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.
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!
First off, let me reassure folks who go to Rugby: despite the title of this essay, there are no ghouls in Rugby, Tennessee, none. No flesh-eating beings of any sort–at least not any I know of–reside there.
That out of the way, let me assure all those in search of a paranormal encounter, there is a gaggle of ghosts that inhabit the place, more per square mile than any town I know of. So, while I can’t guarantee a ghostly good time, your chances are better here than anywhere.
As I chronicle in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, this quaint rural village has been called “The Most Haunted Town in America.” It may, in fact, be the most haunted town in the world, although proving either assertion would be difficult, since the census bureau does not keep record of such things.
Rugby,Tennessee, is located high in the Cumberland Mountains, a wild and scenic area that while by no means backward, has not been subject to the massive influx of commercialism and corporate tourist development that the equally scenic Smoky Mountains have.
The Cumberlands are located between Nashville and Knoxville: to go from one to the ‘tuther, one passes through this area; travelers rarely stay there for their vacation, however, and mostly just pause in the region long enough for a lunch or brunch at one of the many restaurants and rest stops just off the interstate. This is a pity, since they are missing quite a lot; untrammeled wilderness, scenic heights, clean air and not a few frights and sights at Rugby.
To give an idea of the difference between the two mountain regions of Tennessee, in the summer when one goes fishing in a beautiful mountain stream in the Smokies, one is generally doing so with dozens of other fishermen, all elbow to elbow enjoying the same stream. When you go fly fishing in the Cumberlands, you can cast your reel without worrying about snagging another anglers fishing hat in the process. In all likelihood, the only being within sight of you also fishing is the occasional black or brown bear–or maybe the rare Bigfoot (otherwise known as the Tennessee Stink Ape).
So while Rugby is not hard to get to, being about an hour and spare change from downtown Nashville and a similar distance from Knoxville, it is not a heavily traveled spot, which suits the ghosts just fine.
To recap from my chapter on the town, Rugby was founded by Thomas Hughes, the novelist famous for Tom Brown’s School Days. Hughes, who actually attended the English “public school” (in the US we call them private schools) named Rugby, was a high minded sort and his intent was to found a town to provide a haven and gainful employment for the younger sons of titled English nobility. In Victorian England, the family wealth and title of an aristocratic family went to the eldest brother, leaving his siblings dependent on handouts from the family patriarch; on the other hand they were prohibited by strict English social custom from seeking gainful employment on their own. So, with little to do except mooch off their eldest brother, these younger sons often whiled away their days drinking, gambling and whoring and hoping big brother would kick the bucket some time soon.
Hughes thought to provide in America a place where they could learn a trade and be productive members of society, so he funded the construction of this little Victorian English village in the Southern highlands. Unfortunately, while the village of Rugby perfectly served Hughes’ purpose, it turned out that the younger sons of English nobility actually preferred to drink, gamble and go wenching instead of soiling their soft hands with any sort of gainful employment. What this late nineteenth century social experiment left behind was a village of quaint and beautiful Victorian homes and a number of mostly English ghosts in the heart of Dixie.
One of the most famous haunts was the Tabard Inn, where a murder most foul took place in Room 13. Alas, one can not stay here, as the building went up in flames some years back. But I talked with Rugby Executive Director, Barbara Staggs, soon after Strange Tales was published, and she had interviewed eyewitnesses who testified that as the building burned, they could hear screams coming from the vacant Room 13. Some locals believed it was the ghost that haunted the hotel who set the fire herself.
Much of the Victorian furniture from the second hotel was salvaged from the fire however, and repurposed to homes throughout the town. Some say cursed furniture was the cause of supernatural phenomena spreading throughout the rest of the town. Others in Rugby disagree on this; but no one doubts that as towns go, Rugby has more haunts per capita than any other town in America.
More fortunate in its fate wasNewbury House. Its owner was an English gentleman of high esteem but low birth who found the town quite congenial and sent for his family from England. Sadly, he died before they came and now his ghost resides in Newbury House, still waiting for them to arrive.
Then there is the old Victorian library, which looks for all the world like something out of Harry Potter–if Harry was a book nerd. It has signed copies of Charles Dickens’ novels. No gnarly ghost of Jacob Marley though. Some call it the “Rip Van Winckle” library, because it seems as though when one enters it, one has entered a sort of time warp. Although there is a phantom librarian reported present there, its presence is mostly unseen. You, however, may have a different experience when you visit.
There are a number of homes in the town with ghosts, some more active than others and over the years eyewitnesses have reported encounters with them all. There is Kingston Lisle, Thomas Hughes’ sometime residence; there is Roslyn, a two story mansion with several spirits, including the wild carriage driver who thunders up to the front door in a black carriage and the tale of the “weeping girl” in the front yard. Then too, there is Twin Oaks, allegedly once home to a witch, although whether she was simply what the Irish call a “Wise Woman,” knowledgeable about healing herbs and such, or of the more wicked sort, we know not. Appalachia has had its fair share of both sorts.
Again, for more in depth accounts of Rugby’s many ghosts one is better off consulting the chapter in Strange Tales. Then after reading, you will be armed with enough knowledge to tackle Rugby for yourself. The living residents are friendly and helpful to visitors and the spectral residents are mostly harmless—even if the occasional encounter with them is a bit startling. By all means, if you visit Dixie in your travels, Rugby is worth the trip.
In recent years, paranormal researchers have begun to take a closer look at the phenomena they call the BVM: the faithful refer to her as the Blessed Virgin Mary. Be one a believer or no, many serious researchers into unexplained phenomena are taking seriously the many sightings of this beatific female apparition. Today we take a closer look at one specific report of this Holy Ghost.
The arrival of the Magi—“we three kings from oriental”—who actually magicians or wizards and practitioners of the occult arts, came to pay homage to the birth of Christ, is celebrated in most Christian circles as the Feast of the Epiphany. It is traditionally dated to January 6, and in Merrie Oulde Englande it was called Little Christmas.
According to former custom, this was the actual day when gifts were exchanged, much as the Magi gave Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The Epiphany was important because it was the first appearance of the Jewish Messiah to gentiles—the aforesaid non-Jewish sorcerers. Now anyone who wishes to celebrate the holiday properly can send this humble scrivener as much gold and incense for the Epiphany as they wish, although you can just go out and buy one or more of my books and get something in return for your generosity,
The Feast of the Epiphany is also the twelfth day of Christmas according to our reckoning and a fit day to conclude the Twelve Ghosts of Christmas. In Anglo-Saxon England, Yuletide actually continued on through to February, with much wassail and ample quantities of ale; nowadays most of us have to get back to work and save the wassailing for Super Bowl Sunday; the ailing follows closely upon the hangover the next day. But I digress a bit here; for now, let us consider one last Christmastide apparition and then we shall close the book (or bell, book and candle) and hope the spirits rest in peace till next Yuletide.
Back to the BVM. There are many different sorts of apparitions, as we have amply seen. Some appear almost daily, as if they were on a loop of ghostly videotape set on infinite play; others occur just at certain times, as with most Christmas ghosts; but some apparitions appear just once or twice to deliver a message, then never again. Our last apparition is of that latter sort and while little known of in northern climes, it is widely celebrated further south.
In fact, this apparition occurred so far south that it was where folk didn’t speak English, and at the time it occurred, not even much Spanish. The spirit I refer to is Nuestra Senora de la Guadalupe—the Virgin of Guadalupe. Today this particular spirit visitation is hailed as the patron saint of Mexico and indeed she is venerated as the patroness of the Americas as a whole.
The odds are, if you have ever been to an authentic Mexican restaurant here in the Northwards, an icon of her has been lurking somewhere on the walls. That she is wildly popular among Mexicans and those among us of Mexican heritage, goes without saying. Those among us who are not of that cultural heritage may be unaware of the unusual story behind this intense devotion. Even if you are not a believer in saints or religious miracles, the story of her apparition—haunting, if you will—is a curious, yet true, one.
It actually occurred not long after the Conquistadors conquered—some say plundered and raped—the native kingdoms of what is now Mexico. The Aztecs were a proud and warlike people, and the truth be told, no better than the Spaniards who defeated them. Among the other tribes and kingdoms of Mexico, the defeat of the Aztecs was greeted as something of a relief—until they began to experience Spanish rule. In the wake of these European conquerors followed missionaries who came seeking neither gold nor glory, but rather came to bestow on the natives Christianity.
One of these converts to Christianity was a lowly campesino named Juan Diego. Born Cuauhtlatoatzin—Talking Eagle—Juan was a member of the Chichimeca tribe and spoke only Nuahatl—the language of the Aztecs and the other tribes of Central Mexico.
This day—the 9th of December, 1531—Juan was trudging from his little village into the city of Tlatelolco (now a neighborhood of Mexico City) to attend mass and take religious instruction. Juan was an eager convert to the new religion of the conquerors, it was true; but the complexities of this new religion were sometimes bewildering and so he and the other peasants like him were trying hard to understand the ins and outs of their new faith. The notion of one god, versus the many they had worshipped, for example, was peculiar enough in itself; that this one god could also be born of a virgin was even more confusing. Nonetheless, Juan trudged the dusty miles to the mission on foot to learn more about his new religion several times a week.
Only ten years before, Mexico City proper had been the pyramided imperial city of Tenochtitlan. It was the grand capitol of the great Aztec Empire, ruled over by a fierce warrior tribe who demanded human sacrifices from all the surrounding tribes. The human hostages given over to the Azteca elite by the surrounding natives were dragged to the tops of their high stepped temples and there they would have their hearts cut out still beating to feed the demanding and fearful Aztec gods; the remainder of their victim’s flesh was used to feed the Azteca warriors themselves. Now the temples had been razed and Spanish-style buildings and churches were being erected to replace them.
As Juan was climbing the hill the natives called Tepeyac, he heard singing on the hill, like the songs of many precious birds. Bewildered, Juan stopped and looked around, thinking perhaps he was dreaming. Then Juan looked towards the top of the hill, in the direction from which the music flowed.
The singing stopped and then he heard a voice calling to him, saying “Beloved Juan, dearest Diego.”
Juan went in the direction of the voice, and as he did so, he suddenly became happy and contented within. When he reached the top of the hill he saw before him a Maiden standing there who beckoned him closer.
She looked to be a native, with dark hair, dark eyes and copper skin like him. The Maiden was young and beautiful to behold; the apparition seemed only about fifteen or sixteen and she wore around her a mantle of blue-green, and though her form seemed human, Juan knew she was no ordinary mortal.
Her clothing was shining like the sun, as if it were sending out waves of light and the stones and the crag on which she stood seemed to be giving out rays of light as well. The Maiden’s radiance was like many brilliant precious stones, as in an exquisite bracelet; the earth all around her seemed to shine with the brilliance of a rainbow in the mist, while emanating from her head came bright rays of light, like the spines of an agave cactus. Juan stood there speechless, entranced by the incredible spectacle.
Then she spoke to the bedazzled campesino in his own Nahuatl tongue: “Know, be sure, my dearest-and-youngest son, that I am the Prefect Ever Virgin Holy Mary, mother of the one great God of Truth who gives us life, the inventor and creator of people, the owner and Lord of the Sky, the owner of the earth. I want very much that they build my sacred little house here.” She then instructed Juan to go to the Spanish archbishop in the city and tell her of her wish that he build a house for her on that very hill.
In due course, Juan, the Indian peasant, went to the great residence of the Prince of the Church, the Archbishop Fray Juan de Zumárraga, only recently arrived in this brave new world, and told him of the appearance of the Blessed Mother and her request.
Although the good bishop did not openly laugh at the native peasant’s bold request, he thought this simple farmer just some deluded Indian, and demanded proof of what he claimed. That, the good bishop thought, would end of the matter.
Returning to the hill of Tepeyac, Juan told the apparition of the Bishop’s request for proof and suggested to the Maiden that perhaps she should have someone of noble blood transmit her instructions to the Prince of the Church, the archbishop.
But with soothing words the Maiden reproved Juan, and again she bade him go to the bishop and tell him her will. This Juan did and was again rebuffed and told to provide proof.
Coming back to the same hill, again he told the Maiden of the bishop’s doubt and demand for proof, a sign that what he said was true. The Maiden told him to return on the morrow and that she would give him that sign.
Juan almost didn’t return, for that evening his Uncle became very very sick; so sick the uncle thought sure his end was near. At his uncle’s request, Juan headed to Tlatelolco to seek a priest to deliver last rites. However, although he tried to avoid the place where the apparition had appeared, on the way Juan again met the Maiden. Ashamed he had tried to avoid her, he explained to her about his dying uncle. Unfazed, she told him to fear not; his uncle was already cured. And on returning home, he found it was so.
Then, on the day of the Winter Solstice, Juan returned to the same place on the hill of Tepeyac, and again the Maiden appeared before him. She now instructed him to go to a certain place on the hill and pick the flowers there. Juan knew that at this time of year no flowers blossomed in the high plateau, in the land where he and his folk dwelt. Yet obedient to the lady’s wishes he went to the place she told him of. There, looking all about him he found a field of fragrant and beautiful flowers in all in full bloom.
Juan Diego picked the flowers, dazzling in their variety and beauty, gathering them up in the folds of his tilma, his homemade agave fiber poncho. He presented them to the Maiden, who gathered them up in her hands; she then put them back again into the tilma and folded it up and strictly enjoined Juan not to open his serape again until he came into the presence of the archbishop, the Spanish grandee.
Only with great difficulty was Juan able to obtain yet another audience with the archbishop. The great Prince of the Church’s servants were loathe to let this lowly Indian back in, thinking His Grace had been harassed by this crazy native more than enough. Still, Juan persisted and after waiting and waiting, he was finally was ushered into the bishop’s presence.
As instructed, Juan opened the tilma to show His Grace the fragrant flowers of the Maiden. On opening his poncho, out fell the flowers, all fragrant and beautiful, as if it were a sunny day in May and not the Winter Solstice. Yet these were not just any flowers but Castilian Roses, flowers which not only did not blossom in December, but which only grew in Spain and only in the province of Castile, from whence the Conqueror of Mexico, Hernan de Cortes himself had come. But even this was not the most remarkable thing the bishop witnessed; for on opening the folds of the tilma, the Archbishop Fray Juan de Zumárraga and his by now bewildered and curious servants saw the very image of the Maiden that had repeatedly appeared to Juan. It was a perfect image, glowing in vivid colors, yet not painted by the hand of man.
This time it was the bishop’s turn to bow, bow before the peasant Juan Diego and his tilma. For although the archbishop was a proud man and of high birth and came from a family of great wealth in Spain, he was at heart also a man of great piety and faith. In the knowledge that he was in the presence of something otherworldly and miraculous, the bishop begged the forgiveness of the Lady of the hill for his cynicism and doubt.
In due course the “little house”—a grand cathedral—was built where she directed. Word of the apparition grew and of the messages the Maiden gave to Juan, until all the natives of Mexico came to venerate the tilma with the image of the Lady and honor her as their protector and patron. And centuries later, when the day at last came for the native folk of Mexico to throw off the yoke of their conqueror, they bore the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe before them to victory. In all things the folk of Mexico hold fast to their faith in The Maiden as their protectress and still believe in the miracle of the roses.
Since then, the usual cynics have tried to disprove or deny the apparition, claiming the image is a fake and merely painted on; yet to this date no one has been able to succeed in proving it is anything but what Juan Diego claimed that Winter Solstice day in 1531.
However, in all the various investigations and close analyses of that icon on that agave fiber poncho which have been conducted over the years, some curious facts have emerged. For one thing, in the pupils of the eyes of Our Lady on the cloth can be seen very small, almost microscopic, images of people; they seem to be images of the bishop and his servants present when the tilma was unfolded by Juan Diego, as reflected in Our Lady’s eye.
Another curious fact, and one only recently discovered, is about the stars that decorate the blue-green gown of the Lady of Guadalupe.
It had always been assumed that the stars were just a random decoration on the gown, in honor of her epithet of “Queen of Heaven.” However, a close analysis of those stars reveals the fact that they are not haphazard, but organized as actual constellations of the sky. Nor is the arrangement of those constellations random either, but in fact they are in the exact pattern they would have been in the sky in 1531, on the day of the Winter Solstice, the day when the tilma was presented to Archbishop Zumárraga.
The only difference is that the constellations are a mirror image of how we would see them from earth. Imagine if her gown were the mantle of heaven; we would be looking up at them from the inside; but an onlooker viewing the tilma is seeing her gown from the outside, from the direction of heaven—hence the reverse pattern of the stars.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is a beloved icon and the story behind it most unusual; to date, all attempts to discredit it have proved fruitless—not that the professional debunkers haven’t tried. If, as the cynics would have us believe, it is a man-made fabrication, it is of such skill, subtlety and complexity as to boggle the mind. No ordinary mortal, much less an untutored native peasant, could possibly have rendered it. Any attempt to debunk the apparition of Guadalupe must also explain who, how, and why it would have been made.
Not just the faithful, but objective modern paranormal researchers have studied this and similar female apparitions which have been identified with Mary, the mother of Christ. They refer to them collectively as “BVMs” (Blessed Virgin Marys) and have a somewhat different view than the religious faithful. While accepting their reality, and positing them as genuine supernatural phenomena, they have wondered if something else is not also going on with such apparitions beyond what orthodox Christians are willing to comfortably accept.
The celestial symbolism of the robe of Our Lady of Guadalupe, for one thing, seems to point to certain astrological connections. Going back to the Christmas narrative in the Bible and the Feast of the Epiphany, we may note that the Magi in some modern New Testament translations have also been rendered as “astrologers”—presumably a more palatable epithet than magician or sorcerer. Indeed, the appearance of the Nativity Star at the birth of Jesus also implies astrological connections. That Mary is frequently referred to as the “Morning Star” (Venus) in early Christian writings also points to occult celestial connections on the part of the Queen of Heaven. We may note in passing certain celestial alignments have also been pointed out with regard to her Feast of the Annunciation as well.
It is not our purpose here to argue any particular theology or spiritual belief—although Moslems also venerate Mary in addition to many Christians—but rather to simply point out, as Shakespeare so nobly said, “There are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
For anyone wishing to investigate further these celestial connections with Our Lady of Guadalupe and the BVM, one can see for example the Immaculate Immigrant blog and regarding the Feast of the Annunciation (suspiciously close to the Vernal Equinox) see the dsdocnnor wordpress blog about the Pleiades and the BVM.
For this Halloween tale, neighboring Kentucky gets the nod. It involves an incident that happened many years back, during the 1930’s to be exact, yet it remains a much talked about and bizarre mystery to this day.
It happened in the Pennyrile district of Kentucky, where many strange things have been known to happen.
Happy Hollow lies just outside of Greensburg, Kentucky and from the name of the small rural community, one might easily imagine it was a place where nothing ever, ever went awry, and where the folk were all amiable and content with their lot in life. One would be wrong
One bright sunny morning, the Raglands were sitting down to breakfast in their farmhouse, and looking forward to their morning repast. Led by the patriarch of the family, they had said the blessing over the food and were just about to dig in, when suddenly they heard a commotion at the front of the house.
With nary a warning the front door flew open, startling one and all.
For a second he was too startled to move, but before the father could rise from his chair to go see who it may be who had barged into their home, he heard heavy footsteps moving in measured cadence down the long hallway from the front door.
Soon there came into view a ghastly procession came marching down the long hallway towards the kitchen in the rear of the house.
As it came close, the Raglands could see what looked like a group of pallbearers all dressed in black and upon their shoulders they bore a small coffin. But the men bearing the black box were unfamiliar to their eyes, in a community where everyone knew everyone. Moreover, no one had died in the family, nor knew they of any neighbor’s death. But that was not the oddest thing about this weird intrusion into their home.
Atop the coffin lay a lamb. The lamb was white as snow, but smeared with blood, for it was headless and blood was streaming from the ghastly wound.
All the time as they marched toward the family, the apparitions in black said nary a word. Without turning their pallid faces to look at the Raglands, or say a word of explanation, they marched past the family and out the back door.
Like dreamers suddenly awakened, the Raglands jumped up from the kitchen table to see where the pallbearers had gone. Nothing was visible in the back yard. The ghastly ghostly pallbearers had vanished.
In due course, the local constabulary were called and they canvassed the house and grounds for clues to who the strangers may have been. Neither the sheriff nor his deputies could find any trace of footprints front or back.
Apparitions or ghosts don’t always take human form. There are accounts of black dogs—hounds from hell they call them—that appear out of nothing to bedevil folks.
The raven, a carrion beast, is universally thought a harbinger of death; for not only does it feast on the flesh of the dead, it has even been known to appear before they die—as if it had foreknowledge of their death.
There are also rare accounts of apparitions appearing as a lamb, generally white. It is thought the white lamb symbolizes the soul of an innocent—a young child—who has died prematurely or violently. That this lamb’s head was missing was even more curious—and most sinister. Was this apparition trying to send a message from the grave?
In Happy Hollow and surrounding communities they still talk of that day long ago as if it were last week. Moreover, the house where it happened has not been occupied for many years and in the area it has a reputation for being haunted.
I had intended to blog today about a classic Dixie haunting, but after having an encounter this morning with a UFO I decided to do something different.
I would have called it a close encounter, but looking up J. Allen Hynek’s categories regarding UFO sightings, I can’t say that what I saw was as close as 500 feet. However, what I did see was about as close as I’d want to be, considering how rapidly it was descending.
What did I see? Well, I was driving due east, a little north of Nashville just about six am; the moon was full even through a light haze and low on the horizon when looking ahead just left of it came streaking down a large glowing object, descending at a fort-five degree angle.
Compared to the full moon it looked about a third the size although obviously was much closer, it was about as bright as the moon and whether it left a trail or simply that it moved so fast it created a blur behind it I can’t say. It was only visible for a few seconds before it disappeared behind the treeline.
Judging by its trajectory it would have either landed in Old Hickory Lake by to Hendersonville, or perhaps it crashed to earth in nearby Madison or Old Hickory. Now, what it was is anybody’s guess: that’s the Unidentified part of being a UFO.
It could have been a plane crashing, a meteor or some sort of artificial craft. Since a plane crash would have been on the news that is unlikely. If it was a meteor it was a very large one; there are probably some very spooked cows right now near Opryland if so. On the other hand, a craft from outer space can’t be ruled out, albeit that also includes space junk. Whatever it is it is quite real. Look to the skies Nashville!
Sorry, but I can’t tell you about seeing little green men, or “grays” or the like; which is not to say that Tennessee and the South haven’t had such encounters in the past.
For example I wrote the Mystery Airship that buzzed Tennessee in the early 1900’s. “Mystery Airships” was the term they used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for the cigar-shaped UFO’s. In Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground I chronicled the “Cigars from Mars” that buzzed the Tennessee Valley in January, 1910. It was sighted over Huntsville, Alabama, Chattanooga, Tennessee and Knoxville and was seen by hundreds of people.
While there are those who have suggested it was simply some anonymous dirigible having fun with the populace, I checked Jane’s All the World’s Airships for that period and none of the American craft could have fitted the bill. At that point in time, before World War I, such craft ambled along at about 10 or 20 mph; your lawnmower engine would be more powerful than the engines these craft had.
This UFO was going at a relatively high rate of speed and at a height which was simply beyond the technology of the time. Moreover, across the globe there was a rash of similar sightings late in 1909 and early 1910–all of them unexplained.
Then there was the Close Encounter that occurred in West Virginia in 1952 near Flatwoods when some kids playing ball saw an aerial object come down.
Unlike my UFO it descended at a more gradual trajectory and one might have assumed it was just a meteor roaring past; but the boys went investigate and the craft evidently made a soft landing. Gathering some friends and acquaintances, they went into the woods to investigate and encountered a creature unlike any of the standard descriptions of aliens.
One professional debunker–who wasn’t there–brushed it off as a “screech-owl” after interviewing all the residents of the area who weren’t there that night, which ranks with “swamp gas” as one of the more feeble rationalizations. Although the craft was gone when the locals came back with authorities, there were signs on the ground that something had indeed been there–what, remains a mystery to this day.
From Pascagoula to Louisville and everywhere in between, weird craft, strange sights, , uncanny lights, red rains, preternatural falls snakes and all manner of other aerial spookiness have been reported for generations.
While many may scoff at those who report such things, don’t count me among them, for I too have seen something descend from the heavens I can’t explain.
There are those who would say that ghost lights (also called spook lights) are not supernatural phenomena at all and are perfectly explainable. The erstwhile debunkers have sometimes gone to great lengths to try to explain away the inexplicable. Take one of the most famous of the spook lights, the Brown Mountain Lights.
There can be no denying their reality for they have been seen by various and sundry folk by the thousands for generations. No remote trekking into the backwoods, either: travelers often see them traveling at night along the Blue Ridge Skyway. They rank as North Carolina’s most fascinating mysteries. In 1913, the US Geological Survey dismissed the lights as the reflection of train headlights; that excuse worked until a big flood washed away the railroad tracks and the light show continued; then they came up with the “marsh gas” explanation; most recently, the ORION project out of Oak Ridge Labs went to great length to try and prove it was light reflected from car headlights.
The trouble with all the pseudo-scientific explanations is that the light show on Brown Mountain dates to long before the white man came to North Carolina. The Indians told of a great battle on the slopes of the mountain and claimed the lights are the souls of the dead warriors still fighting. The first whites to see the lights were in the seventeenth century, long before trains or cars. Locals have their own legend about the lights and it too involves death and tragedy. I detail both legends in my chapter of the lights in Dixie Spirits.
In western Missouri is another famous ghost light; called variouslythe Hornet Light, the Neosho Lights,the Tri-State Lights or simply the Devil’s Promenade. The so-called experts have tried to dismiss it too as a reflection of lights from the interstate; here again that doesn’t wash as the lights have moved over the years. Located along the state border with Kansas, the Hornet spook lights have been known to chase bus-loads of children, much to their terror. These lights too have been around since frontier days and perhaps much longer, and are still active today. This tale too warranted inclusion in Dixie Spirits, due to its great fame.
Finally, we have the Chapel Hill Spook Lights. These seem to concentrate at night along the CSX railroad tracks that run through Chapel Hill, Tennessee. While one might easily assume these to be train headlights; but so many witnesses have seen them and yet no train follows, that this can’t be the case. Here the legend is that it is the ghost of a local railroad lineman, who lost his head–literally–when he fell afoul of the tracks and a passing freight. Viewing the spook lights got so popular at Halloween that the local police started arresting people for trespassing on railroad property. For more on this well documented phenomenon, see the relevant chapter in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground.
These three Dixie lights are but a sample of this strange and unexplained phenomenon; there are other spook lights, not only in the South, but all across the country. Since I first wrote about them, I have corresponded with one gentleman who actually had one of these things actually pass through him! While he was not physically harmed, the memory of that night affected him deeply and it still gives him chills when he remembers it.
They are not headlights, nor swamp gas, nor anything within our ken and despite all their pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, the professional debunkers have failed to explain these phenomena.
Whether they truly are ghosts, I can’t say. They truly are spooky though, and for the foreseeable future, I think we can safely say they will remain an unsolved mystery of Dixie.
October 28, 2012 The Thirteen Days of Halloween, Blog 10
While I have devoted a whole book chronicling Civil War ghosts and parts of two others, in truth, true accounts of encounters with the restless spirits of those who died during the Late Unpleasantness could fill a whole ‘nother volume and then some. As I live within driving distance of the sites of six of some of the biggest battles of the war, I have had ample opportunity to explore them–and that doesn’t count the many skirmishes, raids and lesser actions that dot the Mid-South. Many of these sites come with some lore attached and I have often collected tales of the spirits which still haunt them. One site which I haven’t yet chronicled in print is Fort Donelson.
Before there was Bloody Shiloh, there were the twin battles of Forts Donelson and Henry. These were the twin Confederate bastions which guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers at the border with Kentucky. The Rebels had fortified the two rivers where they came close to one another–called Land Between the Rivers then and now, thanks to the TVA, is Land Between the Lakes. Here in the winter of 1862 a Union amphibious force came to break the Confederate defences. Led by General Ulysses S. Grant, the Yankees first bombarded Fort Henry on the Tennessee into submission and then, in a bold move, Grant took a small force overland and besieged Fort Donelson from landward, catching the Johnnies off-guard. The Rebels had all their big guns pointing down-river, in the direction they thought the Yankee fleet would come.
It was a bitter cold winter and both sides suffered terribly; the wounded in the no man’s land between the two forces suffered as much from the cold as they did from their wounds and many died a slow and agonizing death. The Rebel troops were ill-prepared for a winter campaign and suffered even more than the Yankees from the cold. Ultimately, Grant bluffed the incompetent Rebel commanders into surrendering, assuring his fame and opening the way to conquering the heartland of the Confederacy.
Although the dead of both sides were quickly interred, their undead shades lingered–they linger still at Land Between the Lakes. After my first book, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, which chronicled a few of Shiloh’s ghosts and haunts, I talked with several re-enactors who had camped at Fort Donelson at various times, trying to re-create conditions as close to January, 1862, as they could.
The re-enactors I spoke with told me it was not uncommon for one or another of their ranks to have uncanny encounters at Fort Donelson. One lady, a sutler, describes awakening in her tent in the dead of night to fight all her wares and her tent violently shaking and rattling. There was no wind or storm or any natural event that night to explain it. But apparently there was something supernatural that could.
Another re-enactor told of performing picket duty at night while his unit was there. Many re-enactors try to get into the spirit of the period not just for visitors during the day but at night as well and an onlooker might well mistake them for the real thing. This re-enactor was on duty late at night when he saw a light coming up the hill in the distance. The dim glow grew larger and larger as it approached him and at first he could not make out what it was. Then it came close and passed him; in the eerie glow he could see the torso and head of a man–seemingly an officer, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and smoking an old-fashioned stogie; it was the phantom cigar that illumined the figure. It almost seemed as if the phantom officer were making the rounds, checking on the bivouac to see all the guards were on duty. But the cigar-smoking figure was no re-enactor; he had no lower body, just a materialized torso and be-hatted head. Was it the ghost of General Grant? Or was it the shade of some other tobacco-loving commander, North or South? Who knows?
To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill about another war, Fort Donelson was not the beginning of the end of the Rebellion; but it was the end of the beginning. And they’re those who say that many who met their end there abide on the grounds of the battle-field still.
For more Civil War ghost stories see my Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War; Rutledge Hill did the original editon which is still in print, although Barnes & Noble, Lone Pine and Sterling have come out with economy hardcovers in addition to the paperback editions. My first book, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, also chronicles the battlefield hauntings of Shiloh, Chickamauga and Franklin.
Out of curiosity, I recently looked up one of my relative’s old antebellum home located on the South Battery, only to see that it was for sale. It’s been a number of years since last I visited the manse and the city, but its sale nonetheless made me a bit wistful—not only for the time when my uncle gave me the tour of the majestic old home, but also for the many ghosts that reside in Charleston–some of them next door to the home.
Mind you, Charleston being an old city, and being Southern, it has quite a gaggle of ghosts—far more than I could ever chronicle in Dixie Spirits, much less here. So I will only highlight a few of its most singular spirits here. First off, just a few houses down from my Uncle’s old home on the South Battery, facing Charleston harbor, is the Battery Carriage House Inn. Like all the grand and gracious homes lining the Battery, it is a large place with a courtyard leading to the carriage house in the back—the actual bed and breakfast. And like most of the homes lining the battery, the place has a brace of ghosts–and ghost stories–attached to it.
Located at 20 South Battery, it offers a cozy place to stay while visiting, plus the added bonus of one or two friendly ghosts, who may or may not show up to keep you on your toes. There is the Gentleman Ghost, who from the accounts of past visitors, has a certain affection for the ladies; then there is the Headless Torso, thought to be a victim of the Yankee bombardment of the city during the Civil War; and then there is the unnamed female ghost who resides in Room 9 who was photographed by one hotel guest. All in all, a very interesting place to stay.
Elsewhere in Charleston, other spirits of the restless dead also may their appearance at various times. In the heart of the city, where once a military hospital stood, in the dark hours before dawn, late night revelers have occasionally seena phantom army marching through the streets.
They are marching, it is said, out of their death beds to defend the city against the invading Yankees who are besieging the city. No one can tell them now the war is over.
Then there is the Old Jail,that old gothic looking structure that in its day not only housed murderers and other criminals, but runaway slaves and Yankee prisoners—many of whose restless spirits still abide there. Tour guides report heavy objects moving on their own inside, “shadow people” have been reportedly sighted there, plus the ghost of one notorious murderess—Lavinia Fisher—who haunts the cavernous prison dressed in her wedding gown.
And then there is the Charleston tale about the “Doctor of the Dead” which seems too creepy to be true. But in Charleston, the outlandish is normal, don’t you know. At any rate, that strange story of necrophilia and spirit possession is a bit too long for this brief survey, so we’ll save it for another time.
While Halloween is a fine time to visit Charleston, it really don’t make no never mind to the city’s restless dead. As far as the spirits are concerned; they’ll still be there whatever time of the year you go.
For more about Southern ghosts and haunts, grab a copy of Dixie Spirits, with a listing of haunted hotels you can stay at, as well as more detailed accounts of the ghosts of Charleston. Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, the first and still the best account of uncanny doings in the Mid South, is still in print and easily purchased.
While his name is not well-known nowadays, Andrew Jackson Davis was a man of great renown in early nineteenth century America. His works–dealing with prophecy and the paranormal–were read by Abraham Lincoln and other notable men of the day.
Davis’s ideas were heavily influenced by the works of the eighteenth century philosopher Swedenborg, who had once had a Near Death Experience and believed in the paranormal. Like Joan of Arc, the witch turned Catholic saint, Davis claimed that spirit voices talked to him, guided him and told him of many unknown things. Davis came from a part of upstate New York called “The Burnt-Over District” because so many radical spiritual and social movements arose there and then spread like wild-fire across the rest of the country.
In 1843, Andrew Jackson Davis attended a lecture on “Animal magnetism” (an early form of hypnosis) and soon thereafter the spirit voices came to him, advising him of his mission in life. Shortly thereafter Davis had an epiphany of sorts. He went into a deep trance, and when he awoke three days later, Davis was on a mountaintop forty miles away from where he had fallen asleep, seemingly transported there by supernatural means.
At this point, enter the Fox sisters. In 1848 the two younger sisters, Kate and Maggie, had just moved into a home that locals said was haunted. Soon knocking sounds were heard around the house, but mainly focused on the sister’s room. The father tried to nail and tighten every loose board and window in the house, to no avail. They even sent the two young girls to their older sister Leah’s home, hoping the mysterious spirit would leave them alone. It did not. The ghostly activities not only continued in the parents home but the poltergeist activities also started up in their sister Leah’s house. Leah, it turns out, was a dedicated follower of Andrew Jackson Davis, and she saw in her sisters paranormal activities the fulfillment of some of Davis’ prophecies. Through trial and error the sisters devised a way of communicating with the spirit—a method which came to be called the seance. Soon the girls went public and put on public displays of their abilities as mediums and the Spiritualism movement was born.
The Fox sisters became celebrities and put on public performances in New York City and elsewhere; politicians, publishers and leading intellectuals of the day attended and were impressed. Spiritualism also began to take on the aspects of a social reform movement, with leading spiritualists also championing political and economic ideas of the day, such as Abolitionism. Spiritualism also had a strong theatrical aspect to it, with many mediums performing before audiences on stage. While many bereaved families used seances to get in touch with loved ones, it was also widely regarded by many people as a sort of parlour game. Individuals high and low tried for themselves and found that it worked.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and his wife attended a number of such seances, some by genuine mediums, and others held by charlatans. While historians dispute that Lincoln was himself a spiritualist, many around him definitely were.
After the war, the two younger Fox sisters fell into alcoholism and also resented their older sister’s controlling influence on them. When a newspaper offered one of them a bribe to “expose” Spiritualism and say it was a fake, she took the money; she later recanted, however. The three sisters’ legacy remains controversial to this day.