When it comes to apparitions, spectres and ghosts, the only thing that is predictable is their unpredictability. While creepy castles and gothic mansions make for suitably moody sets for Hollywood fiction, the truth is that paranormal encounters can happen almost anyplace and anytime. Sometimes it may be a one-time singular occurrence; at other times a ghost may make its presence known almost daily, like clockwork. Similarly, almost any place can be host to a haunting. Obviously, old buildings that have a long and dolorous history are likely candidates, but even a brand new home can be the site of a paranormal event or haunting.
Such was the case one Yuletide in the village of Monkton Heathfield, located outside the town of Taunton in Somerset, England. In was close to Christmas, 1923, when a certain Mr. Gardiner, a construction contractor was bedeviled by a series of unexplained incidents in his brand new home. Monkton is a small but venerable village, named after the monks of Glastonbury Abbey, whose estates the village once resided in.
The trouble began about a week before Christmas, when Gardiner heard a strange noise, quickly followed by a blow to the back of the head. The object which struck him was an orange, which moments before had been in a bowl on a nearby dresser. No one else was present to blame the assault on the contractor, which was peculiar, since oranges don’t have legs to move about with.
Soon other inanimate objects also started to become quite animated. A chair suddenly jumped from the floor onto a table. A watch-box sitting on a table in the kitchen rose into the air and came crashing down with a thud. Then a pair of boots emerged backwards from the cupboard where they were stored and several books flew from the bookshelf where they were lodged and flew across the room. Nor was mid-day supper exempt from such happenings; while seated for the repast Father and son saw their knives move from one end of the table to the other and the pepperbox did the cake-walk in front of them. The climax to these uncanny events occurred when, in front of a room full of witnesses, a lamp arose from the table and gracefully glide onto the kitchen floor.
The frequency and oddity of happenings inside the Gardener household became such that Mr. Gardener and his son were forced to move out of their household just before Christmas. Whatever spirit or entity was active in the new house was left in possession of the home for the holidays. Whether the Gardeners ever were able to reclaim their domicile from the unnamed poltergeist is not recorded.
As all no doubt are aware, telling ghost stories at Yuletide is an ancient tradition which we have inherited from England. The fact is that ghosts seem oft to make their presence felt at Christmas. Some say it is because our thoughts harken back to loved ones no longer with us; others aver that it is because the holiday coincides with the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year when the worlds of the living and the dead are closest. Or perhaps it is simply because, like old Uncle Scrooge, we all have had too much mince meat and hot toddies and our senses play tricks on us. Regardless, ghosts do seem to cluster close around the season—perhaps even more so than at Halloween.
For example the Queen’s residence at Sandringham House in Norfolk, England, has long known to experience poltergeist activity that begins activity from Christmas Eve, as well as other fey encounters. The estate has been occupied since the Elizabethan era, but it was in 1771 that architect Cornish Henley cleared the site to build Sandringham Hall. The hall was modified during the 19th century by Charles Spencer Cowper, a stepson of Lord Palmerston, who added an elaborate porch and conservatory. Today it is the private domain of Queen Elizabeth II and not considered public Crown property, as many royal residences are.
The spectral activity at Sandringham House manifests strongly in the servants quarters and the unseen spirits would seem to have a particular dislike for Christmas cards. The cards are frequently scattered, thrown and generally moved around. In addition, blankets are pulled off of beds and something very creepy breathes down the necks of the maids who serve the royal family.
There are old parts of the mansion, little used, that nobody wishes to go alone in. According to one account, Prince Charles and his valet once went exploring in an old wing of the palatial building in search of old prints. They suddenly both felt very cold and had the feeling that somebody—or something—was following them. Neither saw anything, but the experience was quite unnerving.
The library of the House is regarded as one of the most haunted rooms of the rambling manse. A napping servant was once awakened to the sight of books flying off the shelves. The hands on an old clock in the room often move by themselves as well.
The chamber maids believe that the most frightening spot in the house is the Sergeant Footman’s corridor on the second floor. They are so terrified of this part of the palace that they only clean that area of Sandringham in pairs or groups. According to reports, light switches are turned on and off, footsteps are heard walking down the corridor, and doors are heard opening and closing. They also report hearing a terrifying noise like a wheezing sound that, “resembles a huge, grotesque lung breathing in and out.”
With as long a history as Sandringham House has had, it is believed a number of ghosts haunt the building at Christmas. Members of the royal family died there in the nineteenth century and more recently one of Queen Elizabeth’s loyal retainers, Tony Jarred, the Queen’s favorite steward, died there in the cellar in 1996. Rumor has it that the Queen herself has seen Jarred at Sandringham, although as usual with the Royal Family, no one will speak publicly about it. Nor is Jarred the only ghost Her Majesty has seen in her long life.
The haunting of Sandringham is reported to begin on Christmas Eve and endures for about six to seven weeks, after which the spirits seem to become dormant until the next Yuletide. This year should be especially interesting, since Kate Middleton will be spending her first Christmas at Sandringham House. Bonny Kate has been duly informed about the Christmas ghosts there and also been advised to not make any jokes about ghosts to the Queen, who apparently takes her royal hauntings quite seriously.
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.
First off, let me reassure folks who go to Rugby: despite the title of this essay, there are no ghouls in Rugby, Tennessee, none. No flesh-eating beings of any sort–at least not any I know of–reside there.
That out of the way, let me assure all those in search of a paranormal encounter, there is a gaggle of ghosts that inhabit the place, more per square mile than any town I know of. So, while I can’t guarantee a ghostly good time, your chances are better here than anywhere.
As I chronicle in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, this quaint rural village has been called “The Most Haunted Town in America.” It may, in fact, be the most haunted town in the world, although proving either assertion would be difficult, since the census bureau does not keep record of such things.
Rugby,Tennessee, is located high in the Cumberland Mountains, a wild and scenic area that while by no means backward, has not been subject to the massive influx of commercialism and corporate tourist development that the equally scenic Smoky Mountains have.
The Cumberlands are located between Nashville and Knoxville: to go from one to the ‘tuther, one passes through this area; travelers rarely stay there for their vacation, however, and mostly just pause in the region long enough for a lunch or brunch at one of the many restaurants and rest stops just off the interstate. This is a pity, since they are missing quite a lot; untrammeled wilderness, scenic heights, clean air and not a few frights and sights at Rugby.
To give an idea of the difference between the two mountain regions of Tennessee, in the summer when one goes fishing in a beautiful mountain stream in the Smokies, one is generally doing so with dozens of other fishermen, all elbow to elbow enjoying the same stream. When you go fly fishing in the Cumberlands, you can cast your reel without worrying about snagging another anglers fishing hat in the process. In all likelihood, the only being within sight of you also fishing is the occasional black or brown bear–or maybe the rare Bigfoot (otherwise known as the Tennessee Stink Ape).
So while Rugby is not hard to get to, being about an hour and spare change from downtown Nashville and a similar distance from Knoxville, it is not a heavily traveled spot, which suits the ghosts just fine.
To recap from my chapter on the town, Rugby was founded by Thomas Hughes, the novelist famous for Tom Brown’s School Days. Hughes, who actually attended the English “public school” (in the US we call them private schools) named Rugby, was a high minded sort and his intent was to found a town to provide a haven and gainful employment for the younger sons of titled English nobility. In Victorian England, the family wealth and title of an aristocratic family went to the eldest brother, leaving his siblings dependent on handouts from the family patriarch; on the other hand they were prohibited by strict English social custom from seeking gainful employment on their own. So, with little to do except mooch off their eldest brother, these younger sons often whiled away their days drinking, gambling and whoring and hoping big brother would kick the bucket some time soon.
Hughes thought to provide in America a place where they could learn a trade and be productive members of society, so he funded the construction of this little Victorian English village in the Southern highlands. Unfortunately, while the village of Rugby perfectly served Hughes’ purpose, it turned out that the younger sons of English nobility actually preferred to drink, gamble and go wenching instead of soiling their soft hands with any sort of gainful employment. What this late nineteenth century social experiment left behind was a village of quaint and beautiful Victorian homes and a number of mostly English ghosts in the heart of Dixie.
One of the most famous haunts was the Tabard Inn, where a murder most foul took place in Room 13. Alas, one can not stay here, as the building went up in flames some years back. But I talked with Rugby Executive Director, Barbara Staggs, soon after Strange Tales was published, and she had interviewed eyewitnesses who testified that as the building burned, they could hear screams coming from the vacant Room 13. Some locals believed it was the ghost that haunted the hotel who set the fire herself.
Much of the Victorian furniture from the second hotel was salvaged from the fire however, and repurposed to homes throughout the town. Some say cursed furniture was the cause of supernatural phenomena spreading throughout the rest of the town. Others in Rugby disagree on this; but no one doubts that as towns go, Rugby has more haunts per capita than any other town in America.
More fortunate in its fate wasNewbury House. Its owner was an English gentleman of high esteem but low birth who found the town quite congenial and sent for his family from England. Sadly, he died before they came and now his ghost resides in Newbury House, still waiting for them to arrive.
Then there is the old Victorian library, which looks for all the world like something out of Harry Potter–if Harry was a book nerd. It has signed copies of Charles Dickens’ novels. No gnarly ghost of Jacob Marley though. Some call it the “Rip Van Winckle” library, because it seems as though when one enters it, one has entered a sort of time warp. Although there is a phantom librarian reported present there, its presence is mostly unseen. You, however, may have a different experience when you visit.
There are a number of homes in the town with ghosts, some more active than others and over the years eyewitnesses have reported encounters with them all. There is Kingston Lisle, Thomas Hughes’ sometime residence; there is Roslyn, a two story mansion with several spirits, including the wild carriage driver who thunders up to the front door in a black carriage and the tale of the “weeping girl” in the front yard. Then too, there is Twin Oaks, allegedly once home to a witch, although whether she was simply what the Irish call a “Wise Woman,” knowledgeable about healing herbs and such, or of the more wicked sort, we know not. Appalachia has had its fair share of both sorts.
Again, for more in depth accounts of Rugby’s many ghosts one is better off consulting the chapter in Strange Tales. Then after reading, you will be armed with enough knowledge to tackle Rugby for yourself. The living residents are friendly and helpful to visitors and the spectral residents are mostly harmless—even if the occasional encounter with them is a bit startling. By all means, if you visit Dixie in your travels, Rugby is worth the trip.
In recent years, paranormal researchers have begun to take a closer look at the phenomena they call the BVM: the faithful refer to her as the Blessed Virgin Mary. Be one a believer or no, many serious researchers into unexplained phenomena are taking seriously the many sightings of this beatific female apparition. Today we take a closer look at one specific report of this Holy Ghost.
The arrival of the Magi—“we three kings from oriental”—who actually magicians or wizards and practitioners of the occult arts, came to pay homage to the birth of Christ, is celebrated in most Christian circles as the Feast of the Epiphany. It is traditionally dated to January 6, and in Merrie Oulde Englande it was called Little Christmas.
According to former custom, this was the actual day when gifts were exchanged, much as the Magi gave Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The Epiphany was important because it was the first appearance of the Jewish Messiah to gentiles—the aforesaid non-Jewish sorcerers. Now anyone who wishes to celebrate the holiday properly can send this humble scrivener as much gold and incense for the Epiphany as they wish, although you can just go out and buy one or more of my books and get something in return for your generosity,
The Feast of the Epiphany is also the twelfth day of Christmas according to our reckoning and a fit day to conclude the Twelve Ghosts of Christmas. In Anglo-Saxon England, Yuletide actually continued on through to February, with much wassail and ample quantities of ale; nowadays most of us have to get back to work and save the wassailing for Super Bowl Sunday; the ailing follows closely upon the hangover the next day. But I digress a bit here; for now, let us consider one last Christmastide apparition and then we shall close the book (or bell, book and candle) and hope the spirits rest in peace till next Yuletide.
Back to the BVM. There are many different sorts of apparitions, as we have amply seen. Some appear almost daily, as if they were on a loop of ghostly videotape set on infinite play; others occur just at certain times, as with most Christmas ghosts; but some apparitions appear just once or twice to deliver a message, then never again. Our last apparition is of that latter sort and while little known of in northern climes, it is widely celebrated further south.
In fact, this apparition occurred so far south that it was where folk didn’t speak English, and at the time it occurred, not even much Spanish. The spirit I refer to is Nuestra Senora de la Guadalupe—the Virgin of Guadalupe. Today this particular spirit visitation is hailed as the patron saint of Mexico and indeed she is venerated as the patroness of the Americas as a whole.
The odds are, if you have ever been to an authentic Mexican restaurant here in the Northwards, an icon of her has been lurking somewhere on the walls. That she is wildly popular among Mexicans and those among us of Mexican heritage, goes without saying. Those among us who are not of that cultural heritage may be unaware of the unusual story behind this intense devotion. Even if you are not a believer in saints or religious miracles, the story of her apparition—haunting, if you will—is a curious, yet true, one.
It actually occurred not long after the Conquistadors conquered—some say plundered and raped—the native kingdoms of what is now Mexico. The Aztecs were a proud and warlike people, and the truth be told, no better than the Spaniards who defeated them. Among the other tribes and kingdoms of Mexico, the defeat of the Aztecs was greeted as something of a relief—until they began to experience Spanish rule. In the wake of these European conquerors followed missionaries who came seeking neither gold nor glory, but rather came to bestow on the natives Christianity.
One of these converts to Christianity was a lowly campesino named Juan Diego. Born Cuauhtlatoatzin—Talking Eagle—Juan was a member of the Chichimeca tribe and spoke only Nuahatl—the language of the Aztecs and the other tribes of Central Mexico.
This day—the 9th of December, 1531—Juan was trudging from his little village into the city of Tlatelolco (now a neighborhood of Mexico City) to attend mass and take religious instruction. Juan was an eager convert to the new religion of the conquerors, it was true; but the complexities of this new religion were sometimes bewildering and so he and the other peasants like him were trying hard to understand the ins and outs of their new faith. The notion of one god, versus the many they had worshipped, for example, was peculiar enough in itself; that this one god could also be born of a virgin was even more confusing. Nonetheless, Juan trudged the dusty miles to the mission on foot to learn more about his new religion several times a week.
Only ten years before, Mexico City proper had been the pyramided imperial city of Tenochtitlan. It was the grand capitol of the great Aztec Empire, ruled over by a fierce warrior tribe who demanded human sacrifices from all the surrounding tribes. The human hostages given over to the Azteca elite by the surrounding natives were dragged to the tops of their high stepped temples and there they would have their hearts cut out still beating to feed the demanding and fearful Aztec gods; the remainder of their victim’s flesh was used to feed the Azteca warriors themselves. Now the temples had been razed and Spanish-style buildings and churches were being erected to replace them.
As Juan was climbing the hill the natives called Tepeyac, he heard singing on the hill, like the songs of many precious birds. Bewildered, Juan stopped and looked around, thinking perhaps he was dreaming. Then Juan looked towards the top of the hill, in the direction from which the music flowed.
The singing stopped and then he heard a voice calling to him, saying “Beloved Juan, dearest Diego.”
Juan went in the direction of the voice, and as he did so, he suddenly became happy and contented within. When he reached the top of the hill he saw before him a Maiden standing there who beckoned him closer.
She looked to be a native, with dark hair, dark eyes and copper skin like him. The Maiden was young and beautiful to behold; the apparition seemed only about fifteen or sixteen and she wore around her a mantle of blue-green, and though her form seemed human, Juan knew she was no ordinary mortal.
Her clothing was shining like the sun, as if it were sending out waves of light and the stones and the crag on which she stood seemed to be giving out rays of light as well. The Maiden’s radiance was like many brilliant precious stones, as in an exquisite bracelet; the earth all around her seemed to shine with the brilliance of a rainbow in the mist, while emanating from her head came bright rays of light, like the spines of an agave cactus. Juan stood there speechless, entranced by the incredible spectacle.
Then she spoke to the bedazzled campesino in his own Nahuatl tongue: “Know, be sure, my dearest-and-youngest son, that I am the Prefect Ever Virgin Holy Mary, mother of the one great God of Truth who gives us life, the inventor and creator of people, the owner and Lord of the Sky, the owner of the earth. I want very much that they build my sacred little house here.” She then instructed Juan to go to the Spanish archbishop in the city and tell her of her wish that he build a house for her on that very hill.
In due course, Juan, the Indian peasant, went to the great residence of the Prince of the Church, the Archbishop Fray Juan de Zumárraga, only recently arrived in this brave new world, and told him of the appearance of the Blessed Mother and her request.
Although the good bishop did not openly laugh at the native peasant’s bold request, he thought this simple farmer just some deluded Indian, and demanded proof of what he claimed. That, the good bishop thought, would end of the matter.
Returning to the hill of Tepeyac, Juan told the apparition of the Bishop’s request for proof and suggested to the Maiden that perhaps she should have someone of noble blood transmit her instructions to the Prince of the Church, the archbishop.
But with soothing words the Maiden reproved Juan, and again she bade him go to the bishop and tell him her will. This Juan did and was again rebuffed and told to provide proof.
Coming back to the same hill, again he told the Maiden of the bishop’s doubt and demand for proof, a sign that what he said was true. The Maiden told him to return on the morrow and that she would give him that sign.
Juan almost didn’t return, for that evening his Uncle became very very sick; so sick the uncle thought sure his end was near. At his uncle’s request, Juan headed to Tlatelolco to seek a priest to deliver last rites. However, although he tried to avoid the place where the apparition had appeared, on the way Juan again met the Maiden. Ashamed he had tried to avoid her, he explained to her about his dying uncle. Unfazed, she told him to fear not; his uncle was already cured. And on returning home, he found it was so.
Then, on the day of the Winter Solstice, Juan returned to the same place on the hill of Tepeyac, and again the Maiden appeared before him. She now instructed him to go to a certain place on the hill and pick the flowers there. Juan knew that at this time of year no flowers blossomed in the high plateau, in the land where he and his folk dwelt. Yet obedient to the lady’s wishes he went to the place she told him of. There, looking all about him he found a field of fragrant and beautiful flowers in all in full bloom.
Juan Diego picked the flowers, dazzling in their variety and beauty, gathering them up in the folds of his tilma, his homemade agave fiber poncho. He presented them to the Maiden, who gathered them up in her hands; she then put them back again into the tilma and folded it up and strictly enjoined Juan not to open his serape again until he came into the presence of the archbishop, the Spanish grandee.
Only with great difficulty was Juan able to obtain yet another audience with the archbishop. The great Prince of the Church’s servants were loathe to let this lowly Indian back in, thinking His Grace had been harassed by this crazy native more than enough. Still, Juan persisted and after waiting and waiting, he was finally was ushered into the bishop’s presence.
As instructed, Juan opened the tilma to show His Grace the fragrant flowers of the Maiden. On opening his poncho, out fell the flowers, all fragrant and beautiful, as if it were a sunny day in May and not the Winter Solstice. Yet these were not just any flowers but Castilian Roses, flowers which not only did not blossom in December, but which only grew in Spain and only in the province of Castile, from whence the Conqueror of Mexico, Hernan de Cortes himself had come. But even this was not the most remarkable thing the bishop witnessed; for on opening the folds of the tilma, the Archbishop Fray Juan de Zumárraga and his by now bewildered and curious servants saw the very image of the Maiden that had repeatedly appeared to Juan. It was a perfect image, glowing in vivid colors, yet not painted by the hand of man.
This time it was the bishop’s turn to bow, bow before the peasant Juan Diego and his tilma. For although the archbishop was a proud man and of high birth and came from a family of great wealth in Spain, he was at heart also a man of great piety and faith. In the knowledge that he was in the presence of something otherworldly and miraculous, the bishop begged the forgiveness of the Lady of the hill for his cynicism and doubt.
In due course the “little house”—a grand cathedral—was built where she directed. Word of the apparition grew and of the messages the Maiden gave to Juan, until all the natives of Mexico came to venerate the tilma with the image of the Lady and honor her as their protector and patron. And centuries later, when the day at last came for the native folk of Mexico to throw off the yoke of their conqueror, they bore the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe before them to victory. In all things the folk of Mexico hold fast to their faith in The Maiden as their protectress and still believe in the miracle of the roses.
Since then, the usual cynics have tried to disprove or deny the apparition, claiming the image is a fake and merely painted on; yet to this date no one has been able to succeed in proving it is anything but what Juan Diego claimed that Winter Solstice day in 1531.
However, in all the various investigations and close analyses of that icon on that agave fiber poncho which have been conducted over the years, some curious facts have emerged. For one thing, in the pupils of the eyes of Our Lady on the cloth can be seen very small, almost microscopic, images of people; they seem to be images of the bishop and his servants present when the tilma was unfolded by Juan Diego, as reflected in Our Lady’s eye.
Another curious fact, and one only recently discovered, is about the stars that decorate the blue-green gown of the Lady of Guadalupe.
It had always been assumed that the stars were just a random decoration on the gown, in honor of her epithet of “Queen of Heaven.” However, a close analysis of those stars reveals the fact that they are not haphazard, but organized as actual constellations of the sky. Nor is the arrangement of those constellations random either, but in fact they are in the exact pattern they would have been in the sky in 1531, on the day of the Winter Solstice, the day when the tilma was presented to Archbishop Zumárraga.
The only difference is that the constellations are a mirror image of how we would see them from earth. Imagine if her gown were the mantle of heaven; we would be looking up at them from the inside; but an onlooker viewing the tilma is seeing her gown from the outside, from the direction of heaven—hence the reverse pattern of the stars.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is a beloved icon and the story behind it most unusual; to date, all attempts to discredit it have proved fruitless—not that the professional debunkers haven’t tried. If, as the cynics would have us believe, it is a man-made fabrication, it is of such skill, subtlety and complexity as to boggle the mind. No ordinary mortal, much less an untutored native peasant, could possibly have rendered it. Any attempt to debunk the apparition of Guadalupe must also explain who, how, and why it would have been made.
Not just the faithful, but objective modern paranormal researchers have studied this and similar female apparitions which have been identified with Mary, the mother of Christ. They refer to them collectively as “BVMs” (Blessed Virgin Marys) and have a somewhat different view than the religious faithful. While accepting their reality, and positing them as genuine supernatural phenomena, they have wondered if something else is not also going on with such apparitions beyond what orthodox Christians are willing to comfortably accept.
The celestial symbolism of the robe of Our Lady of Guadalupe, for one thing, seems to point to certain astrological connections. Going back to the Christmas narrative in the Bible and the Feast of the Epiphany, we may note that the Magi in some modern New Testament translations have also been rendered as “astrologers”—presumably a more palatable epithet than magician or sorcerer. Indeed, the appearance of the Nativity Star at the birth of Jesus also implies astrological connections. That Mary is frequently referred to as the “Morning Star” (Venus) in early Christian writings also points to occult celestial connections on the part of the Queen of Heaven. We may note in passing certain celestial alignments have also been pointed out with regard to her Feast of the Annunciation as well.
It is not our purpose here to argue any particular theology or spiritual belief—although Moslems also venerate Mary in addition to many Christians—but rather to simply point out, as Shakespeare so nobly said, “There are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
For anyone wishing to investigate further these celestial connections with Our Lady of Guadalupe and the BVM, one can see for example the Immaculate Immigrant blog and regarding the Feast of the Annunciation (suspiciously close to the Vernal Equinox) see the dsdocnnor wordpress blog about the Pleiades and the BVM.
Many female devotees of the Late Unpleasantness are great admirers of the fictional heroine of Gone with the Wind, Scarlet O’Hara. Her wilfulness, her ability to manipulate men and her all around bitchiness have made her a role model for generations of GRITS (Girls Raised In The South). Outside of Middle Tennessee, however, there are few who know that there was a real life Southern belle whose actual antics put the fictional Scarlet to shame. Her name was Adelicia Acklen, the Mistress of Belmont Mansion.
Not that Adelicia was at all unpleasant or, shall we say bitchy. Oh no; butter would not melt in her mouth; she was a godly woman and prolific progenetrix. And she was very, very wealthy.
Where once rows of magnolias blossomed, today stands Music Row; other vestiges of Adelicia’s estate have also gone with the wind (or kudzu as the case may be) but the mansion she once resided in, Belmont, remains and–at least at Christmastime–so does she.
Adelicia started off her career as a humble country girl in Sumner County, with several thousands of acres of prime farmland and a few dozen champion show horses to her name. Her father was a simple farmer whose wealth could only be counted by a handful of accountants working night and day. However, wealth begets more wealth, and the young and beautiful Adelicia married a prosperous doctor who amplified her estate and sired several children with her. Poor thing, his health was not so strong as her loins and he died prematurely, leaving her a wealthy widow.
However, beautiful Adelicia did not long remain a widow. She remarried, this time to a far wealthier man, Joseph Acklen, who owned large and profitable plantations on the lower Mississippi, all of which produced bountiful crops of cotton.
In due course, Adelicia bore Joseph a bountiful crop of several more children and he in turn built her the magnificent Italianate mansion of Belmont. Sitting on a long sloping hill, one approached Belmont in the old days as if one were ascending Mount Olympus to visit the gods. Downton Abbey would have been a pauper’s hut compared to Belmont in its heyday. All went well, until the War.
In February, 1862, Nashville fell to the invading Yankee hordes and the miles between the Rock City and the Acklen cotton plantations in Louisiana were long indeed; for most of the war the area between the two waas a no man’s land in which the various armies marched and fought.
Not long into the conflict, husband Joseph headed south to look after their financial interests along the Mississippi, lest their family fortune be ruined. Adelicia remained home to look after her growing brood of children and her thoroughbred horses. She was devoted both to her children and her horses.
Then one fateful day came word that her beloved Joseph had died of a fever tending to their cotton (some say it was a carriage accident).
Adelicia sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, saying “What am I to do, what am I to do!” and then it struck her: what about the cotton? Where the hell was it; had it been harvested; was it ready to be shipped—and how?
Adelicia, for all her beauty, was not one to simply fan herself and stand idly by while her family fortune went up in flames. With no further ado, she piled a female cousin and two loyal servants in a carriage and headed into the hundreds of miles of lawless no-mans land, where deserters and robbers and guerillas on both sides would sooner kill you as look at you.
In the end Adelica saved the cotton. Through cajolery and charm, she shipped it abroad and sold it in England for premium prices, emerging even wealthier than before the war—a feat unique among Southern planters. In the postwar Dixie for many years she was the queen of Southern society and her evening parties and Christmas Balls were legendary. Belmont became the epicenter of the postwar South’s high society.
After she died, the aura of Belmont as a grand and elegant place continued on. It became an aristocratic girl’s finishing school, Ward-Belmont, and ultimately a well respected modern academic institution, Belmont University. But over the years, various alumni and staff have had odd encounters within its august halls, things that cannot be explained by natural causes.
No one has actually seen Adelicia roaming the halls; but on more than one occasion, student, faculty and staff have had fey and uncanny experiences in the mansion, especially at Christmastime, that make them believe she is indeed still inhabiting the old manse.
One of the annual Christmas celebrations at Belmont is called “Hanging of the Green” and the students stage an elaborate ritual revolving around a tall winding staircase. Over the years, students involved in the Yuletide ritual have reported feeling a female presence there, while waiting for the ceremony to begin. Others hear the rustling of crinoline dresses, when no one is there. Other unexplained encounters also occur with uncanny frequency, especially around Christmas.
So, do Adelicia and other members of her ghostly clan really still inhabit the august halls of Belmont Mansion?
In his famous ballad, The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot posed the question, “does anyone know where to love of God goes, when the gales of November come early?” The sad fact is that not only that ship, but many other vessels that ply the Great Lakes have fallen prey to the unpredictable weather that besets the great northern waters. No fate was more sad, nor more tragic, nor its aftermath more eerie, that the doom of the Christmas Tree Ship.
For many years it was a tradition on the northern waters that one or another schooner, or similar sailing craft, would sail north, cut a load of fragrant fresh evergreens and then sail southward to Chicago to eager families awaiting the ship’s arrival to put up a tree in their home. It was a long-standing tradition and the arrival of the Christmas Tree Ship came to be an annual ritual in Chicagoland, and its arrival always marked the beginning of the Christmas season there.
November of 1912 started off no different than any other year. The schooner Rouse Simmons that year made the journey to the northlands, where the crew cut the trees and hauled them onboard, ‘til the deck was stacked high with them. The skipper, Herman Schuenemann, was known locally as “Captain Santa:” a gruff old salt, he had a heart of gold and sold his trees direct to the people on the docks, even giving some free to the needy who had not the money to buy them.
That November was a particularly bountiful harvest. They say some worried deckhands asked the captain if they may have cut too many, to which he is said to have replied, “don’t worry boys, the folks waiting on the Clark Street docks will buy ‘em all!” They say some of the sailors, looking at the red sunset on the horizon, refused to take ship with Captain Santa and stayed behind.
On November 23, 1912 the good ship Rouse Simmons set sail, rounding the Upper Peninsula and making its way south towards Chicago. They were making good time, they say, when foul winter hit. It was one of those gales that Gordon Lightfoot warned about; high winds bearing cold, cold air and more snow and ice than you would expect at that time of the year. The rigging became encased in crystal sheaths and impossible to use, while the sails were torn to shreds by the howling icy winds. Top heavy with trees, the ship was listing to one side when folks along the shores of Lake Michigan caught sight of her.
Folk near Two Rivers, Wisconsin, could see the crew from shore, begging and pleading for help. Though it was worth a man’s life to try, the folks on shore launched a boat to rescue the crew. They caught a glimpse of the ship in the tossing seas, but then it became lost to view. Amidst the fog, the snow and the sleet, they couldn’t find the missing ship and returned to shore, lest they too share its doom.
Weighed down with ice-laden trees on deck, taking water and her sails in tatters, the Rouse Simmons went down off the coast of Wisconsin. But though she disappeared between the waves that year, that was not the last folk on the lakes saw of her. For weeks after the ship went down, the ship and its skipper kept being sighted on the lake, and well into December she was expected to land any day, simply delayed at some port, they thought. What those folk saw on the lake has never been explained, as the Rouse Simmons by that time was on the lake bottom with all her crew.
Like any good Flying Dutchman, however, there are continuing reports of an old three-masted schooner sighted on stormy nights, especially in late November; but the ship over the years has continued to send physical reminders as well.
For years afterwards, pieces of Christmas Trees would wash ashore or come up in fishermen’s nets on Lake Michigan. One time, a message in a bottle washed up ashore, supposedly the last message from Captain Santa. Another time, a local fishing boat hauled up in its nets the wallet of Captain Santa himself. Somehow, the good ship Rouse Simmons just would not go away.
True, divers did eventually find the wreck at the bottom of the lake, but no sign of the crew was found aboard, and reports of a ghostly sailing ship, tossed upon angry inland seas continue to be told. Who knows, perhaps some day, some way, the ghosts of Captain Santa and his crew will finally make it back to port in time for Christmas.