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


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!


The Thirteen Halloween Hauntings, Part 1


Black Cats are Lucky
In Wales black cats are considered good luck

The Thirteen Days of Halloween, Part I

In honor of that spookiest day of the year—October 31—I am penning thirteen blogs daily, now through fright night.

Why thirteen?  Well, we have the twelve days of Christmas—or at least we used to.  Yuletide should run from December 25 through January 6 by rights, although lately it seems folks want to get the holiday season over with early on December 26.  I am among that obstinate minority who prefer to enjoy Yuletide for as long as possible–and that means quaffing flagons of Yuletide Cheer from big Christmas to Little Christmas. Moreover, in Wales, not only are black cats considered lucky, so is the number 13. Ultimately, for no particular reason other than it sounds good, I chose thirteen for Halloween.

The Dragon with the flagon holds the brew that is true. 

Black Cats and Thirteen anything–what could be more Halloweenish? Of course, the Welsh being Celts, they have a strong contrary streak and so whatever superstition their English neighbors adhere to, one can almost guarantee the Welsh will tend to believe just the opposite. My black cat, Enoch, was certainly lucky: he got to sleep all day, ate when he wanted, and pretty much did as he pleased (which was not much). And if cats normally have nine lives, Enoch was blessed with at least double that amount.

Speaking of superstitions, one Southern superstition that Yankees north of the Mason-Dixon Line may not have heard of is enshrined in the expression “jumping the broom.”  Among folks in Dixie, to “jump the broom” is another way to say getting married.  It comes from the belief that if newlyweds place a broom across the threshold to their new home, witches can’t follow them in and put a hex on the marriage. Although in Appalachia they don’t call it hex, they call it “spelt.”

In the old days, couples literally did put a broom across the entrance to their cabin on wedding day and then physically jumped across it.  Brides and grooms who jumped the broom were believed to enjoy a more harmonious and fruitful marriage, and to judge by the number of children they had in the old days, this seems to have been true.

The Mid-South abounds in uncanny and unexplained phenomena, from professors who suddenly burst into flame, to sightings of strange craft over the Tennessee Valley in the days when no such craft existed, to the numerous “Spook Lights” found in almost every state of Dixie. This is in addition to the many ante-bellum manse’s that each is a Gothic horror show in itself. Of course, what would Appalachia be without it’s “Wise Women” and whether you regard them as a bane or a boon, you best not get on their bad side in any case.

For more about Tennessee witches and witchcraft–and how avoid being spelt or to counter their curse if you are–see my original accounts in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. And while you’re at it, also check out Dixie Spirits a sampler of all things uncanny in the Southland.

Halloween marks the beginning of the season when all life dies away–to the eye–not to be truly revived until its sister holiday, April 30. The ancient Celts called the two festivals Semaine and Beltaine and the period in between was a time when one gathered round the hearth and told tales to enchant young and old. Beltaine is also known as the Witches’ Sabbath when, like Halloween, all manor of spirits, uncanny creatures and other fey folk are abroad in the dark. On Halloween we have the additional bane of evil beings such as politicians roaming the land seeking votes.

Fear not, however, we shall limit our discussion only to the supernatural and similar things and while we won’t limit these thirteen entries just to the South, there are more than man can ken in the region to venture farther afield in search of the uncanny. So curl up with your favorite flagon–or favorite dragon–stoke the hearth (even if it’s just a video loop on Roku) and enjoy stories to curl your toes and give you goosebumps!

If you want to know more of things that go bump in the night, you can do no better than curl up with a copy or three of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee or Dixie Spirits–after which this blog is named.

Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills and Valleys of Mid South
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. True tales of the Volunteer State, from the Hag Infested Hollows of East Tennessee to the Paranormal Madness of Memphis with a few side trips to the Haunted Honkey-Tonks of Nashville.










Dixie Spirits via Sourcebooks
Dixie Spirits: true tales of the Strange and Supernatural south of the Mason-Dixon Line.