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.
It was the twenty-fifth of December, 1861, the first Christmas of the War.
A nineteen year old private in the Confederate army, Valerius Cincinnatus Giles, was outside on guard detail along the Potomac River. Facing him on the Maryland side were the Yankees of General Sickles’ Brigade–The Excelsior Brigade.
As a picket, his duty was give the alarm of any enemy activity, lest the Yankees should decide to abandon the comfort of their warm huts and brave the bleak cold outside.
Private Giles’ unit, a detachment of the 4th Texas Infantry, had just relieved another unit which had been guarding that sector. The men would rather have been back in camp, enjoying the holiday as best they could; but duty called, and someone needed to be on duty, no matter what the day.
Private Giles and his two brothers had all answered the call of duty and volunteered for the Confederate army. Giles, still smartly dressed in his long grey frock coat with black waist belt and black strap over his right shoulder, and adorned with a black Hardee hat with one side turned up, looked the model of a military man. One of Giles’s brothers was with the Tenth Texas Infantry in Arkansas, while the other, brother Lew, was with Terry’s Rangers (Eighth Texas Cavalry), somewhere in Kentucky.
There was little likelihood of Valerius being in any personal danger. The Yankees desired a break from war that day as much as the Rebels did.
That afternoon there was a brief to-do when a Yankee steamboat came in sight. But it was soon recognized as a hospital ship and not a gunboat and was left alone to ply it trade on the opposite shore.
More out of boredom than necessity, Private Giles began to walk his post, tramping through snow knee deep in places. The colder clime of northern Virginia was a change of scene for the Texas boy and there in the piney woods in midwinter, when the earth and green branches of the trees were covered with snow, there was no sound of birds singing or crickets chirping. With not a breath of air blowing, the stillness all around him seemed oppressive.
Valerius’s thoughts started to wander, thinking about home and family that Christmas Day.
It was at four p.m. that afternoon when he heard it. He remembered that he was not sleepy or drowsy and perfectly wide awake when he heard it.
He heard his brother Lew Giles’s voice, clear as day, calling out his name:
“It was then 4 P.M., December 25, 1861. I was not sleeping or dreaming. and firmly believed at the time that I heard my brother calling me, but it must have been a delusion of the imagination.”
Knowing Lew was far away to the west in either Kentucky or Tennessee, Val thought at first that somehow it was just his homesickness playing on his imagination; that it was some kind of delusion. Yet he knew his brother’s voice and knew that the voice he had heard was his brother’s.
It was only later that Val learned that Lew had been wounded in Kentucky on the seventeenth of December. Seriously injured, he had been taken to Gallatin, Tennessee, to the home of a family friend, where he lingered for several days.
According to information the family later received from their father’s friend in Gallatin, Lew Giles expired at exactly four p.m. on Christmas Day of 1861.
Let’s take a break, if we may, from trampling through decaying mansions in search of restless spirits, rotting swamps filled with things not quite dead, yet not really alive, graveyards that give one the heebie -jeebies even in broad daylight and morbid mountain hollows where ancient curses still have power to bewitch the unwary passerby, and reflect on the state of the OTHER SIDE in this day and age.
First, while I firmly believe there are many paranormal phenomena which science cannot explain, and I continue to collect accounts of uncanny events and weird doings, I have begun to believe that our collective quest to explore THE UNEXPLAINED may have gone a bit too far. Or rather, that the innate human curiosity to seek answers to the mysteries of the universe that motivates most of us, has been hijacked by many who are only interested in exploiting what has gone from an esoteric endeavor to become a popular pastime and cash in on it by any means possible.
The explosion in “professional” ghost hunting in particular I find a bit much. There are all manner of self-anointed experts these days who conduct very expensive classes in ghost-hunting, “cleansing” or various and sundry other paranormal practices. It is all well and good to go to sites that have a reputation for being haunted and investigate them for yourself or even to help calm folk uncomfortable with the possibility that they are not alone in the old home.
But bringing along truckloads of seemingly high-tech paraphernalia and putting on airs of being “scientific” is not any more valid qualitatively than someone who investigates a site by their “gut feeling.” Sometimes one can divine the truth by what seems to be an entirely subjective and undocumented experience. And one person’s authentic paranormal experience may not be able to be duplicated no matter how many tri-quarter readings you take.
As Shakespeare phrased it, “by the prickling of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”
Please don’t put me in the category of the professional debunkers who, while pretending to investigate paranormal incidents objectively in reality approach every occurrence with the same closed mind, and simply seek to validate their predetermined opinions and present it as “proof” that it is all bunkum. I have read some ghost hunting groups’ accounts that I personally find quite impressive; but I also know that insofar as the scientific community goes, their evidence will not convince any academic investigator.
The flurry of paranormal Cable TV shows in particular yank my chain. Some, admittedly, are worse than others; a bunch of idiots running around an abandoned sanitarium with flashlights attached to their faces and scaring themselves is not only a waste of time, it’s just plain silly.
Likewise some dude on tv daring a spirit to “come out come out wherever you are” is an exercise in the moronic. Moreover, if they are treading on territory where they are dealing, not with the deceased, but with the demonic, they may even stir up something they are unprepared to handle. Genuine cases of demonic possession are very, very rare–fortunately–but they do exist and, as the saying goes, don’t go kicking a nest of hornets unless you want to get stung.
The latest scam is some of these celebrity ghost-busters offering–for money–certification to people as ghost hunters. Of course, if any of these media mediums read this criticism, I doubt they will be much dismayed–they are crying all the way to the bank as I speak.
Of course, charlatans exploiting a popular movement relating to the paranormal is nothing new. In my book, The Paranormal Presidency, I document the birth of Spiritualism and the story of its suppressed relationship with President Abraham Lincoln.
In the book I tried to maintain a certain objectivity about this subject. The truth is that, at that time and since, there have been many sincere people involved in Spiritualism, psychics, medium-ship, and also those involved in partaking in seances. In some instances these earnest explorers of the beyond may even have had genuine psychic experiences.
But the truth is that there has also been a chronic problem with phonies and fakes who pretended to be psychic and have bilked gullible people over and over again over the years. Moreover, with the advent of cable TV these charlatans have gotten a mass media following.
Unlike the professional debunkers, the Joe Nickols of the world, I refuse to throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater. Paranormal phenomena are real; I know of many people who have genuine experiences, even if only once in their lifetime. Similarly, I have met a few people whom I believe to be genuinely psychic. I think that everyone has that potential, at the very least.
But there are also those only too willing to exploit popular interest in the subject for a fast buck. The truth is, that some people want to tell us what is behind the beyond, when they don’t even know what is beyond their behind!
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.
“A volume might be written concerning the performance of this wonderful being, as they are now described by contemporaries and their descendants. That all this actually occurred will not be disputed, nor will a rational explanation be attempted.”
—–Albert Goodpasture, 1886
Much has been written about the supernatural doings between 1818 and 1820 in Adams, Tennessee. In Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I devoted two full chapters to the Bell Witch, and in my latest effort, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, I discuss her along with other Tennessee witches. Although referred to as the Bell Witch, it was neither a witch, nor did it belong to the Bell family, although they were the ones mainly bedeviled by it.
It began innocently enough; knockings and scrapings at night; then strange creatures were sighted in broad daylight. John Bell, the patriarch of the family, at first thought it was just some local youths playing pranks on his family. But soon it became clear to him and his family that no humans were causing the sounds and other physical phenomena. Then one night it began to attack members of the family—notably John Bell and his beautiful daughter Betsy. Quilts were pulled from the bed in the dark of the night, and Betsy and the others were violently assaulted by unseen hands; scratching and slapping and biting. Yet there was nothing and no one to be seen.
At first the Bells only discussed the incidents among themselves, calling it “Our Family Troubles.” Eventually word got out about the malevolent poltergeist haunting their home. First their neighbors visted to see what was up; then the curious came from farther away came to see it for themselves. Fame of the Mysterious Spirit spread far and wide.
At times the spirit was just mischievous and amusing; but it could turn vicious at a whim. Moreover, it seemed to be aware of goings on over the whole community, traversing great distances unseen.
The unearthly phenomenon even attracted the attention of the famous General Jackson, who mounted an expedition to get to the bottom of the haunting. He arrived with a wagon and an entourage of skeptics. First Jackson’s wagon became frozen on the road–until he acknowledged the Witch’s reality. Then that night, one of Jackson’s entourage thought he could outsmart the invisible spirit–instead the would be witch-slayer became the object of the entity’s wrath and was driven out of the house. Although Jackson was all for staying, his followers decided to flee for the safety of Nashville–the first time General Jackson was ever forced to retreat!
Many of the disturbances focused on the beautiful, buxom Betsy Bell, and the spirit—by now called The Bell Witch—took a personal interest in the girl, to the point of telling her to break up with her fiancée, and threatening violence if she didn’t.
Ultimately Betsy married the local schoolteacher and moved to Mississippi with him. As for her father, it was said he was poisoned by the witch; but who the witch really was, no one could say.
A local matron of common birth but ample girth, Kate Batts, was named by some as the culprit. While Kate Batts had a number of personal oddities in her behavior, for all of that she was a God-fearing woman and no one dared accuse her to her face. Indeed, her modern descendants I have talked to say she was more sinned against than sinning by John Bell. The Bell family today has a different story, needless to say.
Still, when Kate died, cats howled around her grave in a most uncanny way and such a dread fell on her resting place that no one dared approach it. Her grave became overgrown and forgotten and to this day its location is not known.
As the historian Goodpasture declared, a book could be written about the Bell bewitchment—and have. In fact, quite a number of books, plus two plays and an opera at last count. Still, no one has fully plumbed the mystery—nor can it be said that the Bell Witch has ever truly gone away from Adams.