The Haunted Homes of the Robert E. Lee

DARK SHADOWS OF THE LEES OF VIRGINIA

In researching Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, I never came across references to any ghostly sightings of Robert E. Lee, the venerable commander of the Army of Northern Virgina.

Curiously though, at least three of the homes he lived in life have had verified accounts of being haunted by one or another Lee family member. While I devote an entire chapter to Lee’s haunted homes in Dixie Spirits, I thought to supplement that with this article and some photos to go along with it.

When one thinks of General Lee and his family, one naturally pictures a dignified Southern gentleman, someone descended from an honored and venerable First Family of Virginia (FFV for short).

While Lee always conducted himself with probity, his family was anything but venerable; in fact, it was riddled with scandal through several generations. For one thing, Lee’s father,  “Light Horse” Harry Lee, although a hero of the American Revolution, had the reputation of a hell raiser; he drank heavily and gambled much of the family wealth away, and as a result he was constantly in debt–at one time he was even thrown into debtor’s prison.

After he died, his widow and children were dependent on the charity of other family members–and they too had their scandals–notably their relative “Black Horse” Harry Lee.

Arlington The Custis Lee Mansion during the Civil War LC 08246r
Pictured here is Arlington, taken during the Civil War. Federal troops seized the family mansion and soon started burying Union troops on the grounds, the estate becoming Arlington National Cemetery.

The best known Lee home is, of course, Arlington, now located in the middle of the National cemetery. Seized early in the war, it became a last resting place for Union war dead. The mansion itself is also an abode of the dead–who at times get a mite restless. Several family ghosts have been sighted here by visitors.

Stratford Hall the Lee ancestral home (HABS)
Stratford Hall, the home of “Black Horse” Harry Lee, who brought shame and disgrace on the family.

Stratford Hall, the ancestral home of the Lees, was built in the early 1700’s and so it naturally has several generations of Lee ghosts, including old “Black Horse” Harry who had an affair with his wife’s sister while his own spouse lay sick abed. Robert lived here for a time with his mother and siblings.

Gen Lee House Richmond LC 02918a
General Lee’s “boyhood home.” Directly after Appomattox, Lee returned here for a short time.

Then there is the “Lee Boyhood Home” in Alexandria, Virginia. After their father died in debt, Robert and his mother had to move about a bit due to their financial situation. Nonetheless, General Lee always had fond memories of this place and it was here he returned after the surrender–who knows he may still be there.

There are a few other old Virginia manse’s associated with the general—all of them reputedly haunted. For more on the tragic haunted history of the Lees of Virginia and their stately haunts see the Chapter in Dixie Spirits. Depending on the time of the year most of the Lee homes will be open to the public, where you might even encounter a Lee family ghost for yourself. Happy haunting!

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Dixie Spirits, authentic accounts of the Supernatural in the South.
GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5
Ghosts & Haunts of the Civil War. True accounts of haunted battlefields, Civil War ghosts and other unexplained phenomena.
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HONKY TONK HAINTS: THE GHOSTS OF LOWER BROAD IN NASHVILLE

If there is one spot in Nashville that visitors are sure to see when they come to Music City, it that section of downtown Broadway they call Honky-Tonk Heaven, Hillbilly Highway or just simply “The District.”

Consisting of the first five blocks of Lower Broad, plus the side streets branching off on either side, for decades it has been a mecca for lovers of Country music, or those just seeking a good time.

GHT Lower Broad in olden days and still haunted
Lower Broadway in the old days. Many of the Honkey Tonk buildings date to before the Civil War and have many generations of ghosts haunting them.

While it has been a favorite haunt of musicians trying to make a name for themselves for as long as anyone can remember, the haunting goes far beyond perspiring minstrels trying to make it in the business.

There abide in the old buildings down there the spirits of old-time country stars, workmen and working girls from another era and even a Civil War ghost or three.

GHT Tootsie's Haunte Orchid Lounge
TOOTSIE’S ORCHID LOUNGE one of the oldest and greatest Honkey Tonks in Music City–and most haunted!

Take Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, for example. It’s smoke-stained walls and beer-stained floors have seen the greats of Country Music pass through its swangin’ doors–not to mention a few Rock stars as well.

Behind it is an ally where the same ghosts are alleged to pass into the old stage door entrance of the Ryman Auditorium–originally the home of the Grand Ole Opry.

Across the street are two old record shops that house hidden gold–golden oldies that is. Ernest Tubb used to house the Saturday Night Jamboree. The Jamboree is alive and well but now broadcasts from Music Valley, just across from Opryland Hotel.  Downtown, the original store also hosts a jamboree of sorts: the old time musicians still return there on Saturday and haunt the place, even though they’re long dead.

Lawrence Record Shop Lower Broad
The venerable Lawrence Records at 409 Broad is gone–but it’s ghosts aren’t!

Nearby by Ernest Tubbs was Lawrence Records until recently. Now transformed into Nudie’s Bar, it also has its resident revenants as well. They can change the name and change what they sell, but the spirits remain despite the changes.

Truth be told, just about every old building in downtown Nashville has a resident spook or two.

GHT Haunted Honky Tonks
Almost all the Honkey Tonks of Music City’s Lower Broad have at least one ghost haunting is hallways.

I cover the District’s ghosts in far more detail in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee than here, but as I wasn’t able to include photos in that book for technical reasons, so I thought I’d post a few here as well as on Pinterest. If you prefer to find out about the ghosts of Lower Broad for yourself, there is no better time of year than now to do it!

For an in depth look at the Ryman Auditorium’s historic hauntings, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground.

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Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South!
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Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. True haunting tales of the Mid South

Capitol Ghosts

While I cover Capitol Ghosts in Ghosts & Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency, you might find this piece of interest too…

U.S. Capitol Historical Society

Ever been in the Capitol after dark? When every footstep echoes down the corridor and not every space has artificial lighting? Deserted buildings tickle the imagination, stimulate the nerves, and encourage a draft of liquid courage—or perhaps it’s that they bring out the ghosts.

With Halloween here, USCHS Chief Guide Steve Livengood was telling ghost stories recently. Steve is sure he’s seen John Quincy Adams many times. Adams suffered a stroke on the House floor (present-day Statuary Hall) on Feb. 21, 1848. He was brought to the Rotunda and then the Speaker’s Room just off the House floor, where he lingered for two days before dying on Feb. 23. At the moment of Adams’ stroke, the House was debating and voting on a measure to honor Army officers who served in the Mexican War. Adams had never supported the war and objected to the proposed measure. The House journal describes…

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THE FIRST CASUALTY: Ellsworth’s Ghost

Colonel Elmer E Ellsworth was a personal friend of Lincoln's and leader of the elite New York "Fire" Zouaves.
Colonel Elmer E Ellsworth was a personal friend of Lincoln’s and leader of the elite New York “Fire” Zouaves.

In Dixie Spirits we investigated the Custis-Lee Mansion, also known as Arlington House, which still stands near Alexandria, Virginia, but we did not explore the many ghosts and haunts of Alexandria proper. Today let’s take a quick look at a famous Civil War ghost down in town.

They say the first casualty of war is the truth.  That may well be true, but in the early days of the war, neither side was much concerned with truth, but more with justifying their own actions, as well as portraying the opposite side as the aggressor.  Regardless, by the time that Lincoln was inaugurated, the time for rational discussion was already over and the Secessionists moved quickly to surround Washington, DC in the weeks following his installation as President.  Lincoln could call for 75,000 troops—but actually organizing, equipping and fielding them to defend the capitol was quite another thing. 

 

The original zouaves were Algerians, recruited by the French to serve in their army. Their elan in battle became legendary and many "zouave" regiments were formed during the Civil War in emulation of them.
The original zouaves were Algerians, recruited by the French to serve in their army. Their elan in battle became legendary and many “zouave” regiments were formed during the Civil War in emulation of them.

      Before the war, volunteer militia units were all the rage in the US.  In the antebellum era it was fun to be a soldier and many volunteer groups donned colorful costumes, learned to drill like real soldiers and above all, attract the ladies with their displays of martial virtue.  Some militia groups developed a reputation for their skill at close order drill and toured the country performing for the public, especially those units who fashioned themselves as zouaves.  The original zouaves had been recruited by the French in Algeria and wore colorful oriental style uniforms, but over the years their ethnic makeup was of less importance than their reputation for élan and aggressiveness. 

Recruiting for a Zouave regiment, NYC in 1861. While considered elite units, the zouaves could also be quite rowdy when not in combat.
Recruiting for a Zouave regiment, NYC in 1861. While considered elite units, the zouaves could also be quite rowdy when not in combat.

One of the more famous such show units was Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth’s Cadet Zouaves, originally based out of Chicago.  Although he was never able to get into West Point, Ellsworth had studied military tactics with a passion and his fencing instructor in Chicago had been an actual French zouave.  Ellsworth was a close personal friend of Lincoln’s and when the call went out for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, Ellsworth wasted no time forming a regiment.  He went to New York City, sent out a call, seeking out firemen in particular, and within an amazingly brief time received more than double the number of volunteers than he needed.  Although rough around the edges and short on discipline, the 11th NY “Fire” Zouaves were shipped south in short order. 

The Marshall House as it looked in 1861. Note the tall flagpole on the roof of the building. Its owner was a brutal slave owner and fire-breathing Secessionist.
The Marshall House as it looked early in the War. Note the tall flagpole on the roof of the building. Its owner was a brutal slave owner and fire-breathing Secessionist.

When, on May 23, Virginia officially seceded from the Union, Ellsworth’s regiment was ordered across the Potomac to secure Alexandria and Arlington Heights on the Virginia side of the river.  While securing the city, Ellsworth noticed that a Rebel flag was still flying over the Marshall House, a local inn.  The flag had been something of a sore point for weeks, being visible from across the river and symbol of Lincoln’s inability to preserve the Union even within the shadow of the capital.  Not willing to allow this act of defiance to go unanswered, Ellsworth personally climbed up to the top of the Marshall House and tore down the offending flag from the large flagpole on the roof.  As he was descending the stairs, however, the hotel owner, one James Jackson, suddenly appeared without warning and shot and killed Ellsworth with a shotgun at close quarters, for which action he was immediately rewarded with his own death at the hands of Ellsworth’s men.  It was still early in the war and the death of a single officer, such as Ellsworth, was still notable news in the North.  Ellsworth being a close associate of Lincoln amplified the importance of his death.  Soon Ellsworth was hailed as a martyr—the first of many—to the cause of preserving the Union.

The murder of Colonel Ellsworth. His ghost was sighted in the Marshall House on repeated occasions over the years.
The murder of Colonel Ellsworth. His ghost was sighted in the Marshall House on repeated occasions over the years.

In the ensuing months and years following his death, rumors began to circulate that, although dead, Colonel Ellsworth was not really gone from the Marshall House.  Some claimed to see him removing the Rebel flag from the rooftop of the hotel, others swore they saw his shade on its stairs, where he was murdered. 

It was also said that the ghost of the fire-breathing Secesh James Jackson also haunted the same stairwell in the old inn.  The Marshall House and its resident ghosts stood on the same spot until the 1950’s, when it was torn down as part of a modernization trend in the city.  Normally, that would be the end of the story, but apparently it is not.

Today the Alexandrian Hotel, a “boutique hotel,” occupies the same space where the old inn stood.  It has all the amenities one expects in a modern hotel, plus one more: it is haunted.  There are those who claim that it is the restless shades of the Civil War who still roam the new hotel.  

Sometimes nothing is actually seen, but people claim to hear the sound of gunshots out in the hallways, as if the Rebel hotel owner and the zouaves who killed him are still having it out in the new building. 

On one occasion recently, a couple was riding the elevator when it unexpectedly opened at the fourth floor; no guests were there but they saw a glowing light appear on the wall opposite, then disappear.  Later, the visitors found they were not alone in having uncanny experiences there.

Some visitors allege the modern hotel on the site of the old Marshall still holds the ghost of Ellsworth and perhaps of his murderer.
Some visitors allege the modern hotel on the site of the old Marshall still holds the ghost of Ellsworth and perhaps of his murderer.

 

 

According to some, it is the Monaco’s sixth floor that is most haunted, which could be a reflection of Ellsworth’s flag taking venture, although the reports are vague on that score.  Regardless, the hotel embraces the site’s haunted heritage and in the past it has offered a “Ghosts of Alexandria Family Package” which includes discounted room rate, a stay on the “haunted sixth” plus tickets for the local ghost tour of the town; check to see whether they still offer that since it has changed management.  

In any case, Alexandria and nearby DC are chock full of Civil War era ghosts and haunts, and who knows maybe Colonel Ellsworth will put in a personal appearance.

 

 

For more Civil War ghosts see: Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and for more on General Lee’s Arlington ghosts, plus other famous Southern ghosts, go to Dixie Spirits.  Happy haunting y’all.

 

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The Case of the Kelly Green Men

Sketches of the little green men the Sutton family saw
Sketches of the little green men the Sutton family saw

In addition to being the home of Edgar Cayce, the “Sleeping Prophet,” Hopkinsville’s next biggest claim to fame is as the location of the Great Goblin Encounter, also known as Kelly Green Men Case.

For the record, the creatures were not Kelly Green in color.  Rather, Kelly is the rural community just outside of Hopkinsville where the close encounter occurred.  That much everyone can agree on; just about everything else about the incident has been disputed ever since.

The incident occurred in 1955 and to this day ranks as one of the best documented—and scariest—close encounters in UFOlogy.  Seven persons from two farm families witnessed the events and their accounts, examined and cross-examined repeatedly over the years, have stood up to withering criticism and scorn and remain remarkably consistent.

Duendes or green goblins, as rendered by artist from folklore, similar to the Kelly aliens.
Duendes or green goblins, as rendered by artist from folklore, similar to the Kelly aliens.

On the evening of August 21, 1955, Billy Ray Taylor of Pennsylvania was visiting the Sutton family in the rural community of Kelly, in Christian County outside of Hopkinsville, Kentucky.  As the house had no indoor plumbing, around 7pm Billy Ray went outside to the pump to get some water.  It was at this point that he observed strange multi-colored lights to the west, which he interpreted as a disc shaped craft of some sort.

Billy Ray ran into the house all excited like and told the folks inside he had seen a flying saucer.  The Suttons scoffed at his sighting, telling him he must have seen a shooting star or some such.

About an hour later, the folks inside the house began to hear eerie and unexplained sounds outside.  The Sutton’s dog began barking wildly, as if there were strangers lurking about; then the dog suddenly became terrified and quickly ran under the house, where it remained for the duration.

Billy Ray and the family patriarch, Elmer “Lucky” Sutton, grabbed some guns and went outside to investigate.  There they saw a strange creature coming at them from a line of trees.

When it got within about twenty feet, they let loose a volley, one of which was a twelve gauge and the other a 22 cal. varmint gun.  The creature flipped over and then ran into the darkness; the boys were sure they’d hit it.

Stepping off the porch, they went in search of the creature, when they spied another one sitting on an awning.  Again they fired and knocked it off the roof.  But as before, although they were sure they had scored a direct hit, the being seemed unharmed.  A bit shaken by the encounter, the duo went back into the house.

A few minutes later, Lucky’s brother, J. C. Sutton, saw another creature peering into the house through a window.  J.C. and Solomon, another kin, fired through the window at them, seemingly to no effect.

For the next several hours the little green men played whack a mole with the Taylors and Suttons, popping up at windows and doors, with the two clans replying with hot lead.

Kelly-Hopkinsville(reconstitution)
For several hours, the residents of Kelly played hide and seek with the little green men who were terrorizing their neighborhood.

Whenever they scored a hit, they heard a hollow rattling sound, like banging around in a metal drum.  The creatures also seemed to float off the ground at times, rather than walk.

Finally, the family matriarch, Grandma Lankford, counseled the boys to stop shooting at the creatures; not only did it not seem to have any effect, but the creatures did not seem to mean any harm to the humans.

Because the small children were badly frightened, around 11pm the group made a break from the house and got into their cars, making it to the Hopkinsville Police Department around 11:30pm, where they filed a report.

Police Chief Russell Greenwell, in writing up his police report, noted that the group were visibly shaken by the experience beyond reason.  The Suttons, he noted, were not folks easily upset and not prone to filing complaints to the police; without weighing in on the accuracy of their account, he concluded that “something frightened them, something beyond their comprehension.”  The witnesses were also judged not to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time.

Elsewhere in Christian County, around 11pm a state trooper reported seeing “unusual meteor-like objects” flying overhead, with a sound “like artillery fire” emanating from them.

Upon investigating the scene of the incident,police officers themselves witnessed strange lights in the sky and in the nearby woods (although later, some would refuse to talk openly about it).

To their surprise, the officers found that nearby neighbors were also terrified and reported seeing the same strange lights in the sky, and strange sounds, at their homesteads and diners at the local Shady Oaks restaurant, also reported seeing the strange lights in the sky. .

The Hopkinsville police investigating the farmstead that night, found numerous bullet holes and hundreds of spent shells.  They found a luminous patch of unknown substance on one of the fences where a creature had been shot but neglected to collect a sample for testing.  Moreover, in the distance a green light was seen that night.

When the police left around two am, the green men returned and kept poking around the farmhouse until close to dawn.  They were never seen again.

Contemporary newspaper clipping of the Kelly Case.
Contemporary newspaper clipping of the Kelly Case.

In the days and weeks that followed, the incident garnered national publicity and scores of curiosity seekers came visiting, some in awe, many to scoff.

People accused the witnesses of being drunk or of being liars.  The usual mob of professional debunkers fabricated their well-worn explanations to deny what had happened.

At first the Suttons freely told the press and others willing to listen of their harrowing experience.  Eventually, however, the ridicule and criticism by self-anointed experts caused the family to refuse to discuss their encounter with outsiders.

A 39 foot replica of the flying saucer built for the annual Kelly UFO festival near Hopkinsville, KY.
A 39 foot replica of the flying saucer built for the annual Kelly UFO festival near Hopkinsville, KY.

Apparently military types visited the farm to investigate the close encounter, but the Air Force denies ever visiting the Sutton farmstead.  Curiously, though they claim never to have been there, Project Blue Book listed the case as a hoax without comment.

It is curious that Project Blue Book could make that judgment if, as they say, they never investigated it.  It should be noted, however, that Hopkinsville is not far from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which, while not an Air Force base, is not only home to the 101st Airborne Division, but also to various Special Operations units. Some of these special ops units are known, but others remain top secret–officially, they don’t exist.  What Special Ops units were operating there in 1955 is not known.

In 1957, one Air Force spokesmen theorized that the creatures were just some circus monkeys, painted silver, who’d escaped–which was perhaps the least believable of all the vain attempts to rationalize away the event.

Because of the creatures green color, they began to be referred to as “Goblins” by some in the media.  Over time the cynics grew tired of heaping ridicule on the community and its close encounter, and, not being able to grab media attention with their visits, ceased plaguing the community.

For their part, the citizens of Hopkinsville began to embrace the incident as part of their local lore.  The “Little Green Men” Days Festival  is held at annually and has become a major event.

An artist’s impressions of these “Green Goblins” is even said to have inspired one of the many Pokeman anime characters.

While people may celebrate the event in song and story, to Lucky Sutton and his family it was serious business and remained so for the rest of their lives.

As his daughter related as an adult, “He never cracked a smile when he told the story because it happened to him and there wasn’t nothing funny about it. He got pale and you could see it in his eyes. He was scared to death.”

Strange tales of unexplained phenomena and paranormal activity in the Mid-South, including the Pennrile Region.
Strange tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground chronicles unexplained phenomena and paranormal activity in the Mid-South, including the Pennrile Region.

For more strange stories of unexplained lights, close encounters and unidentified flying weirdness in the Mid-South and elsewhere in Dixie, see: Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Dixie Spirits.

A compendium of strange, unexplained and uncanny events and places throughout the South.
DIXIE SPIRITS is a compendium of strange and uncanny events throughout the South.
GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF TENNESSEE
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. True haunting tales of Tennessee and the Mid South

 

 

 

 

Halloween Hauntings, Part 12: The Sleeping Prophet of Kentucky

Halloween Hauntings, Part 12:

EDGAR CAYCE, The Sleeping Prophet of Hopkinsville, KY

I discussed the Bell Witch extensively in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and also a bit more about her and other Tennessee witches in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, so I won’t chew my cud twice on that score—at least not here.  However, if you are visiting Adams to get in touch with ol’ Kate, you might want to keep going to visit another town with a reputation for the uncanny and paranormal: Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

If you take Highway 41 up the road apiece beyond Adams, you will soon cross the Tuck-asee state line and come to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a place equally worthy of note for those who derive joy in being scared out of their wits by paranormal phenomena and other high strangeness.

Hopkinsville, while considerably more urban in character than Adams, is still a quiet town most times and hardly a place one would peg as the epicenter of unexplained events or strangely gifted people.  Yet on both counts Hopkinsville can hold its own with places more famous or more populous.  For one thing, it is the home of Edgar Cayce, world renown as the “Sleeping Prophet.”  Edgar Cayce was an unlikely candidate for notoriety, at least to start with.  Born in 1877, in Beverly, just a stone’s throw south of Hopkinsville and his father would knock him about because he was such a poor student in school.  When he was very young and wandering in the woods he claimed to see “little folk” cavorting about and occasionally spotted his dead grandfather.  He knew grandpa was dead because he could see through him.

By 1910, when this photo was taken, Edgar Cayce had already become nationally famous for his readings.
By 1910, when this photo was taken, Edgar Cayce had already become nationally famous for his readings.

At the age of ten he was taken to church and from that time on diligently began reading the Bible.  Then, at the age of twelve one day an angel appeared to him in a woodland shack as he was doing his daily Bible reading.  The angel told him his prayers would be answered and asked him what he wanted.  Cayce allegedly replied that most of all he wanted to be helpful to others, especially sick children.  On advice of this same mysterious “lady” he found that if he slept on a school textbook, he would absorb all its knowledge while he slept and he soon became an exceptional student.

By 1892 Cayce was giving “readings” in his sleep relating to people’s health issues, although he tried to support himself with a number of day jobs.  Although he never charged for a “reading” at one of his sleep sessions, eventually followers donated enough money to support Cayce that he could concentrate on his readings, which began to expand from health issues in to metaphysics and prophesy.

He moved to Selma, Alabama from 1912 to 1925 and from then to his death in 1945 lived in Virginia Beach, but he was buried in his hometown of Hopkinsville.  Edgar Cayce, unlike many mediums, was not dogmatic about his readings and advised people to accept them only to the extent they benefitted from them; likewise he always advised to test them against real world results.  When awake, Cayce claimed no conscious memory of what he had said or why he said it.  His utterings remain closely studied to this day and some say they have proven remarkably accurate.

New York Times article, dating to 1910, chronicling Edgar Cayce's renown as a healer and psychic.
New York Times article, dating to 1910, chronicling Edgar Cayce’s renown as a healer and psychic.

Hopkinsville is in the heart of the Pennyrile region of southern Kentucky—or Pennyroyal as some more refined folk prefer to call it—and there is available for traveler’s a “Edgar Cayce Cell Phone Tour” of Hopkinsville, while the Pennyroyal Area Museum has devoted a good part of its exhibition space to Cayce and artifacts relating to him.

Hopkinsville, being part of Bell Witch Country, also celebrates the Old Girl in October every year.  There is also the annual Edgar Cayce Hometown Seminar, usually held in March, which celebrates Cayce’s life and readings.

For more about the Tennessee The Bell Witch and Pennyrile oddities, go to Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground.  Also see Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee for more weird witchery as well.

Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. True haunting tales of the Mid South
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. True haunting tales of the Mid South

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For exhibitions on Edgar Cayce, visit:

The Pennyroyal Area Museum

217 East 9th Street

Hopkinsville, KY 42241

(270) 887-4270

Halloween Hauntings, Part 11 Witches of Appalachia, Wicked, Wise and Otherwise

Halloween Hauntings, Part 11:

Witches of Appalachia

A modern take on the traditional witch has her bewitching readers in an entirely different manner
A modern take on the witch has her bewitching men in an entirely different manner
The late great Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West from an MGM publicity still ca.1939
The late great Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West from an MGM publicity still ca.1939

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around about Halloween it is not unusual to see images of alluring females all bedecked in black, slinky and seductive apparitions in witch’s costumes.  That is one modern stereotype; the other, older one, is of an ugly, cock-eyed old crone with crooked nose and hairy mole leering out with a toothless smile.  

The truth is that neither of these stereotypes is true, at least not of real witches—and make no mistake, real witches have existed and for aught I know still do—in the mountains of Tennessee. I go into this in much greater depth in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, so for more on this and similar phenoms, go there if you dare.

popular modern iconography of the witch and her familiars, the owl and the pussycat.
popular modern iconography of the witch and her familiars, the owl and the pussycat.

Of course, the curious thing has always been that there were always far more folk who would own up to being witch-hunters (or ‘witch-doctors”) than those who would actually own up to being a witch. And especially today, if we are talking about beings with genuine supernatural powers, if they proudly proclaim themselves a witch in public, the likelihood is that they are not.

Still, it was not so long ago in East Tennessee that folks knew very well who in their community was, and was not, a witch.  And for the most part they were neither ugly nor sexy, nor any kind of neo-pagan. But what they all had in common was that they were feared and avoided—unless you needed them for something.

Before the creation of Smoky Mountain National Forest, that multi-county region it covered was home to several mountain communities that now are no more. The area back in the 1930’s was not quite so backward as Yankee journalists of the day might have proclaimed, but even by the standards of early twentieth century South, folk up there were land rich but dirt poor.

Of course, if you raised your own crops and had herds of livestock, and had a gun and a fishing rod, there was always food on the table and no one starved.  As far as modern amenities went, such as indoor plumbing or electricity, well, that was something city folks had, not mountain folk.

Up around that part of the Smokies once lived a lady later known as “Witch McGaha.”  It was not her Christian name, of course; but then she was not the church-going type anyhow.  One thing that set folk wise to Witch McGaha was that she was continually trying to borrow things from neighbors.

It was not as though she needed anything; but, you see, if a witch can borrow three things from you, then sure as spit she can put you under her spell.  Conversely, Witch McGaha would never, never lend anybody anything, not even to members of her own family.  Many tales are told about her and her powers, but one will suffice for now

One fall, her own blood kin, sister Nance McGaha, wanted some nice juicy apples from her sister’s orchard. But Witch McGaha would have none of it.  Not one apple would she loan or give.  Nance even got her mother to talk to her older sister to loan her some apples until her own orchard came into its own, all to no avail.

Nance, too willful for her own good, snuck onto her sister’s orchard and started plucking the shiny red fruit off’n the trees and putting them into a large tote sack.

Not able to wait till she got home, she bit into one. It was red, and ripe and oh so juicy, just bursting with the sweetness of Autumn in the mountains.

Vintage photo of members of a British tea party. Poison apples were served after tea.
Vintage photo of members of a British tea party. Poison apples were served after tea.

When she had picked her full, Nance started off for home, thinking her sister would be none the wiser. She was dead wrong.

As she walked along the mountain trail, Nance felt a small tug on the hem of her dress; then another and another. What was that tugging?

She looked down. Nance found a pack of bushy tailed grey squirrels had formed a ring around her and were giving her angry looks as the insistently tugged on her dress.

Nance began to walk faster, but as she did even more squirrels appeared. They were all angry and intent on stopping her progress.

Soon she broke into a run, dropping the sack now in her haste to escape, but the growing horde of squirrels were keeping pace and would not let up their assault.

Now they were scratching and biting and clawing at every part of Nance’s body and no matter how fast she ran they all held on and kept attacking her.

By the time Nance reached the threshold of her house she was all bloody and her dress in tatters.  Before she could cross the threshold of home where a broom was lain across it to ward off evil, Nance McGaha keeled over, dead.

A common feature of traditional Appalachian life has always been the local Wise Woman, a person who had knowledge of herbs, potions and poultices, who also knew how to conjur spells. Their craft was in part derived from Ireland and Scotland, where Wise Women were a common occurrence; partly they also learned from the local tribes’ medicine women about healing remedies and about the local spirits that might be of benefit; and perhaps too, they picked up knowledge of spells and herb magic from those few Negro practitioners of Hoodoo that dwelt in the mountain regions.

In nineteenth century North Carolina, one such Wise Woman was especially famous, called “Mammy Wise” (actually her name was Weiss) and while not particularly wicked, she was a particularly talented Wise Woman.

She claimed to have “spelt” the Civil War (she always regretted that); she could also divine out who a thief was in the community and was Mammy Wise was the first person one resorted to when it came to cooking up a love potion.

Mammy Wise was respected and honored on that side of the mountains. Still, no one with any sense ever tried to get on her bad side, for they knew what she could do if her ire was raised.

Woodcut of a British witch ca. 1643. Any woman with herbal knowledge or healing skills could be accused of witchery. The real ones likely went unnoticed, practicing their craft in secret.
Woodcut of a British witch ca. 1643. Any woman with herbal knowledge or healing skills could be accused of witchery. Few accused were guilty, for the real ones  practiced their craft in secret.

There were—are—other Wise Women in the high mountains, although these days they are far more discreet. Society may be more tolerant these days of folk who claim to be witches, but those with real power are wise enough to say little and mind their business—especially when their business is the Dark Art.

For more about Appalachian Witches and their haunts, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.

Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
This latest offering of all things spooky in the South covers the favorite haunts of downtown Nashville and other Country spooks.
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee covers not only mountain witches but the haints of downtown Nashville and West Tennessee spookiness.