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.”
December 2, 1904, dawned clear and cold over the Bluff City. People in the city were going about their normal Friday morning activities, rich and poor, black and white.
Then, around nine a.m., something strange happened. Without warning the sun was blotted out of the sky. In the space of a minute or so, the day went from a bright, sunlight autumn morn to utter and complete darkness. Work came to a crashing halt; laborers and others scramble to turn on gas lamps, oil lamps or incandescent bulbs. It soon became apparent that this was no ordinary event.
The “inky darkness” was sudden and complete; there had been no warning, no approaching storm. The schools, which relied on daylight for illumination, were plunged into darkness, throngs of children terrified. Adults too were scared out of their wits, both at home and at work. One longshoreman hugged a telegraph pole for dear life, too frightened to let go.
All in all, the eerie darkness lasted more than half an hour, then disappeared as quickly as it had begun. The mysterious blackout was soon followed by a real storm, which was itself awful in its ferocity. For days the people of Memphis, Tennessee, were bothered and bewildered by what had happened.
Of course, there were the usual naysayers who tried to dismiss it as just a dark storm cloud passing over. But those who experienced knew that was a lie. The storm came after the blackness, not before or during it. It was an eclipse then; unexpected but nothing more? Well, neither the sun nor moon make special side trips for eclipses; no solar eclipse was scheduled for that day in that place.
Having myself experienced a number of total eclipses in my lifetime, from the written accounts it is clear that it couldn’t have been a natural eclipse. For one thing, the sky gradually gets darker, like a cloudy day, before the total eclipse and even then the blackness only lasts few minutes at most. This was different: it was sudden, it was total and it lasted a long time. The object blotting out the sun had to have been in stationary orbit between the earth and sun to create such an effect. No natural celestial body could have done that.
Though no one at the time voiced the opinion, only a UFO of massive size and capable of maintaining a stationary orbit above the city could have done that: in effect, a “mothership.”
Now this event is but one of the many strange things that has been know to happen in Memphis. Aside from a surfeit of haunted houses and similar apparitions, there was the case on January, 15, 1877, when it rained snakes on the city. They were not little hatchlings either: the snakes were all dark brown—thousands and thousands of them—a foot to a foot and a half in length.
Again scientists tried to explain away the unexplainable: they had been picked up by a “hurricane” and somehow deposited by the tens of thousands on the city. The fact that hurricanes don’t occur in January, that Memphis, Tennessee is too far inland for a hurricane to reach or the fact that snakes, being cold-blooded animals, would be hibernating securely underground in January did not seem to phase the professional debunkers then, any more than it does now.
The Great West Tennessee Haunt Hunt: Bolivar, Tennessee
Between Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee, lies the scenic West Tennessee city of Bolivar. To the casual visitor it is a placid and serene city, filled with friendly folk where nothing untoward ever occurs.
Beneath the idyllic surface of Bolivar, however, flows an undertow of supernatural strangeness. While Bolivar may not be a big bustling metropolis like Memphis, Knoxville or Nashville, where it excels those towns is in the density and intensity of paranormal phenomena there per haunted hectare.
Perhaps the most famous and most beloved apparition in Bolivar must certainly be “Uncle Dave.” In life, Uncle Cave Parran was a daily sight at his place of business in the quaint town square.
But where Uncle Dave was most seen was on the front porch of his home, Wren’s Nest, rocking back and forth on his old rocking chair. He would wave and say hello and engage in conversation all who passed by. Everyone in Bolivar knew and loved Uncle Dave till the day he died at age 86.
Then something strange happened; Uncle Dave refused to leave Wren’s Nest even in death. Some folk have even claimed to see him on the front porch; mostly, though, the rocking chair just rocks back and forth on its own, as if some invisible soul still occupies it.
Not far from Wren’s Nest sits the majestic McNeal Place. Though both are haunted, both buildings and hauntings are like night and day. Uncle Dave’s home is a comfy homespun old home; McNeal Place is more like a Renaissance Villa. While Uncle Dave is about as congenial a haunt as one could wish for, the restless spirit of McNeal Place is doleful and sad and often visits the graveyard where her young daughter was lain to rest. Griefs know no boundary—not even the boundary of death.
But some who know more about the spirits of McNeal Place than I would argue that the old manse is not a morbid place but one filled with “glamor, hardship, romance and secrets.” At least some of the ghosts that reside there are not sad: one person who knows the place well avers that “Miss Polk is a funny little monkey of a spirit. She can and will scare the soles off your shoes. I was just one who “got ” her. I was a bit shocked at first encounter, then I just smiled and I felt her wink back.” Several spirits are reported to “run amuck” inside; but then it’s their residence–not ours!
Less accessible than these haunts are the ghosts which inhabit Western Mental Health Institute. While these days large prison-like insane asylums are ill favored, in its heyday WMHI was jam packed, not only with the legitimately insane, but with persons whom today we would call rebellious, lascivious or unconventional.
Lobotomies, shock therapy, chaining and medieval like torture were the rule of the day. Old asylums were a literal chamber of horrors. Many people died from such treatment and some of their spirits abide in WMHI and other old institutions.
Today mental health is more enlightened and Western has far fewer inmates than once it held. Present and former staff and patients alike testify to the ghosts who actively haunt its grounds, but wannabe ghost-busters are advised not to investigate on their own. The old hospital itself is closed to the public and while the local ghosts may not bother you, the local constabulary most certainly will.
If you wish to get up close and personal with the dearly departed, you would be well advised to spend a weekend at Magnolia Manor. An elegant antebellum home converted to a comfortable bed and breakfast it has beautiful antiques in each room—and a gaggle of ghosts to go along with them.
During the Civil War, Generals Grant and Sherman stayed at Magnolia Manor there are many tales to be told of the Yankee occupation. In the years since the Late Unpleasantness, a host of ghosts have accumulated within its walls and on the surrounding grounds.
Contrary to the pseudo-spooky hooey you see on TV these days, there is little to fear from the ghosts which haunt most houses and certainly those at Magnolia Manor are no different. Consider it from the ghost’s perspective: they are the permanent residents—you are the intruder. But they are hospitable haints and if you don’t bother them–or go shouting at them like some damn fools on television like to do–then they probably will not unduly disturb you!
Loretta Lynn, widely hailed as the Queen of Country Music and with a long career of successful hit songs, is living legend among fans of Country Music and was even the subject of a successful Hollywood movie. As famous as she is, however, few are aware of another talent of Ms Lynn’s: the Coal Miner’s Daughter is psychic and her long-time home in Hurricane Mills is most seriously haunted.
Loretta has never denied her psychic encounters, which date back to her early years. In one case, Loretta had a nightmare one night that her father was dead and woke up screaming. Although her husband tried to reassure her, Loretta could not shake the premonition that her father had died. Not long after she received a phone call telling her that her father had died of a massive stroke. Some years later she returned to Kentucky to visit her childhood home in Butcher Hollow, to the cabin that she grew up in, only to see the ghost of her father sitting on the front porch.
When she and her husband Doolittle finally bought Hurricane Mills and moved in, it was not long before she began to have experiences that led her to believe her mansion was haunted. Doors opened and closed all on their own; Loretta would hear footsteps outside on the porch but when she checked to see who was there, not a living soul could be seen.
Loretta’s twins, Peggy and Patsy, also had uncanny encounters. When they were very young, too young to be afraid of ghosts or know that such things could not be, would tell their mom of the “people in our room” that would visit them at night. One such spirit was a woman dressed in Victorian dress with her hair “piled high on her head”–Gibson Girl style.
In addition, the sounds of slaves rattling chains in the “slave pit” and the ghosts of Civil War soldiers have also been seen and heard in and around the house. While the house was dear to Loretta and her family, their experiences with the supernatural made Loretta not want to spend the night alone in the house and when her husband and children were out, she would have a friend stay with her.
Over the years Loretta has had séances held in the house to determine who exactly was haunting the home. On at least one occasion, the séance has produced physical reactions, with furniture moving and levitating in plain sight. More recently, Loretta Lynn called in gamed ghost buster James Van Praagh to help her “cleanse” the house. However, when the famed “ghost whisperer” heard a voice tell him to “get out!” Van Praagh chose the better part of wisdom and quickly departed the presence of the dearly departed.
Loretta Lynn’s beautiful mansion and dude ranch remain a popular destination for traveling tourists and Country Music fans, the little community of Hurricane Mills remains a very spooky Dixie haunt.
While ghosts are to encountered just about anywhere one can imagine, some places seem particularly congenial to spectral visitation. Theaters seem to be particularly prone to paranormal activity, nor are operas the only phantom plagued places they stay. Theater people have long been aware of that fact. That is why, after a play or musical, when the work crew comes out to clean up, they place a large upright pole with a bare bulb in it in the middle of the stage. It is called a “ghost light” and it is not there for illumination, but to drive away the ghosts that come out when the audience leaves.
To look at the Bijou, located on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, you would not know how old the building is, nor guess how much history it has seen. Its origin goes back to 1817, beginning it existence as the Lamar House, a trendy upscale hotel of the early nineteenth century. In the 1850’s it was expanded and was known for awhile as “Coleman House” (no relation) and during the Civil War the Yankees commandeered the hotel and turned it into a hospital, where among the many who died were Union general William P. Sanders. After the war it again was a hotspot for the rich and posh.
It was in 1909 that a theater was added to the old building and for many decades it held both live performances and movies, and many famous performers played there. After World War II, however, it began a gradual decline, eventually the theater began showing porno movies, while the hotel section turned into a fleabag flophouse. In recent years, however, the Bijou has been restored and now is a venerated performance venue again. One thing that remains unchanged, however, is its reputation as a most haunted theater.
In the old hotel section of the building, more than one person has seen the ghost of General Sanders haunting the room where he died. After many years of reports by backstage crews and other employees, several the ghost hunting groups have tread its boards including the East Tennessee Paranormal Society, which conducted several investigation onsite and turned up some interesting results, including inexplicable recordings and some rather strange photographic evidence. Investigators have also witnessed uncanny shadows not caused by any known light source, which they also took to be evidence of spectral activity.
Besides the General, what seem to be the spirits of former performers also haunt the Bijou, as well as the ghosts of a few shady ladies who may have met an unseemly end at the hands of their customers. For details about the Bijou and its gaggle of ghosts, see Chapter 8 of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. Of course, the Bijou is open for live performances as well as for special events, so if you go, you too may encounter one of the ghosts, but if you do don’t blame me—you were warned.
Although I wrote about the ghosts of “The Seven Hills” in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, due to technical issues I wasn’t able to illustrate it the way I would have wished, which is one of the reasons why this blog exists–to update and supplement the true ghost tales I have already related to you.
For those not native to Nashville, Tennessee, “The Seven Hills” does not refer to specific hills in the city (there are far more than seven) but to a cluster of suburban neighborhoods southwest of downtown which share similar names: Green Hills, Forest Hills, Hillsboro Village, etc. Although to the casual visitor they all seem pleasant affluent areas (they are) they also hide darker secrets as well: all possess their fair share of ghosts.
Most popular of the neighborhoods by far is Green Hills, and in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee I detail several hauntings there. One of the most interesting is at that mecca of Nashville fashionistas, Green Hills Mall. The mall has had repeated reports of hauntings. Other reports of hauntings in Green Hills come from the homes in the area as well.
Apparently some time back a shoe clerk at The Mall reported seeing an apparition wearing a tricorner hat on a number of occasions. It is thought that this spirit may have been a victim of an Indian attack during the frontier era, when raids and scalpings were commonplace in Nashville.
However, in these neighborhoods an even more common cause of the many reports of haunted homes is the fact that this part of Nashville is where some of the bloodiest fighting of the Battle of Nashville took place. In December of 1864, Green Hills and adjacent Forest Hills saw horrific bloodshed before the Confederate Army was finally defeated. The dead and dying lay everywhere after the battle.
While these days on cable television, ghost hunters claim able to not only identify who is haunting what house, but also what they had for breakfast the day they died, the reality is that most hauntings cannot really be pinned to any known person. Residents or owners will report uncanny happenings, mysterious sounds or, more rarely, actually seeing a visual presence. In truth, however, identifying the ghost as a particular individual is mostly speculation. The fact that right after the battle, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dead Confederate were hastily thrown into mass graves in The Hills and never properly buried, is the most probable source of most of these continuing poltergeist activities. As in the movie “Poltergeist,” these subdivisions were often built over the mass graves of the dead without the graves being relocated.
One exception to the above rule of thumb, however, is Belmont Mansion. This grand old dame of antebellum architecture stands on a tall hill overlooking Hillsboro Village, a popular destination for both the college crowd and music industry executives. Today Belmont is the campus of a prestigious Christian school, Belmont University. During the Battle of Nashville it was headquarters for the Union Army’s Fourth Corps and the battle lines lay only a few blocks away. While it is thought several ghosts haunt Belmont Mansion, the one most commonly associated with it is Adelicia Acklen, a Southern belle possessed of beauty, brains and lots and lots of money. Despite all that, she suffered the loss of several of her children in the house and it is believed that that is why she still resides there.
Almost since that day in 1977 when the King of Rock ‘n Roll passed on to that big concert in the sky, there have been sightings and reports of encounters with Elvis Presley. Many folks who have witnessed the king since his death claim he is alive and well. But there is another explanation for their uncanny encounters: they have met the ghost of Elvis.
The most common place where Elvis has been seen is, of course, Graceland. Admirers, hanging out in front of the house at midnight claim to have seen a black limo pull through the gates and spy the King’s unmistakeable profile as it passes by. Others have snapped photos of the upstairs windows, where an image seems to be staring out. Nor are the apparitions at Graceland limited to Elvis; his mother, who was very close to him, has also been seen; one somewhat eccentric actress, Paz de la Huerta, has even claimed the ghost of Elvis gave her an orgasm when she visited his recording studio in Graceland. Whole lotta shakin’ goin on.
Nor is Graceland the only spot where the restless shade of Mr. Presley been reported. Some of his favorite haunts in Vegas and Hollywood have been claimed to receive visits from Elvis from time to time. while A motel across the street from Graceland has had some weird encounters as well.
Moreover, Elvis has also been reported in Nashville on more than one occasion. There was the broad daylight encounter with a man all bedecked like the glitter Elvis, in a rhinestone studded white jumpsuit. He was encountered on Lower Broad, where tourists flock to visit the honky-tonks and gifts shops. While this encounter could just be a very good Elvis impersonator, the Lower Broad area of downtown Nashville is well known to be psychically active, and this report may very well be the real deal.
More credible are the reports I have gathered from the music pros of Elvis’s haunting of the old RCA studio—now torn down—where he recorded his first big hit—Heartbreak Hotel. Penned by the legendary Mae Axton (Hoyt Axton’s momma) its haunting lyrics were based on a suicide note, which inspired her to write the complete song in about a half hour! The studio has had many weird occurrences and those in the know swear it was Elvis’s shade lingering in the place where his first big hit was made.
Now old Studio A is a used car lot, so while Elvis may have not left the building, the building certainly did leave him.
There is no definitive way to prove the Elvis haunts Memphis, or Nashville; but those who have felt his spectral presence know what they experienced—and they are sure it was Elvis.
Like Nashville, Memphis, Tennessee is famous for its music; while Nashville is renowned as the home of Country music, Memphis lays claim to being the home of the Blues and Rock ‘n Roll. While other places in Dixie have hoppin’ music scenes equally vibrant, it seems that Memphis has a long and venerable history on that score. So it should come as no surprise that along with its musical heritage come more than a few ghosts and haunts.
If there is one place in Memphis which epitomizes this dual heritage it is an old brick building which houses the “Best Dive in Memphis”—some claim its the best dive in the United States: a place called Ernestine and Hazel’s. Now you may not think being a dive is any claim to fame, but the regulars at E&H—living and deceased—would give you an argument on that score.
Built sometime before the end of World War I, the old two story brick building has had many previous lives before becoming a dive bar. It was originally a pharmacy; in fact some of the pharmacy drawers where old time drugs were kept are still intact behind the bar. According to some, this old drug store was where St. Joseph’s Aspirin for children was invented. Later on it became a dry goods store; then a seedy hotel/brothel, then finally a Blues night club.
After World War II, there grew up what was called “the Chitlin’ Circuit.” Because of segregation, black folks couldn’t go to white night clubs, so they frequented a series of black clubs where one could hear “race” music: the Blues. Ernestine and Hazel’s became one of the most famous of these night clubs and in its heyday one could listen to all the legendary bluesmen; by all accounts, this is also where Rock ‘n Roll was born. Upstairs from the club male patrons could also enjoy less reputable entertainment as well.
Although the night club closed as integration took hold in the 1960’s and both races could mingle and enjoy “race” music together, in recent years Ernestine and Hazel’s was reopened and has undergone a revival. In its heyday legends like Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Howlin’ Wolf and others all visited its haunted hallowed halls and played or stayed there. So today, the spirit of the Blues is alive and well and rockin’ on in the same place. But the new owners and patrons of the old dive have found that some of the place’s long dead patrons have decided to hang around way past closing time.
For one thing, the old time juke box seems to have the uncanny ability to read people’s mental states and play the appropriate song. Although the songs are supposed to play in random order, more than one patron has found it playing a tune eerily in keeping with what their own thoughts are. Coincidence? Perhaps, but that’s not the only eerie thing that goes on there.
Male and female apparitions have been seen in the bar and on the stairs leading up to the old cat-house; one of the phantoms’ face has even been caught on film. The bar has also become a favorite haunt of ghost-hunters because the place is so psychically active and more than a few evp’s—ghost recordings—have been captured, although none of them were singing the Blues at the time.
There are various theories as to who haunts the old pharmacy turned flop house, turned night club, turned cat house and now legendary dive bar. But for the curious, perhaps a visit to the old haunts of the legendary bluesmen would be the best way to see for yourself whether Ernestine and Hazel’s is indeed as haunted as they say; and while you’re there, enjoy a “soul burger.”
For more on the haunted history of the legendary dive, read Chapter 25 of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee; and if your radio starts playing an old Blues song for no apparent reason as your read—well, you were warned.