It was in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, where I published the first modern account of Andrew Jackson’s hauntings. It recounts the encounter by two founders of the Ladies Hermitage Association with the ghost of Andrew Jackson.
In the 1890’s, Old Hickory’s home, the Hermitage, had been in sad condition: the stately manse was in a shabby state, its white columns turned to gray, the grounds gone to seed and overgrown with weeds, with only Jackson’s devoted servant, Uncle Alfred, blind and alone, still residing out back in an old log cabin. The two ladies camped inside the run-down mansion as the first step towards the Association beginning the hard task of restoration, only to find out that, though buried in the garden behind the house, Old Hickory’s spirit still resided within.
Since then, generations of volunteers and full-time staff have restored the venerable estate into the jewel you will see today if you visit it, and I am told the ghost of Jackson still occasionally makes his presence known.
Since my first report on his ghost, others have retold the story of Old Hickory haunting the Hermitage many times and camera crews occasionally visit to sneak a peak, if they can, of his shade. But if you prefer the original account to a rehash, by all means read it in Strange Tales, which also includes Old Hickory’s mostly true encounter with the dread Bell Witch.
Less known than this haunt of Old Hickory’s is the fact that Andrew Jackson’s ornery shade also frequents the hallowed halls of the White House, in Washington D.C., although some say his spirit also makes an occasional visit at another White House—the old stagecoach stand in White House, Tennessee.
Old Hickory’s haunting of Big White is less recognized, one may surmise, because the White House is one of those places awash in hauntings by former residents. For example, I relate Lincoln’s apparition appearing there in a chapter of The Paranormal Presidencyof Abraham Lincoln. And with so many spooks bedeviling staff and visitors, one may be forgiven if Andrew Jackson’s spectral visitations there from time to time get lost in the shuffle.
Although nowadays Jackson is out of favor with the politically correct crowd, he remains one of our greatest presidents in history. After all, how many leaders have a whole age named after them, not to mention a political revolution? Still, even in his own day, Old Hickory was a man who incurred not only deep affection but also intense hatred among people.
His treatment of Native Americans—even those tribes who had allied with him during the War of 1812—was particularly egregious. At the time he claimed it was to protect them from the depredations of whites. His regard for minority rights was less than righteous, which in turn reminds one of an old definition of democracy as “five wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner.”
But Jackson also ushered in an era of greater Democracy in America. Among his greatest reforms was to break the power of the bankers, whose greed and graft was having undue influence over the nation’s politics and threatened to replace the growing movement towards Democracy with an oligarchy of the rich and powerful. Would that we had another Jackson to do that today.
Moreover, when an attempt was made to weaken and divide the Nation, Old Hickory acted decisively to prevent Sectionalism from threatening the Union. During the Nullification Crisis, Old Hickory is alleged to have said, “John Calhoun, if you secede from my nation I will secede your head from the rest of your body.” Unfortunately, that was an empty threat. His eight years in the White House were tumultuous and there was bad mixed in with the good he did, but after his term, the Nation would never be the same again.
A man with that strong a spirit and that iron a will cannot help but leave his mark, and that is perhaps why Old Hickory’s shade still lingers within the walls of the White House.
It’s hard to say exactly when anyone first noticed his presence in the White House. We know that during the Civil War Abraham Lincoln hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, for though Jackson had been of a different party, like Lincoln, Jackson was a staunch defender of the Union and a great Nationalist. Perhaps Old Hickory’s adamantine spirit was invisibly guiding the rail-splitter from Kentucky through the war to preserve the Union.
It has been reported that Mary Todd Lincoln, who attended a number of seances during the war (many with her husband), claimed that she could hear the ghost of Andrew Jackson “cussing” in the Rose Room and stomping around the canopied bed there. What was the cause of Old Hickory’s cussing, Mary was never able to divine, but her description of the ghost’s behavior certainly fit what we know about Jackson’s temperament.
The next documented encounter with Andrew Jackson’s ghost in the White House was by Harry Truman in the 1940’s. He had only been President for two months, when in June 1945, he wrote to his wife about experiencing a number of paranormal encounters: “I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches–all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth.” Truman theorized “old Andy and Teddy” were having an argument over “Franklin.”
A few years later, longtime White House seamstress, Lillian Rogers Park, had a frightening encounter in the Rose Room: “I remember when I was working at the bed in the Rose Room…as I hemmed a bedspread, I suddenly felt that someone was looking at me. I felt something coldish behind me . . . I didn’t finish the spread until three years later.”
During the 1940’s, a White House maid, Katurah Brooks, also encountered Old Hickory’s spirit. Katurah was busy one day doing chores, when she heard laughter in the Rose Room. She stated the sound had a “hollow” or “otherworldly” quality. She too was more than a little spooked.
The most recent report of Andrew Jackson’s ghost haunting the White House is in 1964. Liz Carpenter, noted Washington pundit, was Lady Bird’s press secretary during the Johnson administration and one day, during a routine visit with the First Lady, reported hearing swearing and shouting coming from the Rose Room. She was convinced it was Jackson’s ghost in an uproar.
Some have noticed a pattern to Old Hickory’s White House visitations. They note that ole’ Andy seems to appear during wartime or times of national crisis: the Civil War, World War II, the Vietnam War era, etc.
It could be that the fiery Andrew Jackson only reappears when the Nation needs firm leadership or is at threat and his ghost is there, they theorize, to provide motivation and moral support. Whatever the cause, the tough old ghost still graces the rooms and halls of the President’s residence.
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.
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.
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.
Nearby by Ernest Tubbs was Lawrence Records until recently. Now transformed into Nudie’s Bar, it too has its resident revenants. Nudie does not refer to the undress of the barmaids there–they more or less keep their clothes on–but to the clothing designer Nudie, known for the gaudy costumes he designs for Country stars. They can change the name and change what they sell here, but the spirits remain despite the changes.
Truth be told, just about every old building in downtown Nashville has a resident spook or three.
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!
Grendel and Bigfoot: Big Hairy Beasts and Where to Find Them
While we normally chronicle all things weird and wonderful about the American South, we are not averse to occasional side trips into other realms of the uncanny. Given that there are abundant reports of Big Foot and his stinky-ass cousins all over the South, it is not too far afield to inquire about that most famous monster from Old English literature, Grendel.
Once upon a time there was an obscure English scholar of Medieval Literature who wrote an obscure paper about a long forgotten Old English epic poem. The poem was Beowulf and the eccentric academic in question was J.R.R. Tolkien. His resurrection of the epic poem started a major re-appreciation of the poem, first by scholars, then by literary critics in general and finally Hollywood, running out of comic books to make into movies and TV shows, grabbed onto Beowulf and ran with it. At last count, I believe there have been three movies made about Beowulf and more recently a TV series, all of which play fast and loose with the original story–but that’s Holly Weird for you. So, in case you have to read it for a class this fall, be warned that the Germanic hero does not have sex with a demonic Angelina Jolie morphed into a dragon, or anything like it. Read the book.
What set this latest inquiry into monsters is an article I came across by a Dark Age scholar chronicling all the (allegedly) legendary monsters who inhabited Medieval Lincolnshire. Bear in mind, on a dark and stormy night, jolly old England in the Dark Ages could be a pretty scary place and she lists quite a few wyrd and uncanny beasts. No doubt J. K. Rowling could raid her blog for more stuff for her sequels. The original blog post is here: “The Monstrous Landscape of Lincolnshire.”
She posted an old illustration of Grendel, the monster from Beowulf, in the post which immediately caught my eye. She connects Beowulf with a local monster or ogre called a byrs or thyrs in Anglo-Saxon. The illustration from a 1908 book (see below) which included the story of Grendel versus Beowulf is strikingly similar to what most eyewitnesses have described as Bigfoot. Now, admittedly, a modern artist’s conception is not proof that the ancient creature called a byrs and which was the term to describe Grendel was the same beast, but it does set one wondering.
Anyone familiar with either or all of my books, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground,Dixie Spirits or Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee will know I have an abiding interest in Cryptozoology. It is my belief that, more often than not, these legends of strange or uncanny creatures do have a basis in fact. Animals though long extinct, such as the Coelacanth, manage to confound biologists all the time and fossil hunter are always uncovering previously unknown extinct species. So whenever a biologist vehemently denies the existence of one or another creature as legendary, they should always add the qualifier “for now.”
Over the years there have been quite a few Bigfoot (Bigfeet?) sightings in the Mid-South, although they do seem to have tapered off in recent years. I live in a suburban county to Nashville and while I can’t claim to have seen any giant ape-men (or man-apes, depending on your point of view) I have talked to a few who have. Modern Hendersonville, Tennessee is rapidly building up and developing, but one long time resident remembers the time he was walking along Drakes Creek, before the sports complex was built up along it, and finding large claw marks high up on a tree. He is a veteran hunter and knows quite well bear signs; he insisted to me these claw marks were far too high up on the tree for any black or brown bear to have made, even if they had wandered down from the mountains.
Dating from about the same time period is a report filed with BFRO (Big Foot Research Organization) of a multiple person sighting in Hendersonville. When many of the old farms were just beginning to be turned into sub-divisions a group of six people caught a Big Foot in their headlights rummaging through garbage can. When sighted the eight food creature walked away. As noted above, even in 1965 Indian Lake was by no means wilderness, although heavily wooded in parts. The BFRO Report is posted here. Even now, with decades of development, there are still herds of deer that inhabit the area, so a large biped could still have plenty of big game available to feed on if it didn’t mind all the people.
Just north of Hendersonville, a resident of the Beech area also reported a Big Foot crossing an open field just off of Long Hollow Pike. This too was some time back, but Long Hollow Pike meanders through a hilly region and sits below the Highland Rim, an area more conducive to large creatures living and feeding, with abundant fresh water and game to be had. Some time back I charted most of the published Big Foot sightings and they tended to cluster either along the Cumberland Mountains and Highland Rim area or else in the Smokey Mountain region. With economic development and the disappearance of natural habitats, it may well be that the Tennessee Stink Ape is extinct, or nearly so.
So the Stink Ape, or Wooley Booger or byrs or Grendel may be gone from the scene, but that does not necessarily mean they never existed, and for some they continue to exist in memory.
Of all the many haunted buildings in downtown Nashville, surely one of the most haunted is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge! At 422 Broadway, 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 the bar, its back door opens onto an ally which faces the old stage door to the Ryman Auditorium. In the old days, when the Grand Ole Opy’s home was the Ryman, the now legendary stars of County would toddle across the alley to Tootsie’s to pull back a few brews in between sets. Sometimes when in their cups they would get up on the stage of Tootsie’s and play for free, and by all accounts, their performance on the stage of Tootsie’s was far better than what you would see on the straight-laced stage of the Opry. In those days they wouldn’t even allow drums or brass on stage to back up the performers. Sometimes, the old Country greats had one too many a drink and never made it back to the Opry for a second set.
The old owner of the bar, Tootsie herself, was a tough old broad, but with a heart of gold and she was known to give perspiring musicians a handout and a hand when they needed one. She is long gone and so are the old legends of Country—but not their ghosts.
In the hustle and bustle of the crowded bar you might never notice when the odd ghost or two is also listening in to the show. But sometimes a cold draft of air will fill the air and a door open or close on its own. Perhaps it is Hank Williams Sr. trying to make it back to the stage of the old Opry; or one of a dozen other spectral singers whose shades still dwell there: hard to say. The alley out back has also been witness to apparitions, seen passing back and for between the Ryman and Tootsies.
Upstairs, where Willie Nelson once camped out, thanks to Tootsie’s good graces, other ghosts have sometimes been reported as well. All told, living or dead, the spirit of Country Music is very much in evidence at Tootsies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In Strange Tales I mostly focused on Elvis sightings in West Tennessee, particularly at Graceland. Of course, many who have seen him at his favorite haunt have refused to believe him dead—hence the widespread Elvis Lives! urban folklore. In my chapter on the King in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, I focused on his haunting other cities as well, including Las Vegas (VIVA!) and Nashville. Although Elvis is not generally associated with Nashville, in truth Music City had quite a bit to do with his rise to fame. This was where Heartbreak Hotel was recorded and quite a number of his other hits. When he came to town, strangely, he did not lodge in some glitzy glamorous hotel (the city had them even then); no, he would stay in a simple cinder-block guest house out behind his manager’s house, Colonel Parker. The Colonel’s house still stands, although it has been turned into law offices and its front yard into a parking lot; likewise the little cinder-block special stands, although much improved and the metal bars taken off the windows. They side on the right side of Gallatin Road in Madison, 1215 Gallatin Road South. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPKS6D_OlDE for a rare look inside Colonel Tom Parker’s old digs.
The studio in Nashville where Elvis first recorded some of his greatest hits, however, is sadly not standing anymore. It was on a side street off Demumbreun Street, in the Music Row District of Music City. This first RCA Studio was admittedly not fancy looking: in those days, the record companies wanted things cheap, so no fancy glitz and glamour. While it is now the site of a used car lot, for many years it had quite the reputation for being haunted. Jim Owens TV used it as studios for a number of years and just about every person who worked there had some kind of uncanny encounter. No one who worked there doubted the King was making his presence known.
One spot where Elvis performed is also thought to be haunted by him: none other than the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole’ Opry. You may not have ever heard he played there because he only did it once, and the memory of it was not a pleasant one for him. Somehow old Swivel Hips got booked onto the Saturday Night Show of the Opry back in the early ‘50’s. Well, you have to understand that in those days the Opry was pretty straight-laced: no drums, no saxophones, etc. So you can imagine when the singer whose hips were blacked out when he performed on the Ed Sullivan TV variety show got up on stage. He was literally booed off the stage by the audience of Country purists. As he was walking offstage, a know-it-all Nashville music producer gave him some sage advice. He said, “Son, get out of the business, you’re never gonna make in music.” Needless to say, Elvis didn’t listen to him and the rest is history; but Elvis never performed live in Nashville again.
A few years back his daughter, Lisa Marie Presley was doing a show at the old Ryman. She was headed back to her dressing room and about to go in and take off her makeup and such, but the door would not budge. Even her burly bodyguard could not open it. Finally, she and her guard heard the distinct sound of her father’s laugh ring out and suddenly the door opened with ease. Big Daddy had made his presence known to Lisa Marie!
Or course, Las Vegas had a longtime relationship with the King of Rock and Roll also, especially during his jumpsuit years. Elvis’s Penthouse Suite in Vegas (now broken up into three smaller luxury suites is also reputed to be haunted by the King: Here’s another rare look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZSH59uWKUM . His immense penthouse atop the Vegas Hilton is known to have a particularly strong aura of Elvi about it—but that’s another story.
It was first published in 1913 and so in some respects it reflects the racial attitudes of the era which, by modern standards, would certainly be unacceptable. However I did not bowdlerize the text in any way; Cobb’s tale is what it is, warts and all. Nonetheless, the main character gets his revenge, albeit in a strange way. I think it is an overlooked classic deserving of a wider audience.
Irvin S. Cobb was a prolific writer, best known for his humorous columns in the New York World; he also published sixty books and numerous short stories. Although Kentucky born, he lived most of his adult life in New York, but Cobb never forgot his Southern roots. This story, penned in 1911, is said to have inspired a classic H. P. Lovecraft tale.
Irvin S. Cobb
Originally published in The Cavalier (1913)
IT GOES past the powers of my pen to try to describe Reelfoot Lake for you so that you, reading this, will get the picture of it in your mind as I have it in mine.
For Reelfoot Lake is like no other lake that I know anything about. It is an after-thought of Creation.
The rest of this continent was made and had dried in the sun for thousands of years-millions of years, for all I know-before Reelfoot came to be. It’s the newest big thing in nature on this hemisphere, probably, for it was formed by the great earthquake of 1811.
That earthquake of 1811 surely altered the face of the earth on the then far frontier of this country.
It changed the course of rivers, it converted hills into what are now the sunk lands of three states, and it turned the solid ground to jelly and made it roll in waves like the sea.
And in the midst of the retching of the land and the vomiting of the waters it depressed to varying depths a section of the earth crust sixty miles long, taking it down — trees, hills, hollows, and all, and a crack broke through to the Mississippi River so that for three days the river ran up stream, filling the hole.
The result was the largest lake south of the Ohio, lying mostly in Tennessee, but extending up across what is now the Kentucky line, and taking its name from a fancied resemblance in its outline to the splay, reeled foot of a cornfield negro. Niggerwool Swamp, not so far away, may have got its name from the same man who christened Reelfoot: at least so it sounds.
Reelfoot is, and has always been, a lake of mystery.
In places it is bottomless. Other places the skeletons of the cypress-trees that went down when the earth sank, still stand upright so that if the sun shines from the right quarter, and the water is less muddy than common, a man, peering face downward into its depths, sees, or thinks he sees, down below him the bare top-limbs upstretching like drowned men’s fingers, all coated with the mud of years and bandaged with pennons of the green lake slime.
In still other places the lake is shallow for long stretches, no deeper than breast high to a man, but dangerous because of the weed growths and the sunken drifts which entangle a swimmer’s limbs. Its banks are mainly mud, its waters are *muddled, too, being a rich coffee color in the spring and a copperish yellow in the summer, and the trees along its shore are mud colored clear up their lower limbs after the spring floods, when the dried sediment covers their trunks with a thick, scrofulous-looking coat.
There are stretches of unbroken woodland around it, and slashes where the cypress knees rise countlessly like headstones and footstones for the dead snags that rot in the soft ooze.
There are deadenings with the lowland corn growing high and rank below and the bleached, fire-blackened girdled trees rising above, barren of leaf and limb.
There are long, dismal flats where in the spring the clotted frog- spawn cling like patches of white mucus among the weed-stalks, and at night the turtles crawl out to lay clutches of perfectly, round, white eggs with tough, rubbery shells in the sand.
There are bayous leading off to nowhere, and sloughs that wind aimlessly, like great, blind worms, to finally join the big river that rolls its semi-liquid torrents a few miles to the westward.
So Reelfoot lies there, flat in the bottoms, freezing lightly in the winter, steaming torridly in the summer, swollen in the spring when the woods have turned a vivid green and the buffalo-gnats by the million and the billion fill the flooded hollows with their pestilential buzzing, and in the fall, ringed about gloriously with all the colors which the first frost brings-gold of hickory, yellow-russet of sycamore, red of dogwood and ash, and purple-black of sweet-gum.
But the Reelfoot country has its uses. It is the best game and fish country, natural or artificial, that is left in the South today.
In their appointed seasons the duck and the geese flock in, and even semi-tropical birds, like the brown pelican and the Florida snake-bird, have been known to come there to nest.
Pigs, gone back to wildness, range the ridges, each razor-backed drove captained by a gaunt, savage, slab-sided old boar. By night the bullfrogs, inconceivably big and tremendously vocal, bellow under the banks.
It is a wonderful place for fish — bass and crappie, and perch, and the snouted buffalo fish.
How these edible sorts live to spawn, and how their spawn in turn live to spawn again is a marvel, seeing how many of the big fish-eating cannibal-fish there are in Reelfoot.
Here, bigger than anywhere else, you find the garfish, all bones and appetite and horny plates, with a snout like an alligator, the nearest link, naturalists say, between the animal life of today and the animal life of the Reptilian Period.
The shovel-nose cat, really a deformed kind of fresh-water sturgeon, with a great fan-shaped membranous plate jutting out from his nose like a bowsprit, jumps all day in the quiet places with mighty splashing sounds, as though a horse had fallen into the water.
On every stranded log the huge snapping turtles lie on sunny days in groups of four and six, baking their shells black in the sun, with their little snaky heads raised watchfully, ready to slip noiselessly off at the first sound of oars grating in the row-locks. But the biggest of them all are the catfish!
These are monstrous creatures, these catfish of Reelfoot — scaleless,slick things, with corpsy, dead eyes and poisonous fins, like javelins, and huge whiskers dangling from the sides of their cavernous heads.
Six and seven feet long they grow to be, and weigh 200 pounds or more, and they have mouths wide enough to take in a man’s foot or a man’s fist, and strong enough to break any hook save the strongest, and greedy enough to eat anything, living or dead or putrid, that the horny jaws can master.
Oh, but they are wicked things, and they tell wicked tales of them down there. They call them man-eaters, and compare them, in certain of their habits, to sharks.
Fishhead was of a piece with this setting.
He fitted into it as an acorn fits its cup. All his life he had lived on Reelfoot, always in the one place, at the mouth of a certain slough.
He had been born there, of a negro father and a half-breed Indian mother, both of them now dead, and the story was that before his birth his mother was frightened by one of the big fish, so that the child came into the world most hideously marked.
Anyhow, Fishhead was a human monstrosity, the veritable embodiment of nightmare!
He had the body of a man — a short, stocky sinewy body — but his face was as near to being the face of a great fish as any face could be and yet retain some trace of human aspect.
His skull sloped back so abruptly that he could hardly be said to have a have a forehead at all; his chin slanted off right into nothing. His eyes were small and round with shallow, glazed, pale-yellow pupils, and they were set wide apart in his head, and they were unwinking and staring, like a fish’s eyes.
His nose was no more than a pair of tiny slits in the middle of the yellow mask. His mouth was the worst of all. It was the awful mouth of a catfish, lipless and almost inconceivably wide, stretching from side to side.
Also when Fishhead became a man grown his likeness to a fish increased, for the hair upon his face grew out into two tightly kinked slender pendants that drooped down either side of the mouth like the beards of a fish!
If he had another name than Fishhead, none excepting he knew it. As Fishhead he was known, and as Fishhead he answered. Because he knew the waters and the woods of Reelfoot better than any other man there, he was valued as a guide by the city men who came every year to hunt or fish; but there were few such jobs that Fishhead would take.
Mainly he kept to himself, tending his corn patch, netting the lake, trapping a little, and in season pot hunting for the city markets. His neighbors, ague-bitten whites and malaria-proof negroes alike, left him to himself
Indeed, for the most part they had a superstitious fear of him. So he lived alone, with no kith nor kin, nor even a friend, shunning his kind and shunned by them.
His cabin stood just below the State line, where Mud Slough runs into the lake. It was a shack of logs, the only human habitation for four miles up or down.
Behind it the thick timber came shouldering right up to the edge of Fishhead’s small truck patch, enclosing it in thick shade except when the sun stood just overhead.
He cooked his food in a primitive fashion, outdoors, over a hole in the soggy earth or upon the rusted red ruin of an old cookstove, and he drank the saffron water of the lake out of a dipper made of a gourd, faring and fending for himself, a master hand at skiff and net, competent with duck gun and fishspear, yet a creature of affliction and loneliness, part savage, almost amphibious, set apart from his fellows, silent and suspicious.
In front of his cabin jutted out a long fallen cottonwood trunk, lying half in and half out of the water, its top side burnt by the sun and worn by the friction of Fishhead’s bare feet until it showed countless patterns of tiny scrolled lines, its underside black and rotted, and lapped at unceasingly by little waves like tiny licking tongues.
Its farther end reached deep water. And it was a part of Fishhead, for no matter how far his fishing and trapping might take him in the daytime, sunset would find him back there, his boat drawn up on the bank, and he on the other end of this log.
From a distance men had seen him there many times, sometimes squatted motionless as the big turtles that would crawl upon its dipping tip in his absence, sometimes erect and motionless like a creek crane, his misshapen yellow form outlined against the yellow sun, the yellow water, the yellow banks — all of them yellow together.
If the Reelfooters shunned Fishhead by day they feared him by night and avoided him as a plague, dreading even the chance of a casual meeting. For there were ugly stories about Fishhead — stories which all the negroes and some of the whites believed.
They said that a cry which had been heard just before dusk and just after, skittering across the darkened waters, was his calling cry to the big cats, and at his bidding they came trooping in, and that in their company he swam in the lake on moonlight nights, sporting with them, diving with them, even feeding with them on what manner of unclean things they fed.
The cry had been heard many times, that much was certain, and it was certain also that the big fish were noticeably thick at the mouth of Fishhead’s slough. No native Reelfooter, white or black, would willingly wet a leg or an arm there.
Here Fishhead had lived, and here he was going to die. The Baxters were going to kill him, and this day in late summer was to be the time of the killing.
The two Baxters — Jake and Joel — were coming in their dugout to do it!
This murder had been a long time in the making. The Baxters had to brew their hate over a slow fire for months before it reached the pitch of action.
They were poor whites, poor in everything, repute, and worldly goods, and standing — a pair of fever-ridden squatters who lived on whiskey and tobacco when they could get it, and on fish and cornbread when they couldn’t.
The feud itself was of months’ standing. Meeting Fishhead one day, in the spring on the spindly scaffolding of the skiff landing at Walnut Log, and being themselves far overtaken in liquor and vainglorious with a bogus alcoholic substitute for courage, the brothers had accused him, wantonly and without proof, of running their trout-line and stripping it of the hooked catch — an unforgivable sin among the water dwellers and the shanty boaters of the South.
Seeing that he bore this accusation in silence, only eyeing them steadfastly, they had been emboldened then to slap his face, whereupon he turned and gave them both the beating of their lives — bloodying their noses and bruising their lips with hard blows against their front teeth, and finally leaving them, mauled and prone, in the dirt.
Moreover, in the onlookers a sense of the everlasting fitness of things had triumphed over race prejudice and allowed them — two freeborn, sovereign whites — to be licked *by, a nigger! Therefore they were going to get the nigger!
The whole thing had been planned out amply. They were going to kill him on his log at sundown. There would be no witnesses to see it, no retribution to follow after it. The very ease of the undertaking made them forget even their inborn fear of the place of Fishhead’s habitation.
For more than an hour they had been coming from their shack across a deeply indented arm of the lake.
Their dugout, fashioned by fire and adz and draw-knife from the bole of a gum-tree, moved through the water as noiselessly as a swimming mallard, leaving behind it a long, wavy trail on the stilled waters.
Jake, the better oarsman, sat flat in the stern of the round-bottomed craft, paddling with quick, splashless strokes, Joel, the better shot, was squatted forward. There was a heavy, rusted duck gun between his knees.
Though their spying upon the victim had made them certain sure he would not be about the shore for hours, a doubled sense of caution led them to hug closely the weedy banks. They slid along the shore like shadows, moving so swiftly and in such silence that the watchful mudturtles barely turned their snaky heads as they passed.
So, a full hour before the time, they came slipping around the mouth of the slough and made for a natural ambuscade which the mixed-breed had left within a stone’s jerk of his cabin to his own undoing.
Where the slough’s flow joined deeper water a partly uprooted tree was stretched, prone from shore, at the top still thick and green with leaves that drew nourishment from the earth in which the half uncovered roots yet held, and twined about with an exuberance of trumpet vines and wild fox-grapes. All about was a huddle of drift — last year’s cornstalks, shreddy strips of bark, chunks of rotted weed, all the riffle and dunnage of a quiet eddy.
Straight into this green clump glided the dugout and swung, broadside on, against the protecting trunk of the tree, hidden from the inner side by the intervening curtains of rank growth, just as the Baxters had intended it should be hidden when days before in their scouting they marked this masked place of waiting and included it, then and there, in the scope of their plans.
There had been no hitch or mishap. No one had been abroad in the late afternoon to mark their movements — and in a little while Fishhead ought to be due. Jake’s woodman’s eye followed the downward swing of the sun speculatively.
The shadows, thrown shoreward, lengthened and slithered on the small ripples. The small noises of the day died out; the small noises of the coming night began to multiply.
The green-bodied flies went away and big mosquitoes with speckled gray legs, came to take the places of the flies.
The sleepy lake sucked at the mud banks with small mouthing sounds, as though it found the taste of the raw mud agreeable. A monster crawfish, big as a chicken lobster, crawled out of the top of his dried mud chimney and perched himself there, an armored sentinel on the watchtower.
Bull bats began to flitter back and forth, above the tops of the trees. A pudgy muskrat, swimming with head up, was moved to sidle off briskly as he met a cotton-mouth moccasin snake, so fat and swollen with summer poison that it looked almost like a legless lizard as it moved along the surface of the water in a series of slow torpid S’s. Directly above the head of either of the waiting assassins a compact little swarm of midges hung, holding to a sort of kite-shaped formation.
A little more time passed and Fishhead came out of the woods at the back, walking swiftly, with a sack over his shoulder.
For a few seconds his deformities showed in the clearing, then the black inside of the cabin swallowed him up.
By now the sun was almost down. Only the red nub of it showed above the timber line across the lake, and the shadows lay inland a long way. Out beyond, the big cats were stirring, and the great smacking sounds as their twisting bodies leaped clear and fell back in the water, came shoreward in a chorus.
But the two brothers, in their green covert, gave heed to nothing except the one thing upon which their hearts were set and their nerves tensed. Joel gently shoved his gun barrels across the log, cuddling the stock to his shoulder and slipping two fingers caressingly back and forth upon the triggers. Jake held the narrow dugout steady by a grip upon a fox-grape tendril.
A little wait and then the finish came!
Fishhead emerged from the cabin door and came down the narrow footpath to the water and out upon the water on his log.
He was barefooted and bareheaded, his cotton shirt open down the front to show his yellow neck and breast, his dungaree trousers held about his waist by a twisted tow string.
His broad splay feet, with the prehensile toes outspread, gripped the polished curve of the log as he moved along its swaying, dipping surface until he came to its outer end, and stood there erect, his chest filling, his chinless face lifted up, and something of mastership and dominion in his poise.
And then — his eye caught what another’s eyes might have missed — the round, twin ends of the gun barrels, the fixed gleam of Joel’s eyes, aimed at him through the green tracery! In that swift passage of time, too swift almost to be measured by seconds, realization flashed all through him, and he threw his head still higher and opened wide his shapeless trap of a mouth, and out across the lake he sent skittering and rolling his cry.
And in his cry was the laugh of a loon, and the croaking bellow of a frog, and the bay of a hound, all the compounded night noises of the lake. And in it, too, was a farewell, and a defiance, and an appeal!
The heavy roar of the duck gun came!
At twenty yards the double charge tore the throat out of him. He came down, face forward, upon the log and clung there, his trunk twisting distortedly, his legs twitching and kicking like the legs of a speared frog; his shoulders hunching and lifting spasmodically as the life ran out of him all in one swift coursing flow.
His head canted up between the heaving shoulders, his eyes looked full on the staring face of his murderer, and then the blood came out of his mouth, and Fishhead, in death still as much fish as man, slid, flopping, head first, off the end of the log, and sank, face downward slowly, his limbs all extended out.
One after another a string of big bubbles came up to burst in the middle of a widening reddish stain on the coffee-colored water.
The brothers watched this, held by the horror of the thing they had done, and the cranky dugout, having been tipped far over by the recoil of the gun, took water steadily across its gunwale; and now there was a sudden stroke from below upon its careening bottom and it went over and they were in the lake.
But shore was only twenty feet away, the trunk of the uprooted tree only five. Joel, still holding fast to his shot gun, made for the log, gaining it with one stroke. He threw his free arm over it and clung there, treading water, as he shook his eyes free.
Something gripped him — some great, sinewy, unseen thing gripped him fast by the thigh, crushing down on his flesh!
He uttered no cry, but his eyes popped out, and his mouth set in a square shape of agony, and his fingers gripped into the bark of the tree like grapples. He was pulled down and down, by steady jerks, not rapidly but steadily, so steadily, and as he went his fingernails tore four little white strips in the tree-bark. His mouth went under, next his popping eyes, then his erect hair, and finally his clawing, clutching hand, and that was the end of him.
Jake’s fate was harder still, for he lived longer — long enough to see Joel’s finish. He saw it through the water that ran down his face, and with a great surge of his whole body, he literally flung himself across the log and jerked his legs up high into the air to save them. He flung himself too far, though, for his face and chest hit the water on the far side.
And out of this water rose the head of a great fish, with the lake slime of years on its flat, black head, its whiskers bristling, its corpsy eyes alight. Its horny jaws closed and clamped in the front of Jake’s flannel shirt. His hand struck out wildly and was speared on a poisoned fin, and, unlike Joel, he went from sight with a great yell, and a whirling and churning of the water that made the cornstalks circle on the edges of a small whirlpool.
But the whirlpool soon thinned away, into widening rings of ripples, and the corn stalks quit circling and became still again, and only the multiplying night noises sounded about the mouth of the slough.
The bodies of all three came ashore on the same day near the same place. Except for the gaping gunshot wound where the neck met the chest, Fishhead’s body was unmarked.
But the bodies of the two Baxters were so marred and mauled that the Reelfooters buried them together on the bank without ever knowing which might be Jake’s and which might be Joel’s.”