Like Green Hills and Berry Hill, Forest Hills is one of the storied Seven Hills of Nashville, a cluster of old neighborhoods south of downtown where the past lingers along with the ghosts of yesteryear.
In Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, I chronicled the ghosts of a certain part of Nashville, and in this journal I updated that chapter with supplemental information about the Hauntings of the Seven Hills. Overlooked in those articles was the venerable Longview Mansion, which has sat majestically on the corner of Caldwell Lane and Franklin Pike, since the 1850’s.
When it was originally built, it was not such a grand affair as one sees today. It began as a cozy four room, one story cottage, constructed by Henry Norvell and his bride Laura Sevier, the grand-daughter of the colorful frontier leader and first Governor of Tennessee, John Sevier. Today this modest manse boasts twenty-two rooms, eleven fireplaces, fourteen crystal chandeliers, and luxurious glass solarium.
It survived the Civil War more or less intact and in 1878 was purchased by James Caldwell, then president of the up and coming Cumberland Telephone and Telegraph Company. It remained in the Caldwell family through much of the twentieth century, undergoing several expansions and architectural redesigns. After a further change of owners it was ultimately purchased by the Church of Christ and is now owned by David Lipscomb University to serve as a special event center and administrator’s residence, while the LU soccer team uses the grounds for practice.
Having been in one family’s hands for so long and now owned by a decidedly Christian institution, not a lot of details abound about the alleged ghosts that haunt the house and grounds. In any case, genuine ghosts do not pop up on command for camera crews, much less for yahoos who go around in the dark with flashlights aimed at their faces scaring themselves.
It is thought that the origin of at least some of the alleged hauntings can be traced to the Civil War period. The house, on an eminence overlooking Franklin Pike, was in the thick of the Battle of Nashville on the second day (December 16, 1864) and the area about the mansion saw a great deal of bloody fighting.
Around the beginning of the twentieth century, a cannonball was found in the garden, a testament to the estate’s involvement in the battle. One of the family was moved to compose a poem about that memento of the war.
Whether there are any soldier’s graves remaining on the grounds is unknown, but not unlikely, given its location. After the battle, many Confederate dead were hastily dumped into mass graves on unhallowed ground, their names and the locations of their graves long forgotten. Their spirits are thus doomed to haunt the battleground to this day. The Seven Hills, the heart of the battleground, is awash in ghosts dating to the Civil War battle.
Second hand accounts of uncanny events in the house have circulated for years, although the Caldwell family have never spoken directly about such encounters. Given their long residence there, some of the resident spirits may well be family members. The mansion is so opulent and attractive, one could well understand why one might be reluctant to leave it, even for greener pastures.
One incident that has been given credence by those who know, happened a few decades back before the University took ownership of Longview.
The lady of the house at the time was playing the grand piano, just off the main entrance to the house, one day. It was a tune which she was fond of but which apparently did not meet with one of the resident spirit’s approval. As she was in the midst of the tune, a nearby lamp was knocked over by an invisible hand, falling to the floor with a crash.
The lady of the house, aware of her permanent guest’s mercurial temperament and preferring not to upset the resident spirit, never played that song again.
As with the ghosts that inhabit nearby Belmont Mansion and University, the ghosts of yesteryear choose to linger beneath the enchanted eaves of Longview to moving on to another plane.
Curiously though, at least three of the homes he lived in life have had verified accounts of being haunted by one or another Lee family member. While I devote an entire chapter to Lee’s haunted homes in Dixie Spirits,I thought to supplement that with this article and some photos to go along with it.
When one thinks of General Lee and his family, one naturally pictures a dignified Southern gentleman, someone descended from an honored and venerable First Family of Virginia (FFV for short).
While Lee always conducted himself with probity, his family was anything but venerable; in fact, it was riddled with scandal through several generations. For one thing, Lee’s father, “Light Horse” Harry Lee, although a hero of the American Revolution, had the reputation of a hell raiser; he drank heavily and gambled much of the family wealth away, and as a result he was constantly in debt–at one time he was even thrown into debtor’s prison.
After he died, his widow and children were dependent on the charity of other family members–and they too had their scandals–notably their relative “Black Horse” Harry Lee.
The best known Lee home is, of course, Arlington, now located in the middle of the National cemetery. Seized early in the war, it became a last resting place for Union war dead. The mansion itself is also an abode of the dead–who at times get a mite restless. Several family ghosts have been sighted here by visitors.
Stratford Hall, the ancestral home of the Lees, was built in the early 1700’s and so it naturally has several generations of Lee ghosts, including old “Black Horse” Harry who had an affair with his wife’s sister while his own spouse lay sick abed. Robert lived here for a time with his mother and siblings.
Then there is the “Lee Boyhood Home” in Alexandria, Virginia. After their father died in debt, Robert and his mother had to move about a bit due to their financial situation. Nonetheless, General Lee always had fond memories of this place and it was here he returned after the surrender–who knows he may still be there.
There are a few other old Virginia manse’s associated with the general—all of them reputedly haunted. For more on the tragic haunted history of the Lees of Virginia and their stately haunts see the Chapter in Dixie Spirits. Depending on the time of the year most of the Lee homes will be open to the public, where you might even encounter a Lee family ghost for yourself. Happy haunting!
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.
Although recent transplants to Middle Tennessee are only dimly aware of it, the Cumberland Valley and its surrounds were much fought over during the Civil War. Although that is not the origin of the phrase, this section of the South amply earned its moniker The Dark and Bloody Ground during the Late Unpleasantness. Many an old house is home to a resident ghost or two who date back to the dark days of the war. The causes of their continued residence on the mortal plain may differ, but as often as not it is due to their violent or untimely death, being cut down in the prime of life, often with great pain and the awareness they will never to see their loved ones again. Sometimes that agony and anguish are all that remain.
Such, it seems, is the case with Carnton Mansion, the grand home sitting on the southeastern outskirts of Franklin, Tennessee. The very name of the manse is suggestive of death, for in ancient Celtic tradition, a cairn or carn was a place where a warrior would be buried who had died with honor in battle. During the Civil War, late one Autumn day, the mansion would earn its name, a reputation that endures to the present day.
After the fall of Atlanta, Sherman planned his next move; ignoring the still viable Confederate Army of Tennessee, he would conduct a scorched earth campaign across Georgia, destroying everything in his path. Basically, it was an act of terrorism, designed to cow the white civilian population of the South into submission and break their will to resist. The Rebel army, now under General John Bell Hood, at first fenced with Sherman, attacking his rear and threatening his long supply line heading back northward towards Nashville. Then, when Sherman began marching south, Hood began marching north; a bold move not only to draw Sherman’s army after him but also to seize the mass of supplies stockpiled in the strategic city of Nashville; from there he could threaten many other places further north. It was a bold strategy and whatever historians may say about General Hood, he never lacked for either courage or boldness: “all lion” is how one postwar writer characterized him.
A small Union army was deployed to slow Hood as he marched northwards, to give time for the Yankees to gather more troops to defend Nashville. General John Schofield, a classmate of Hood’s from West Point days, was placed in charge of this Yankee force and basically his task was to hold the lion’s tail without being devoured. At Columbia, then Springhill and finally at Franklin, Schofield’s men conducted a fighting retreat. While most historians portray the Autumn Campaign as a done deal and that a Southern defeat was inevitable, in truth it was a very near thing. Had circumstances just been a little different at any point; had orders been obeyed, had the Yankees marched or fought just a little less heroicly; had one Yankee brigadier not disobeyed orders, or some Rebel pickets not been quite so fatigued—at any point just a feather-weight of difference in the chain of circumstance–and we would be celebrating John Bell Hood as a brilliant commander and victor. But that was not to be.
Others have chronicled the Autumn Campaign in great length; we needn’t go into it here. Our concern is with the aftermath. On the afternoon and evening of November 30, 1864, the two armies clashed on the outskirts of Franklin, Tennessee. Both sides fought and bled and died with uncommon courage, and by the early hours of the following morning the blood-soaked fields of Franklin found the Confederates in possession of the terrain. It was a Pyrric victory, however, for Hood’s army was decimated in the process: five generals, twenty colonels and thousands dead or grievously wounded, incapable of combat—all to fight the Yankee rearguard.
Even before the battle was over, however, the wounded began to make their way to Carnton Mansion, on the eastern flank of the battlefield. All through the night and on into the next day, the wounded and dead were brought in a steady stream to the stately antebellum mansion. The owner of the home, Randall McGavock, had served in the Confederate army but accepted a parole to look after his family and was a non-combatant; of course that did not prevent him from opening his home to the wounded.
By the following day, the dead were being piled in Carnton’s yard like cordwood; the back porch held the bodies of no less than five generals, while the moans of the suffering could be heard everywhere. For the dead and dying at Carnton, the victory at Franklin did not seem so glorious.
In time, the McGavock’s home was cleaned of the awful carnage and the blood—where it would go away. In one room that had served as the operating room for surgeons, try as they might, they could not wash or bleach the blood from the floorboards; the stains always came back and cannot be erased. They linger there to this day. There were other things that linger about Carnton as well; some of a spectral nature.
Inside the mansion, several spirits have been detected by successive occupants of the mansion and more recently by visitors as well. On the second floor, for example, a presence some called “the general” could be felt and occasionally seen. In the graveyard, even to this day, visitors sometimes spot a man in Confederate garb. Other spectres have been observed elsewhere in the mansion or on the surrounding grounds. Many are the eyewitness accounts that recount encounters with the ghosts of Carnton. Some of these apparitions are well known; others just passing shades, as anonymous as many of the graves on the grounds.
Many speculate about the sightings reported at Carnton; a few doubt them, most do not. What is certain, however, is that for many of the men who fought and died at Franklin on November 30, the Battle of Franklin will never be over.
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.”
I have been informed by a respected Literary Agent that editors with major book publishers don’t wish to see anything from authors that is written from more than a single point of view or attempts to render a narrative in anything other than the third person “literary” past tense.
I am not sure how “literary” the simple past tense actually is, but I presume this current editorial fad is in deference to what the East Coast literati condescend to regard as the limited reading abilities of the average modern reader. One wonders how the works of such writers as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad would have fared at the hands of such editors—assuming these miserable hack writers would even have gotten an agent to handle their writing.
As a journeyman scrivener I must bow to their superior wisdom or remain unpublished. But in the expectation that your reading tastes are somewhat better than what modern editing trends assume, I present a tale of Southern ghosts by a master of sardonic horror—Ambrose Bierce.
Bierce is best known for his biting satire and his macabre Civil War Tales filled with deadly ironies. Yet Bierce also wrote quite a bit about the South, even though he is not considered a Southern author by any means. He survived four years of the “blood-stained period” tramping all about the South, including Nashville, and continuing on well after the war the shadow of death lingered on in his mind, spilling out onto the pages of his short stories. This is not a tale of the Civil War, but it does take place in Nashville, a city he knew quite well during the war. I think we may safely class it as a choice piece of Southern Gothic, even if it was written by a Yankee.
In honor of Bierce, Dixie and Halloween, therefore, I reprint this, one of Bierce’s best ghost stories. The story, The Moonlit Road, is a classic tale of Southern Gothic, so much so that it has even spawned a modern Atlanta-based website dedicated to Southern horror that was inspired by it. If you are a Bierce devotee, forgive me, for doubtless you have read it before; but it is worth re-reading nonetheless. I fear it would be rejected out of hand by most modern trade editors, for it relates the story from multiple points of view. But if Bierce’s narrative technique was good enough for filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, I trust you may find it equally edifying as well.
THE MOONLIT ROAD
STATEMENT OF JOEL HETMAN, JR.
I am the most unfortunate of men. Rich, respected, fairly well educated and of sound health–with many other advantages usually valued by those having them and coveted by those who have them not—I sometimes think that I should be less unhappy if they had been denied me, for then the contrast between my outer and my inner life would not be continually demanding a painful attention. In the stress of privation and the need of effort I might sometimes forget the somber secret ever baffling the conjecture that it compels.
I am the only child of Joel and Julia Hetman. The one was a well-to-do country gentleman, the other a beautiful and accomplished woman to whom he was passionately attached with what I now know to have been a jealous and exacting devotion. The family home was a few miles from Nashville, Tennessee, a large, irregularly built dwelling of no
particular order of architecture, a little way off the road, in a
park of trees and shrubbery.
At the time of which I write I was nineteen years old, a student at Yale. One day I received a telegram from my father of such urgency that in compliance with its unexplained demand I left at once for home. At the railway station in Nashville a distant relative awaited me to apprise me of the reason for my recall: my mother had been
barbarously murdered–why and by whom none could conjecture, but the circumstances were these:
My father had gone to Nashville, intending to return the next afternoon. Something prevented his accomplishing the business in hand, so he returned on the same night, arriving just before the dawn. In his testimony before the coroner he explained that having no latchkey and not caring to disturb the sleeping servants, he had, with no clearly defined intention, gone round to the rear of the house. As he turned an angle of the building, he heard a sound as of a door gently closed, and saw in the darkness, indistinctly, the figure of a man, which instantly disappeared among the trees of the lawn. A hasty pursuit and brief search of the grounds in the belief that the trespasser was some one secretly visiting a servant proving fruitless, he entered at the unlocked door and mounted the stairs to my mother’s chamber. Its door was open, and stepping into black darkness he fell headlong over some heavy object on the floor. I may spare myself the details; it was my poor mother, dead of strangulation by human hands!
Nothing had been taken from the house, the servants had heard no sound, and excepting those terrible finger-marks upon the dead woman’s throat–dear God! that I might forget them!–no trace of the assassin was ever found.
I gave up my studies and remained with my father, who, naturally, was greatly changed. Always of a sedate, taciturn disposition, he now fell into so deep a dejection that nothing could hold his attention, yet anything–a footfall, the sudden closing of a door–aroused in him a fitful interest; one might have called it an apprehension. At any small surprise of the senses he would start visibly and sometimes turn pale, then relapse into a melancholy apathy deeper than before. I suppose he was what is called a “nervous wreck.” As to me, I was younger then than now–there is much in that. Youth is Gilead, in
which is balm for every wound. Ah, that I might again dwell in that enchanted land! Unacquainted with grief, I knew not how to appraise my bereavement; I could not rightly estimate the strength of the stroke.
One night, a few months after the dreadful event, my father and I walked home from the city. The full moon was about three hours above the eastern horizon; the entire countryside had the solemn stillness of a summer night; our footfalls and the ceaseless song of the katydids were the only sound aloof. Black shadows of bordering trees lay athwart the road, which, in the short reaches between, gleamed a ghostly white. As we approached the gate to our dwelling, whose front was in shadow, and in which no light shone, my father suddenly stopped and clutched my arm, saying, hardly above his breath:
“God! God! what is that?”
“I hear nothing,” I replied.
“But see—see!” he said, pointing along the road, directly
I said: “Nothing is there. Come, father, let us go in—you are
He had released my arm and was standing rigid and motionless in the center of the illuminated roadway, staring like one bereft of sense. His face in the moonlight showed a pallor and fixity inexpressibly distressing. I pulled gently at his sleeve, but he had forgotten my existence. Presently he began to retire backward, step by step, never for an instant removing his eyes from what he saw, or thought he saw. I turned half round to follow, but stood irresolute. I do not recall any feeling of fear, unless a sudden chill was its physical manifestation. It seemed as if an icy wind had touched my face and enfolded my body from head to foot; I could feel the stir of it in my hair.
At that moment my attention was drawn to a light that suddenly streamed from an upper window of the house: one of the servants, awakened by what mysterious premonition of evil who can say, and in obedience to an impulse that she was never able to name, had lit a lamp. When I turned to look for my father he was gone, and in all the years that have passed no whisper of his fate has come across the borderland of conjecture from the realm of the unknown.
STATEMENT OF CASPAR GRATTAN
To-day I am said to live; to-morrow, here in this room, will lie a senseless shape of clay that all too long was I. If anyone lift the cloth from the face of that unpleasant thing it will be in gratification of a mere morbid curiosity. Some, doubtless, will go further and inquire, “Who was he?” In this writing I supply the only answer that I am able to make–Caspar Grattan. Surely, that should be enough. The name has served my small need for more than twenty years of a life of unknown length. True, I gave it to myself, but lacking another I had the right. In this world one must have a name; it prevents confusion, even when it does not establish identity. Some, though, are known by numbers, which also seem inadequate distinctions.
One day, for illustration, I was passing along a street of a city, far from here, when I met two men in uniform, one of whom, half pausing and looking curiously into my face, said to his companion, “That man looks like 767.” Something in the number seemed familiar and horrible. Moved by an uncontrollable impulse, I sprang into a side street and ran until I fell exhausted in a country lane.
I have never forgotten that number, and always it comes to memory attended by gibbering obscenity, peals of joyless laughter, the clang of iron doors. So I say a name, even if self-bestowed, is better than a number. In the register of the potter’s field I shall soon have both. What wealth!
Of him who shall find this paper I must beg a little consideration. It is not the history of my life; the knowledge to write that is denied me. This is only a record of broken and apparently unrelated memories, some of them as distinct and sequent as brilliant beads
upon a thread, others remote and strange, having the character of crimson dreams with interspaces blank and black–witch-fires glowing still and red in a great desolation.
Standing upon the shore of eternity, I turn for a last look landward over the course by which I came. There are twenty years of footprints fairly distinct, the impressions of bleeding feet. They lead through poverty and pain, devious and unsure, as of one
staggering beneath a burden—
“Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow.”
Ah, the poet’s prophecy of Me–how admirable, how dreadfully
Backward beyond the beginning of this via dolorosa–this epic of suffering with episodes of sin–I see nothing clearly; it comes out of a cloud. I know that it spans only twenty years, yet I am an old man.
One does not remember one’s birth–one has to be told. But with me it was different; life came to me full-handed and dowered me with all my faculties and powers. Of a previous existence I know no more than others, for all have stammering intimations that may be memories and may be dreams. I know only that my first consciousness was of
maturity in body and mind–a consciousness accepted without surprise or conjecture. I merely found myself walking in a forest, half-clad, footsore, unutterably weary and hungry. Seeing a farmhouse, I approached and asked for food, which was given me by one who inquired my name. I did not know, yet knew that all had names. Greatly embarrassed, I retreated, and night coming on, lay down in the forest
The next day I entered a large town which I shall not name. Nor shall I recount further incidents of the life that is now to end—a life of wandering, always and everywhere haunted by an overmastering sense of crime in punishment of wrong and of terror in punishment of crime. Let me see if I can reduce it to narrative.
I seem once to have lived near a great city, a prosperous planter, married to a woman whom I loved and distrusted. We had, it sometimes seems, one child, a youth of brilliant parts and promise. He is at all times a vague figure, never clearly drawn, frequently altogether out of the picture.
One luckless evening it occurred to me to test my wife’s fidelity in a vulgar, commonplace way familiar to everyone who has acquaintance with the literature of fact and fiction. I went to the city, telling my wife that I should be absent until the following afternoon. But I returned before daybreak and went to the rear of the house, purposing
to enter by a door with which I had secretly so tampered that it would seem to lock, yet not actually fasten. As I approached it, I heard it gently open and close, and saw a man steal away into the darkness. With murder in my heart, I sprang after him, but he had
vanished without even the bad luck of identification. Sometimes now I cannot even persuade myself that it was a human being.
Crazed with jealousy and rage, blind and bestial with all the elemental passions of insulted manhood, I entered the house and sprang up the stairs to the door of my wife’s chamber. It was closed, but having tampered with its lock also, I easily entered and
despite the black darkness soon stood by the side of her bed. My groping hands told me that although disarranged it was unoccupied.
“She is below,” I thought, “and terrified by my entrance has evaded me in the darkness of the hall.”
With the purpose of seeking her I turned to leave the room, but took a wrong direction–the right one! My foot struck her, cowering in a corner of the room. Instantly my hands were at her throat, stifling a shriek, my knees were upon her struggling body; and there in the darkness, without a word of accusation or reproach, I strangled her
till she died!
There ends the dream. I have related it in the past tense, but the present would be the fitter form, for again and again the somber tragedy reenacts itself in my consciousness–over and over I lay the plan, I suffer the confirmation, I redress the wrong. Then all is blank; and afterward the rains beat against the grimy window-panes, or the snows fall upon my scant attire, the wheels rattle in the squalid streets where my life lies in poverty and mean employment. If there is ever sunshine I do not recall it; if there are birds they
do not sing.
There is another dream, another vision of the night. I stand among the shadows in a moonlit road. I am aware of another presence, but whose I cannot rightly determine. In the shadow of a great dwelling I catch the gleam of white garments; then the figure of a woman confronts me in the road–my murdered wife! There is death in the face; there are marks upon the throat. The eyes are fixed on mine with an infinite gravity which is not reproach, nor hate, nor menace, nor anything less terrible than recognition. Before this awful apparition I retreat in terror–a terror that is upon me as I write. I can no longer rightly shape the words. See! They—
Now I am calm, but truly there is no more to tell: the incident ends where it began–in darkness and in doubt.
Yes, I am again in control of myself: “the captain of my soul.” But that is not respite; it is another stage and phase of expiation. My penance, constant in degree, is mutable in kind: one of its variants is tranquillity. After all, it is only a life-sentence. “To Hell for life”–that is a foolish penalty: the culprit chooses the duration of his punishment. To-day my term expires.
To each and all, the peace that was not mine.
STATEMENT OF THE LATE JULIA HETMAN, THROUGH THE MEDIUM BAYROLLES
I had retired early and fallen almost immediately into a peaceful sleep, from which I awoke with that indefinable sense of peril which is, I think, a common experience in that other, earlier life. Of its unmeaning character, too, I was entirely persuaded, yet that did not banish it. My husband, Joel Hetman, was away from home; the servants slept in another part of the house. But these were familiar conditions; they had never before distressed me. Nevertheless, the strange terror grew so insupportable that conquering my reluctance to move I sat up and lit the lamp at my bedside. Contrary to my expectation this gave me no relief; the light seemed rather an added danger, for I reflected that it would shine out under the door, disclosing my presence to whatever evil thing might lurk outside. You that are still in the flesh, subject to horrors of the imagination, think what a monstrous fear that must be which seeks in darkness security from malevolent existences of the night. That is to spring to close quarters with an unseen enemy–the strategy of despair!
Extinguishing the lamp I pulled the bed-clothing about my head and lay trembling and silent, unable to shriek, forgetful to pray. In this pitiable state I must have lain for what you call hours–with us there are no hours, there is no time.
At last it came–a soft, irregular sound of footfalls on the stairs! They were slow, hesitant, uncertain, as of something that did not see its way; to my disordered reason all the more terrifying for that, as the approach of some blind and mindless malevolence to which is no appeal. I even thought that I must have left the hall lamp burning and the groping of this creature proved it a monster of the night. This was foolish and inconsistent with my previous dread of the light, but what would you have? Fear has no brains; it is an idiot. The dismal witness that it bears and the cowardly counsel that it whispers are unrelated. We know this well, we who have passed into the Realm of Terror, who skulk in eternal dusk among the scenes of our former lives, invisible even to ourselves and one another, yet hiding forlorn in lonely places; yearning for speech with our loved ones, yet dumb, and as fearful of them as they of us. Sometimes the disability is removed, the law suspended: by the deathless power of love or hate we break the spell—
we are seen by those whom we would warn, console, or punish. What form we seem to them to bear we know not; we know only that we terrify even those whom we most wish to comfort, and from whom we most crave tenderness and sympathy.
Forgive, I pray you, this inconsequent digression by what was once a woman. You who consult us in this imperfect way–you do not understand. You ask foolish questions about things unknown and things forbidden. Much that we know and could impart in our speech is meaningless in yours. We must communicate with you through a stammering intelligence in that small fraction of our language that you yourselves can speak. You think that we are of another world. No, we have knowledge of no world but yours, though for us it holds no sunlight, no warmth, no music, no laughter, no song of birds, nor any companionship. O God! what a thing it is to be a ghost, cowering and shivering in an altered world, a prey to apprehension and despair!
No, I did not die of fright: the Thing turned and went away. I heard it go down the stairs, hurriedly, I thought, as if itself in sudden fear. Then I rose to call for help. Hardly had my shaking hand found the doorknob when–merciful heaven!–I heard it returning.
Its footfalls as it remounted the stairs were rapid, heavy and loud; they shook the house. I fled to an angle of the wall and crouched upon the floor. I tried to pray. I tried to call the name of my dear husband. Then I heard the door thrown open. There was an interval of unconsciousness, and when I revived I felt a strangling clutch upon my throat–felt my arms feebly beating against something that bore me backward–felt my tongue thrusting itself from between my teeth! And then I passed into this life.
No, I have no knowledge of what it was. The sum of what we knew at death is the measure of what we know afterward of all that went before. Of this existence we know many things, but no new light falls upon any page of that; in memory is written all of it that we can read. Here are no heights of truth overlooking the confused landscape of that dubitable domain. We still dwell in the Valley of the Shadow, lurk in its desolate places, peering from brambles and thickets at its mad, malign inhabitants. How should we have new knowledge of that fading past?
What I am about to relate happened on a night. We know when it is night, for then you retire to your houses and we can venture from our places of concealment to move unafraid about our old homes, to look in at the windows, even to enter and gaze upon your faces as you sleep. I had lingered long near the dwelling where I had been so cruelly changed to what I am, as we do while any that we love or hate remain. Vainly I had sought some method of manifestation, some way to make my continued existence and my great love and poignant pity understood by my husband and son. Always if they slept they would wake, or if in my desperation I dared approach them when they were awake, would turn toward me the terrible eyes of the living, frightening me by the glances that I sought from the purpose that I held.
On this night I had searched for them without success, fearing to find them; they were nowhere in the house, nor about the moonlit lawn. For, although the sun is lost to us forever, the moon, full-orbed or slender, remains to us. Sometimes it shines by night, sometimes by day, but always it rises and sets, as in that other life.
I left the lawn and moved in the white light and silence along the road, aimless and sorrowing. Suddenly I heard the voice of my poor husband in exclamations of astonishment, with that of my son in reassurance and dissuasion; and there by the shadow of a group of trees they stood–near, so near! Their faces were toward me, the eyes of the elder man fixed upon mine. He saw me–at last, at last, he saw me! In the consciousness of that, my terror fled as a cruel dream. The death-spell was broken: Love had conquered Law! Mad with exultation I shouted–I MUST have shouted, “He sees, he sees: he will understand!” Then, controlling myself, I moved forward, smiling and consciously beautiful, to offer myself to his arms, to comfort him with endearments, and, with my son’s hand in mine, to speak words that should restore the broken bonds between the living and the dead.
Alas! alas! his face went white with fear, his eyes were as those of a hunted animal. He backed away from me, as I advanced, and at last turned and fled into the wood–whither, it is not given to me to know.
To my poor boy, left doubly desolate, I have never been able to impart a sense of my presence. Soon he, too, must pass to this Life Invisible and be lost to me forever.
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.
Many’s the man who they say has met the devil and won, but I don’t know of anyone who’ll look you straight in the face and say they did. Daniel Webster supposedly did; Andrew Jackson confronted the Bell Witch, but even he didn’t claim to have bested the hag. Let me add to the list names you never heard of before, and probably never will again: John Chesselden and James Arkins.
They were just two country boys, living out beyond the bounds of civilized society, in what is today Arkansas but back in 1784 wasn’t even considered part of the U.S. One bright May day they left the frontier settlement of Kenfry in the northeast part of the territory to visit a friend in an outlying hamlet.
The distance as the crow flies was about twenty-five miles, but they had to pass through a forest called Varnum’s Wood, which had a reputation for being haunted. Why, only a few days before, one of the boys said, old Isaac King had encountered the Devil himself and barely escaped with his life. His friend scoffed at the tale and then in a prideful boast declared he was not scared of any demon and defied Old Scratch to appear.
Pride goeth before the fall, they say, and not longer after his prideful boast, the two lads encountered a puff of black smoke and a strange beast which soon congealed into something resembling a human—only a human without a head and hovering eight feet above the ground. Even without a head, however, the Demon talked up a storm, tempting the two boys with thrones and dominions beyond the ken of mortal men.
Of all that befell the lads that day, I haven’t room here to say; and, anyway, I gave a complete account of it in Chapter 6 of Dixie Spirits. That and other true tales that defy logic and reason unfold as best as can be told by this humble scribe. Suffice it to say that the two young men only just escaped being dragged to Hell. When they made it to safety, few would believe their tale, until they showed the local folk where the demon had moved a giant boulder; a boulder so big a dozen men couldn’t move it if they tried.
So if you wander in a haunted wood during the dark of the moon, I advise you to not tempt the Devil, else Old Nick takes you up on your offer. And if all I say is not the gospel truth, well, then: God Bless the Devil!
The Great West Tennessee Haunt Hunt: Bolivar, Tennessee
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!