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.

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Halloween Hauntings, Part 13: The Great West Tennessee Haunt Hunt: Bolivar, Tennessee

Halloween Hauntings Part 13 

The Great West Tennessee Haunt Hunt: Bolivar, Tennessee

Magnolia Manor is a comfortable but very haunted B&B in Bolivar Tennessee
Magnolia Manor, a cozy B&B in West Tennessee that is seriously haunted.

Between Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee, lies the scenic West Tennessee city 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, Knoxville or Nashville, where it excels those towns is in the density and intensity of paranormal phenomena there per haunted 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 Nest sits the majestic 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 lain to rest. Griefs know no boundary—not even the boundary of death.

But some who know more about the spirits of McNeal Place than I would argue that the old manse is not a morbid place but one filled with “glamor, hardship, romance and secrets.” At least some of the ghosts that reside there are not sad: one person who knows the place well avers that “Miss Polk is a funny little monkey of a spirit. She can and will scare the soles off your shoes. I was just one who “got ” her. I was a bit shocked at first encounter, then I just smiled and I felt her wink back.” Several spirits are reported to “run amuck” inside; but then it’s their residence–not ours!

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 old hospital itself 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 to go along with them.

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 pseudo-spooky hooey you see on TV these days, there is little to fear from the ghosts which haunt most houses and certainly those at Magnolia Manor are no different. Consider it from the ghost’s perspective: they are the permanent residents—you are the intruder. But they are hospitable haints and if you don’t bother them–or go shouting at them like some damn fools on television like to do–then 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!

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.

Hauntings of the Seven Hills: Suburban Spooks of Nashville

Howard Pyle's painting of the Battle for Shy's Hill, today part of Green Hills.  In December of 1864 a bloody battle was fought over most of what is now suburban Nashville.
Howard Pyle’s painting of the Battle for Shy’s Hill, today part of Green Hills. In December of 1864 a bloody battle was fought over most of what is now suburban Nashville.

Although I wrote about the ghosts of “The Seven Hills” in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, due to technical issues I wasn’t able to illustrate it the way I would have wished, which is one of the reasons why this blog exists–to update and supplement the true ghost tales I have already related to you.

Green Hills Mall, a modern shopping center located in the center of a battlefield.  Reports of apparitions surface from time to time here.
Green Hills Mall, a modern shopping center located in the center of a battlefield. Reports of apparitions surface from time to time here.

For those not native to Nashville, Tennessee, “The Seven Hills” does not refer to specific hills in the city (there are far more than seven) but to a cluster of suburban neighborhoods southwest of downtown which share similar names: Green Hills, Forest Hills, Hillsboro Village, etc. Although to the casual visitor they all seem pleasant affluent areas (they are) they also hide darker secrets as well: all possess their fair share of ghosts.

Most popular of the neighborhoods by far is Green Hills, and in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee I detail several hauntings there. One of the most interesting is at that mecca of Nashville fashionistas, Green Hills Mall. The mall has had repeated reports of hauntings. Other reports of hauntings in Green Hills come from the homes in the area as well.

Apparently some time back a shoe clerk at The Mall reported seeing an apparition wearing a tricorner hat on a number of occasions. It is thought that this spirit may have been a victim of an Indian attack during the frontier era, when raids and scalpings were commonplace in Nashville.

However, in these neighborhoods an even more common cause of the many reports of haunted homes is the fact that this part of Nashville is where some of the bloodiest fighting of the Battle of Nashville took place. In December of 1864, Green Hills and adjacent Forest Hills saw horrific bloodshed before the Confederate Army was finally defeated. The dead and dying lay everywhere after the battle.

While quietly buried in a modern suburban neighborhood, this old home dates back before the war.  Privately owned, it has had several reports of poltergeist activity, including old coins appearing out of nowhere!
While quietly buried in a modern suburban neighborhood, this old home dates back before the war. Privately owned, it has had several reports of poltergeist activity, including old coins appearing out of nowhere!

While these days on cable television, ghost hunters claim able to not only identify who is haunting what house, but also what they had for breakfast the day they died, the reality is that most hauntings cannot really be pinned to any known person. Residents or owners will report uncanny happenings, mysterious sounds or, more rarely, actually seeing a visual presence. In truth, however, identifying the ghost as a particular individual is mostly speculation. The fact that right after the battle, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dead Confederate were hastily thrown into mass graves in The Hills and never properly buried, is the most probable source of most of these continuing poltergeist activities. As in the movie “Poltergeist,” these subdivisions were often built over the mass graves of the dead without the graves being relocated.

Belmont, home of Adelicia Acklen, Headquarters of US IV Corps during the Civil War and today part of Belmont University.  Open to the public, the ghosts are at no additional charge.
Belmont, home of Adelicia Acklen, Headquarters of US IV Corps during the Civil War and today part of Belmont University. Open to the public, the ghosts are at no additional charge.

One exception to the above rule of thumb, however, is Belmont Mansion. This grand old dame of antebellum architecture stands on a tall hill overlooking Hillsboro Village, a popular destination for both the college crowd and music industry executives. Today Belmont is the campus of a prestigious Christian school, Belmont University. During the Battle of Nashville it was headquarters for the Union Army’s Fourth Corps and the battle lines lay only a few blocks away. While it is thought several ghosts haunt Belmont Mansion, the one most commonly associated with it is Adelicia Acklen, a Southern belle possessed of beauty, brains and lots and lots of money. Despite all that, she suffered the loss of several of her children in the house and it is believed that that is why she still resides there.

Adelicia Acklen, the Phantom Belle is one of several ghosts reputed to reside in Belmont Mansion., and located near Hillsboro Village
Adelicia Acklen, the Phantom Belle is one of several ghosts reputed to reside in Belmont Mansion., and located near Hillsboro Village

For more on the hauntings of The Hills see Chapter 13, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee; for more about Adelicia and her restless spirit, see Strange Tales, Chapter 26.

Restless Spirits of the Memphis Blues: The Haunting of Ernestine and Hazel’s Dive Bar

Ernestine and Hazel's has been host to many famous musicians and still is host to several ghosts.
Ernestine and Hazel’s has been host to many famous musicians and still is host to several ghosts.
Entrance to "The Best Dive in Memphis" Ernestine and Hazel's
Entrance to “The Best Dive in Memphis” Ernestine and Hazel’s

Like Nashville, Memphis, Tennessee is famous for its music; while Nashville is renowned as the home of Country music, Memphis lays claim to being the home of the Blues and Rock ‘n Roll. While other places in Dixie have hoppin’ music scenes equally vibrant, it seems that Memphis has a long and venerable history on that score. So it should come as no surprise that along with its musical heritage come more than a few ghosts and haunts.

If there is one place in Memphis which epitomizes this dual heritage it is an old brick building which houses the “Best Dive in Memphis”—some claim its the best dive in the United States: a place called Ernestine and Hazel’s. Now you may not think being a dive is any claim to fame, but the regulars at E&H—living and deceased—would give you an argument on that score.

Built sometime before the end of World War I, the old two story brick building has had many previous lives before becoming a dive bar. It was originally a pharmacy; in fact some of the pharmacy drawers where old time drugs were kept are still intact behind the bar. According to some, this old drug store was where St. Joseph’s Aspirin for children was invented. Later on it became a dry goods store; then a seedy hotel/brothel, then finally a Blues night club.

The haunted stairwell leading to the old brothel on the second floor where several R&B classics were created.
The haunted stairwell leading to the old brothel on the second floor where several R&B classics were created.

After World War II, there grew up what was called “the Chitlin’ Circuit.” Because of segregation, black folks couldn’t go to white night clubs, so they frequented a series of black clubs where one could hear “race” music: the Blues. Ernestine and Hazel’s became one of the most famous of these night clubs and in its heyday one could listen to all the legendary bluesmen; by all accounts, this is also where Rock ‘n Roll was born. Upstairs from the club male patrons could also enjoy less reputable entertainment as well.

Although the night club closed as integration took hold in the 1960’s and both races could mingle and enjoy “race” music together, in recent years Ernestine and Hazel’s was reopened and has undergone a revival. In its heyday legends like Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Howlin’ Wolf and others all visited its haunted hallowed halls and played or stayed there. So today, the spirit of the Blues is alive and well and rockin’ on in the same place. But the new owners and patrons of the old dive have found that some of the place’s long dead patrons have decided to hang around way past closing time.

A red light upstairs, a reminder of Ernestine and Hazel's seedy past.  The upstairs was where the hits songs Mustang Sally and Midnight Hour were created on an old upright piano.
A red light upstairs, a reminder of Ernestine and Hazel’s seedy past. The upstairs was where the hits songs Mustang Sally and Midnight Hour were created on an old upright piano.

For one thing, the old time juke box seems to have the uncanny ability to read people’s mental states and play the appropriate song. Although the songs are supposed to play in random order, more than one patron has found it playing a tune eerily in keeping with what their own thoughts are. Coincidence? Perhaps, but that’s not the only eerie thing that goes on there.

Male and female apparitions have been seen in the bar and on the stairs leading up to the old cat-house; one of the phantoms’ face has even been caught on film. The bar has also become a favorite haunt of ghost-hunters because the place is so psychically active and more than a few evp’s—ghost recordings—have been captured, although none of them were singing the Blues at the time.

There are various theories as to who haunts the old pharmacy turned flop house, turned night club, turned cat house and now legendary dive bar. But for the curious, perhaps a visit to the old haunts of the legendary bluesmen would be the best way to see for yourself whether Ernestine and Hazel’s is indeed as haunted as they say; and while you’re there, enjoy a “soul burger.”

For more on the haunted history of the legendary dive, read Chapter 25 of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee; and if your radio starts playing an old Blues song for no apparent reason as your read—well, you were warned.

Roses in the Winter: The Twelfth Ghost of Christmas

Our Lady of Guadalupe, venerated as a miraculous image of the apparition that appeared to Juan Diego.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, venerated as a miraculous image of the apparition that appeared to Juan Diego.

In recent years, paranormal researchers have begun to take a closer look at the phenomena they call the BVM: the faithful refer to her as the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Be one a believer or no, many serious researchers into unexplained phenomena are taking seriously the many sightings of this beatific female apparition.  Today we take a closer look at one specific report of this Holy Ghost.

A late Roman portrayal of the three Magi ("Wise Men") presenting their gifts; celebrated today as the Feast of the Epiphany.
A late Roman portrayal of the three Magi (“Wise Men”) presenting their gifts; celebrated today as the Feast of the Epiphany.

The arrival of the Magi—“we three kings from oriental”—who actually magicians or wizards and practitioners of the occult arts, came to pay homage to the birth of Christ, is celebrated in most Christian circles as the Feast of the Epiphany. It is traditionally dated to January 6, and in Merrie Oulde Englande it was called Little Christmas.

According to former custom, this was the actual day when gifts were exchanged, much as the Magi gave Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh.

 

The Epiphany was important because it was the first appearance of the Jewish Messiah to gentiles—the aforesaid non-Jewish sorcerers. Now anyone who wishes to celebrate the holiday properly can send this humble scrivener as much gold and incense for the Epiphany as they wish, although you can just go out and buy one or more of my books and get something in return for your generosity,

The Feast of the Epiphany is also the twelfth day of Christmas according to our reckoning and a fit day to conclude the Twelve Ghosts of Christmas. In Anglo-Saxon England, Yuletide actually continued on through to February, with much wassail and ample quantities of ale; nowadays most of us have to get back to work and save the wassailing for Super Bowl Sunday; the ailing follows closely upon the hangover the next day. But I digress a bit here; for now, let us consider one last Christmastide apparition and then we shall close the book (or bell, book and candle) and hope the spirits rest in peace till next Yuletide.

Back to the BVM.  There are many different sorts of apparitions, as we have amply seen. Some appear almost daily, as if they were on a loop of ghostly videotape set on infinite play; others occur just at certain times, as with most Christmas ghosts; but some apparitions appear just once or twice to deliver a message, then never again. Our last apparition is of that latter sort and while little known of in northern climes, it is widely celebrated further south.

In fact, this apparition occurred so far south that it was where folk didn’t speak English, and at the time it occurred, not even much Spanish. The spirit I refer to is Nuestra Senora de la Guadalupe—the Virgin of Guadalupe. Today this particular spirit visitation is hailed as the patron saint of Mexico and indeed she is venerated as the patroness of the Americas as a whole.

The odds are, if you have ever been to an authentic Mexican restaurant here in the Northwards, an icon of her has been lurking somewhere on the walls. That she is wildly popular among Mexicans and those among us of Mexican heritage, goes without saying. Those among us who are not of that cultural heritage may be unaware of the unusual story behind this intense devotion. Even if you are not a believer in saints or religious miracles, the story of her apparition—haunting, if you will—is a curious, yet true, one.

According to early accounts, Our Lady of Guadelupe made roses bloom in the middle of winter.
According to early accounts, Our Lady of Guadelupe made roses bloom in the middle of winter.

It actually occurred not long after the Conquistadors conquered—some say plundered and raped—the native kingdoms of what is now Mexico. The Aztecs were a proud and warlike people, and the truth be told, no better than the Spaniards who defeated them. Among the other tribes and kingdoms of Mexico, the defeat of the Aztecs was greeted as something of a relief—until they began to experience Spanish rule. In the wake of these European conquerors followed missionaries who came seeking neither gold nor glory, but rather came to bestow on the natives Christianity.

One of these converts to Christianity was a lowly campesino named Juan Diego. Born Cuauhtlatoatzin—Talking Eagle—Juan was a member of the Chichimeca tribe and spoke only Nuahatl—the language of the Aztecs and the other tribes of Central Mexico.

This day—the 9th of December, 1531—Juan was trudging from his little village into the city of Tlatelolco (now a neighborhood of Mexico City) to attend mass and take religious instruction. Juan was an eager convert to the new religion of the conquerors, it was true; but the complexities of this new religion were sometimes bewildering and so he and the other peasants like him were trying hard to understand the ins and outs of their new faith. The notion of one god, versus the many they had worshipped, for example, was peculiar enough in itself; that this one god could also be born of a virgin was even more confusing. Nonetheless, Juan trudged the dusty miles to the mission on foot to learn more about his new religion several times a week.

Only ten years before, Mexico City proper had been the pyramided imperial city of Tenochtitlan. It was the grand capitol of the great Aztec Empire, ruled over by a fierce warrior tribe who demanded human sacrifices from all the surrounding tribes. The human hostages given over to the Azteca elite by the surrounding natives were dragged to the tops of their high stepped temples and there they would have their hearts cut out still beating to feed the demanding and fearful Aztec gods; the remainder of their victim’s flesh was used to feed the Azteca warriors themselves. Now the temples had been razed and Spanish-style buildings and churches were being erected to replace them.

As Juan was climbing the hill the natives called Tepeyac, he heard singing on the hill, like the songs of many precious birds. Bewildered, Juan stopped and looked around, thinking perhaps he was dreaming. Then Juan looked towards the top of the hill, in the direction from which the music flowed.

The singing stopped and then he heard a voice calling to him, saying “Beloved Juan, dearest Diego.”

Juan went in the direction of the voice, and as he did so, he suddenly became happy and contented within. When he reached the top of the hill he saw before him a Maiden standing there who beckoned him closer.

She looked to be a native, with dark hair, dark eyes and copper skin like him. The Maiden was young and beautiful to behold; the apparition seemed only about fifteen or sixteen and she wore around her a mantle of blue-green, and though her form seemed human, Juan knew she was no ordinary mortal.

Her clothing was shining like the sun, as if it were sending out waves of light and the stones and the crag on which she stood seemed to be giving out rays of light as well. The Maiden’s radiance was like many brilliant precious stones, as in an exquisite bracelet; the earth all around her seemed to shine with the brilliance of a rainbow in the mist, while emanating from her head came bright rays of light, like the spines of an agave cactus. Juan stood there speechless, entranced by the incredible spectacle.

On the 9th of December, on his way to religious instruction, an image of a beautiful native woman appeared to him and revealed herself as the Blessed Mother.  At first no one would believe him
On the 9th of December, on his way to religious instruction, an image of a beautiful native woman appeared to him and revealed herself as the Blessed Mother. At first no one would believe him

Then she spoke to the bedazzled campesino in his own Nahuatl tongue: “Know, be sure, my dearest-and-youngest son, that I am the Prefect Ever Virgin Holy Mary, mother of the one great God of Truth who gives us life, the inventor and creator of people, the owner and Lord of the Sky, the owner of the earth. I want very much that they build my sacred little house here.” She then instructed Juan to go to the Spanish archbishop in the city and tell her of her wish that he build a house for her on that very hill.

In due course, Juan, the Indian peasant, went to the great residence of the Prince of the Church, the Archbishop Fray Juan de Zumárraga, only recently arrived in this brave new world, and told him of the appearance of the Blessed Mother and her request.

Although the good bishop did not openly laugh at the native peasant’s bold request, he thought this simple farmer just some deluded Indian, and demanded proof of what he claimed. That, the good bishop thought, would end of the matter.

Returning to the hill of Tepeyac, Juan told the apparition of the Bishop’s request for proof and suggested to the Maiden that perhaps she should have someone of noble blood transmit her instructions to the Prince of the Church, the archbishop.

But with soothing words the Maiden reproved Juan, and again she bade him go to the bishop and tell him her will. This Juan did and was again rebuffed and told to provide proof.

Coming back to the same hill, again he told the Maiden of the bishop’s doubt and demand for proof, a sign that what he said was true. The Maiden told him to return on the morrow and that she would give him that sign.

Juan almost didn’t return, for that evening his Uncle became very very sick; so sick the uncle thought sure his end was near. At his uncle’s request, Juan headed to Tlatelolco to seek a priest to deliver last rites. However, although he tried to avoid the place where the apparition had appeared, on the way Juan again met the Maiden. Ashamed he had tried to avoid her, he explained to her about his dying uncle. Unfazed, she told him to fear not; his uncle was already cured. And on returning home, he found it was so.

Then, on the day of the Winter Solstice, Juan returned to the same place on the hill of Tepeyac, and again the Maiden appeared before him. She now instructed him to go to a certain place on the hill and pick the flowers there. Juan knew that at this time of year no flowers blossomed in the high plateau, in the land where he and his folk dwelt. Yet obedient to the lady’s wishes he went to the place she told him of. There, looking all about him he found a field of fragrant and beautiful flowers in all in full bloom.

Juan Diego picked the flowers, dazzling in their variety and beauty, gathering them up in the folds of his tilma, his homemade agave fiber poncho. He presented them to the Maiden, who gathered them up in her hands; she then put them back again into the tilma and folded it up and strictly enjoined Juan not to open his serape again until he came into the presence of the archbishop, the Spanish grandee.

Only with great difficulty was Juan able to obtain yet another audience with the archbishop. The great Prince of the Church’s servants were loathe to let this lowly Indian back in, thinking His Grace had been harassed by this crazy native more than enough. Still, Juan persisted and after waiting and waiting, he was finally was ushered into the bishop’s presence.

The Spanish archbishop did not believe Juan Diego until, at the Lady of Guadalupe's insistence, he returned with a tilma full of fresh roses with her image imprinted on it.
The Spanish archbishop did not believe Juan Diego until, at the Lady of Guadalupe’s insistence, he returned with a tilma full of fresh roses with her image imprinted on it.

As instructed, Juan opened the tilma to show His Grace the fragrant flowers of the Maiden. On opening his poncho, out fell the flowers, all fragrant and beautiful, as if it were a sunny day in May and not the Winter Solstice. Yet these were not just any flowers but Castilian Roses, flowers which not only did not blossom in December, but which only grew in Spain and only in the province of Castile, from whence the Conqueror of Mexico, Hernan de Cortes himself had come. But even this was not the most remarkable thing the bishop witnessed; for on opening the folds of the tilma, the Archbishop Fray Juan de Zumárraga and his by now bewildered and curious servants saw the very image of the Maiden that had repeatedly appeared to Juan. It was a perfect image, glowing in vivid colors, yet not painted by the hand of man.

This time it was the bishop’s turn to bow, bow before the peasant Juan Diego and his tilma. For although the archbishop was a proud man and of high birth and came from a family of great wealth in Spain, he was at heart also a man of great piety and faith. In the knowledge that he was in the presence of something otherworldly and miraculous, the bishop begged the forgiveness of the Lady of the hill for his cynicism and doubt.

In due course the “little house”—a grand cathedral—was built where she directed. Word of the apparition grew and of the messages the Maiden gave to Juan, until all the natives of Mexico came to venerate the tilma with the image of the Lady and honor her as their protector and patron. And centuries later, when the day at last came for the native folk of Mexico to throw off the yoke of their conqueror, they bore the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe before them to victory. In all things the folk of Mexico hold fast to their faith in The Maiden as their protectress and still believe in the miracle of the roses.

Since then, the usual cynics have tried to disprove or deny the apparition, claiming the image is a fake and merely painted on; yet to this date no one has been able to succeed in proving it is anything but what Juan Diego claimed that Winter Solstice day in 1531.

However, in all the various investigations and close analyses of that icon on that agave fiber poncho which have been conducted over the years, some curious facts have emerged. For one thing, in the pupils of the eyes of Our Lady on the cloth can be seen very small, almost microscopic, images of people; they seem to be images of the bishop and his servants present when the tilma was unfolded by Juan Diego, as reflected in Our Lady’s eye.

Another curious fact, and one only recently discovered, is about the stars that decorate the blue-green gown of the Lady of Guadalupe.

A chart of the star map portrayed on the Maiden's mantle, via a devotional blog.
A chart of the star map portrayed on the Maiden’s mantle, via a devotional blog.

It had always been assumed that the stars were just a random decoration on the gown, in honor of her epithet of “Queen of Heaven.” However, a close analysis of those stars reveals the fact that they are not haphazard, but organized as actual constellations of the sky. Nor is the arrangement of those constellations random either, but in fact they are in the exact pattern they would have been in the sky in 1531, on the day of the Winter Solstice, the day when the tilma was presented to Archbishop Zumárraga.

The only difference is that the constellations are a mirror image of how we would see them from earth. Imagine if her gown were the mantle of heaven; we would be looking up at them from the inside; but an onlooker viewing the tilma is seeing her gown from the outside, from the direction of heaven—hence the reverse pattern of the stars.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is a beloved icon and the story behind it most unusual; to date, all attempts to discredit it have proved fruitless—not that the professional debunkers haven’t tried. If, as the cynics would have us believe, it is a man-made fabrication, it is of such skill, subtlety and complexity as to boggle the mind. No ordinary mortal, much less an untutored native peasant, could possibly have rendered it. Any attempt to debunk the apparition of Guadalupe must also explain who, how, and why it would have been made.

Not just the faithful, but objective modern paranormal researchers have studied this and similar female apparitions which have been identified with Mary, the mother of Christ. They refer to them collectively as “BVMs” (Blessed Virgin Marys) and have a somewhat different view than the religious faithful. While accepting their reality, and positing them as genuine supernatural phenomena, they have wondered if something else is not also going on with such apparitions beyond what orthodox Christians are willing to comfortably accept.

The celestial symbolism of the robe of Our Lady of Guadalupe, for one thing, seems to point to certain astrological connections. Going back to the Christmas narrative in the Bible and the Feast of the Epiphany, we may note that the Magi in some modern New Testament translations have also been rendered as “astrologers”—presumably a more palatable epithet than magician or sorcerer. Indeed, the appearance of the Nativity Star at the birth of Jesus also implies astrological connections. That Mary is frequently referred to as the “Morning Star” (Venus) in early Christian writings also points to occult celestial connections on the part of the Queen of Heaven. We may note in passing certain celestial alignments have also been pointed out with regard to her Feast of the Annunciation as well.

It is not our purpose here to argue any particular theology or spiritual belief—although Moslems also venerate Mary in addition to many Christians—but rather to simply point out, as Shakespeare so nobly said, “There are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

For anyone wishing to investigate further these celestial connections with Our Lady of Guadalupe and the BVM, one can see for example the Immaculate Immigrant blog and regarding the Feast of the Annunciation (suspiciously close to the Vernal Equinox) see the dsdocnnor wordpress blog about the Pleiades and the BVM.

For those who simply can’t get enough about the spooky, the supernatural or the just plain weird, I refer you to Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Dixie Spirits, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground chronicles true stories of unexplained phenomena in the Mid South.
Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground chronicles true stories of unexplained phenomena in the Mid South.
A compendium of strange, unexplained and uncanny events and places throughout the South.
A compendium of strange, unexplained and uncanny events and places throughout the South.