As any fool knows, the University of Tennessee is BIG ORANGE. And what better candidate for a Halloween ghost tale than one all bedecked in orange? In the SEC sports universe, fans of this football team are said to bleed orange and not red. Everything comes to a standstill in Knoxville on game day and supporters will travel eight to ten hours to get a prime spot in the parking lot for tailgaiting. What even dyed in the jersey UT fans may be unaware of, however, is that UT’s school spirits extends far beyond game day; the school spirits in fact extend far beyond the grave.
Perhaps the best known campus ghost is “Sophie.” Her name in life was Sophania Strong and for years she was a devoted mother, wife and leading light of Knoxville society. After her death her son donated money to the school to build a woman’s dormitory on the site of the old family manse. Over the years, successive generations of UT coeds have come to realize that Sophie never quite left the premises. One room in Strong Hall was so filled with psychic activity that it came to be called “Sophie’s Room” and it was rare that its mortal resident lasted out the semester there before moving out. While the coeds now are gone from the old building, Sophie is not.
Then there is the old Hoskins Library, whose resident spook is called “Evening Primrose.” Who or what she may be is unknown, but the elevators seem to travel without any human agency, books unshelve themselves and the smell of fresh baked cornbread will at times waft through its halls.
Far more frightening, and definitely high on the creep meter, is “The Hill.” An eminence on campus. On a given night one might encounter an elegant gent strolling about the Hill. While at a glance he seems normal, his bowler hat and antique garb seem oddly out of place. When you pass close by he may even tip his hat—at which point one will see the gaping hole in his head.
There is a more sinister spirit which haunts the Hill, a large black dog with eyes like coals and long sharp fangs that emits a howl that sounds like the cry of a lost soul from Hell. Whether it is in fact is a Hound from Hell or ghost of a family pet, he is definitely not a dog you want to take home to the kids.
Union soldiers killed defending Fort Sanders are also thought to haunt The Hill and adjacent buildings and their presence further adds to the strong supernatural aura that shrouds this old part of the campus.
There are more ghosts that haunt the campus of UT Knoxville—many, many more. For an in depth look of the spooks of Big Orange, however, read Chapter 1 of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.
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.
Ironically, there is a strong possibility that Dickens himself is a Christmas ghost. How and why he may be himself a Christmas Spirit is a curious tale unto itself.
To start with, only five days after his death in England, Dickens appeared at a séance in America. Ever since, the old boy’s shade has been reappearing at various times and in various places.
By no means did Dickens invent the tradition of telling ghost stories at Yuletide. In ancient times the period from Semaine to Beltane was the time one gathered around the hearth in the dark of the night and related dark and uncanny tales. Whether they were true or not mattered little; but by the flickering of the wood fire stories took on a life all their own, and many things that might be scoffed at during the day, were easily believed in the long winter’s nights. For one take on this and on Dickens’ role as popularizer of Chirstmas ghost stories see: “A Ghost for Christmas? Charles Dickens, Pudding, and Spooky Stories Around the Yule Log.”
Charles Dickens, despite his great fame in life, desired a quiet funeral in his native city of Rochester (England, not New York). However, his adoring public would have none of it; like all great British writers, it was demanded that he be buried in Westminster Abbey with elaborate pomp and ceremony. So, with all the ornate and elaborate ritual as befitted a Victorian funeral, Charles Dickens’s body was entombed in the great English cathedral.
But despite the funeral, Dickens was not laid to rest.
It is said that, at Christmastide, the shade of the great author returns to his home in Rochester and walks again among the living, like old Marley in his famous tale. People passing by the former home have sworn to have seen a ghostly gent dressed in antique dress walking past it.
Such then, is the strange tale of Charles Dickens, who may well, himself, be a Dickens of a ghost.
There are those who scoff at this account; others swear by its veracity. Either way, have a Dickens of a Christmas season!
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee: More true tales of the Unknown, the Unexplained and the just plain Spooky in the Mid-South. Read it with the lights left on, otherwise the author can accept no responsibility for the consequences.
In the late nineteenth century, famed American author Ambrose Bierce penned a classic tale of the paranormal, called “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” In it he tells the tall tale of an Alabama farmer, named Orion Williamson, who one day disappeared into thin air while walking across a pasture in the 1840’s.
Although Bierce’s story is a work of fiction, he based it on a story emanating out of Tennessee. It was originally published in the 1880’s by a famed teller of tall tales whose pen name was “Orange Blossom.”
In the original version of the story, the farmer’s name was not Orion Williamson but David Lang. Orange Blossom—also known as Joe Mulhattan—was renowned as a teller of tall tales. He was such a good spinner of yarns that “Mulhattan” became synonymous with a tall tale. In fact, there are those who believe that Joe Mulhattan, or Orange Blossom, was a fictitious creature created by bored newspaper editors to fill space in their papers.
However, legend though he became, Joe Mulhattan was a real person, if larger than life at times. The story of David Lang’s disappearance, which first appeared in the Cincinnati Inquirer in the early 1880’s, certainly fits in with Mulhattan’s modus operandi. What made Orange Blossom so good at what he did is that he threw in a grain of truth with his puffery to make his tales plausible.
Ambrose Bierce, who had a certain perverse affection for humbug and hoaxes, took Mulhattan’s tale and crafted his own version of it. Since that time, the legend of David Lang has been added to by various hands, notably a version of it in Fate Magazine in 1953, by mystery novelist Stuart Palmer.
But is there any basis to the tale of a farmer disappearing into thin air? Well, maybe. Joe Mulhattan was a drummer—traveling salesman—who traveled all across the country. He would hear a story from locals, then after a few drinks, would spin it into a yarn that even a master of humbug such as P. T. Barnum would be amazed at.
I had read the tale of David Lang as a boy in New York. By a curious coincidence, some years back, when I moved to my present abode, it was only a few miles from Gallatin, Tennessee, where the real David Lang disappeared. Contrary to what others have written, neither Stuart Palmer nor Ambrose Bierce invented the story; and neither did Joe Mulhattan.
It turns out that while engaged as a traveling salesman, Joe Mulhattan once stayed at a hotel in Gallatin. It so happens he was forced to stay in town a few days longer than planned by torrential rains. While holed up in the hotel, he heard the story of David Lang from locals. With time on his hands, he penned a letter to the Inquirer and the story has grown in the telling from then till now.
Researchers have tried to track down David Lang and verify the story, alas with no success. They therefore deemed it a complete hoax; census records prove there was no such person as David Lang or any Lang family in Sumner County, Tennessee in the 1880’s. True enough; but pouring through the county archives, I fact-checked the tax rolls for that period and found a notation for a man named LONG with the notation in parenthesis (Lang); apparently the Yankee drummer’s ears heard the name pronounced one way, although it was written another. There were no Lang’s near Gallatin in the 1880’s but several families of Longs.
In the decades since Mulhattan spun his yarn and Ambrose Bierce turned it into a classic tale of the Unknown, the story has not only grown in the telling and re-telling but inspired an opera based on the Uncanny Occurrence in Sumner County, Tennessee.
So, did a man go walking across a field in rural Sumner County one summer day and disappear into thin air? Like I said: well, maybe.
“And all we see and all we seem/Is but a dream within a dream” EDGAR ALLEN POE
There are those who say that ghost are just a figment of the imagination, or delusion of the masses; that those who see such things are hallucinating or having a “waking dream.”
Then there are those like Mark Twain, who said “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m still skeered of ’em.” Perhaps such doubting Thomases may want to take a day trip to Sumner County some October eve, just a few miles north of Downtown Nashville.
Crossing over Mansker’s Creek, the first place you come to is Monthaven–the old Fite place. It used to sit in splendid isolation on a hill overlooking the creek, where Gallatin Pike and Centerpoint Road meet. Nowadays it has a cluster of apartments and condos nestled all about it.
During the Civil War, the mansion was the site of a dust-up between General Morgan’s Rebel raiders and some Yankees, and the mansion was used as a temporary field hospital. Moaning in pain and begging for some laudanum or whiskey, wounded soldiers were carried upstairs to a room where a door panel had been converted into an operating table and their limbs were sawed off to the sounds of them shrieking in pain. Several of the soldiers died there and their ghosts still haunt the place.
A little farther up the buffalo trail that is now Route 31E is Hazel Path. Like Monthaven, this old antebellum home used to sit alone on a hill; now it is the center of an office complex and not lived in–but the dead still reside there and in the adjacent school built over the old pioneer cemetery there.
Edging up several miles more, just before Gallatin proper, is the entrance to what they now call “The Last Plantation.” At one time, Fairvue Plantation would have put Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara to shame. It was once the home of the fabled Adelicia Acklen–the original Steel Magnolia. Opulently wealthy and stunningly beautiful, Adelicia knew how to wrap men around her dainty fingers. She went through three husband, bore a number of children and managed to come out of the Civil War richer than when she went in, despite the depredations of the Yankees. While today a gaggle of upscale homes cluster around Fairvue, the old manse still stands–and is haunted by multiple ghosts,
We would be remiss not to mention the old downtown of Gallatin itself–alleged to be the most haunted town square in Tennessee. Surrounding the county courthouse are a cluster of old buildings, some dating back to before the war. Some of them are occupied by law offices, others by retail stores, some are vacant; but all are occupied by ghosts of one description or other.
In this short space I cannot begin to list all the spooky spirits of Sumner: for a more complete accounting of the unaccountable, I refer you to the chapter in my Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee by the same name as this blog, where more details are available. In the meantime–good haunting!
In honor of that spookiest day of the year—October 31—I am penning thirteen blogs daily, now through fright night.
Why thirteen? Well, we have the twelve days of Christmas—or at least we used to. Yuletide should run from December 25 through January 6 by rights, although lately it seems folks want to get the holiday season over with early on December 26. I am among that obstinate minority who prefer to enjoy Yuletide for as long as possible–and that means quaffing flagons of Yuletide Cheer from big Christmas to Little Christmas. Moreover, in Wales, not only are black cats considered lucky, so is the number 13. Ultimately, for no particular reason other than it sounds good, I chose thirteen for Halloween.
Black Cats and Thirteen anything–what could be more Halloweenish? Of course, the Welsh being Celts, they have a strong contrary streak and so whatever superstition their English neighbors adhere to, one can almost guarantee the Welsh will tend to believe just the opposite. My black cat, Enoch, was certainly lucky: he got to sleep all day, ate when he wanted, and pretty much did as he pleased (which was not much). And if cats normally have nine lives, Enoch was blessed with at least double that amount.
Speaking of superstitions, one Southern superstition that Yankees north of the Mason-Dixon Line may not have heard of is enshrined in the expression “jumping the broom.” Among folks in Dixie, to “jump the broom” is another way to say getting married. It comes from the belief that if newlyweds place a broom across the threshold to their new home, witches can’t follow them in and put a hex on the marriage. Although in Appalachia they don’t call it hex, they call it “spelt.”
In the old days, couples literally did put a broom across the entrance to their cabin on wedding day and then physically jumped across it. Brides and grooms who jumped the broom were believed to enjoy a more harmonious and fruitful marriage, and to judge by the number of children they had in the old days, this seems to have been true.
The Mid-South abounds in uncanny and unexplained phenomena, from professors who suddenly burst into flame, to sightings of strange craft over the Tennessee Valley in the days when no such craft existed, to the numerous “Spook Lights” found in almost every state of Dixie. This is in addition to the many ante-bellum manse’s that each is a Gothic horror show in itself. Of course, what would Appalachia be without it’s “Wise Women” and whether you regard them as a bane or a boon, you best not get on their bad side in any case.
Halloween marks the beginning of the season when all life dies away–to the eye–not to be truly revived until its sister holiday, April 30. The ancient Celts called the two festivals Semaine and Beltaine and the period in between was a time when one gathered round the hearth and told tales to enchant young and old. Beltaine is also known as the Witches’ Sabbath when, like Halloween, all manor of spirits, uncanny creatures and other fey folk are abroad in the dark. On Halloween we have the additional bane of evil beings such as politicians roaming the land seeking votes.
Fear not, however, we shall limit our discussion only to the supernatural and similar things and while we won’t limit these thirteen entries just to the South, there are more than man can ken in the region to venture farther afield in search of the uncanny. So curl up with your favorite flagon–or favorite dragon–stoke the hearth (even if it’s just a video loop on Roku) and enjoy stories to curl your toes and give you goosebumps!