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!
Loretta Lynn, widely hailed as the Queen of Country Music and with a long career of successful hit songs, is living legend among fans of Country Music and was even the subject of a successful Hollywood movie. As famous as she is, however, few are aware of another talent of Ms Lynn’s: the Coal Miner’s Daughter is psychic and her long-time home in Hurricane Mills is most seriously haunted.
Loretta has never denied her psychic encounters, which date back to her early years. In one case, Loretta had a nightmare one night that her father was dead and woke up screaming. Although her husband tried to reassure her, Loretta could not shake the premonition that her father had died. Not long after she received a phone call telling her that her father had died of a massive stroke. Some years later she returned to Kentucky to visit her childhood home in Butcher Hollow, to the cabin that she grew up in, only to see the ghost of her father sitting on the front porch.
When she and her husband Doolittle finally bought Hurricane Mills and moved in, it was not long before she began to have experiences that led her to believe her mansion was haunted. Doors opened and closed all on their own; Loretta would hear footsteps outside on the porch but when she checked to see who was there, not a living soul could be seen.
Loretta’s twins, Peggy and Patsy, also had uncanny encounters. When they were very young, too young to be afraid of ghosts or know that such things could not be, would tell their mom of the “people in our room” that would visit them at night. One such spirit was a woman dressed in Victorian dress with her hair “piled high on her head”–Gibson Girl style.
In addition, the sounds of slaves rattling chains in the “slave pit” and the ghosts of Civil War soldiers have also been seen and heard in and around the house. While the house was dear to Loretta and her family, their experiences with the supernatural made Loretta not want to spend the night alone in the house and when her husband and children were out, she would have a friend stay with her.
Over the years Loretta has had séances held in the house to determine who exactly was haunting the home. On at least one occasion, the séance has produced physical reactions, with furniture moving and levitating in plain sight. More recently, Loretta Lynn called in gamed ghost buster James Van Praagh to help her “cleanse” the house. However, when the famed “ghost whisperer” heard a voice tell him to “get out!” Van Praagh chose the better part of wisdom and quickly departed the presence of the dearly departed.
Loretta Lynn’s beautiful mansion and dude ranch remain a popular destination for traveling tourists and Country Music fans, the little community of Hurricane Mills remains a very spooky Dixie haunt.
While ghosts are to encountered just about anywhere one can imagine, some places seem particularly congenial to spectral visitation. Theaters seem to be particularly prone to paranormal activity, nor are operas the only phantom plagued places they stay. Theater people have long been aware of that fact. That is why, after a play or musical, when the work crew comes out to clean up, they place a large upright pole with a bare bulb in it in the middle of the stage. It is called a “ghost light” and it is not there for illumination, but to drive away the ghosts that come out when the audience leaves.
To look at the Bijou, located on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, you would not know how old the building is, nor guess how much history it has seen. Its origin goes back to 1817, beginning it existence as the Lamar House, a trendy upscale hotel of the early nineteenth century. In the 1850’s it was expanded and was known for awhile as “Coleman House” (no relation) and during the Civil War the Yankees commandeered the hotel and turned it into a hospital, where among the many who died were Union general William P. Sanders. After the war it again was a hotspot for the rich and posh.
It was in 1909 that a theater was added to the old building and for many decades it held both live performances and movies, and many famous performers played there. After World War II, however, it began a gradual decline, eventually the theater began showing porno movies, while the hotel section turned into a fleabag flophouse. In recent years, however, the Bijou has been restored and now is a venerated performance venue again. One thing that remains unchanged, however, is its reputation as a most haunted theater.
In the old hotel section of the building, more than one person has seen the ghost of General Sanders haunting the room where he died. After many years of reports by backstage crews and other employees, several the ghost hunting groups have tread its boards including the East Tennessee Paranormal Society, which conducted several investigation onsite and turned up some interesting results, including inexplicable recordings and some rather strange photographic evidence. Investigators have also witnessed uncanny shadows not caused by any known light source, which they also took to be evidence of spectral activity.
Besides the General, what seem to be the spirits of former performers also haunt the Bijou, as well as the ghosts of a few shady ladies who may have met an unseemly end at the hands of their customers. For details about the Bijou and its gaggle of ghosts, see Chapter 8 of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. Of course, the Bijou is open for live performances as well as for special events, so if you go, you too may encounter one of the ghosts, but if you do don’t blame me—you were warned.
Although I wrote about the ghosts of “The Seven Hills” in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, due to technical issues I wasn’t able to illustrate it the way I would have wished, which is one of the reasons why this blog exists–to update and supplement the true ghost tales I have already related to you.
For those not native to Nashville, Tennessee, “The Seven Hills” does not refer to specific hills in the city (there are far more than seven) but to a cluster of suburban neighborhoods southwest of downtown which share similar names: Green Hills, Forest Hills, Hillsboro Village, etc. Although to the casual visitor they all seem pleasant affluent areas (they are) they also hide darker secrets as well: all possess their fair share of ghosts.
Most popular of the neighborhoods by far is Green Hills, and in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee I detail several hauntings there. One of the most interesting is at that mecca of Nashville fashionistas, Green Hills Mall. The mall has had repeated reports of hauntings. Other reports of hauntings in Green Hills come from the homes in the area as well.
Apparently some time back a shoe clerk at The Mall reported seeing an apparition wearing a tricorner hat on a number of occasions. It is thought that this spirit may have been a victim of an Indian attack during the frontier era, when raids and scalpings were commonplace in Nashville.
However, in these neighborhoods an even more common cause of the many reports of haunted homes is the fact that this part of Nashville is where some of the bloodiest fighting of the Battle of Nashville took place. In December of 1864, Green Hills and adjacent Forest Hills saw horrific bloodshed before the Confederate Army was finally defeated. The dead and dying lay everywhere after the battle.
While these days on cable television, ghost hunters claim able to not only identify who is haunting what house, but also what they had for breakfast the day they died, the reality is that most hauntings cannot really be pinned to any known person. Residents or owners will report uncanny happenings, mysterious sounds or, more rarely, actually seeing a visual presence. In truth, however, identifying the ghost as a particular individual is mostly speculation. The fact that right after the battle, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dead Confederate were hastily thrown into mass graves in The Hills and never properly buried, is the most probable source of most of these continuing poltergeist activities. As in the movie “Poltergeist,” these subdivisions were often built over the mass graves of the dead without the graves being relocated.
One exception to the above rule of thumb, however, is Belmont Mansion. This grand old dame of antebellum architecture stands on a tall hill overlooking Hillsboro Village, a popular destination for both the college crowd and music industry executives. Today Belmont is the campus of a prestigious Christian school, Belmont University. During the Battle of Nashville it was headquarters for the Union Army’s Fourth Corps and the battle lines lay only a few blocks away. While it is thought several ghosts haunt Belmont Mansion, the one most commonly associated with it is Adelicia Acklen, a Southern belle possessed of beauty, brains and lots and lots of money. Despite all that, she suffered the loss of several of her children in the house and it is believed that that is why she still resides there.
Almost since that day in 1977 when the King of Rock ‘n Roll passed on to that big concert in the sky, there have been sightings and reports of encounters with Elvis Presley. Many folks who have witnessed the king since his death claim he is alive and well. But there is another explanation for their uncanny encounters: they have met the ghost of Elvis.
The most common place where Elvis has been seen is, of course, Graceland. Admirers, hanging out in front of the house at midnight claim to have seen a black limo pull through the gates and spy the King’s unmistakeable profile as it passes by. Others have snapped photos of the upstairs windows, where an image seems to be staring out. Nor are the apparitions at Graceland limited to Elvis; his mother, who was very close to him, has also been seen; one somewhat eccentric actress, Paz de la Huerta, has even claimed the ghost of Elvis gave her an orgasm when she visited his recording studio in Graceland. Whole lotta shakin’ goin on.
Nor is Graceland the only spot where the restless shade of Mr. Presley been reported. Some of his favorite haunts in Vegas and Hollywood have been claimed to receive visits from Elvis from time to time. while A motel across the street from Graceland has had some weird encounters as well.
Moreover, Elvis has also been reported in Nashville on more than one occasion. There was the broad daylight encounter with a man all bedecked like the glitter Elvis, in a rhinestone studded white jumpsuit. He was encountered on Lower Broad, where tourists flock to visit the honky-tonks and gifts shops. While this encounter could just be a very good Elvis impersonator, the Lower Broad area of downtown Nashville is well known to be psychically active, and this report may very well be the real deal.
More credible are the reports I have gathered from the music pros of Elvis’s haunting of the old RCA studio—now torn down—where he recorded his first big hit—Heartbreak Hotel. Penned by the legendary Mae Axton (Hoyt Axton’s momma) its haunting lyrics were based on a suicide note, which inspired her to write the complete song in about a half hour! The studio has had many weird occurrences and those in the know swear it was Elvis’s shade lingering in the place where his first big hit was made.
Now old Studio A is a used car lot, so while Elvis may have not left the building, the building certainly did leave him.
There is no definitive way to prove the Elvis haunts Memphis, or Nashville; but those who have felt his spectral presence know what they experienced—and they are sure it was Elvis.
Like Nashville, Memphis, Tennessee is famous for its music; while Nashville is renowned as the home of Country music, Memphis lays claim to being the home of the Blues and Rock ‘n Roll. While other places in Dixie have hoppin’ music scenes equally vibrant, it seems that Memphis has a long and venerable history on that score. So it should come as no surprise that along with its musical heritage come more than a few ghosts and haunts.
If there is one place in Memphis which epitomizes this dual heritage it is an old brick building which houses the “Best Dive in Memphis”—some claim its the best dive in the United States: a place called Ernestine and Hazel’s. Now you may not think being a dive is any claim to fame, but the regulars at E&H—living and deceased—would give you an argument on that score.
Built sometime before the end of World War I, the old two story brick building has had many previous lives before becoming a dive bar. It was originally a pharmacy; in fact some of the pharmacy drawers where old time drugs were kept are still intact behind the bar. According to some, this old drug store was where St. Joseph’s Aspirin for children was invented. Later on it became a dry goods store; then a seedy hotel/brothel, then finally a Blues night club.
After World War II, there grew up what was called “the Chitlin’ Circuit.” Because of segregation, black folks couldn’t go to white night clubs, so they frequented a series of black clubs where one could hear “race” music: the Blues. Ernestine and Hazel’s became one of the most famous of these night clubs and in its heyday one could listen to all the legendary bluesmen; by all accounts, this is also where Rock ‘n Roll was born. Upstairs from the club male patrons could also enjoy less reputable entertainment as well.
Although the night club closed as integration took hold in the 1960’s and both races could mingle and enjoy “race” music together, in recent years Ernestine and Hazel’s was reopened and has undergone a revival. In its heyday legends like Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Howlin’ Wolf and others all visited its haunted hallowed halls and played or stayed there. So today, the spirit of the Blues is alive and well and rockin’ on in the same place. But the new owners and patrons of the old dive have found that some of the place’s long dead patrons have decided to hang around way past closing time.
For one thing, the old time juke box seems to have the uncanny ability to read people’s mental states and play the appropriate song. Although the songs are supposed to play in random order, more than one patron has found it playing a tune eerily in keeping with what their own thoughts are. Coincidence? Perhaps, but that’s not the only eerie thing that goes on there.
Male and female apparitions have been seen in the bar and on the stairs leading up to the old cat-house; one of the phantoms’ face has even been caught on film. The bar has also become a favorite haunt of ghost-hunters because the place is so psychically active and more than a few evp’s—ghost recordings—have been captured, although none of them were singing the Blues at the time.
There are various theories as to who haunts the old pharmacy turned flop house, turned night club, turned cat house and now legendary dive bar. But for the curious, perhaps a visit to the old haunts of the legendary bluesmen would be the best way to see for yourself whether Ernestine and Hazel’s is indeed as haunted as they say; and while you’re there, enjoy a “soul burger.”
For more on the haunted history of the legendary dive, read Chapter 25 of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee; and if your radio starts playing an old Blues song for no apparent reason as your read—well, you were warned.