then; haunted now.

Not far from Wren’s sits McNeal Place. Though both are haunted, both buildings and hauntings are like night and day. Uncle Dave’s home is a comfy homespun old home; McNeal Place is more like a Renaissance Villa. While Uncle Dave is about as congenial a haunt as one could wish for, the restless spirit of McNeal Place is doleful and sad and often visits the graveyard where her young daughter was laid to rest. Griefs know no boundary—not even the boundary of death.

Western State Mental Hospital, now the Western Mental Health Institute in Bolivar is a most seriously haunted spot.

Western State Mental Hospital, now the Western Mental Health Institute in Bolivar is a most seriously haunted spot.

Less accessible than these haunts are the ghosts which inhabit Western Mental Health Institute. While these days large prison-like insane asylums are ill favored, in its heyday WMHI was jam packed, not only with the legitimately insane, but with persons whom today we would call rebellious, lascivious or unconventional. Lobotomies, shock therapy, chaining and medieval like torture were the rule of the day. Old asylums were a literal chamber of horrors. Many people died from such treatment and some of their spirits abide in WMHI and other old institutions. Today mental health is more enlightened and Western has far fewer inmates than once it held. Present and former staff and patients alike testify to the ghosts who actively haunt its grounds, but wannabe ghost-busters are advised not to investigate on their own. The hospital is closed to the public and while the local ghosts may not bother you, the local constabulary most certainly will.

West Tennessee Mental Health Institute as it looks today.  The patients are fewer but the ghosts are not.

West Tennessee Mental Health Institute as it looks today. The patients are fewer but the ghosts are not.

If you wish to get up close and personal with the dearly departed, you would be well advised to spend a weekend at Magnolia Manor. An elegant antebellum home converted to a comfortable bed and breakfast it has beautiful antiques in each room—and a gaggle of ghosts.

The central staircase of Magnolia Manor, where Sherman slashed the railing in a fit of anger.  Numerous ghosts haunt the building.

The central staircase of Magnolia Manor, where Sherman slashed the railing in a fit of anger. Numerous ghosts haunt the building.

During the Civil War, Generals Grant and Sherman stayed at Magnolia Manor there are many tales to be told of the Yankee occupation. In the years since the Late Unpleasantness, a host of ghosts have accumulated within its walls and on the surrounding grounds. Contrary to the hooey you see on TV these days, there is little to fear from the ghosts which haunt most houses and Magnolia Manor is no different; for you see they are the permanent residents—you are the intruder. But they are hospitable haunts and if you don’t bother them they probably will not unduly disturb you.

Happy Halloween!  The Ghosts of Tennessee say BOO!

Happy Halloween! The Ghosts of Tennessee say BOO!

For more about the ghosts of Magnolia Manor and Bolivar, see Chapter 26 of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. And have a Happy Halloween.

Loretta Lynn and the Supernatural

Loretta Lynn, widely acclaimed for her music, is also psychic and her Hurricane Mills Ranch is seriously haunted.

Loretta Lynn, widely acclaimed for her music, is also psychic and her Hurricane Mills Ranch is seriously haunted.

Loretta Lynn, widely hailed as the Queen of Country Music and with a long career of successful hit songs, is living legend among fans of Country Music and was even the subject of a successful Hollywood movie.  As famous as she is, however, few are aware of another talent of Ms Lynn’s: the Coal Miner’s Daughter is psychic and her long-time home in Hurricane Mills is most seriously haunted.

Loretta has never denied her psychic encounters, which date back to her early years.  In one case, Loretta had a nightmare one night that her father was dead and woke up screaming.  Although her husband tried to reassure her, Loretta could not shake the premonition that her father had died.  Not long after she received a phone call telling her that her father had died of a massive stroke.  Some years later she returned to Kentucky to visit her childhood home in Butcher Hollow, to the cabin that she grew up in, only to see the ghost of her father sitting on the front porch.

Loretta Lynn's childhood home in Butcher Holler, Kentucky, is also haunted.

Loretta Lynn’s childhood home in Butcher Holler, Kentucky, is also haunted.

When she and her husband Doolittle finally bought Hurricane Mills and moved in, it was not long before she began to have experiences that led her to believe her mansion was haunted.  Doors opened and closed all on their own; Loretta would hear footsteps outside on the porch but when she checked to see who was there, not a living soul could be seen.

Hurricane Mills, Loretta's family home for many decades, remains haunted by several spirits.

Hurricane Mills, Loretta’s family home for many decades, remains haunted by several spirits.

Loretta’s twins, Peggy and Patsy, also had uncanny encounters.  When they were very young, too young to be afraid of ghosts or know that such things could not be, would tell their mom of the “people in our room” that would visit them at night.  One such spirit was a woman dressed in Victorian dress with her hair “piled high on her head”–Gibson Girl style.

In addition, the sounds of slaves rattling chains in the “slave pit” and the ghosts of Civil War soldiers have also been seen and heard in and around the house.  While the house was dear to Loretta and her family, their experiences with the supernatural made Loretta not want to spend the night alone in the house and when her husband and children were out, she would have a friend stay with her.

Over the years Loretta has had séances held in the house to determine who exactly was haunting the home.  On at least one occasion, the séance has produced physical reactions, with furniture moving and levitating in plain sight.  More recently, Loretta Lynn called in gamed ghost buster James Van Praagh to help her “cleanse” the house.  However, when the famed “ghost whisperer” heard a voice tell him to “get out!” Van Praagh chose the better part of wisdom and quickly departed the presence of the dearly departed.

Besides tours of the mansion, Hurricane Mills features a museum, gift shops and other attractions, in addition to concerts.

Besides tours of the mansion, Hurricane Mills features a museum, gift shops and other attractions, in addition to concerts.

Loretta Lynn’s beautiful mansion and dude ranch remain a popular destination for traveling tourists and Country Music fans, the little community of Hurricane Mills remains a very spooky Dixie haunt.

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween!

For more true tales of Tennessee Ghosts and Haunts, see: Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunt of Tennessee.

Knoxville Nights: Hauntings of the Bijou

The Bijou Theatre: one of Knoxville's oldest and most haunted theaters.

The Bijou Theatre: one of Knoxville’s oldest and most haunted theaters.

While ghosts are to encountered just about anywhere one can imagine, some places seem particularly congenial to spectral visitation. Theaters seem to be particularly prone to paranormal activity, nor are operas the only phantom plagued places they stay. Theater people have long been aware of that fact. That is why, after a play or musical, when the work crew comes out to clean up, they place a large upright pole with a bare bulb in it in the middle of the stage. It is called a “ghost light” and it is not there for illumination, but to drive away the ghosts that come out when the audience leaves.

In both Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee I have chronicle several theaters with ghosts in Tennessee and doubtless there are several more which are equally deserving of attention, but for now let’s look at just one of those: the Bijou Theater in Knoxville.

The Bijou began as the Lamar House an upscale hotel.  Andrew Jackson slept here once--and perhaps still does.

The Bijou began as the Lamar House an upscale hotel. Andrew Jackson slept here once–and perhaps still does.

To look at the Bijou, located on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, you would not know how old the building is, nor guess how much history it has seen. Its origin goes back to 1817, beginning it existence as the Lamar House, a trendy upscale hotel of the early nineteenth century. In the 1850’s it was expanded and was known for awhile as “Coleman House” (no relation) and during the Civil War the Yankees commandeered the hotel and turned it into a hospital, where among the many who died were Union general William P. Sanders. After the war it again was a hotspot for the rich and posh.

After the war the building again housed VIP's such as President Rutherford B. Hayes and some of its ghosts may date to this era as well.

After the war the building again housed VIP’s such as President Rutherford B. Hayes and some of its ghosts may date to this era as well.

It was in 1909 that a theater was added to the old building and for many decades it held both live performances and movies, and many famous performers played there. After World War II, however, it began a gradual decline, eventually the theater began showing porno movies, while the hotel section turned into a fleabag flophouse. In recent years, however, the Bijou has been restored and now is a venerated performance venue again. One thing that remains unchanged, however, is its reputation as a most haunted theater.

The Bijou Theatre in 1985, before its current revival.  Haunted then, haunted now.

The Bijou Theatre in 1985, before its current revival. Haunted then, haunted now.

In the old hotel section of the building, more than one person has seen the ghost of General Sanders haunting the room where he died. After many years of reports by backstage crews and other employees, several the ghost hunting groups have tread its boards including the East Tennessee Paranormal Society, which conducted several investigation onsite and turned up some interesting results, including inexplicable recordings and some rather strange photographic evidence. Investigators have also witnessed uncanny shadows not caused by any known light source, which they also took to be evidence of spectral activity.

Besides the General, what seem to be the spirits of former performers also haunt the Bijou, as well as the ghosts of a few shady ladies who may have met an unseemly end at the hands of their customers. For details about the Bijou and its gaggle of ghosts, see Chapter 8 of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. Of course, the Bijou is open for live performances as well as for special events, so if you go, you too may encounter one of the ghosts, but if you do don’t blame me—you were warned.

The Bijou marquee; its bright lights have seen strange sights over the years.

The Bijou marquee; its bright lights have seen strange sights over the years.