Many female devotees of the Late Unpleasantness are great admirers of the fictional heroine of Gone with the Wind, Scarlet O’Hara. Her wilfulness, her ability to manipulate men and her all around bitchiness have made her a role model for generations of GRITS (Girls Raised In The South). Outside of Middle Tennessee, however, there are few who know that there was a real life Southern belle whose actual antics put the fictional Scarlet to shame. Her name was Adelicia Acklen, the Mistress of Belmont Mansion.
Not that Adelicia was at all unpleasant or, shall we say bitchy. Oh no; butter would not melt in her mouth; she was a godly woman and prolific progenetrix. And she was very, very wealthy.
Where once rows of magnolias blossomed, today stands Music Row; other vestiges of Adelicia’s estate have also gone with the wind (or kudzu as the case may be) but the mansion she once resided in, Belmont, remains and–at least at Christmastime–so does she.
Adelicia started off her career as a humble country girl in Sumner County, with several thousands of acres of prime farmland and a few dozen champion show horses to her name. Her father was a simple farmer whose wealth could only be counted by a handful of accountants working night and day. However, wealth begets more wealth, and the young and beautiful Adelicia married a prosperous doctor who amplified her estate and sired several children with her. Poor thing, his health was not so strong as her loins and he died prematurely, leaving her a wealthy widow.
However, beautiful Adelicia did not long remain a widow. She remarried, this time to a far wealthier man, Joseph Acklen, who owned large and profitable plantations on the lower Mississippi, all of which produced bountiful crops of cotton.
In due course, Adelicia bore Joseph a bountiful crop of several more children and he in turn built her the magnificent Italianate mansion of Belmont. Sitting on a long sloping hill, one approached Belmont in the old days as if one were ascending Mount Olympus to visit the gods. Downton Abbey would have been a pauper’s hut compared to Belmont in its heyday. All went well, until the War.
In February, 1862, Nashville fell to the invading Yankee hordes and the miles between the Rock City and the Acklen cotton plantations in Louisiana were long indeed; for most of the war the area between the two waas a no man’s land in which the various armies marched and fought.
Not long into the conflict, husband Joseph headed south to look after their financial interests along the Mississippi, lest their family fortune be ruined. Adelicia remained home to look after her growing brood of children and her thoroughbred horses. She was devoted both to her children and her horses.
Then one fateful day came word that her beloved Joseph had died of a fever tending to their cotton (some say it was a carriage accident).
Adelicia sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, saying “What am I to do, what am I to do!” and then it struck her: what about the cotton? Where the hell was it; had it been harvested; was it ready to be shipped—and how?
Adelicia, for all her beauty, was not one to simply fan herself and stand idly by while her family fortune went up in flames. With no further ado, she piled a female cousin and two loyal servants in a carriage and headed into the hundreds of miles of lawless no-mans land, where deserters and robbers and guerillas on both sides would sooner kill you as look at you.
In the end Adelica saved the cotton. Through cajolery and charm, she shipped it abroad and sold it in England for premium prices, emerging even wealthier than before the war—a feat unique among Southern planters. In the postwar Dixie for many years she was the queen of Southern society and her evening parties and Christmas Balls were legendary. Belmont became the epicenter of the postwar South’s high society.
After she died, the aura of Belmont as a grand and elegant place continued on. It became an aristocratic girl’s finishing school, Ward-Belmont, and ultimately a well respected modern academic institution, Belmont University. But over the years, various alumni and staff have had odd encounters within its august halls, things that cannot be explained by natural causes.
No one has actually seen Adelicia roaming the halls; but on more than one occasion, student, faculty and staff have had fey and uncanny experiences in the mansion, especially at Christmastime, that make them believe she is indeed still inhabiting the old manse.
One of the annual Christmas celebrations at Belmont is called “Hanging of the Green” and the students stage an elaborate ritual revolving around a tall winding staircase. Over the years, students involved in the Yuletide ritual have reported feeling a female presence there, while waiting for the ceremony to begin. Others hear the rustling of crinoline dresses, when no one is there. Other unexplained encounters also occur with uncanny frequency, especially around Christmas.
So, do Adelicia and other members of her ghostly clan really still inhabit the august halls of Belmont Mansion?
Go there sometime and find out for yourself.
For more about Belmont Mansion and its ghostly guests, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground; Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee will also you tell you more about the areas favorite haunts. Belmont Mansion is located at 1700 Acklen Avenue
Nashville, TN 37212 and is open to the public: cf. http://belmontmansion.com/