Downtown Knoxville, like the heart of many Southern cities, has a long history–and quite of few ghosts. Although Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee is mainly concerned ghosts and haunts, and a curse does not quite qualify as a haunting, it is in the realm of the paranormal nonetheless. In this case, the Curse of the White Mule was localized to a certain block of downtown Knoxville. It goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, when the Gypsy Circus once came to town. While the details of the story vary depending on who you listen to, the upshot was that the side-show’s prize display–a white mule–died unexpectedly while visiting Knoxville. The gypsies blamed the local folk for their the death of their valuable side-show freak; in revenge, they cursed the area and departed town in a huff.
Now people getting angry and cursing out certain people or places is not all that unusual; but when the curse comes true, it tends to get your attention. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this area of downtown Knoxville had a series of uncanny fires break out, some quite severe. Since then, other weird disasters have happened which some say are also due to the Curse of the White Mule.
They say that libations will stave off the curse and in fact there is a tavern in the heart of downtown Knoxville where you may quaff a White Mule ale. Whether this will cure the curse I cannot say; but if you visit downtown Knoxville you may want to try. It couldn’t hurt.
In honor of that spookiest day of the year—October 31—I am penning thirteen blogs daily, now through fright night.
Why thirteen? Well, we have the twelve days of Christmas—or at least we used to. Yuletide should run from December 25 through January 6 by rights, although lately it seems folks want to get the holiday season over with early on December 26. I am among that obstinate minority who prefer to enjoy Yuletide for as long as possible–and that means quaffing flagons of Yuletide Cheer from big Christmas to Little Christmas. Moreover, in Wales, not only are black cats considered lucky, so is the number 13. Ultimately, for no particular reason other than it sounds good, I chose thirteen for Halloween.
Black Cats and Thirteen anything–what could be more Halloweenish? Of course, the Welsh being Celts, they have a strong contrary streak and so whatever superstition their English neighbors adhere to, one can almost guarantee the Welsh will tend to believe just the opposite. My black cat, Enoch, was certainly lucky: he got to sleep all day, ate when he wanted, and pretty much did as he pleased (which was not much). And if cats normally have nine lives, Enoch was blessed with at least double that amount.
Speaking of superstitions, one Southern superstition that Yankees north of the Mason-Dixon Line may not have heard of is enshrined in the expression “jumping the broom.” Among folks in Dixie, to “jump the broom” is another way to say getting married. It comes from the belief that if newlyweds place a broom across the threshold to their new home, witches can’t follow them in and put a hex on the marriage. Although in Appalachia they don’t call it hex, they call it “spelt.”
In the old days, couples literally did put a broom across the entrance to their cabin on wedding day and then physically jumped across it. Brides and grooms who jumped the broom were believed to enjoy a more harmonious and fruitful marriage, and to judge by the number of children they had in the old days, this seems to have been true.
The Mid-South abounds in uncanny and unexplained phenomena, from professors who suddenly burst into flame, to sightings of strange craft over the Tennessee Valley in the days when no such craft existed, to the numerous “Spook Lights” found in almost every state of Dixie. This is in addition to the many ante-bellum manse’s that each is a Gothic horror show in itself. Of course, what would Appalachia be without it’s “Wise Women” and whether you regard them as a bane or a boon, you best not get on their bad side in any case.
Halloween marks the beginning of the season when all life dies away–to the eye–not to be truly revived until its sister holiday, April 30. The ancient Celts called the two festivals Semaine and Beltaine and the period in between was a time when one gathered round the hearth and told tales to enchant young and old. Beltaine is also known as the Witches’ Sabbath when, like Halloween, all manor of spirits, uncanny creatures and other fey folk are abroad in the dark. On Halloween we have the additional bane of evil beings such as politicians roaming the land seeking votes.
Fear not, however, we shall limit our discussion only to the supernatural and similar things and while we won’t limit these thirteen entries just to the South, there are more than man can ken in the region to venture farther afield in search of the uncanny. So curl up with your favorite flagon–or favorite dragon–stoke the hearth (even if it’s just a video loop on Roku) and enjoy stories to curl your toes and give you goosebumps!