A “Lively” Christmas Spirit: More Christmas Ghosts

Poltergeists are generally invisible and thought to be "playful" but can terrify whole families and cause them to abandon their homes.
Poltergeists are generally invisible and thought to be “playful” but can terrify whole families and cause them to abandon their homes.

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 size of the object a poltergeist can lift is apparently irrelevant. Large or small, they can cause solid matter to defy gravity.
The size of the object a poltergeist can lift is apparently irrelevant. Large or small, they can cause solid matter to defy gravity.

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.

When the Gardiner's suppers started getting disturbed, they knew it was time to leave their new home.
When the Gardiner’s suppers started getting disturbed, they knew it was time to leave their new home.

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. 

 

For more true tales of the uncanny and unexplained, see Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and Dixie Spirits.

Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.  True haunting tales of the Mid South
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. True haunting tales of the Mid South
A compendium of strange, unexplained and uncanny events and places throughout the South.
A compendium of strange, unexplained and uncanny events and places throughout the South.
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More Christmas Ghosts: A Disturbance at Sandringham House

The modest little royal digs at Sandringham House, by all accounts adrift with ghosts and spirits at Christmastime
The modest little royal digs at Sandringham House, by all accounts adrift with ghosts and spirits at Christmastime

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.

"The Guardian Angel" which watches over Sandringham House; hopefully it is not a Weeping Angel though.
“The Guardian Angel” which watches over Sandringham House; hopefully it is not a Weeping Angel though.

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.

Kate Middleton, the popular Duchess of Cambridge, has been duly warned about the ghosts that haunt Sandringham House at Christmas.
Kate Middleton, the popular Duchess of Cambridge, has been duly warned about the ghosts that haunt Sandringham House at Christmas.

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.
 

 

For more true haunting tales, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.  Both best read by a roaring fire with duly spiked eggnog on Christmas Eve.

Strange tales of unexplained phenomena and paranormal activity in the Mid-South.
Strange tales of unexplained phenomena and paranormal activity in the Mid-South.
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.  True haunting tales of the Mid South
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. True haunting tales of the Mid South

Halloween Hauntings, Part 11 Witches of Appalachia, Wicked, Wise and Otherwise

Halloween Hauntings, Part 11:

Witches of Appalachia

A modern take on the traditional witch has her bewitching readers in an entirely different manner
A modern take on the witch has her bewitching men in an entirely different manner
The late great Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West from an MGM publicity still ca.1939
The late great Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West from an MGM publicity still ca.1939

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around about Halloween it is not unusual to see images of alluring females all bedecked in black, slinky and seductive apparitions in witch’s costumes.  That is one modern stereotype; the other, older one, is of an ugly, cock-eyed old crone with crooked nose and hairy mole leering out with a toothless smile.  

The truth is that neither of these stereotypes is true, at least not of real witches—and make no mistake, real witches have existed and for aught I know still do—in the mountains of Tennessee. I go into this in much greater depth in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, so for more on this and similar phenoms, go there if you dare.

popular modern iconography of the witch and her familiars, the owl and the pussycat.
popular modern iconography of the witch and her familiars, the owl and the pussycat.

Of course, the curious thing has always been that there were always far more folk who would own up to being witch-hunters (or ‘witch-doctors”) than those who would actually own up to being a witch. And especially today, if we are talking about beings with genuine supernatural powers, if they proudly proclaim themselves a witch in public, the likelihood is that they are not.

Still, it was not so long ago in East Tennessee that folks knew very well who in their community was, and was not, a witch.  And for the most part they were neither ugly nor sexy, nor any kind of neo-pagan. But what they all had in common was that they were feared and avoided—unless you needed them for something.

Before the creation of Smoky Mountain National Forest, that multi-county region it covered was home to several mountain communities that now are no more. The area back in the 1930’s was not quite so backward as Yankee journalists of the day might have proclaimed, but even by the standards of early twentieth century South, folk up there were land rich but dirt poor.

Of course, if you raised your own crops and had herds of livestock, and had a gun and a fishing rod, there was always food on the table and no one starved.  As far as modern amenities went, such as indoor plumbing or electricity, well, that was something city folks had, not mountain folk.

Up around that part of the Smokies once lived a lady later known as “Witch McGaha.”  It was not her Christian name, of course; but then she was not the church-going type anyhow.  One thing that set folk wise to Witch McGaha was that she was continually trying to borrow things from neighbors.

It was not as though she needed anything; but, you see, if a witch can borrow three things from you, then sure as spit she can put you under her spell.  Conversely, Witch McGaha would never, never lend anybody anything, not even to members of her own family.  Many tales are told about her and her powers, but one will suffice for now

One fall, her own blood kin, sister Nance McGaha, wanted some nice juicy apples from her sister’s orchard. But Witch McGaha would have none of it.  Not one apple would she loan or give.  Nance even got her mother to talk to her older sister to loan her some apples until her own orchard came into its own, all to no avail.

Nance, too willful for her own good, snuck onto her sister’s orchard and started plucking the shiny red fruit off’n the trees and putting them into a large tote sack.

Not able to wait till she got home, she bit into one. It was red, and ripe and oh so juicy, just bursting with the sweetness of Autumn in the mountains.

Vintage photo of members of a British tea party. Poison apples were served after tea.
Vintage photo of members of a British tea party. Poison apples were served after tea.

When she had picked her full, Nance started off for home, thinking her sister would be none the wiser. She was dead wrong.

As she walked along the mountain trail, Nance felt a small tug on the hem of her dress; then another and another. What was that tugging?

She looked down. Nance found a pack of bushy tailed grey squirrels had formed a ring around her and were giving her angry looks as the insistently tugged on her dress.

Nance began to walk faster, but as she did even more squirrels appeared. They were all angry and intent on stopping her progress.

Soon she broke into a run, dropping the sack now in her haste to escape, but the growing horde of squirrels were keeping pace and would not let up their assault.

Now they were scratching and biting and clawing at every part of Nance’s body and no matter how fast she ran they all held on and kept attacking her.

By the time Nance reached the threshold of her house she was all bloody and her dress in tatters.  Before she could cross the threshold of home where a broom was lain across it to ward off evil, Nance McGaha keeled over, dead.

A common feature of traditional Appalachian life has always been the local Wise Woman, a person who had knowledge of herbs, potions and poultices, who also knew how to conjur spells. Their craft was in part derived from Ireland and Scotland, where Wise Women were a common occurrence; partly they also learned from the local tribes’ medicine women about healing remedies and about the local spirits that might be of benefit; and perhaps too, they picked up knowledge of spells and herb magic from those few Negro practitioners of Hoodoo that dwelt in the mountain regions.

In nineteenth century North Carolina, one such Wise Woman was especially famous, called “Mammy Wise” (actually her name was Weiss) and while not particularly wicked, she was a particularly talented Wise Woman.

She claimed to have “spelt” the Civil War (she always regretted that); she could also divine out who a thief was in the community and was Mammy Wise was the first person one resorted to when it came to cooking up a love potion.

Mammy Wise was respected and honored on that side of the mountains. Still, no one with any sense ever tried to get on her bad side, for they knew what she could do if her ire was raised.

Woodcut of a British witch ca. 1643. Any woman with herbal knowledge or healing skills could be accused of witchery. The real ones likely went unnoticed, practicing their craft in secret.
Woodcut of a British witch ca. 1643. Any woman with herbal knowledge or healing skills could be accused of witchery. Few accused were guilty, for the real ones  practiced their craft in secret.

There were—are—other Wise Women in the high mountains, although these days they are far more discreet. Society may be more tolerant these days of folk who claim to be witches, but those with real power are wise enough to say little and mind their business—especially when their business is the Dark Art.

For more about Appalachian Witches and their haunts, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.

Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
This latest offering of all things spooky in the South covers the favorite haunts of downtown Nashville and other Country spooks.
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee covers not only mountain witches but the haints of downtown Nashville and West Tennessee spookiness.

 

St. Nicolas the Necromancer

 

Saint Nicholas of Myra is the real life origin of our Santa Klaus. Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus.

While I normally focus my ruminations on strange doings below the Mason-Dixon Line, this go round we are casting our net farther afield to relate the occult truth behind that most familiar seasonal icon—Santa Claus.

As we all know so well, the moniker Santa Klaus is really a nickname for the orthodox Christian saint, Saint Nicholas.  For those who may mistake him as a mere marketing ploy for Coca Cola Corp, we must emphasize that St. Nicholas was—is—a real person.  For our Protestant brethren (and sistern) for whom the system of saints may be a trifle strange or unfamiliar, one should bear in mind one salient fact about saints and St. Nicholas in particular: saints are generally referred to in the present tense.  So, although they may not be visible or with us in the flesh, they are always present in the spirit.  Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

As we all know, St. Nicholas’ special domain is Yuletide and he is, among other things, the patron saint of children.  How St. Nicholas became the patron of children is where the supernatural weirdness enters the tale.

The story goes (and who am I to question Holy Mother Church in matters of faith).  That St. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra in Lycia, an ancient kingdom in Anatolia (modern Turkey), had already a pretty strong reputation for piety and good works.  Like St. Valentine, he was known to give young unmarried girls money for their dowry, so they could get married instead of being sold to a brothel by their father (yes Virginia, times were tough back then).  To this day in some places, on his feast they still give bags of chocolate wrapped in gold foil to make them look like money.

St. Nicholas returns the three boys from the dead, a miracle which made him patron saint of children.
St. Nicholas returns the three boys from the dead, a miracle which made him patron saint of children.

 

One day, news came of a terrible crime.  Three young children had been murdered and their bodies were found pickled by a fiend named Garum, who bore a strange resemblance to Peter Lorrie in M.  Why the killer pickled them is a mite obscure, but the general theory is that he pickled them to prepare their flesh for being turned into meat pies (or the Roman equivalent)—à la Sweeney Todd.

Arriving on the scene of the crime, Old Saint Nick was anything but jolly at what he found.  The children were most thoroughly dead—some renditions of his life claim they had already been chopped into cutlets in preparation for cooking.  Then Saint Nicholas did something no one expected.  He reanimated the dead corpses of the three children and reunited them with their grieving parents.

St. Nick raising the boys back to life.  From the version of the story by Anatole France (1909).
St. Nick raising the boys back to life. From the version of the story by Anatole France (1909).

According to the version told by Anatole France, an angel appeared to Nick and bade him lay his hands on the pickle vat:

The angel said:

“Nicolas, son of God, lay your hands on the salting-tub, and the three children will be resuscitated.”

     The blessed Nicolas, filled with horror, pity, zeal, and hope, gave thanks to God, and when the innkeeper reappeared with a jug in either hand, the Saint said to him in a terrible voice:

“Garum, open the salting-tub!”

Whereupon, Garum, overcome by fear, dropped both his jugs and the saintly Bishop Nicolas stretched out his hands, and said:

“Children, arise!”

At these words, the lid of the salting-tub was lifted up, and three young boys emerged.

“Children,” said the Bishop, “give thanks to God, who through me, has raised you from out the salting-tub.”

The murderous innkeeper ran screaming into the dark and stormy night and has not been seen since.

Saint Nicholas also performed other feats of magic/miracles.  One time, while traveling at sea a terrible tempest arose and his sailing ship was in danger of sinking.  Again Old Nick stretched forth his hands over the waters and the sea was immediately calmed.  It is because of these aforementioned good works and miracles that St. Nicholas is not only the patron saint of children, but mariners, virgins and prostitutes.  This is why you will see icons of St. Nicholas with a boat in his arms and sometimes with gold balls.  The gold balls are a bit enigmatic, but either are analogs to the sack of coins he gives to virgins for their dowries or as rewards to his more shady female devotees for their devotion to him.  The gold balls may also relate to him being the patron saint of pawnbrokers, although how he took them under his wing is beyond me.

The notion that St. Nick is always a “jolly old elf” has been promoted mostly by the corporate types using him as a marketing ploy to commercialize a season which should be celebrating the advent of Jesus and the triumph of light over dark.  In fact, St. Nicholas had a bit of a temper if you got on his bad side.  During one church council, the bishops and other church officials were hotly debating the Arian Heresy, at the time being actively spread by a priest name Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ.  Well, the “debate” got so heated that “Jolly Old St. Nick” hauled off and punched Arius, knocking him down on the ground and out for the count.  I’m surprised that St. Nicholas isn’t also the patron saint of prize fighters.

Now a person who raises the dead from the grave for any purpose is by definition a necromancer and is necromancy is considered the blackest of the Black Arts.  That Jolly Old Saint Nicholas had the power (albeit God-given) to raise the dead speaks volumes about his spiritual (ie magical) abilities.  He may well be a merry old soul, but he is also not someone to get on the bad side of.

Krampus seems to take particular pleasure in abusing young women, to judge by the images of him.
Krampus is St. Nicholas’ “helper” who punishes bad girls and boys.

One hint that there is a darker side to Old Saint Nick is his “helper” the Krampus.  You never hear about Krampus in the U.S., but in Austria and Germany they know better.  The other night on Jimmy Fallon, Christophe Waltz gave American audiences a short education about Krampus. While the “elf on a shelf” is merely a snitch for Santa, Krampus is his enforcer—kind of like what happens if you don’t pay the Mafia loan-shark what you owe him.  The best way to describe Krampus is if Bigfoot had sex with the Devil and they had a child together, who took some really bad LSD, Krampus would be the result.  This creature is seriously demented.

If Saint Nicholas comes with “praise and presents and wisdom,”  Krampus comes with a stick and a bag and if you’re bad you get tossed in the bag and hit with a stick.  Actually, that is the least that Santa’s not so jolly helper will do to you.

More of Krampus' hair pulling of braided hair.  That in modern Austria young men who dress up as Krampus are  filled with spirits that are more alcoholic than spiritual, may explain why they target comely females for hair pulling.
More of Krampus’ hair pulling of braided hair. That in modern Austria young men who dress up as Krampus are filled with spirits that are more alcoholic than spiritual, may explain why they target comely females for hair pulling.

He is fond of pulling pretty girl’s golden braids and doing God knows what else to them when no one is looking, and there are even some hints that Krampus has cannibal tendencies, like the aforementioned innkeeper.

Krampus roasting the hearts of naughty girls and boys.
Krampus roasting the hearts of naughty girls and boys.

Although it is not widely mentioned, St. Nicholas the Necromancer is held in great awe among practitioners of Voodoo, where he is identified with the African entity Gran Solé or in the Santeria Cult, Gran Soler.  In the Spanish speaking lands of the Caribbean, Gran Soler and San Nicolas del Sol are one and the same.  Which brings us to why St. Nicholas is connected to Christmas in the first place.  No one actually knows when Jesus was born, but the early Church fathers placed his birthday around the same time as the Winter Solstice–the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun.  All fall, the days grow shorter and shorter, and the sun is “dying.”  But with the Winter Solstice the dying ceases and the sun returns from the “dead.”   St. Nicholas the Necromancer is closely tied with this annual miracle of nature.

 

Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, closely tied to the Winter Solstice and Saint Nicholas.
Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, closely tied to the Winter Solstice and Saint Nicholas.

That Nicholas of the Sun can raise the dead at will connects him closely with the Voodoo cult of the zombie as well.  Imagine, if you will, that with St. Nicholas/Gran Solé’s help, at a wave of the hand you could summon an army of reanimated corpses back from the dead to do your will—what kind of power would you wield?  Fortunately, that has not come to pass—yet.

So, let us hope you did not trample too many people on Black Friday, or run over too many pedestrians in your haste for a parking space.  You better be good, you better be nice and better think twice–and forget about the sugar plums and spice–lest Krampus and St. Nicholas the Necromancer decide to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.

 

Little Saint Nick and his wingman, Krampus, tearing up the highways in their Harley (actually more like a BMW bike).
Little Saint Nick and his wingman, Krampus, tearing up the highways in their Harley (actually more like a BMW bike).

For more weirdness from the land of cotton, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Dixie Spirits.

The Day the Devil Came Down to Arkansas

Call his name and the Devil will appear they say.  One day two Arkansas boys found that out.
Call his name and the Devil will appear they say. One day two Arkansas boys found that out.

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.

In 1784, two pioneers confronted a headless Devil in Arkansas.  They were lucky not to lose their own heads that day.
In 1784, two pioneers confronted a headless Devil in Arkansas. They were lucky not to lose their own heads that day.

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.

Happy Halloween from Dixie.
Happy Halloween from Dixie.

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!

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

Halloween Hauntings Part 13 

The Great West Tennessee Haunt Hunt: Bolivar, Tennessee

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

Between Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee, lies the scenic West Tennessee city of Bolivar. To the casual visitor it is a placid and serene city, filled with friendly folk where nothing untoward ever occurs.

Beneath the idyllic surface of Bolivar, however, flows an undertow of supernatural strangeness. While Bolivar may not be a big bustling metropolis like Memphis, Knoxville or Nashville, where it excels those towns is in the density and intensity of paranormal phenomena there per haunted hectare.

The haunted rocking chair on the front porch of Wren's Nest, Uncle Dave Parran's old home.
The haunted rocking chair on the front porch of Wren’s Nest, Uncle Dave Parran’s old home.

Perhaps the most famous and most beloved apparition in Bolivar must certainly be “Uncle Dave.” In life, Uncle Cave Parran was a daily sight at his place of business in the quaint town square.

But where Uncle Dave was most seen was on the front porch of his home, Wren’s Nest, rocking back and forth on his old rocking chair. He would wave and say hello and engage in conversation all who passed by. Everyone in Bolivar knew and loved Uncle Dave till the day he died at age 86.

Then something strange happened; Uncle Dave refused to leave Wren’s Nest even in death. Some folk have even claimed to see him on the front porch; mostly, though, the rocking chair just rocks back and forth on its own, as if some invisible soul still occupies it.

Old photo of McNeal Place.  Haunted then; haunted now.
Old photo of McNeal Place. Haunted then; haunted now.

Not far from Wren’s Nest sits the majestic McNeal Place. Though both are haunted, both buildings and hauntings are like night and day. Uncle Dave’s home is a comfy homespun old home; McNeal Place is more like a Renaissance Villa. While Uncle Dave is about as congenial a haunt as one could wish for, the restless spirit of McNeal Place is doleful and sad and often visits the graveyard where her young daughter was lain to rest. Griefs know no boundary—not even the boundary of death.

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

Western State Mental Hospital, now the Western Mental Health Institute in Bolivar is a most seriously haunted spot.
Western State Mental Hospital, now the Western Mental Health Institute in Bolivar is a most seriously haunted spot.

Less accessible than these haunts are the ghosts which inhabit Western Mental Health Institute. While these days large prison-like insane asylums are ill favored, in its heyday WMHI was jam packed, not only with the legitimately insane, but with persons whom today we would call rebellious, lascivious or unconventional.

Lobotomies, shock therapy, chaining and medieval like torture were the rule of the day. Old asylums were a literal chamber of horrors. Many people died from such treatment and some of their spirits abide in WMHI and other old institutions.

Today mental health is more enlightened and Western has far fewer inmates than once it held. Present and former staff and patients alike testify to the ghosts who actively haunt its grounds, but wannabe ghost-busters are advised not to investigate on their own. The old hospital itself is closed to the public and while the local ghosts may not bother you, the local constabulary most certainly will.

West Tennessee Mental Health Institute as it looks today.  The patients are fewer but the ghosts are not.
West Tennessee Mental Health Institute as it looks today. The patients are fewer but the ghosts are not.

If you wish to get up close and personal with the dearly departed, you would be well advised to spend a weekend at Magnolia Manor. An elegant antebellum home converted to a comfortable bed and breakfast it has beautiful antiques in each room—and a gaggle of ghosts to go along with them.

The central staircase of Magnolia Manor, where Sherman slashed the railing in a fit of anger.  Numerous ghosts haunt the building.
The central staircase of Magnolia Manor, where Sherman slashed the railing in a fit of anger. Numerous ghosts haunt the building.

During the Civil War, Generals Grant and Sherman stayed at Magnolia Manor there are many tales to be told of the Yankee occupation. In the years since the Late Unpleasantness, a host of ghosts have accumulated within its walls and on the surrounding grounds.

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

Happy Halloween!  The Ghosts of Tennessee say BOO!
Happy Halloween! The Ghosts of Tennessee say BOO!

For more about the ghosts of Magnolia Manor and Bolivar, see Chapter 26 of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. And have a Happy Halloween!

Halloween Hauntings, Part 9: Rugby Tennessee: Tom Brown’s Ghoul Daze

 

Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's School Days and high minded founder of Rugby, Tennessee.
Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s School Days and high minded founder of Rugby, Tennessee

Halloween Hauntings Part 9

TOM BROWN’S GHOUL DAZE

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.

Early settlers of Rugby. The indolent sons of English nobility largely found Hushes' work ethic uncongenial and soon left Rugby; the middle class Englishmen who settled there did not and stayed.
Early settlers of Rugby. The indolent sons of English nobility largely found Hushes’ work ethic uncongenial and soon left Rugby. The middle class Englishmen who settled there, who did not mind honest labor, stayed on and their descendants reside there still.

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.

In this brief review of the spirits of Rugby, we can but hit the highlights. I have covered the subject in greater depth in Chapter 2 of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground.

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.

The first Tabard Inn, which burned under mysterious circumstances on Halloween, 1884.
The first Tabard Inn, which burned under mysterious circumstances on Halloween, 1884.

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.

The second Tabard Inn, scene of a grisly murder, burned under even more eerie circumstances and was not rebuilt.
The second Tabard Inn, scene of a grisly murder, burned under even more eerie circumstances and was not rebuilt.

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 was Newbury 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.

The Newbury House in Rugby, home to its own resident ghost.
The Newbury House in Rugby, home to its own resident ghost.

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.

The old Victorian Library is thought to be presided over by the unseen ghost of a former librarian. Its presence is more felt than seen. Ssssh!
The old Victorian Library is thought to be presided over by the unseen ghost of a former librarian. Its presence is more felt than seen. Ssssh!

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.

For more of Tennessee’s ghosts and haunts, witches and monsters and things that go bump in the night, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee; the two combined are essential reading for any interested in paranormal Dixie and Southern spirits.

Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
Happy Halloween!
Happy Halloween from THE GHOSTS & HAUNTS OF TENNESSEE!