Of all the many haunted buildings in downtown Nashville, surely one of the most haunted is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge! At 422 Broadway, it’s smoke-stained walls and beer-stained floors have seen the greats of Country Music pass through its swangin doors–not to mention a few Rock stars as well.
Behind the bar, its back door opens onto an ally which faces the old stage door to the Ryman Auditorium. In the old days, when the Grand Ole Opy’s home was the Ryman, the now legendary stars of County would toddle across the alley to Tootsie’s to pull back a few brews in between sets. Sometimes when in their cups they would get up on the stage of Tootsie’s and play for free, and by all accounts, their performance on the stage of Tootsie’s was far better than what you would see on the straight-laced stage of the Opry. In those days they wouldn’t even allow drums or brass on stage to back up the performers. Sometimes, the old Country greats had one too many a drink and never made it back to the Opry for a second set.
The old owner of the bar, Tootsie herself, was a tough old broad, but with a heart of gold and she was known to give perspiring musicians a handout and a hand when they needed one. She is long gone and so are the old legends of Country—but not their ghosts.
In the hustle and bustle of the crowded bar you might never notice when the odd ghost or two is also listening in to the show. But sometimes a cold draft of air will fill the air and a door open or close on its own. Perhaps it is Hank Williams Sr. trying to make it back to the stage of the old Opry; or one of a dozen other spectral singers whose shades still dwell there: hard to say. The alley out back has also been witness to apparitions, seen passing back and for between the Ryman and Tootsies.
Upstairs, where Willie Nelson once camped out, thanks to Tootsie’s good graces, other ghosts have sometimes been reported as well. All told, living or dead, the spirit of Country Music is very much in evidence at Tootsies.
Although recent transplants to Middle Tennessee are only dimly aware of it, the Cumberland Valley and its surrounds were much fought over during the Civil War. Although that is not the origin of the phrase, this section of the South amply earned its moniker The Dark and Bloody Ground during the Late Unpleasantness. Many an old house is home to a resident ghost or two who date back to the dark days of the war. The causes of their continued residence on the mortal plain may differ, but as often as not it is due to their violent or untimely death, being cut down in the prime of life, often with great pain and the awareness they will never to see their loved ones again. Sometimes that agony and anguish are all that remain.
Such, it seems, is the case with Carnton Mansion, the grand home sitting on the southeastern outskirts of Franklin, Tennessee. The very name of the manse is suggestive of death, for in ancient Celtic tradition, a cairn or carn was a place where a warrior would be buried who had died with honor in battle. During the Civil War, late one Autumn day, the mansion would earn its name, a reputation that endures to the present day.
After the fall of Atlanta, Sherman planned his next move; ignoring the still viable Confederate Army of Tennessee, he would conduct a scorched earth campaign across Georgia, destroying everything in his path. Basically, it was an act of terrorism, designed to cow the white civilian population of the South into submission and break their will to resist. The Rebel army, now under General John Bell Hood, at first fenced with Sherman, attacking his rear and threatening his long supply line heading back northward towards Nashville. Then, when Sherman began marching south, Hood began marching north; a bold move not only to draw Sherman’s army after him but also to seize the mass of supplies stockpiled in the strategic city of Nashville; from there he could threaten many other places further north. It was a bold strategy and whatever historians may say about General Hood, he never lacked for either courage or boldness: “all lion” is how one postwar writer characterized him.
A small Union army was deployed to slow Hood as he marched northwards, to give time for the Yankees to gather more troops to defend Nashville. General John Schofield, a classmate of Hood’s from West Point days, was placed in charge of this Yankee force and basically his task was to hold the lion’s tail without being devoured. At Columbia, then Springhill and finally at Franklin, Schofield’s men conducted a fighting retreat. While most historians portray the Autumn Campaign as a done deal and that a Southern defeat was inevitable, in truth it was a very near thing. Had circumstances just been a little different at any point; had orders been obeyed, had the Yankees marched or fought just a little less heroicly; had one Yankee brigadier not disobeyed orders, or some Rebel pickets not been quite so fatigued—at any point just a feather-weight of difference in the chain of circumstance–and we would be celebrating John Bell Hood as a brilliant commander and victor. But that was not to be.
Others have chronicled the Autumn Campaign in great length; we needn’t go into it here. Our concern is with the aftermath. On the afternoon and evening of November 30, 1864, the two armies clashed on the outskirts of Franklin, Tennessee. Both sides fought and bled and died with uncommon courage, and by the early hours of the following morning the blood-soaked fields of Franklin found the Confederates in possession of the terrain. It was a Pyrric victory, however, for Hood’s army was decimated in the process: five generals, twenty colonels and thousands dead or grievously wounded, incapable of combat—all to fight the Yankee rearguard.
Even before the battle was over, however, the wounded began to make their way to Carnton Mansion, on the eastern flank of the battlefield. All through the night and on into the next day, the wounded and dead were brought in a steady stream to the stately antebellum mansion. The owner of the home, Randall McGavock, had served in the Confederate army but accepted a parole to look after his family and was a non-combatant; of course that did not prevent him from opening his home to the wounded.
By the following day, the dead were being piled in Carnton’s yard like cordwood; the back porch held the bodies of no less than five generals, while the moans of the suffering could be heard everywhere. For the dead and dying at Carnton, the victory at Franklin did not seem so glorious.
In time, the McGavock’s home was cleaned of the awful carnage and the blood—where it would go away. In one room that had served as the operating room for surgeons, try as they might, they could not wash or bleach the blood from the floorboards; the stains always came back and cannot be erased. They linger there to this day. There were other things that linger about Carnton as well; some of a spectral nature.
Inside the mansion, several spirits have been detected by successive occupants of the mansion and more recently by visitors as well. On the second floor, for example, a presence some called “the general” could be felt and occasionally seen. In the graveyard, even to this day, visitors sometimes spot a man in Confederate garb. Other spectres have been observed elsewhere in the mansion or on the surrounding grounds. Many are the eyewitness accounts that recount encounters with the ghosts of Carnton. Some of these apparitions are well known; others just passing shades, as anonymous as many of the graves on the grounds.
Many speculate about the sightings reported at Carnton; a few doubt them, most do not. What is certain, however, is that for many of the men who fought and died at Franklin on November 30, the Battle of Franklin will never be over.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In Strange Tales I mostly focused on Elvis sightings in West Tennessee, particularly at Graceland. Of course, many who have seen him at his favorite haunt have refused to believe him dead—hence the widespread Elvis Lives! urban folklore. In my chapter on the King in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, I focused on his haunting other cities as well, including Las Vegas (VIVA!) and Nashville. Although Elvis is not generally associated with Nashville, in truth Music City had quite a bit to do with his rise to fame. This was where Heartbreak Hotel was recorded and quite a number of his other hits. When he came to town, strangely, he did not lodge in some glitzy glamorous hotel (the city had them even then); no, he would stay in a simple cinder-block guest house out behind his manager’s house, Colonel Parker. The Colonel’s house still stands, although it has been turned into law offices and its front yard into a parking lot; likewise the little cinder-block special stands, although much improved and the metal bars taken off the windows. They side on the right side of Gallatin Road in Madison, 1215 Gallatin Road South. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPKS6D_OlDE for a rare look inside Colonel Tom Parker’s old digs.
The studio in Nashville where Elvis first recorded some of his greatest hits, however, is sadly not standing anymore. It was on a side street off Demumbreun Street, in the Music Row District of Music City. This first RCA Studio was admittedly not fancy looking: in those days, the record companies wanted things cheap, so no fancy glitz and glamour. While it is now the site of a used car lot, for many years it had quite the reputation for being haunted. Jim Owens TV used it as studios for a number of years and just about every person who worked there had some kind of uncanny encounter. No one who worked there doubted the King was making his presence known.
One spot where Elvis performed is also thought to be haunted by him: none other than the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole’ Opry. You may not have ever heard he played there because he only did it once, and the memory of it was not a pleasant one for him. Somehow old Swivel Hips got booked onto the Saturday Night Show of the Opry back in the early ‘50’s. Well, you have to understand that in those days the Opry was pretty straight-laced: no drums, no saxophones, etc. So you can imagine when the singer whose hips were blacked out when he performed on the Ed Sullivan TV variety show got up on stage. He was literally booed off the stage by the audience of Country purists. As he was walking offstage, a know-it-all Nashville music producer gave him some sage advice. He said, “Son, get out of the business, you’re never gonna make in music.” Needless to say, Elvis didn’t listen to him and the rest is history; but Elvis never performed live in Nashville again.
A few years back his daughter, Lisa Marie Presley was doing a show at the old Ryman. She was headed back to her dressing room and about to go in and take off her makeup and such, but the door would not budge. Even her burly bodyguard could not open it. Finally, she and her guard heard the distinct sound of her father’s laugh ring out and suddenly the door opened with ease. Big Daddy had made his presence known to Lisa Marie!
Or course, Las Vegas had a longtime relationship with the King of Rock and Roll also, especially during his jumpsuit years. Elvis’s Penthouse Suite in Vegas (now broken up into three smaller luxury suites is also reputed to be haunted by the King: Here’s another rare look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZSH59uWKUM . His immense penthouse atop the Vegas Hilton is known to have a particularly strong aura of Elvi about it—but that’s another story.
It was first published in 1913 and so in some respects it reflects the racial attitudes of the era which, by modern standards, would certainly be unacceptable. However I did not bowdlerize the text in any way; Cobb’s tale is what it is, warts and all. Nonetheless, the main character gets his revenge, albeit in a strange way. I think it is an overlooked classic deserving of a wider audience.
Irvin S. Cobb was a prolific writer, best known for his humorous columns in the New York World; he also published sixty books and numerous short stories. Although Kentucky born, he lived most of his adult life in New York, but Cobb never forgot his Southern roots. This story, penned in 1911, is said to have inspired a classic H. P. Lovecraft tale.
Irvin S. Cobb
Originally published in The Cavalier (1913)
IT GOES past the powers of my pen to try to describe Reelfoot Lake for you so that you, reading this, will get the picture of it in your mind as I have it in mine.
For Reelfoot Lake is like no other lake that I know anything about. It is an after-thought of Creation.
The rest of this continent was made and had dried in the sun for thousands of years-millions of years, for all I know-before Reelfoot came to be. It’s the newest big thing in nature on this hemisphere, probably, for it was formed by the great earthquake of 1811.
That earthquake of 1811 surely altered the face of the earth on the then far frontier of this country.
It changed the course of rivers, it converted hills into what are now the sunk lands of three states, and it turned the solid ground to jelly and made it roll in waves like the sea.
And in the midst of the retching of the land and the vomiting of the waters it depressed to varying depths a section of the earth crust sixty miles long, taking it down — trees, hills, hollows, and all, and a crack broke through to the Mississippi River so that for three days the river ran up stream, filling the hole.
The result was the largest lake south of the Ohio, lying mostly in Tennessee, but extending up across what is now the Kentucky line, and taking its name from a fancied resemblance in its outline to the splay, reeled foot of a cornfield negro. Niggerwool Swamp, not so far away, may have got its name from the same man who christened Reelfoot: at least so it sounds.
Reelfoot is, and has always been, a lake of mystery.
In places it is bottomless. Other places the skeletons of the cypress-trees that went down when the earth sank, still stand upright so that if the sun shines from the right quarter, and the water is less muddy than common, a man, peering face downward into its depths, sees, or thinks he sees, down below him the bare top-limbs upstretching like drowned men’s fingers, all coated with the mud of years and bandaged with pennons of the green lake slime.
In still other places the lake is shallow for long stretches, no deeper than breast high to a man, but dangerous because of the weed growths and the sunken drifts which entangle a swimmer’s limbs. Its banks are mainly mud, its waters are *muddled, too, being a rich coffee color in the spring and a copperish yellow in the summer, and the trees along its shore are mud colored clear up their lower limbs after the spring floods, when the dried sediment covers their trunks with a thick, scrofulous-looking coat.
There are stretches of unbroken woodland around it, and slashes where the cypress knees rise countlessly like headstones and footstones for the dead snags that rot in the soft ooze.
There are deadenings with the lowland corn growing high and rank below and the bleached, fire-blackened girdled trees rising above, barren of leaf and limb.
There are long, dismal flats where in the spring the clotted frog- spawn cling like patches of white mucus among the weed-stalks, and at night the turtles crawl out to lay clutches of perfectly, round, white eggs with tough, rubbery shells in the sand.
There are bayous leading off to nowhere, and sloughs that wind aimlessly, like great, blind worms, to finally join the big river that rolls its semi-liquid torrents a few miles to the westward.
So Reelfoot lies there, flat in the bottoms, freezing lightly in the winter, steaming torridly in the summer, swollen in the spring when the woods have turned a vivid green and the buffalo-gnats by the million and the billion fill the flooded hollows with their pestilential buzzing, and in the fall, ringed about gloriously with all the colors which the first frost brings-gold of hickory, yellow-russet of sycamore, red of dogwood and ash, and purple-black of sweet-gum.
But the Reelfoot country has its uses. It is the best game and fish country, natural or artificial, that is left in the South today.
In their appointed seasons the duck and the geese flock in, and even semi-tropical birds, like the brown pelican and the Florida snake-bird, have been known to come there to nest.
Pigs, gone back to wildness, range the ridges, each razor-backed drove captained by a gaunt, savage, slab-sided old boar. By night the bullfrogs, inconceivably big and tremendously vocal, bellow under the banks.
It is a wonderful place for fish — bass and crappie, and perch, and the snouted buffalo fish.
How these edible sorts live to spawn, and how their spawn in turn live to spawn again is a marvel, seeing how many of the big fish-eating cannibal-fish there are in Reelfoot.
Here, bigger than anywhere else, you find the garfish, all bones and appetite and horny plates, with a snout like an alligator, the nearest link, naturalists say, between the animal life of today and the animal life of the Reptilian Period.
The shovel-nose cat, really a deformed kind of fresh-water sturgeon, with a great fan-shaped membranous plate jutting out from his nose like a bowsprit, jumps all day in the quiet places with mighty splashing sounds, as though a horse had fallen into the water.
On every stranded log the huge snapping turtles lie on sunny days in groups of four and six, baking their shells black in the sun, with their little snaky heads raised watchfully, ready to slip noiselessly off at the first sound of oars grating in the row-locks. But the biggest of them all are the catfish!
These are monstrous creatures, these catfish of Reelfoot — scaleless,slick things, with corpsy, dead eyes and poisonous fins, like javelins, and huge whiskers dangling from the sides of their cavernous heads.
Six and seven feet long they grow to be, and weigh 200 pounds or more, and they have mouths wide enough to take in a man’s foot or a man’s fist, and strong enough to break any hook save the strongest, and greedy enough to eat anything, living or dead or putrid, that the horny jaws can master.
Oh, but they are wicked things, and they tell wicked tales of them down there. They call them man-eaters, and compare them, in certain of their habits, to sharks.
Fishhead was of a piece with this setting.
He fitted into it as an acorn fits its cup. All his life he had lived on Reelfoot, always in the one place, at the mouth of a certain slough.
He had been born there, of a negro father and a half-breed Indian mother, both of them now dead, and the story was that before his birth his mother was frightened by one of the big fish, so that the child came into the world most hideously marked.
Anyhow, Fishhead was a human monstrosity, the veritable embodiment of nightmare!
He had the body of a man — a short, stocky sinewy body — but his face was as near to being the face of a great fish as any face could be and yet retain some trace of human aspect.
His skull sloped back so abruptly that he could hardly be said to have a have a forehead at all; his chin slanted off right into nothing. His eyes were small and round with shallow, glazed, pale-yellow pupils, and they were set wide apart in his head, and they were unwinking and staring, like a fish’s eyes.
His nose was no more than a pair of tiny slits in the middle of the yellow mask. His mouth was the worst of all. It was the awful mouth of a catfish, lipless and almost inconceivably wide, stretching from side to side.
Also when Fishhead became a man grown his likeness to a fish increased, for the hair upon his face grew out into two tightly kinked slender pendants that drooped down either side of the mouth like the beards of a fish!
If he had another name than Fishhead, none excepting he knew it. As Fishhead he was known, and as Fishhead he answered. Because he knew the waters and the woods of Reelfoot better than any other man there, he was valued as a guide by the city men who came every year to hunt or fish; but there were few such jobs that Fishhead would take.
Mainly he kept to himself, tending his corn patch, netting the lake, trapping a little, and in season pot hunting for the city markets. His neighbors, ague-bitten whites and malaria-proof negroes alike, left him to himself
Indeed, for the most part they had a superstitious fear of him. So he lived alone, with no kith nor kin, nor even a friend, shunning his kind and shunned by them.
His cabin stood just below the State line, where Mud Slough runs into the lake. It was a shack of logs, the only human habitation for four miles up or down.
Behind it the thick timber came shouldering right up to the edge of Fishhead’s small truck patch, enclosing it in thick shade except when the sun stood just overhead.
He cooked his food in a primitive fashion, outdoors, over a hole in the soggy earth or upon the rusted red ruin of an old cookstove, and he drank the saffron water of the lake out of a dipper made of a gourd, faring and fending for himself, a master hand at skiff and net, competent with duck gun and fishspear, yet a creature of affliction and loneliness, part savage, almost amphibious, set apart from his fellows, silent and suspicious.
In front of his cabin jutted out a long fallen cottonwood trunk, lying half in and half out of the water, its top side burnt by the sun and worn by the friction of Fishhead’s bare feet until it showed countless patterns of tiny scrolled lines, its underside black and rotted, and lapped at unceasingly by little waves like tiny licking tongues.
Its farther end reached deep water. And it was a part of Fishhead, for no matter how far his fishing and trapping might take him in the daytime, sunset would find him back there, his boat drawn up on the bank, and he on the other end of this log.
From a distance men had seen him there many times, sometimes squatted motionless as the big turtles that would crawl upon its dipping tip in his absence, sometimes erect and motionless like a creek crane, his misshapen yellow form outlined against the yellow sun, the yellow water, the yellow banks — all of them yellow together.
If the Reelfooters shunned Fishhead by day they feared him by night and avoided him as a plague, dreading even the chance of a casual meeting. For there were ugly stories about Fishhead — stories which all the negroes and some of the whites believed.
They said that a cry which had been heard just before dusk and just after, skittering across the darkened waters, was his calling cry to the big cats, and at his bidding they came trooping in, and that in their company he swam in the lake on moonlight nights, sporting with them, diving with them, even feeding with them on what manner of unclean things they fed.
The cry had been heard many times, that much was certain, and it was certain also that the big fish were noticeably thick at the mouth of Fishhead’s slough. No native Reelfooter, white or black, would willingly wet a leg or an arm there.
Here Fishhead had lived, and here he was going to die. The Baxters were going to kill him, and this day in late summer was to be the time of the killing.
The two Baxters — Jake and Joel — were coming in their dugout to do it!
This murder had been a long time in the making. The Baxters had to brew their hate over a slow fire for months before it reached the pitch of action.
They were poor whites, poor in everything, repute, and worldly goods, and standing — a pair of fever-ridden squatters who lived on whiskey and tobacco when they could get it, and on fish and cornbread when they couldn’t.
The feud itself was of months’ standing. Meeting Fishhead one day, in the spring on the spindly scaffolding of the skiff landing at Walnut Log, and being themselves far overtaken in liquor and vainglorious with a bogus alcoholic substitute for courage, the brothers had accused him, wantonly and without proof, of running their trout-line and stripping it of the hooked catch — an unforgivable sin among the water dwellers and the shanty boaters of the South.
Seeing that he bore this accusation in silence, only eyeing them steadfastly, they had been emboldened then to slap his face, whereupon he turned and gave them both the beating of their lives — bloodying their noses and bruising their lips with hard blows against their front teeth, and finally leaving them, mauled and prone, in the dirt.
Moreover, in the onlookers a sense of the everlasting fitness of things had triumphed over race prejudice and allowed them — two freeborn, sovereign whites — to be licked *by, a nigger! Therefore they were going to get the nigger!
The whole thing had been planned out amply. They were going to kill him on his log at sundown. There would be no witnesses to see it, no retribution to follow after it. The very ease of the undertaking made them forget even their inborn fear of the place of Fishhead’s habitation.
For more than an hour they had been coming from their shack across a deeply indented arm of the lake.
Their dugout, fashioned by fire and adz and draw-knife from the bole of a gum-tree, moved through the water as noiselessly as a swimming mallard, leaving behind it a long, wavy trail on the stilled waters.
Jake, the better oarsman, sat flat in the stern of the round-bottomed craft, paddling with quick, splashless strokes, Joel, the better shot, was squatted forward. There was a heavy, rusted duck gun between his knees.
Though their spying upon the victim had made them certain sure he would not be about the shore for hours, a doubled sense of caution led them to hug closely the weedy banks. They slid along the shore like shadows, moving so swiftly and in such silence that the watchful mudturtles barely turned their snaky heads as they passed.
So, a full hour before the time, they came slipping around the mouth of the slough and made for a natural ambuscade which the mixed-breed had left within a stone’s jerk of his cabin to his own undoing.
Where the slough’s flow joined deeper water a partly uprooted tree was stretched, prone from shore, at the top still thick and green with leaves that drew nourishment from the earth in which the half uncovered roots yet held, and twined about with an exuberance of trumpet vines and wild fox-grapes. All about was a huddle of drift — last year’s cornstalks, shreddy strips of bark, chunks of rotted weed, all the riffle and dunnage of a quiet eddy.
Straight into this green clump glided the dugout and swung, broadside on, against the protecting trunk of the tree, hidden from the inner side by the intervening curtains of rank growth, just as the Baxters had intended it should be hidden when days before in their scouting they marked this masked place of waiting and included it, then and there, in the scope of their plans.
There had been no hitch or mishap. No one had been abroad in the late afternoon to mark their movements — and in a little while Fishhead ought to be due. Jake’s woodman’s eye followed the downward swing of the sun speculatively.
The shadows, thrown shoreward, lengthened and slithered on the small ripples. The small noises of the day died out; the small noises of the coming night began to multiply.
The green-bodied flies went away and big mosquitoes with speckled gray legs, came to take the places of the flies.
The sleepy lake sucked at the mud banks with small mouthing sounds, as though it found the taste of the raw mud agreeable. A monster crawfish, big as a chicken lobster, crawled out of the top of his dried mud chimney and perched himself there, an armored sentinel on the watchtower.
Bull bats began to flitter back and forth, above the tops of the trees. A pudgy muskrat, swimming with head up, was moved to sidle off briskly as he met a cotton-mouth moccasin snake, so fat and swollen with summer poison that it looked almost like a legless lizard as it moved along the surface of the water in a series of slow torpid S’s. Directly above the head of either of the waiting assassins a compact little swarm of midges hung, holding to a sort of kite-shaped formation.
A little more time passed and Fishhead came out of the woods at the back, walking swiftly, with a sack over his shoulder.
For a few seconds his deformities showed in the clearing, then the black inside of the cabin swallowed him up.
By now the sun was almost down. Only the red nub of it showed above the timber line across the lake, and the shadows lay inland a long way. Out beyond, the big cats were stirring, and the great smacking sounds as their twisting bodies leaped clear and fell back in the water, came shoreward in a chorus.
But the two brothers, in their green covert, gave heed to nothing except the one thing upon which their hearts were set and their nerves tensed. Joel gently shoved his gun barrels across the log, cuddling the stock to his shoulder and slipping two fingers caressingly back and forth upon the triggers. Jake held the narrow dugout steady by a grip upon a fox-grape tendril.
A little wait and then the finish came!
Fishhead emerged from the cabin door and came down the narrow footpath to the water and out upon the water on his log.
He was barefooted and bareheaded, his cotton shirt open down the front to show his yellow neck and breast, his dungaree trousers held about his waist by a twisted tow string.
His broad splay feet, with the prehensile toes outspread, gripped the polished curve of the log as he moved along its swaying, dipping surface until he came to its outer end, and stood there erect, his chest filling, his chinless face lifted up, and something of mastership and dominion in his poise.
And then — his eye caught what another’s eyes might have missed — the round, twin ends of the gun barrels, the fixed gleam of Joel’s eyes, aimed at him through the green tracery! In that swift passage of time, too swift almost to be measured by seconds, realization flashed all through him, and he threw his head still higher and opened wide his shapeless trap of a mouth, and out across the lake he sent skittering and rolling his cry.
And in his cry was the laugh of a loon, and the croaking bellow of a frog, and the bay of a hound, all the compounded night noises of the lake. And in it, too, was a farewell, and a defiance, and an appeal!
The heavy roar of the duck gun came!
At twenty yards the double charge tore the throat out of him. He came down, face forward, upon the log and clung there, his trunk twisting distortedly, his legs twitching and kicking like the legs of a speared frog; his shoulders hunching and lifting spasmodically as the life ran out of him all in one swift coursing flow.
His head canted up between the heaving shoulders, his eyes looked full on the staring face of his murderer, and then the blood came out of his mouth, and Fishhead, in death still as much fish as man, slid, flopping, head first, off the end of the log, and sank, face downward slowly, his limbs all extended out.
One after another a string of big bubbles came up to burst in the middle of a widening reddish stain on the coffee-colored water.
The brothers watched this, held by the horror of the thing they had done, and the cranky dugout, having been tipped far over by the recoil of the gun, took water steadily across its gunwale; and now there was a sudden stroke from below upon its careening bottom and it went over and they were in the lake.
But shore was only twenty feet away, the trunk of the uprooted tree only five. Joel, still holding fast to his shot gun, made for the log, gaining it with one stroke. He threw his free arm over it and clung there, treading water, as he shook his eyes free.
Something gripped him — some great, sinewy, unseen thing gripped him fast by the thigh, crushing down on his flesh!
He uttered no cry, but his eyes popped out, and his mouth set in a square shape of agony, and his fingers gripped into the bark of the tree like grapples. He was pulled down and down, by steady jerks, not rapidly but steadily, so steadily, and as he went his fingernails tore four little white strips in the tree-bark. His mouth went under, next his popping eyes, then his erect hair, and finally his clawing, clutching hand, and that was the end of him.
Jake’s fate was harder still, for he lived longer — long enough to see Joel’s finish. He saw it through the water that ran down his face, and with a great surge of his whole body, he literally flung himself across the log and jerked his legs up high into the air to save them. He flung himself too far, though, for his face and chest hit the water on the far side.
And out of this water rose the head of a great fish, with the lake slime of years on its flat, black head, its whiskers bristling, its corpsy eyes alight. Its horny jaws closed and clamped in the front of Jake’s flannel shirt. His hand struck out wildly and was speared on a poisoned fin, and, unlike Joel, he went from sight with a great yell, and a whirling and churning of the water that made the cornstalks circle on the edges of a small whirlpool.
But the whirlpool soon thinned away, into widening rings of ripples, and the corn stalks quit circling and became still again, and only the multiplying night noises sounded about the mouth of the slough.
The bodies of all three came ashore on the same day near the same place. Except for the gaping gunshot wound where the neck met the chest, Fishhead’s body was unmarked.
But the bodies of the two Baxters were so marred and mauled that the Reelfooters buried them together on the bank without ever knowing which might be Jake’s and which might be Joel’s.”
I have been informed by a respected Literary Agent that editors with major book publishers don’t wish to see anything from authors that is written from more than a single point of view or attempts to render a narrative in anything other than the third person “literary” past tense.
I am not sure how “literary” the simple past tense actually is, but I presume this current editorial fad is in deference to what the East Coast literati condescend to regard as the limited reading abilities of the average modern reader. One wonders how the works of such writers as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad would have fared at the hands of such editors—assuming these miserable hack writers would even have gotten an agent to handle their writing.
As a journeyman scrivener I must bow to their superior wisdom or remain unpublished. But in the expectation that your reading tastes are somewhat better than what modern editing trends assume, I present a tale of Southern ghosts by a master of sardonic horror—Ambrose Bierce.
Bierce is best known for his biting satire and his macabre Civil War Tales filled with deadly ironies. Yet Bierce also wrote quite a bit about the South, even though he is not considered a Southern author by any means. He survived four years of the “blood-stained period” tramping all about the South, including Nashville, and continuing on well after the war the shadow of death lingered on in his mind, spilling out onto the pages of his short stories. This is not a tale of the Civil War, but it does take place in Nashville, a city he knew quite well during the war. I think we may safely class it as a choice piece of Southern Gothic, even if it was written by a Yankee.
In honor of Bierce, Dixie and Halloween, therefore, I reprint this, one of Bierce’s best ghost stories. The story, The Moonlit Road, is a classic tale of Southern Gothic, so much so that it has even spawned a modern Atlanta-based website dedicated to Southern horror that was inspired by it. If you are a Bierce devotee, forgive me, for doubtless you have read it before; but it is worth re-reading nonetheless. I fear it would be rejected out of hand by most modern trade editors, for it relates the story from multiple points of view. But if Bierce’s narrative technique was good enough for filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, I trust you may find it equally edifying as well.
THE MOONLIT ROAD
STATEMENT OF JOEL HETMAN, JR.
I am the most unfortunate of men. Rich, respected, fairly well educated and of sound health–with many other advantages usually valued by those having them and coveted by those who have them not—I sometimes think that I should be less unhappy if they had been denied me, for then the contrast between my outer and my inner life would not be continually demanding a painful attention. In the stress of privation and the need of effort I might sometimes forget the somber secret ever baffling the conjecture that it compels.
I am the only child of Joel and Julia Hetman. The one was a well-to-do country gentleman, the other a beautiful and accomplished woman to whom he was passionately attached with what I now know to have been a jealous and exacting devotion. The family home was a few miles from Nashville, Tennessee, a large, irregularly built dwelling of no
particular order of architecture, a little way off the road, in a
park of trees and shrubbery.
At the time of which I write I was nineteen years old, a student at Yale. One day I received a telegram from my father of such urgency that in compliance with its unexplained demand I left at once for home. At the railway station in Nashville a distant relative awaited me to apprise me of the reason for my recall: my mother had been
barbarously murdered–why and by whom none could conjecture, but the circumstances were these:
My father had gone to Nashville, intending to return the next afternoon. Something prevented his accomplishing the business in hand, so he returned on the same night, arriving just before the dawn. In his testimony before the coroner he explained that having no latchkey and not caring to disturb the sleeping servants, he had, with no clearly defined intention, gone round to the rear of the house. As he turned an angle of the building, he heard a sound as of a door gently closed, and saw in the darkness, indistinctly, the figure of a man, which instantly disappeared among the trees of the lawn. A hasty pursuit and brief search of the grounds in the belief that the trespasser was some one secretly visiting a servant proving fruitless, he entered at the unlocked door and mounted the stairs to my mother’s chamber. Its door was open, and stepping into black darkness he fell headlong over some heavy object on the floor. I may spare myself the details; it was my poor mother, dead of strangulation by human hands!
Nothing had been taken from the house, the servants had heard no sound, and excepting those terrible finger-marks upon the dead woman’s throat–dear God! that I might forget them!–no trace of the assassin was ever found.
I gave up my studies and remained with my father, who, naturally, was greatly changed. Always of a sedate, taciturn disposition, he now fell into so deep a dejection that nothing could hold his attention, yet anything–a footfall, the sudden closing of a door–aroused in him a fitful interest; one might have called it an apprehension. At any small surprise of the senses he would start visibly and sometimes turn pale, then relapse into a melancholy apathy deeper than before. I suppose he was what is called a “nervous wreck.” As to me, I was younger then than now–there is much in that. Youth is Gilead, in
which is balm for every wound. Ah, that I might again dwell in that enchanted land! Unacquainted with grief, I knew not how to appraise my bereavement; I could not rightly estimate the strength of the stroke.
One night, a few months after the dreadful event, my father and I walked home from the city. The full moon was about three hours above the eastern horizon; the entire countryside had the solemn stillness of a summer night; our footfalls and the ceaseless song of the katydids were the only sound aloof. Black shadows of bordering trees lay athwart the road, which, in the short reaches between, gleamed a ghostly white. As we approached the gate to our dwelling, whose front was in shadow, and in which no light shone, my father suddenly stopped and clutched my arm, saying, hardly above his breath:
“God! God! what is that?”
“I hear nothing,” I replied.
“But see—see!” he said, pointing along the road, directly
I said: “Nothing is there. Come, father, let us go in—you are
He had released my arm and was standing rigid and motionless in the center of the illuminated roadway, staring like one bereft of sense. His face in the moonlight showed a pallor and fixity inexpressibly distressing. I pulled gently at his sleeve, but he had forgotten my existence. Presently he began to retire backward, step by step, never for an instant removing his eyes from what he saw, or thought he saw. I turned half round to follow, but stood irresolute. I do not recall any feeling of fear, unless a sudden chill was its physical manifestation. It seemed as if an icy wind had touched my face and enfolded my body from head to foot; I could feel the stir of it in my hair.
At that moment my attention was drawn to a light that suddenly streamed from an upper window of the house: one of the servants, awakened by what mysterious premonition of evil who can say, and in obedience to an impulse that she was never able to name, had lit a lamp. When I turned to look for my father he was gone, and in all the years that have passed no whisper of his fate has come across the borderland of conjecture from the realm of the unknown.
STATEMENT OF CASPAR GRATTAN
To-day I am said to live; to-morrow, here in this room, will lie a senseless shape of clay that all too long was I. If anyone lift the cloth from the face of that unpleasant thing it will be in gratification of a mere morbid curiosity. Some, doubtless, will go further and inquire, “Who was he?” In this writing I supply the only answer that I am able to make–Caspar Grattan. Surely, that should be enough. The name has served my small need for more than twenty years of a life of unknown length. True, I gave it to myself, but lacking another I had the right. In this world one must have a name; it prevents confusion, even when it does not establish identity. Some, though, are known by numbers, which also seem inadequate distinctions.
One day, for illustration, I was passing along a street of a city, far from here, when I met two men in uniform, one of whom, half pausing and looking curiously into my face, said to his companion, “That man looks like 767.” Something in the number seemed familiar and horrible. Moved by an uncontrollable impulse, I sprang into a side street and ran until I fell exhausted in a country lane.
I have never forgotten that number, and always it comes to memory attended by gibbering obscenity, peals of joyless laughter, the clang of iron doors. So I say a name, even if self-bestowed, is better than a number. In the register of the potter’s field I shall soon have both. What wealth!
Of him who shall find this paper I must beg a little consideration. It is not the history of my life; the knowledge to write that is denied me. This is only a record of broken and apparently unrelated memories, some of them as distinct and sequent as brilliant beads
upon a thread, others remote and strange, having the character of crimson dreams with interspaces blank and black–witch-fires glowing still and red in a great desolation.
Standing upon the shore of eternity, I turn for a last look landward over the course by which I came. There are twenty years of footprints fairly distinct, the impressions of bleeding feet. They lead through poverty and pain, devious and unsure, as of one
staggering beneath a burden—
“Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow.”
Ah, the poet’s prophecy of Me–how admirable, how dreadfully
Backward beyond the beginning of this via dolorosa–this epic of suffering with episodes of sin–I see nothing clearly; it comes out of a cloud. I know that it spans only twenty years, yet I am an old man.
One does not remember one’s birth–one has to be told. But with me it was different; life came to me full-handed and dowered me with all my faculties and powers. Of a previous existence I know no more than others, for all have stammering intimations that may be memories and may be dreams. I know only that my first consciousness was of
maturity in body and mind–a consciousness accepted without surprise or conjecture. I merely found myself walking in a forest, half-clad, footsore, unutterably weary and hungry. Seeing a farmhouse, I approached and asked for food, which was given me by one who inquired my name. I did not know, yet knew that all had names. Greatly embarrassed, I retreated, and night coming on, lay down in the forest
The next day I entered a large town which I shall not name. Nor shall I recount further incidents of the life that is now to end—a life of wandering, always and everywhere haunted by an overmastering sense of crime in punishment of wrong and of terror in punishment of crime. Let me see if I can reduce it to narrative.
I seem once to have lived near a great city, a prosperous planter, married to a woman whom I loved and distrusted. We had, it sometimes seems, one child, a youth of brilliant parts and promise. He is at all times a vague figure, never clearly drawn, frequently altogether out of the picture.
One luckless evening it occurred to me to test my wife’s fidelity in a vulgar, commonplace way familiar to everyone who has acquaintance with the literature of fact and fiction. I went to the city, telling my wife that I should be absent until the following afternoon. But I returned before daybreak and went to the rear of the house, purposing
to enter by a door with which I had secretly so tampered that it would seem to lock, yet not actually fasten. As I approached it, I heard it gently open and close, and saw a man steal away into the darkness. With murder in my heart, I sprang after him, but he had
vanished without even the bad luck of identification. Sometimes now I cannot even persuade myself that it was a human being.
Crazed with jealousy and rage, blind and bestial with all the elemental passions of insulted manhood, I entered the house and sprang up the stairs to the door of my wife’s chamber. It was closed, but having tampered with its lock also, I easily entered and
despite the black darkness soon stood by the side of her bed. My groping hands told me that although disarranged it was unoccupied.
“She is below,” I thought, “and terrified by my entrance has evaded me in the darkness of the hall.”
With the purpose of seeking her I turned to leave the room, but took a wrong direction–the right one! My foot struck her, cowering in a corner of the room. Instantly my hands were at her throat, stifling a shriek, my knees were upon her struggling body; and there in the darkness, without a word of accusation or reproach, I strangled her
till she died!
There ends the dream. I have related it in the past tense, but the present would be the fitter form, for again and again the somber tragedy reenacts itself in my consciousness–over and over I lay the plan, I suffer the confirmation, I redress the wrong. Then all is blank; and afterward the rains beat against the grimy window-panes, or the snows fall upon my scant attire, the wheels rattle in the squalid streets where my life lies in poverty and mean employment. If there is ever sunshine I do not recall it; if there are birds they
do not sing.
There is another dream, another vision of the night. I stand among the shadows in a moonlit road. I am aware of another presence, but whose I cannot rightly determine. In the shadow of a great dwelling I catch the gleam of white garments; then the figure of a woman confronts me in the road–my murdered wife! There is death in the face; there are marks upon the throat. The eyes are fixed on mine with an infinite gravity which is not reproach, nor hate, nor menace, nor anything less terrible than recognition. Before this awful apparition I retreat in terror–a terror that is upon me as I write. I can no longer rightly shape the words. See! They—
Now I am calm, but truly there is no more to tell: the incident ends where it began–in darkness and in doubt.
Yes, I am again in control of myself: “the captain of my soul.” But that is not respite; it is another stage and phase of expiation. My penance, constant in degree, is mutable in kind: one of its variants is tranquillity. After all, it is only a life-sentence. “To Hell for life”–that is a foolish penalty: the culprit chooses the duration of his punishment. To-day my term expires.
To each and all, the peace that was not mine.
STATEMENT OF THE LATE JULIA HETMAN, THROUGH THE MEDIUM BAYROLLES
I had retired early and fallen almost immediately into a peaceful sleep, from which I awoke with that indefinable sense of peril which is, I think, a common experience in that other, earlier life. Of its unmeaning character, too, I was entirely persuaded, yet that did not banish it. My husband, Joel Hetman, was away from home; the servants slept in another part of the house. But these were familiar conditions; they had never before distressed me. Nevertheless, the strange terror grew so insupportable that conquering my reluctance to move I sat up and lit the lamp at my bedside. Contrary to my expectation this gave me no relief; the light seemed rather an added danger, for I reflected that it would shine out under the door, disclosing my presence to whatever evil thing might lurk outside. You that are still in the flesh, subject to horrors of the imagination, think what a monstrous fear that must be which seeks in darkness security from malevolent existences of the night. That is to spring to close quarters with an unseen enemy–the strategy of despair!
Extinguishing the lamp I pulled the bed-clothing about my head and lay trembling and silent, unable to shriek, forgetful to pray. In this pitiable state I must have lain for what you call hours–with us there are no hours, there is no time.
At last it came–a soft, irregular sound of footfalls on the stairs! They were slow, hesitant, uncertain, as of something that did not see its way; to my disordered reason all the more terrifying for that, as the approach of some blind and mindless malevolence to which is no appeal. I even thought that I must have left the hall lamp burning and the groping of this creature proved it a monster of the night. This was foolish and inconsistent with my previous dread of the light, but what would you have? Fear has no brains; it is an idiot. The dismal witness that it bears and the cowardly counsel that it whispers are unrelated. We know this well, we who have passed into the Realm of Terror, who skulk in eternal dusk among the scenes of our former lives, invisible even to ourselves and one another, yet hiding forlorn in lonely places; yearning for speech with our loved ones, yet dumb, and as fearful of them as they of us. Sometimes the disability is removed, the law suspended: by the deathless power of love or hate we break the spell—
we are seen by those whom we would warn, console, or punish. What form we seem to them to bear we know not; we know only that we terrify even those whom we most wish to comfort, and from whom we most crave tenderness and sympathy.
Forgive, I pray you, this inconsequent digression by what was once a woman. You who consult us in this imperfect way–you do not understand. You ask foolish questions about things unknown and things forbidden. Much that we know and could impart in our speech is meaningless in yours. We must communicate with you through a stammering intelligence in that small fraction of our language that you yourselves can speak. You think that we are of another world. No, we have knowledge of no world but yours, though for us it holds no sunlight, no warmth, no music, no laughter, no song of birds, nor any companionship. O God! what a thing it is to be a ghost, cowering and shivering in an altered world, a prey to apprehension and despair!
No, I did not die of fright: the Thing turned and went away. I heard it go down the stairs, hurriedly, I thought, as if itself in sudden fear. Then I rose to call for help. Hardly had my shaking hand found the doorknob when–merciful heaven!–I heard it returning.
Its footfalls as it remounted the stairs were rapid, heavy and loud; they shook the house. I fled to an angle of the wall and crouched upon the floor. I tried to pray. I tried to call the name of my dear husband. Then I heard the door thrown open. There was an interval of unconsciousness, and when I revived I felt a strangling clutch upon my throat–felt my arms feebly beating against something that bore me backward–felt my tongue thrusting itself from between my teeth! And then I passed into this life.
No, I have no knowledge of what it was. The sum of what we knew at death is the measure of what we know afterward of all that went before. Of this existence we know many things, but no new light falls upon any page of that; in memory is written all of it that we can read. Here are no heights of truth overlooking the confused landscape of that dubitable domain. We still dwell in the Valley of the Shadow, lurk in its desolate places, peering from brambles and thickets at its mad, malign inhabitants. How should we have new knowledge of that fading past?
What I am about to relate happened on a night. We know when it is night, for then you retire to your houses and we can venture from our places of concealment to move unafraid about our old homes, to look in at the windows, even to enter and gaze upon your faces as you sleep. I had lingered long near the dwelling where I had been so cruelly changed to what I am, as we do while any that we love or hate remain. Vainly I had sought some method of manifestation, some way to make my continued existence and my great love and poignant pity understood by my husband and son. Always if they slept they would wake, or if in my desperation I dared approach them when they were awake, would turn toward me the terrible eyes of the living, frightening me by the glances that I sought from the purpose that I held.
On this night I had searched for them without success, fearing to find them; they were nowhere in the house, nor about the moonlit lawn. For, although the sun is lost to us forever, the moon, full-orbed or slender, remains to us. Sometimes it shines by night, sometimes by day, but always it rises and sets, as in that other life.
I left the lawn and moved in the white light and silence along the road, aimless and sorrowing. Suddenly I heard the voice of my poor husband in exclamations of astonishment, with that of my son in reassurance and dissuasion; and there by the shadow of a group of trees they stood–near, so near! Their faces were toward me, the eyes of the elder man fixed upon mine. He saw me–at last, at last, he saw me! In the consciousness of that, my terror fled as a cruel dream. The death-spell was broken: Love had conquered Law! Mad with exultation I shouted–I MUST have shouted, “He sees, he sees: he will understand!” Then, controlling myself, I moved forward, smiling and consciously beautiful, to offer myself to his arms, to comfort him with endearments, and, with my son’s hand in mine, to speak words that should restore the broken bonds between the living and the dead.
Alas! alas! his face went white with fear, his eyes were as those of a hunted animal. He backed away from me, as I advanced, and at last turned and fled into the wood–whither, it is not given to me to know.
To my poor boy, left doubly desolate, I have never been able to impart a sense of my presence. Soon he, too, must pass to this Life Invisible and be lost to me forever.
In the pages of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I have previously chronicled some high strangeness originating from the area near Cleveland, Tennessee, as well as a rather scary apparition from East Tennessee referred to as The Lady in Black. In Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, I delved even more deeply into the supernatural stirrings of the Mid-South. Even with the ghost stories and mysteries which I did not chronicle in those books, I had assumed I had researched just about every paranormal phenomenon and tale there was to known about this region; my file cabinets are bulging with accounts and my computer files contain even more. Well, I was wrong, for until just recently, I had never heard of Bradley County’s favorite apparition, Tall Betsy.
While most folks outside of Cleveland have never heard about Tall Betsy, anyone who grew up in or around the East Tennessee city can give you an earful about this unusual hobgoblin. An online search of the usual ghost-hunter websites and directories will generally give you a blank; but that is not to say she is not real–or as real as any immaterial being can be.
I stumbled across Tall Betsy through one of my son’s friends who grew up in Cleveland. My son Bubba knows just about everyone in Sumner County and his friend, who now hails from here, spent most of his boyhood in Bradley County. So, knowing my interest in all things weird and wonderful relating to the South, Bubba’s friend regaled me with what he knew of Tall Betsy. The game afoot, I dug deeper and came up with more on this mysterious apparition and what passes for the facts about her—admittedly not much.
Unlike TV ghost hunters, who go armed with all sorts of high tech gear and flashlights glued to their faces and generally end up scaring themselves, I resort to low tech methods to research ghost stories: word of mouth, hearsay, old newspaper clippings, an occasional eyewitness and the like. No, it’s not scientific–but then neither are those TV “experts” who charge a large hunk of chump change for their expertise these days.
In her present incarnation, Tall Betsy dates back to 1980, when a local Cleveland Tennessee businessman and entrepreneur, Allan Jones, decided to get up on stilts, don a long black gown and a witches’ fright mask and hand out candy to neighborhood kids. At first his fright costume worked too well; the local children avoided his home on Halloween like the plague. Bit by bit, however, the kids got used to the spooky seven and half foot crone and the appearance of Tall Betsy became an annual tradition until it grew into a day long block party with thousands attending. In recent years the celebration has also included TV celebrities and rock stars such as Little Richard.
Whether the block party got a little too big or whether Squire Jones simply got weary of standing on stilts all day, Tall Betsy disappeared from the Cleveland celebration for several years. By all accounts she is back on the scene, handing out candy as before and a documentary has even been made about her legend. So Cleveland, Tennessee is definitely a fun place to be on Halloween.
Although Allan Jones can certainly be credited with reviving the tradition regarding Tall Betsy, contrary to what professional debunkers may claim, he by no means originated the legend.
Jones actually learned the story of Tall Betsy from his mother, Giney Jones, who in turn had heard it as a girl from her mother, Marie Slaughter. So the tale of Tall Betsy, also known as Black Betsy or simply The Lady in Black, goes back to at least the 1920’s and 30’s and the story seems to be a genuine local tradition.
In her original incarnation, Tall Betsy was a real apparition—or at least “told as true”—who was of uncommon height (seven and half feet tall) who had a persimmon tree for a cane and who wandered the streets of Cleveland late at night. Her grave is located in Fort Hill Cemetery, where she seems to have originally been seen and all sorts of dark tales were told about her to young children. She was alleged to kidnap children out too late on Halloween and carry them off to her mausoleum, where she would cook and eat them and gnaw on their bones.
At this point in time it’s impossible to say how the story of Tall Betsy originated. Whether there was indeed a cemetery ghost who was a Lady in Black (Kingston, Tennessee has one too) which was sighted on dark and gloomy nights, or whether she was just some eccentric old crone of uncommon height whose nocturnal wanderings became the subject of unkind gossip, is not known. Tall Betsy defies easy explanations; but as far as the folk of Cleveland, Tennessee are concerned, she is a reality—at least once a year.